Election fever 1880s-style

Voters in Scotland went to the polls last week to elect a new Scottish Parliament; a recent Library purchase of satirical cartoons of Liberal politician William Ewart Gladstone gives us a humorous view of political campaigning over 130 years ago. This was a time when politicians could not use social media, or TV and radio sound bites to spread their message, but were largely reliant on their skill in public speaking.

Glad 003Gladstone (1809-1898) re-launched his political career in 1879 when he decided to contest the Tory seat of Midlothian in the forthcoming general election. His famous “Midlothian campaign” of 1879-80 is now regarded as the first modern election campaign in Britain. Despite being over 70, Gladstone displayed incredible energy in his electioneering, not just in the constituency itself but throughout Scotland.  Gladstone was particularly famous for his skills as an orator. He still holds the record for the longest continuous budget speech as Chancellor of the Exchequer: his speech in 1853 lasted 4 hours 45 minutes! In the autumn and winter of 1879 he gave 30 substantial speeches to large crowds. He was heard, he estimated, by over 86,000 people. In early 1880 he gave a further 18 speeches. His efforts paid off; he won the seat in April 1880, defeating the incumbent MP Lord Dalkeith and the Liberal Party were swept back to power in the UK election, with Gladstone becoming Prime Minister for the second time.

With his very large, balding head, earnest manner, and blazing, eagle-like eyes Gladstone was a gift to cartoonists and caricaturists. The Midlothian campaign generated a lot of satirical images of ‘The People’s William’. This particular cartoon, printed in 1880, mocks Gladstone for his lack of links to Midlothian and shows him using his campaign manager, the Earl of Rosebery (who is captioned ‘Dalmeny’, after his former title Lord Dalmeny and his home Dalmeny House), as a soapbox to deliver a speech.