From Gladstone to Asquith: The Late Victorian Pattern of Liberal Leadership

From 1868 until 1916, writes Roy Jenkins, in the days of high Imperialism, the Liberal Party held office at Westminster for no less than twenty-five years.

The heyday of the liberal party in British politics was from 1868 to 1916. Before that the situation was too confused and there were too many Whiggish overtones. After 1916 there was only a rapid decline, certainly hastened, perhaps caused, by a clash of personalities, and a series of gallant but sad attempts at a come-back.

For these forty-eight years, however, the Liberal Party, if not consistently dominant, was mostly effective. It held power for twenty-five of the years and formed at least three Governments with strong Parliamentary majorities behind them.

Over this half century the two dominant leaders of the party were Gladstone and Asquith. They were not the only leaders: Hartington, Rosebery, Harcourt and Campbell-Bannerman—none of them negligible figures—also occupied this position.

Two of these were Prime Ministers, and the other two were richly anecdotal Parliamentary figures. But none of them possessed that combination of long life and persistent ambition which, allied with adequate political talents, is the best recipe for leaving a big imprint on events.

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