Benjamin Disraeli is a deeply, deeply fascinating man, and indeed, one of the most important figures of 19th century British history. I had heard of him, vaguely, quite early on in life, but it wasn't until I was doing my A-levels that I had the privilege to study his life and work in some detail. It was here that the love began, really. But enough about that, let's begin properly!
To give a full account, I think it's only right to explain a little of politics in 19th-century Britain. Unfortunately, explaining "a little" is nigh impossible, so settle in please!
Historically, Britain was ruled by a King (or sometimes, Queen) with a parliament, made up of the best men in the land. Edward I first allowed commons to sit in parliament, and this gradually resulted in a split parliament, between Commons in the lower house, and Lords (both Temporal and Spiritual, that is to say, landed gentry and Bishops can sit) in the upper house. This organisation, with the King presiding over all, forms the 'ancient constitution'. Following the Restoration in 1660, the two houses were both split, with separate factions arising, called Whigs and Tories. Broadly speaking, Whigs were the descendents of the Puritans, who favoured non-conformity and constitutional monarchy, while the Tories were staunch supporters of the King as absolute monarch and the Church of England. As the eighteenth century marched on with industrial advances, the Whigs, while still aristocratic, tended to be identified more with the emerging middle class and new money, while the Tories remained proponents of the status quo, being a landed aristocracy fiercely protective of their hereditary titles and privileges.
The French Revolution of 1789 is one of the most important events in the history of the world, its influence being felt across the whole of Europe for decades after the fact. The ancien regime, of King as sovereign over his people, had been attacked - and it if could happen in France, it could happen anywhere! While the Whigs favoured reform of the system of government in Britain, the Tories began to equate the Whigs with radicalism and revolutionism. The Tories were fiercely defensive of civil order, however, and to this end recognised too that reform was necessary if a British Revolution was to be deflected.
Following the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain needed to be rebuilt, as the long continental war had taken a massive toll. A Tory government led by the talented mediator Lord Liverpool introduced the Importation Act as a means to help promote domestic economic growth, better known as the Corn Law. Basically, this law prohibited the import of foreign corn unless the price of British-grown product had reached 80/- per quarter. This measure protected the farmers of Britain from being undercut by, in particular, cheap Canadian-grown corn. The little irony is that corn was mostly grown on land owned by Tory MPs, and so the Corn Laws can also be seen as the Tories looking after their own interests. It didn't help that the fixed price was almost a wartime relic, and not exactly representative of pre-war trade. It didn't take long for the Corn Laws to become deeply despised across the country, particularly in times of poor harvests.
Lord Liverpool is one of these important men that have become little more than footnotes in history. In this case, it is because he is overshadowed by some more famous men who were major players around this time. Robert Peel rose to be Home Secretary in Liverpool's cabinet, and was a dynamic force behind a lot of reforms in the Regency period. The Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, who was Prime Minister shortly after Liverpool, is also a giant of a man at this time (think of Stephen Fry's portrayal in Blackadder). Liverpool, anyway, was keen on what has been termed 'liberal toryism', which seems a contradiction in terms at first glance, but came about out of the necessity to do something lest the people rise against the establishment, as already mentioned. Liverpool had originally planned, with William Huskisson, the President of the Board of Trade (and one of the first casualties of a railway accident in history), to introduce a sliding scale into the law that would allow the tariff on imported corn to be reduced proportionately to the rise in price of the domestically-grown product. The Tory backbenchers shot him down in 1815 and the bill became Law without such a thing. However, Liverpool was in the process of passing a revised bill through when he died in 1828, and Wellington forced through the bill with a sliding scale included, albeit one that made major concessions to the back bench.
The late 1820s also saw two very important changes to the constitution that would pave the way for the Great Reform Act of 1832, beginning with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828. These Acts were passed in the 17th century and prohibited anyone who was not Anglican from holding office in Britain, in an effort to prevent Catholicism gaining a foothold in Britain following the Popish Plot, and the disastrous reign of James II. In 1828, Lord Russell introduced a motion to allow non-conformists to hold office (remember that moderate religious freedom was a basic tenet to the Whigs), which passed into Law later that year - in the event, forced through again by Wellington. Surprising, that, considering the fact that Tory policy was usually all for protecting the Anglican Church, and against a separation of Church and State. However, the Sacramental Test Act (as it was known when passed into Law) ensured any MP swore not to use his office to damage the Church. However, this Act then paved the way for something a bit more radical - Catholic Emancipation.
