Gladstone: a British hero in Bulgaria

Photo by HarshLight
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A slight figure moves through the crowd of protesters, capturing the anti-government placards and chants of “Resign Borissov!” on her phone  This is not London after the Russia report: Borissov is the president of Bulgaria. Protesters in the streets of the capital, Sofia, are happy to be filmed by the country’s most distinguished campaigning journalist. She is, after all, only doing what she has done throughout her 45-year-long career: documenting her country’s most significant social changes and sometimes head-spinning political upheavals.

Velislava Dareva

But Velislava Dareva has another item on her plate these days besides the corruption Bulgaria is, alas, known for. She is determined to salvage the reputation of William Ewart Gladstone, four times British prime minister and ‘Grand Old Man’ of Victorian politics. His standing is now under threat from what Dareva considers to be an ill-judged and misdirected case of political correctness.

That threat began on 8 June in Bristol, with the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston during a #Black Lives Matter protest – itself part of the worldwide reaction to George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis a fortnight before. The protest has morphed into a long-delayed reappraisal of the role of the slave trade in British history, and with it the long dark saga of Empire and colonial oppression. At the centre of this reappraisal is public statuary, as well as the names bestowed on institutions of all kinds, from the infamous Cecil Rhodes effigy on the façade of Oriel College, Oxford, to the Tate Galleries in London. Monuments dedicated to figures as diverse as Winston Churchill and Robert Baden-Powell have also come in for a sobering re-examination. But when Gladstone came under the microscope – there are numerous statues, buildings and streets that bear his name throughout the UK – Bulgarians were bound to react, for reasons that Dareva is happy to explain.

For most Britons, Gladstone is remembered, if at all, as the would-be rescuer of London prostitutes and the prime minister of whom Queen Victoria complained: “He speaks to me as if I were a public meeting.” His reputation – quite undeserved – is that of a stuffy, sanctimonious lecturer. Our Irish neighbours take a more nuanced view: the dogged proponent of Home Rule also believed it was his mission to ‘pacify’ Ireland. In Bulgaria, his status is on another plane altogether. Dareva points out that not only was Gladstone one of the great champions of what we now call universal human rights, but he was, and remains, a Bulgarian national hero.

Gladstone was a persuasive orator, and he used his voice as Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons to plead for the Bulgarian cause during their struggle to be freed of the Ottoman yoke. Perhaps most significantly, in 1876 he published a pamphlet: Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East.

“There can hardly be a schoolchild in Bulgaria who has not read it,” says Dareva. It so shocked public opinion in Britain that the Conservative prime minister Benjamin Disraeli would ultimately be forced to abandon his pro-Turkish policy. The British shift proved decisive in shaping the outcome of the Russo-Turkish War, which in turn led to the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman rule.

The anti-government protests in Sofia. Photo by Velislava Dareva

What, you may well ask, has any of this to do with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement in today’s Britain? The answer lies in Gladstone’s youth. Entering Parliament in 1832 as an ultraconservative 23-year-old, his maiden speech included the defence of the repatriation and compensation of English slaveowners, of whom his father was among the most prominent. It would not be long, however, before the son shook off the baleful influence of his father and began the political journey away from his high-Tory beginnings, eventually to become the leading light of the new Liberal Party. Labour’s Tony Benn once noted that Gladstone was one of the few prominent political figures whose views moved sharply to the left with age. According to Charlie Gladstone, the Grand Old Man’s great-great-grandson, “by 1850, he was a changed man and in Parliament he described slavery as ‘by far the foulest crime that taints the history of mankind in any Christian or pagan country.’ … Towards the end of his life he cited the abolition of slavery as one of the great political issues in which the masses had been right and the classes had been wrong.”

Now, in 2020, a Bulgarian journalist feels duty-bound to rise to Gladstone’s defence. “Gladstone’s ‘Bulgarian agitation’ overturned British policy towards the Ottoman Empire,” notes Dareva. “His name stands alongside those of such illustrious defenders of the Bulgarian cause as Victor Hugo, Garibaldi, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. It is no wonder that in 1879 the Bulgarian National Assembly designated Gladstone as the ‘Benefactor of Bulgaria’, a title of nobility conferred solely by the people.”

Britons would perhaps be surprised, when visiting Bulgaria (and if they can read Cyrillic), to see that in practically every city and town there is a square, a street, a school that bears the Gladstone name. Meanwhile, Dareva worries that his name is being erased here in Britain. In the city of his birth, Gladstone’s family connection to and youthful defence of slavery have prompted Liverpool University to remove his name from a hall of residence. There are two statues of Gladstone in London, others in Blackburn and Manchester, and Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Flintshire, houses an important collection of his papers and memorabilia. Dareva has written to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and to the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, both of whom have appointed commissions to review statues, monuments and street names within their purview. “If someone somewhere in Great Britain decides to dismantle a statue of William Gladstone – I hope this will not happen! – we Bulgarians will find a way to purchase this monument and bring it to Bulgaria,” says Dareva. “Each town and city would think it a privilege to welcome his effigy.”

Communist-era monuments in Bulgaria have not all met with a happy fate, and Dareva also lends her considerable campaigning energies to moves to preserve and protect what others see as offensive relics of an unsavoury past. “History is what it is. It needs to be learnt, analysed and reflected upon, but it cannot be rewritten or replaced or removed. The war on history and against history is fruitless politics that only displaces real problems,” she says. She herself has suffered from Bulgaria’s own variety of ‘cancel culture’. “I’ve written seven books, scripted 15 films and published countless essays and articles. I’ve been the recipient of the nation’s highest awards and honours. But I’ve also had two books, four screenplays and one play banned, and I’ve been sacked 13 times for being too outspoken.” A lifelong dissident and no stranger to controversy – her bestselling investigation into a 1925 church bombing in Sofia launched a storm of debate throughout Bulgaria last year – she nonetheless feels the ‘Gladstone affair’ is an open-and-shut case.

“His legacy should not be tarnished by the poor judgement of his youth. He evolved. By the end of his remarkable life, the world knew him as a champion of liberty and human rights. Britain should be as proud of him as Bulgaria is.”