Politics 12:59 26/05/2023 Armenia

Opinion: Had he been alive today, Gladstone would be raising his voice in support of Nagorno-Karabakh people

By Armen Sarkissian

4th President of Armenia

This story was originally published on The Telegraph.

Today, I am delivering a speech celebrating the life and legacy of William Gladstone at Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden. Why is a former president of Armenia — a nation long championed by humanitarians in Britain — applauding a 19th-century figure of British politics whose name was recently scrubbed from a building at the University of Liverpool for his family’s links to slavery?

The answer is simple: Gladstone was the greatest prime minister of the 19th century. I do not mean this as a tribute purely to his political shrewdness but also, first and foremost, to his principled humanitarianism. Yes, his father, Sir John Gladstone, profited from the slave trade, and young William defended the “rights” of slaveowners early in a career that spanned almost all of the 19th century.

William Ewart Gladstone was born in the first decade of the 19th century (1808) and died in its last (1898), and as happens with human beings, his views evolved as he aged. He shed opinions he espoused in his youth, served an unprecedented four terms as prime minister without subordinating his values to politically expedient concessions, and earned the title of “defender of the oppressed”.

As a politician, Gladstone established himself as a staunch advocate of liberal principles and individual liberty. He believed in limited government intervention, economic freedom and the protection of civil liberties. Indeed, his commitment to liberal values formed the foundation of his political ideology and guided his policy decisions. He was fabled for his mastery of finance and his commitment to fiscal responsibility. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, he implemented rigorous budgetary discipline, reducing government spending and advocating for free trade policies. His economic reforms laid the groundwork for Britain’s prosperity and helped shape the global landscape of trade.

At the same time, Gladstone was a fervent supporter of electoral and parliamentary reforms. He furthered efforts to expand suffrage and build a more inclusive democratic system. His advocacy contributed to the extension of voting rights, including the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884, which enfranchised a significant portion of the British population.

Gladstone recognised early on the importance of education in achieving social progress and individual empowerment, and prioritised education reforms.

Perhaps Gladstone’s most notable (and contentious) political endeavour was his pursuit of Irish Home Rule. Gladstone sought to grant Ireland a significant degree of self-governance within the British Empire in the hope of addressing the grievances of the Irish people and fostering reconciliation between Britain and Ireland. His attempts to pass Home Rule ultimately faced significant opposition — but let us for a moment imagine our world had his visionary endeavour sailed through: Britons would have been spared generations of strife and trauma.

Gladstone, beginning as what I would call a “conservative populist”, was one of those rare politicians who became more radical as he aged. He voted to admit Jews to parliament and condemned what he called the “earth-hunger” of his colleagues who dreamed of expanding British imperial rule.

But the cause that really distinguished Gladstone in his later life was Armenia. His involvement in the “Armenian Question”, driven entirely by moral considerations, began in the late 19th century.

On his 85th birthday, in December 1894, Gladstone received an Armenian delegation at his library in Hawarden, where he was given first-hand reports of the atrocities against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Abdul Hamid II had set his troops loose that year on Turkey’s Armenian communities.

The “Hamidian massacres”, as they came to be known, began with a wave of attacks against Armenians in the eastern provinces of Sasun and Zeitun. Mass slaughter was accompanied by forced conversions, looting and destruction of Armenian property. Gladstone, who had raised his voice against Ottoman violence in the Balkans, was appalled, but his advanced age imposed severe limits on the help he could offer.

The violence escalated further in 1895, spreading to other regions, including the cities of Istanbul and Izmir. Armenians were targeted in organised pogroms, often incited by state officials, religious leaders and local militias. Other minorities were also persecuted. Gladstone, though a year older by now, decided to act.

On August 6 1885, the 86-year-old former prime minister walked the 10-mile distance from his castle at Hawarden to Chester Town Hall. Thousands of people had gathered there to hear him. Gladstone denounced the Ottoman Empire as “perhaps the worst in the world” and rallied the crowd to stand with the Armenians, “one of the most pacific, intelligent and industrious [nations] in the world”.

The meeting, chaired by the Duke of Westminster, ended with a resolution in support of Armenia. And such was its effect that the Turkish censor banned every single English newspaper the following day because each carried extensive coverage of Gladstone’s speech.

Gladstone’s support for Armenia was untiring. He deployed his influence as the “Grand Old Man” of British politics to drum up support for the Armenian cause. He engaged in diplomatic efforts, met leaders, and leveraged his vast network to push for international intervention. His moral authority, coupled with his matchless oratory, made him a compelling advocate for justice.

Gladstone’s last public speech, in September 1896, was at a protest meeting against the Ottoman killings of Armenians. Though he was by then partially deaf and almost blind, Gladstone’s speech roused six thousand people to their feet in the Circus Building in Liverpool in support of Armenia. It was perhaps the greatest piece of oratory in his career. “All human beings,” Gladstone thundered, “have the same claims upon our support.” The ground upon which he stood, he told his audience, “is not British, nor European, but it is human.”

Gladstone’s influential pamphlet, aptly titled The Armenian Question, was published the same year. It became a catalyst for raising global awareness about the suffering endured by Armenians. In this seminal work, Gladstone passionately detailed the plight of the Armenian people, shedding light on the atrocities committed by the Ottoman Empire. His eloquent prose and powerful rhetoric struck a chord with readers worldwide, drawing attention to a horror that had been overlooked or dismissed. He warned that the massacres of Armenians would give way to something unimaginably worse if Europe remained “content to listen” rather than act. History tragically vindicated Gladstone.

When Gladstone died, in 1898, he was given a state funeral. His coffin, however, was draped not with the national flag but with a silk shroud of white, blue and gold — the standard of the Armenian nation — given to his family by the Armenian Church.

Gladstone’s moral imperative was clear: international action was needed to address the Armenian Question. He urged governments, politicians, and ordinary citizens to take a stand against oppression. And his advocacy, transcending political boundaries, left a lasting impression on the hearts and minds of those who heard his voice.

Gladstone’s support for Armenia serves as a reminder to this day of the power of international solidarity. By challenging the indifference of the global community, he demonstrated the transformative potential of collective action in the face of injustice.

Had he been alive today, Gladstone would almost certainly be raising his voice in support of the peoples of Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine, Syria and countless other conflicts. A hundred years after his great speech in Liverpool, there is a pressing need for a new Gladstonian approach to humanity on this planet.


Source Panorama.am
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