As I said, Catholics were prohibited from holding office in Britain by the Test Act of 1678. This anti-Catholic feeling eventually extended, after the Glorious Revolution a decade later, to preventing a Catholic ever sitting on the throne, which remains in force today. Catholic Emancipation followed naturally from the 1828 Act, however, but was spurred on by the situation in Ireland, where the (largely Catholic) population was chafing under Anglican rule. Robert Peel, as leader in the Commons, recognised the potential situation looming and began to champion Emancipation in 1829, managing to pass the bill through the Commons with the help of many Whig MPs (but alienating his own backbenchers, something that will be important shortly). Peel's rationale for his magnificent U-turn on the subject was prevention of a civil war in Ireland. Wellington, who was himself Irish, again forced the bill through the Lords, and George IV was forced to give the Catholic Relief Act royal assent while feeling betrayed by his government - he was, after all, protector of the faith.
This Act now allowed Roman Catholics to sit in parliament, but it also had the curious effect of disenfranchising a large section of the population - Catholics could hold office, but could only be voted in by men who owned land worth £10 or more. Now, I have touched on this subject once already, but I need to explain it more thoroughly here to properly explain the background to the Great Reform still to come. In Regency Britain, the electoral system was organised into two types of constituencies - borough and county. Each English county returned two MPs to parliament, no matter how big they were, popular examples being Yorkshire (electorate: over 16,000) and Rutland (electorate: under 1,300). Welsh counties operated on the same principle, though only returned one MP for each county. A borough was a medieval establishment, analogous to a town (but many were small villages) that also returned two MPs to parliament (with Welsh boroughs returning one). The electorates varied greatly, with new industrial towns such as Liverpool and Bristol, where the electorate was over 5,000; to the famous 'rotten boroughs' such as Old Sarum (electorate of 7) and Gatton (electorate of 6).
Electorates were enumerated like this. In county constituencies, the franchise extended to any man with a forty-shilling-freehold. Boroughs were a bit more complex, however. In a Freeman Borough, any man with the freedom of the city could vote (that is, a freeman by inheritance, purchase or marriage). This was the most common type, with examples such as Liverpool and Coventry. Burgage Boroughs gave the vote to any man who owned a plot of land as laid down when the borough was initially established, usually at the Norman conquest (Domesday Book primarily records the number of "burgesses" in a town). There were also Freeholder Boroughs, where any man with a forty shilling freehold had the vote as in the counties, and Corporation Boroughs, where a town was run by Corporation, and only the members of said Corporation could vote (such as at Bath and Scarborough). Finally there are two oddly-named types: Scot and Lot Boroughs (where all male householders who paid local rates voted, such as Westminster and Gatton); and Potwalloper Boroughs, where any man who owned a house that had a fireplace upon which a pot could be boiled had the vote (Preston, Bedford and Northampton are all examples). Many of these constituencies had been enfranchised in the 15th century, and were no longer representative of the state of Britain four hundred years on, particularly after the population migrations caused by the Industrial Revolution. For example, Manchester did not actually have its own MP, and was only represented in parliament by the MP for Lancashire despite being the third-largest urban area in the country. The pressure for reform was on!
Oddly, it was from Tory backbenchers, the "die-hards" of the party, where a lot of the political desire for reform came from. Angered by the way Wellington had been able to force through so many bills, many of his supporters being MPs for the rotten boroughs (Wellington himself had begun his career as MP for the rotten borough of Trim in Ireland). The division in the Tory party led to the collapse of Wellington's ministry in the election called upon the death of George IV in 1830. Earl Grey, now famous for the tea blended for him more than any political achievements, formed a Whig government under William IV, which also included some of the Tories alienated by Wellington, such as Lord Palmerston (the Foreign Secretary famous for his 'gunboat diplomacy'). Grey came to the premiership with reform very much firmly in his mind.
