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Disraeli

One Nation: the Triumph of Style

by Eddy Butler

“He had a flighty mind which drifted from smart triviality to adolescent day-dreaming and back again...He despised the members of the aristocracy even more than he disliked the poor...He relished the trappings of power, not the reality...Thick black ringlets, fancy waistcoats, powder and scent were not the marks of a gentleman or even of a politician.”

The distinguished historian AJP Taylor’s verdict on Disraeli was truly damning; superficial; flamboyant; all image and no substance; “the true Sphinx without a secret”.

Disraeli was neither the first nor the last British Prime Minister to reach the top of what he described as “the greasy pole” without a major legislative programme prepared. However at certain times characterised by economic, social and political stability, it could be argued that the best course that a government can take is to maintain central stability and allow the nation to develop of its own accord. And while Disraeli was possibly the first and probably the most successful Premier to play close attention to image and to engage in what is now known as ‘gesture politics’, he most certainly was not the last.

Was there more to Disraeli? If his career is analysed an altogether different picture emerges and it is this true picture, of which AJP Taylor was only too aware, which so antagonised the historian. For Taylor was that strange species of Englishman; cloistered in university life; submerged in Fabian left- wing politics; and immersed in that peculiar brand of snobbish anti-semitism which so often accompanied the other characteristics.

Benjamin Disraeli was born in London in 1804. He was from a prominent Jewish family, although as a boy he converted to the Church of England. After a period as a writer, during which his first book, a society novel Vivian Grey was published, Disraeli decided upon a political career. After four unsuccessful attempts he finally entered the House of Commons in 1837 as a Conservative MP.

Disraeli had not been in Parliament long before the Conservatives were beset by a period of turmoil. This followed the repeal of the Corn Laws by the Tory Ministry of Sir Robert Peel in 1846. Disraeli became a leading member of the protectionist wing of the Tory party which opposed repeal. Peel was thrown out, the Tories split and apart from brief periods the Tories were out of office for the next 28 years. The political rifts caused by the repeal of the Corn Laws did not begin to settle down until 1865 when the Peelite Conservatives together with the Whigs and Radicals joined to form the Liberal Party.

Meanwhile, the exodus of the Peelites from the Tory Party facilitated Disraeli’s internal promotion and by 1849 he had achieved the exceptional feat of becoming the Conservative leader in the House of Commons - remarkable on account of both Disraeli’s comparatively humble birth and his Jewish ancestry. During several short-lived Conservative Ministries (in 1852, 1858-59 and 1866-68) Disraeli served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under the Conservative leader in the House of Lords, Lord Derby. Finally in 1868, when Lord Derby retired due to ill- health, Disraeli became leader of the Tory Party. He also succeeded Derby as a caretaker Prime Minister from February 1868 to December 1868. During this tantalisingly brief period Disraeli did not get the chance to make much of a mark and the general election which followed was lost to Gladstone and the Liberals.

Disraeli finally became Prime Minister for a full term and with a healthy majority in 1874. He remained in office until the general election of 1880 which was again lost to Gladstone. Some might be surprised that Disraeli was not Prime Minister for longer, especially when it is considered that he was a dominant figure within the Conservative Party for thirty-five years and also with regard to the impression that he has made on history.

These are the bare bones of Disraeli’s career, so let us now flesh out his record to see if the criticisms that AJP Taylor made are valid.

AJP Taylor’s acidic conclusion on Disraeli’s major Premiership was that, “His own social policy, when he came to power, turned out to be nothing more than municipal wash houses”. This was a reference to the 1875 Public Health Act. But clean water and sanitation were very important for the health of the people, particularly in Britain's new industrial cities. The disposal of sewage was a basic requirement for the well-being of the inhabitants of working class districts to keep these areas free from disease. Disraeli was also instrumental in the passing of the Rivers Pollution Act and the Sale of Food and Drugs Act, the latter prohibiting harmful substances in food. Together these measures constituted the basis for public heath policy until 1936.

Although Disraeli’s Conservative Government did not issue a surfeit of new legislation, a number of other valuable reforms were enacted. For example there was the 1876 Education Act, which provided for free and compulsory primary education up to the age of twelve, with penalties for parents who did not obtain an exemption. There was also the 1875 Artisans Dwellings Act, which allowed local authorities to engage in slum clearance and the building of housing estates. This measure was implemented by Joseph Chamberlain while he was mayor of Birmingham.

