His accomplishments shaped Conservative victories for decades after his death and helped transform millions of newly-enfranchised voters into party loyalists.
Being an energetic young man, this antipodal colony gave him an opportunity to see the Empire and make his mark on the frontier. Quickly acquainted with the Maoris, Gorst developed an effective rapprochement with tribal chiefs and soon became a trusted schoolmaster and religious instructor. Being an isolated imperial outpost, New Zealand’s colonial officials soon began including this young Oxford graduate into their decisions. Gorst proved instrumental in developing Auckland’s educational system and used his organizational talent to their fullest in this role. When the bloody Invasion of Waitango erupted in 1863, Gorst became distraught when war broke out between the British and Maoris. Personally believing armed struggle unnecessary, he strongly disagreed with the Governor-General’s policy of armed conflict against formerly trusted tribal chiefs. Deciding to leave New Zealand, he departed with his young bride and arrived in London in December. He had spent four years in New Zealand and grew to maturity in the adventure of a growing British colony at the ends of the world.
Arriving in London and realising his intellectual and administrative abilities would find expression in law, Gorst trained as a solicitor at the Inner Temple in preparation for a political career. Additionally he also published his New Zealand memoirs, The Maori King: The Story of Our Quarrel with the Natives of New Zealand with Macmillan in 1864. His youthful imperial exploits left Gorst possessed with an abiding interest in Britain’s overseas territories and the welfare of both its colonists and native peoples. With such interests, it proved inevitable that he gravitated towards Disraeli’s staunch defense of the Empire. After first bearing an initial defeat in 1866 after standing as the Conservative candidate for Hastings, he successfully entered the Commons the following year after winning a Cambridge by-election. While in Parliament, Gorst vigorously opposed the Second Reform Act of 1867 on the grounds that it would irreparably damage Great Britain’s governance. Fearing a sudden flood of ill-educated and misinformed voters would wreck the country, he proposed that Her Majesty’s government needed to improve educational standards and literacy rates before enlarging the franchise. Once the Act passed, Gorst soon perceived the Conservative Party’s new task would be to win over these new voters. The Party’s subsequent defeat in 1868 and Gorst’s loss of his Cambridge seat convinced him of concerted efforts required to make middle and working-class voters into loyal Tory supporters.
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Now in opposition, Disraeli recognized Gorst’s organizational talents and made him head of the new Conservative Central Office. Previously, the party conducted business exclusively at the Carlton Club and legal matters were completed by the firm of Baxter, Rose, Norton and Co. Desiring a centralized administrative center for strategy, electioneering and policy formulation, Gorst opened offices at 53 Parliament Street, Westminster. This new position proved to be where he made his mark as a party loyalist. Previously to Central Office’s establishment, local party organizations only existed in a few sparse areas in the country. County landowners largely controlled rural constituencies and Liberals and Radicals dominated large boroughs. Gorst decided to put the Office’s efforts into creating party committees in all of the towns and cities throughout Great Britain. A Herculean task, he firstly researched local political affairs by traveling to many constituencies and picking key ward managers to administer party operations. Secondly, Gorst developed Conservative Central Office into a large center for political information and dissemination of party materials. Indispensable for a sophisticated political machine, this system proved to be highly effective for subsequent election campaigns.
Men as varied as Enoch Powell, Ian MacLeod, the Marquess of Lothian and David Davis all directed the Office that Gorst founded and built into a cornerstone of the Party’s structure. Gorst also focused on creating Conservative working men’s associations and successfully convinced Disraeli to visit Lancashire in 1872 to see their newly enfranchised voters. The visit proved to be a success and Disraeli gave a memorable speech in April to a meeting of Conservatives at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Orating for over three hours, he defended the Party as the natural home for both workers and property owners. Sarah Bradford’s biography of Disraeli described Gorst as the brilliant impresario behind this appearance. Following this, Disraeli gave a similar speech at the Crystal Palace in which he championed the rise of the Conservatives as a truly national party for all social classes. Promising to introduce new social and welfare legislation in Parliament, Disraeli rode this tide of sentiment into a resounding general election victory in 1874. After the election, Gorst successfully won a by-election for Chatham and took up his place in the Commons. His second term in Parliament would be marked by a commitment to the ideals of Tory Democracy and a sincere desire for national self-improvement for all.
Unduly neglected by historians, Gorst proved instrumental in implementing Disraeli’s romantic vision of a great, unifying party.
Gorst’s own successes as Education Minister led him to question certain practices evident within the Conservative Party. The Fourth Party’s eclipse and the sliding disintegration of Randolph Churchill’s political career meant he lacked prominent allies. Passionately believing in Free Trade, he opposed Joseph Chamberlain’s protectionism and lost his parliamentary seat in the1905 general election. Frustrated with the slow pace of change in the country, Gorst became fascinated with the ‘New Liberalism’ of L.T. Hobhouse and T.H. Green in the 1890s. After much deliberation and self-analysis, he decided to break with the party he had belonged to throughout his political career. Resigning his Primrose League membership in 1905, he wrote that he did so because the League no longer represented Disraeli’s ideals. Standing as a Liberal in his home city of Preston, Gorst sought to continue his political beliefs through adherence to a party he felt better represented them. Losing against the Unionist candidate, he retired to London and lived as a retired statesman before his death in 1916.
Throughout its history, the Conservative Party has grappled with opposing viewpoints expressed by country house and cottage. Its electoral successes arise from its ability to understand the complexities of British society and successfully delineate appropriate electoral strategies. The Party functions most effectively when it recognizes that internal disagreements are a natural function of its essential constitution. Capable men such as Sir John Gorst occasionally rise to prominence while at other times grandees such as the Third Marquess are at the helm. A Victorian bourgeois gentlemen and therefore a member of a breed only half-remembered, Gorst deserves for his significant achievements and historical contributions.
Hunter, Archie. A Life of Sir John Eldon Gorst: Disraeli's Awkward Disciple. London: F. Cass, 2001.
Marsh, Peter T. The Discipline of Popular Government: Lord Salisbury's Domestic Statecraft, 1881-1902. Hassocks [England]: Harvester Press, 1978.
Shannon, Richard. The Age of Salisbury, 1881-1902: Unionism and Empire. London: Longman, 1996.