First elected to Parliament in 1832 as Conservative MP for Newark. Initially he was extremely reactionary (High Toryism), opposing the abolition of slavery and factory legislation. Under Robert Peel he served as President of the Board of Trade (1843-44) and Colonial Secretary (1845). Influenced by Peel, his political heart changed through the 1840s and 50s to the extent that he left the Conservatives in 1859 to join Viscount Palmerston's mixed government of Whigs, Peelites and Radicals as Chancellor of the Exchequer (1859-66).
As Chancellor he pushed to extend the Free Trade liberalisations begun in the 1840s and worked to reduce public expenditure. He also took his strong moral and religious character into politics (he was a Nonconformist), but in a progressive manner later called Gladstonian Liberalism.
Gladstonian Liberalism was characterised by a number of policies that were demonstrated in the 1860s and 70s to improve individual liberty compared to poltical and economic restraints. First was the minimization of public expenditure, on the basis that the economy and society were best helped by allowing people to spend as they saw fit; second was peace, it helped reduced expenditure and taxation as well as help trade; third was the reform of government institutions or laws that prevented people from acting freely to improve themselves.
He transformed the Liberal party and during his first premiership (following the enlarged electorate created by the Reform Act of 1867) instituted reforms in the Army, Civil Service and local government to cut restrictions on individual advancement. In foreign affairs his over-riding aim was peace and understanding, chacterised by his settlement of the Alabama Claims in 1872 in favour of the Americans and the criticism he took from jingoistic imperialists. Following the success of Benjamin Disraeli in 1874 he temporarily retired from the political scene, before rousing himself in a series of attacks on Disraeli's imperialist foreign policy. He three other terms in the highest office were unproductive, dogged by his convoluted moralizing and with his party pre-occupied with Ireland, many groups felt themselves ignored, especially the working classes. His principles were also considered to be denying the country its due in foreign affairs. He alternated as Prime Minister with Disraeli through the 1870s and there was a wide contrast in styles and foreign policy between the two.
Gladstone was a notable philanthropist, and social reformer, who gave a great deal of practical assistance to alleviate the suffering and indignity heaped upon the numerous prostitutes of London of the mid-1800s, many of whom were involuntary victims of pimps and criminal gangs. He devoted considerable sums to the maintenance of a hostel for their protection. Some critics however maintain that there was a certain vicarious satisfaction derived by Gladstone from associating with these women.