In the field of employment and employee relations Disraeli also passed the 1874 Factory Act, which cut the working week from 60 to 56 hours and the 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act. The latter piece of legislation allowed peaceful picketing by unions during strikes. Eric Hopkins in A Social History of the English Working Class commented: “the trade unions had gained a stronger legal position than ever before, oddly enough with the assistance of a Conservative government led by Disraeli”. It might be added that it was only “oddly enough” to those who have not taken care to examine Disraeli’s record on these matters.

All these measures were designed to ameliorate the poor conditions experienced by the working class at the hands of unregulated and unscrupulous industrial business concerns which had been allowed to operate in a laissez-faire manner by previous Liberal administrations.

The events which dominated Disraeli’s second term as Prime Minister, and perhaps provided the greatest moment in his career, surrounded the Balkan crisis of 1876-78 and were collectively known as the ‘Eastern Question’. The south-east corner of Europe was then still largely ruled by Turkey but the many ethnic groups in the area were beginning to assert their aspirations for national independence.

The rival interests of the main European powers in the region made the situation even more unstable. Britain, for example, had traditionally supported the maintenance of the Turkish Ottoman Empire in order to contain Russian expansion. Austria also did not want to encourage political independence among the various ethnic groups in south-east Europe, as this would have harmful repercussions for the internal stability of the multi-ethnic Austrian Empire.

The trouble started in what is now Bulgaria and was characterised by what has become an all-too familiar cycle of atrocity and massacre. The Turkish authorities attacked Bulgarian villages while the Bulgarians attacked the Turkish minority population. Who started it and which side behaved worse became impossible to establish as claims and counter-claims were made. Russia soon intervened on behalf of the Bulgars, as a prelude to absorbing large chunks of the Ottoman territory into the Tsarist Empire. At home Disraeli refused to condemn Turkey, even though that country was accused by liberal opinion of being the aggressor. Gladstone toured the country denouncing Disraeli’s policy of non- intervention against Turkey and mobilised the forces of the mainstream press in order to excite the public to join in what was portrayed as a great humanitarian crusade. Liberal opinion conveniently forgot that Russia was hardly a bastion of freedom. Disraeli retorted by saying that Gladstone was worse than any Bulgarian horror and steadfastly refused to be swayed by the massive level of liberal propaganda which was building up.

Russia invaded Turkey in 1877, ostensibly in support of her fellow Slavs, the Bulgars. However, Russia’s real interest lay in securing a warm water port and access to the Mediterranean for her fleet. Russia was the main perceived threat to British Imperial security. The prospect of a Russian Fleet cruising the Mediterranean, while Russian armies advanced overland through Afghanistan and onto India, were recurring nightmares for British strategists. Disraeli was all too aware of this which is why he refused to weaken Turkey, the only country capable of barring Russia’s southward expansion. As Russian forces approached Constantinople and the Straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, Disraeli ordered the Empire to mobilise for war and the Royal Navy was called forward. The country rapidly fell in behind Disraeli’s policy. The music halls were roused with the popular refrain:

“We don’t want to fight, but, by Jingo if we do,
We’ve got the ships; we've got the men; we've got the money too.
We’ve fought the Bear before, and while Britons shall be true,
The Russians shall not have Constantinople.”

The great mass of the British people instinctively saw that Disraeli had been right all along and the press had to concur. While Disraeli basked in public acclaim, crowds gathered outside Gladstone’s house to chuck stones through his windows.

As a result of Disraeli’s robust stand against Russian expansionism the phrase ‘jingoism’ gained popular currency. However, Disraeli’s original ‘jingoistic’ foreign policy resulted in complete success for Britain. He talked tough, he acted tough, he showed the Russians that he was in earnest and war was avoided. Diplomacy backed by arms and will won the day, just as surely as Gladstonian hand-wringing and tut-tutting would have made Britain a laughing stock in the eyes of the world.

The Congress of Berlin followed in 1878 and was a personal triumph for Disraeli. It solved the ‘Eastern Question’ and secured peace between the leading European powers for thirty-five years. Disraeli returned from the Congress proclaiming that he had achieved “Peace in our time”, and so he had. Sixty years later another Conservative Prime Minister returned from another German conference and borrowed Disraeli’s phrase, but scarcely a year’s peace followed!

One further piece of Disraelian legislation needs to be examined before we proceed to other matters. In 1876 Queen Victoria was made Empress of India by Act of Parliament. Not surprisingly Taylor was distinctly unimpressed by this measure and called it: “The biggest piece of tushery even in his career”.