It is important to note that Earl Grey was, obviously, an aristocrat, and he had no intention of ushering in a new era of democracy in Britain as had happened in France. The Whig intent was to 'purify' the system and remove all abuses, such as rotten boroughs, but to maintain aristocratic rule. There was also a desire to widen the electorate in order to secure future backing for the Whig party, which had been out of power since before the Napoleonic War. As such, the terms of his reform bill as laid before parliament in 1831 were still based on the link between the franchise and property. In essence, the Reform Bills of this period are about as disappointing as Magna Carta usually turns out to be - not the earth-shattering treatise on the rights and equality of all men, but instead a protection for the nobility. In a way, then, the Reform Bills represent an acknowledgement that something needs to be done, what with the spectre of the French Revolution still hovering ominously over Europe, but the aristocracy are not prepared to abdicate all power to prevent it happening here.
The bill made it through the Commons with ease - due to the Commons being packed with Whigs. The Tories had insisted on one amendment, called the Chandos Clause (after the Tory Marquis of Chandos who had proposed it), which widened the electorate further in the counties. A smart move, as the Tory power-base was primarily in the landed classes of the counties rather than in the boroughs. Also, the Tories stood to lose the most in this bill because they controlled the majority of the rotten boroughs. However, the Lords defeated the Bill and it was back to the drawing board for Earl Grey (perhaps with a cup of his delicious blend to console him). Such was the popular support for reform that many of the Lords who had opposed it were attacked for doing so. The bill was revised again (giving the industrial boroughs a second seat) and passed the Commons, but the Lords defeated it again. Earl Grey, who had asked the King to create some additional Whig peers to ensure its passage through the upper house and had been refused, resigned in protest.
Re-enter Wellington, whose facility at forcing bills through the Houses was going to be handy in this circumstance. The populace were baying for reform, and the King insisted that some measure of reform needed to be passed. Because of this insistence, Peel refused to join Wellington's cabinet, and without him to lead the Commons, Wellington was stuck. A constitutional crisis was looming, and Britain was said to be "ripe for revolution" in the words of one angry letter to the government. Wellington's ministry failed, and the King had to recall Grey in 1832 and abide by the latter's conditions of return, the creation of more Whig Lords. No sooner had William IV acquiesced to this demand, however, than many Tory Lords abstained from parliament anyway, so the bill was passed into Law with comparative ease. The furious William gave the royal assent in absentium, also.
The Great Reform Act of 1832 is a watershed moment in British political history, for the extraordinary effect popular pressure had on its creation. It was the most comprehensive re-evaluation of Britain for over four hundred years. The disenfranchisement of 57 rotten boroughs, with about thirty more smaller boroughs having the number of members returned from two to one, the extra seats being freed up for distribution among the large towns and cities of the industrial north, is a momentous event. The extension of the franchise is also an important aspect, giving the vote to every man in the county who held land in freehold worth £10, a sharp rise on the 40/- freehold of years past, and bringing the franchise in Britain in line with that of Ireland following the Catholic Relief Act. However, in the boroughs, the vote was given to all male householders of property worth £10 a year also, with anyone currently with the vote (from potwalloping or any other means) retaining that right for life. Without an official electoral roll, the size of the pre-1832 electorate cannot be determined with any accuracy, but has been estimated to be around 400,000 people, and the 1832 Act extended this to 650,000. Impressive when looked at in these terms, but the population of Britain as determined by the 1831 census was 24, 132, 294. Furthermore, the 1832 Act is the first statutory bar to female suffrage. Previous laws had talked in terms of householders or property ownership assuming men would be the only people eligible, but the 1832 Act specifically mentions male householders, male landowners, etc. The franchise being dependent on such a high property value also effectively bars every single member of the working class, which is of course the whole aim of Grey and his party.
Constitutionally, the Act also skewed the proportions of the Houses, as a lot of Lords lost their seats because of the disenfranchisement of the rotten boroughs, and there simply wasn't a Lord of Leeds or Earl of Birmingham to replace him.
