The Midlothian campaign of 1878-80 was a series of foreign policy speeches given by William Ewart Gladstone, leader of Britain's Liberal Party. It is often cited as the first modern political campaign. It also set the stage for Gladstone's comeback as a politician. It takes its name from the Midlothian constituency in Scotland where Gladstone (of Scottish ancestry) successfully stood in the 1880 election.
When Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli attempted to distract public opinion from the economic and financial problems of the state by calling attention to the worsening British-Ottoman relations, Gladstone in four speeches charged the government with financial incompetency, neglecting domestic legislation, and mismanagement of foreign affairs. He moved to Midlothian and campaigned with enormous energy as all of Britain followed. The Earl of Rosebery was the campaign manager.
The Midlothian campaign unified the Liberal Party under Gladstone's leadership and probably forced the government to think in terms of dissolution sooner. It created a momentum that carried the Liberals to power in the election.
In 1876, news of a series of atrocities by the Ottomans during their suppression of the Bulgarian April Uprising reached the British press, despite the strong censorship of the Turkish authorities. British public reaction was generally one of dismay, fuelled by the public prints, but the government of Benjamin Disraeli continued its policy of support for the Ottoman Empire, an ally in the Crimean War and a bulwark against possible Russian expansion in the area.
Gladstone took up the issue slowly, at first appearing uninterested. By 1878 he was publishing articles in favour of ending British economic support for Turkey in response.
By 1880, Gladstone's dogged focus on the issue had dragged it to the forefront of public attention, and in the general election of 1880, Gladstone toured a series of cities giving speeches of up to five hours on the subject. The nature of his orations has often been compared to that of sermons, and his fiery, emotive, but logically structured speeches are credited with swaying a large number of undecided voters to the Liberals in the 1880s, and ousting Disraeli's last Conservative government.
Equally important to the large scale of attendance at these meetings (several thousand came to each, and given the relatively narrow scale of the franchise, this meant Gladstone could address a large proportion of electors in each district) was the widespread reporting of Gladstone's speeches and the public reaction to them.
Gladstone's speeches covered the entire range of national policy, He gave his large audiences an advanced course in the principles of government that was both magisterial and exciting. The major speeches constitute a statement of the Liberal philosophy of government, reinforced by the fervor of his evangelical Protestantism. Scotland was a stronghold for this sort of religious fervour. His focus was usually on foreign affairs. Gladstone presented his commitment to a world community, governed by law, protecting the weak. His vision of the ideal world order combined universalism and inclusiveness; he appealed to group feeling, the sense of concern for others, rising eventually to the larger picture of the unity of mankind.
- David Brooks, "Gladstone and Midlothian: The Background to the First Campaign," Scottish Historical Review (1985) 64#1 pp 42-67
- Robert Kelley, "Midlothian: A Study In Politics and Ideas," Victorian Studies (1960) 4#2 pp 119-140.
References and further reading
- Althaus, Marco. "Siegeszug der Wahlmaschine", Politik & Kommunikation (February 2012) pp 34-35 in Academia.edu
- Brooks, David. "Gladstone and Midlothian: The Background to the First Campaign," Scottish Historical Review (1985) 64#1 pp 42-67.
- Fitzsimons, M. A. "Midlothian: the Triumph and Frustration of the British Liberal Party," Review of Politics (1960) 22#2 pp 187-201. in JSTOR
- Jenkins, Roy. Gladstone (1997) pp 399-415
- Kelley, Robert. "Midlothian: A Study In Politics and Ideas," Victorian Studies (1960) 4#2 pp 119-140.
- Matthew, H. C. G Gladstone: 1809-1898 (1997) pp 293-313