Disraeli had been the author of the Reform Bill of 1867, which added a million working class voters to the electorate. He was astute enough to realise that populist imperialism would be a winner with this new electorate. In 1872 Disraeli had made a keynote populist speech at Crystal Palace. In it he said “the people of England and especially the working class of England, are proud of belonging to a great country, and wish to maintain its greatness - that they are proud of belonging to an Imperial country.” Furthermore, he declared, Britain could be “a great country, an imperial country, a country where your sons, when they rise, rise to paramount positions, and obtain not merely the esteem of their countrymen, but command the respect of the world.”

Showmanship, image building, call it what you might; by making Victoria the Queen-Empress, Disraeli gave official sanction to the age of Empire. He effectively launched the epoch during which Britain reached the greatest heights in her history. Disraeli adroitly captured popular imagination. He created a ‘People’s Empire’. It was a signal that the Empire was no longer the preserve of industrialists, merchants and missionaries. It was a simple and cheap method for cultivating a climate of national confidence, optimism and unity. It might have been for show, but it was mightily effective.

The protection of the Empire and of Britain’s world-wide interests were always uppermost in Disraeli’s mind. The best example of this occurred in 1875. The Egyptian Government was going bankrupt and the only asset that the ruler of Egypt, the Khedive Ismail, possessed was shares in the French-dominated Suez Canal Company. The Suez Canal had been built in 1869 by a French designer and largely with French capital. However, by 1875, three-fifths of all traffic through the canal flew the British flag and over half of all British ships going to India went via the canal in preference to the old, longer route around the Cape of Good Hope. The canal had rapidly changed the nature of trade and of imperial defence.

Disraeli immediately saw that it was in Britain's vital interest that control was gained over the canal. By a political masterstroke and with no time to lose, Disraeli managed to raise the £4 million needed to buy the Khedive’s shares. This gave the British Government a 40% holding in the Suez Canal Company. To some cranks and conspiracy theorists, this ‘proved’ that Disraeli was involved in a fiendish Jewish plot, as the Rothschilds lent the required money on the security of the British Government’s guarantee. But £4 million was a small price for the strategic benefits which resulted from British control of the Suez Canal and a possibly calamitous situation was avoided, had another power gained control of the Empire’s lifeline. Even though the remaining 60% holding in the Suez Canal Company was in the hands of various French interests and indeed management of the canal remained in French hands, Britain obtained a vital stake in the running of the operation. This soon led to the British military occupation of Egypt which, as far as the Canal Zone was concerned, continued until the 1950s.

There was not that much imperial expansion during Disraeli’s actual term in office. Where colonial campaigns did occur, such as in Zululand and Afghanistan, Britain was dragged into conflict by local circumstances rather than through central policy. However, once war became inevitable it would be ruthlessly prosecuted to a successful conclusion. The scramble for Africa had yet to get properly underway as the other European powers were not at this stage geared up for overseas adventures. With this lack of competition there was still a belief that an ‘unofficial’ world-wide trading empire could be maintained.

In many ways political leadership is about setting a tone, rather than legislating for all manner of things. Disraeli certainly set a tone with regard to the new imperialism, which long outlasted his own lifetime, but other of his actions should be viewed in the same light.

In 1874 Disraeli wanted to offer a baronetcy or the Grand Cross of Bath to Thomas Carlyle, a constant critic of his but the greatest man of letters in Britain of his generation. However Carlyle declined any sort of medal or even a pension.

Carlyle wrote to his brother, “I do truly admire the magnanimity of Dizzy in regard to me: he is the only man I almost never spoke of except with contempt.” Carlyle also said to the Countess of Derby, “Mr Disraeli’s letter is really what I called it, magnanimous and noble on his part. It reveals to me, after all the hard things I have said of him, a new and unexpected stratum of genial dignity and manliness of character which I had by no means given him credit for.”

Disraeli’s motive in wanting to reward Carlyle was because he recognised that a great nation should reward its best writers and thinkers. It was a gesture, a small gesture, but it showed that Disraeli was devoted to upholding the honour and reputation of Britain.

Another small act which reflects well on Disraeli’s generosity and shows where his sympathies lay arose in the aftermath of a mutiny which broke out in an outlying district of the British colony of Jamaica in October 1865. During the disorder twenty-eight whites were murdered. The white population was outnumbered twenty-seven to one and was in an extremely vulnerable position at the hands of a genocidal mob. Agitators had stirred up the situation by exploiting the social and economic unrest which resulted from the American Civil War. A couple of generations earlier a similar racial explosion had occurred on the neighbouring island of Haiti which had resulted in the total annihilation of the local white community. With this and the more recent example of the Indian Mutiny in mind the Governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre, acted swiftly and decisively. All available troops were assembled and the rebels were crushed. Unsurprisingly not a little blood was spilt in achieving this desirable result. In Jamaica Eyre was hailed as a saviour and the local self-governing assembly was so grateful that it voted itself out of existence. There were, incidentally, more black and coloured members of this assembly than white.

However, the British Government was not so grateful. Stirred up by liberal opinion Eyre was castigated for brutality. He was brought home in disgrace and sent to face possible trial for exceeding his authority in having the prime mover and chief agitator in the rebellion executed after a court martial.

Palmerston had been Prime Minister until his death just six days after the rebellion had broken out. Had he lived a little longer Eyre would undoubtedly have been treated well by the Government for his resolute actions. However, the new Premier, Lord John Russell, wrung his hands and behaved in a typically mealy-mouthed manner. How ‘Old Pam’ would have acted was pointedly demonstrated by his widow when she publicly lent her support to the ‘Eyre Defence Committee’.

The case of ‘’angman Eyre’ was a defining moment in Victorian Britain. It marked an attempt by liberal opinion to take charge of society. It showed in crystal clarity who was on what ‘side’; the nationally-minded patriots against the international liberals. The ‘Eyre Defence Committee’ included in its ranks Thomas Carlyle, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley and Charles Dickens. It was opposed by the ‘Jamaica Committee’, which was behind the legal proceedings against Eyre and whose leading member was John Stuart Mill. Eyre never had to face a criminal prosecution and successfully defended other civil actions which were vindictively brought against him. Up to this time the balance of power within Britain was still in favour of the patriotic element. But it is remarkable that at this moment in Britain’s history, the persecution of one of Britain’s most respected servants could have taken place. International do-gooding liberalism is most certainly not a new phenomenon.

In 1874 one of the first acts of Disraeli’s administration was to grant Eyre the full pension of a retired colonial governor, which allowed Eyre to live out his life in relative comfort in Devon. This was a generous act by Disraeli and one that he could easily have avoided doing. Eyre was on his way to being forgotten by 1874. Nevertheless, Disraeli clearly felt the importance of demonstrating his support in a practical way.

Disraeli is often ‘accused’ of establishing the two-party stranglehold in British politics, with mindless confrontation instead of constructive co-operation between the Government and Opposition. However, while Disraeli was unashamedly confrontational towards those with whom he strongly disagreed, such as Gladstone, the following episode shows that he was quite prepared to cut across party lines in recommending a future political leader to the people of Britain.

In 1879 Disraeli started the gossip that Liberal MP Sir Charles Dilke would be a future Prime Minister. This was not to sow discord and rivalry in the enemy camp but because Disraeli genuinely recognised a major political talent. Dilke was a Radical (interestingly when Disraeli first, unsuccessfully, stood for Parliament it was as a Radical) known for both his Republicanism and his ardent patriotism. In 1869 Dilke had written Greater Britain in which he advocated colonial expansion and stronger ties between the motherland and the new colonies. This book was a best seller throughout the Victorian period. Dilke had also refused to follow his Radical and Liberal colleagues in support of Gladstone during the clamour surrounding the Bulgarian ‘horrors’ of 1876. Like Disraeli, Dilke saw that Russia was more repressive than Turkey and worse, represented a potential military threat.

Disraeli’s opinion concerning Dilke’s future was perhaps the first time such a prediction had been made about an up-and -coming MP. Now, of course, such remarks are commonplace and are made about virtually every lowly minister. However, Disraeli’s vision was disastrously shattered when Dilke’s fast-rising career took a nose-dive in 1885 from which it never recovered. At a time when he was the youngest member of the Cabinet and seemingly with the world at his feet Dilke was caught up in a sex scandal! The possibilities which may have opened up for the future destiny of Britain had Dilke lived up to Disraeli’s expectations are one of the great ‘ifs’ in British history.

Disraeli was one of the first British politicians to articulate a coherent patriotic policy. In this he showed outstanding foresight, which was all the more remarkable given his background.

In 1842 Disraeli helped to form an ultra-patriotic faction within the Tory Party called the Young England Group. Most supporters of the group were young aristocrats. They believed that Britain would be best governed by a paternalistic landed aristocracy which dedicated itself to reform the conditions suffered by the working class. They held that the aristocracy should have a sense of duty and should not abuse its privileged position. Young England was part of the Romantic movement and for inspiration borrowed heavily from the writings of William Cobbett and Thomas Carlyle. Disraeli was older than most of the other Young England backbenchers, but they were united in their opposition to utilitarian and materialistic liberalism.

Many of the legislative policies which Disraeli was later to put into practice, such as the Public Health Act, were first advocated by Young England. Disraeli’s policy in government was to resist the more rapacious excesses perpetrated by the manufacturers and to seek to create a new enlightened and paternalistic industrial baronage. Disraeli’s later Imperialism can also be seen as an extension of the ideas of Young England. A synthesis of working class populism with the aristocratic administration of the Empire. To the benefit of all, including the industrialists eager for markets in which to sell their wares.

This is the basis for what became known as ‘One Nation Toryism’ and was the beginning of a specifically nationally-minded political tradition in Britain. Previously this had not been necessary as all politicians could be assumed to have had a ‘national’ outlook. But by the mid-nineteenth century international do-gooding liberalism had begun to take hold. Young England and ‘One Nation Toryism’ were a reaction to that development.

In 1835 Disraeli wrote A Vindication of the English Constitution. The themes contained in this treatise were later echoed in what are known as Disraeli’s Young England novels which are also generally regarded as being his best literary works. These books can be viewed as political propaganda, designed to make Disraeli’s views more accessible and popular through the medium of fiction. The novels painted such a vivid picture that their publication created an immediate sensation.

Coningsby, published in 1844 and subtitled The New Generation, was the first political novel in the English language. It dealt with party politics and also owed something to Carlyle’s Past and Present. This was followed by Sybil, published in 1845 and subtitled The Two Nations. This book dealt with the condition of the various classes in society during the period 1837-44. Sybil contains the famous passage:

“Two nations: between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are governed by the same laws.”

Disraeli used his novels to explore contemporary Britain; squalid industrial cities; mining communities; rural life; high society. He had a remarkable eye for seeing the true nature of British society. Unlike the economic liberals and radicals of his age who were only interested in political reform and free market economics, it is very clear that Disraeli had a strong sympathy for the ‘plight’ of the people. Sybil in particular stands up well to-day as a gripping tale which transports the reader back to witness a panoramic view of early Victorian Britain. These novels were designed to shock middle England into action and in a large measure they succeeded.

Today, there are again effectively ‘Two Nations’. One, the Guardian-reading Islingtonites who arrogantly think they know best, that other viewpoints don’t matter, who never mix outside their lovey- world and who get the opportunity to preach their views on television everyday. And two, everyone else in society. It is also ironic that modern-day Tories who claim to follow the ‘One Nation’ tradition are invariably so pro-European as really to be ‘No Nation’ Tories!

Disraeli lived the last half of his life at Hughenden, a house that he bought in 1848. It was an unpretentious, well-to-do, but essentially middle class house near Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. He was particularly fond of this area, not least because Edmund Burke, his political hero, had settled in Beaconsfield. His wife, Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis, was twelve years older than he. They married in 1839 after her first husband had died. As this was relatively late in her life they had no children.

Disraeli was granted the title of Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876 in recognition of his service to the country. He died in 1881 and was buried in Hughenden church beside his wife who had predeceased him.

It is impossible not to notice the contrast between Disraeli’s private lifestyle with that of the grand Whig families. Take Lord John Russell for example, Liberal Prime Minister in 1846-52, and 1865-66. Russell’s family seat was Woburn Abbey, one of the biggest and most majestic stately homes in Britain and a veritable palace. Hughenden could easily have been fitted into one of the outhouses. There was certainly nothing ostentatious about Disraeli, the private man.

Disraeli was far from being a paragon of virtue. He was argumentative, too quick to make wounding remarks about opponents, overdramatic and affected flamboyant modes of speech and dress. On some issues he chopped and changed his policies and contradicted himself shamelessly. But it can hardly be claimed that he did this as part of a lust for power. If so he was strikingly unsuccessful. Disraeli was seventy years of age by the time that he achieved the Premiership with a working majority and a full term in office. Once Prime Minister he took the responsibility seriously and the claim cannot be sustained that he left no tangible achievements.

On the main themes Disraeli was remarkably consistent throughout his career and so the charge that he was an opportunist who believed in nothing very much cannot hold. Disraeli made the Conservatives the party of social reform. From his Young England days he had stressed the need for the upper class to work with the working class in a great national effort. He saw it as the duty of the upper class to improve the conditions of the working class and his social reforms were directed towards that end. Just as importantly, he set the tone for Britain’s greatest period of Imperial expansion. To further this exciting enterprise he encouraged a new partnership between all classes, factions and interests in Britain. In so doing Disraeli laid the foundations for a new political philosophy.



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