Following the Reform Act, a bill was put before the House to emancipate the Jews in the same way Catholics had been emancipated in 1829, and it passed through the Commons in 1833 only to be wholeheartedly rejected by the Lords and King, with Wellington speaking out vociferously against it. The following year, Earl Grey resigned as PM, and after a brief stint by Lord Melbourne (who would go on to become a huge influence on the young Queen Victoria), the Tories were back in power, with Robert Peel now taking on the top job. It was under Peel that the Tories morphed into the Conservative Party, but also that the Corn Laws would reveal themselves once again. Repeal of the Corn Laws was seen as an attack on the landed gentry that formed the core of the Tory party and their traditional values. Peel's rationale was concern for the famine situation in Ireland, and his attempt to ensure civil stability, the excuse he had used in 1829 over Catholic Emancipation. His actions then had alienated his backbenchers, and repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 didn't do anything to help this rift. Peel forced it through the Commons, with Wellington doing so again through the Lords, but shortly afterwards he resigned the premiership, amid boos and shouts of "re-Peel", etc etc.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, enter Disraeli! Thanks for bearing with me through all of that (I wasn't lying when I said it can't be explained a little). Benjamin Disraeli was born in 1804, the son of Isaac D'Israeli, a Jewish writer, though Benjamin was baptised into the Church of England at the age of 12, and the apostrophe was eliminated from his surname by his late teens. He first forays into parliamentary circles were made as a Radical, but after being defeated at the hustings he changed tack and stood as a Tory for Maidstone in 1837, progressing through the safe seats (where little to no opposition made for a guaranteed return) of Shrewsbury (1841) and Buckinghamshire County (1847). He was a founding member of the Young England group in 1842, a group of young aristocrats who promulgated an almost antiquated vision of England under a paternalistic absolute monarch, with a strong Anglican Church and a return to the feudal system of the medieval period. In the 1840s Disraeli wrote a trilogy of novels - Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred - that outlined the intellectual arguments for the movement.
When Peel refused to ask Disraeli to enter his cabinet, Disraeli joined the backbenchers in opposing Peel, forming the Protectionists, a splinter-group who believed Peel's repeal of the Corn Laws was undermining basic Tory principles and would lead to bankruptcy for the landed class. While he was viewed with some suspicion by the backbenchers, given his Jewish ancestry, his dazzling oratorical skills did impress them, so while he wasn't the leader of the Protectionists he was certainly a rising star. Disraeli does have something of a childish air to him in these wilderness years, disagreeing with Peel at every opportunity just because it was Peel, and used his wit and charm to great advantage.
So while Peel was turning the party into Conservatives, with the maintenance of public order, strict economic regulation, and a benevolent, impartial dispensation of justice, Disraeli and his backbencher cohorts remained firmly Tory - that is, pro-landed, pro-Anglican, anti-Catholic and anti-Irish, with a great mistrust of the industrial age and the new middle class. Disraeli still isn't really anywhere, though - Lords Bentinck (in the Commons) and Stanley (later Derby, in the Lords) were the true 'leaders' of the rebellion against Peel. This rebellion led to a permanent rift, with many of Peel's supporters, who saw the backbench 'rump' as obsessed purely with their own interests, and not that of the nation.
Disraeli is seen at this stage as stoking the fires of dissent within the party for his own ambitious ends, but there is a case to be made that Peel is the one more responsible for this permanent rift, ignoring the wishes of his party when he forced through the repeal of the Corn Laws. But it wasn't until 1849 that Disraeli found himself part of a trio acting as Leader of the Commons, after Bentinck was forced to resign over the Jewish Emancipation issue. Lord Russell, the new PM, took up the cause when his co-MP for the City of London, Lionel de Rothschild, was unable to take up his seat because of the prohibition against Jews, and Disraeli spoke eloquently for the issue also. This did nothing to endear him to the other Protectionists, with only Disraeli and Bentinck voting for the emancipation out of their entire party.
Disraeli obtained a loan from Lord Bentinck's brothers for £25,000, with which he bought a country seat in Buckinghamshire in 1848, Hughenden Manor. He was now MP for the county, a landed gent, and a prime candidate for leadership of the party.
In 1852, following the collapse of Lord Russell's Whig government, the Tories found themselves in a position to form a government under Lord Derby, and Disraeli was finally in a cabinet position, Chancellor of the Exchequer no less! The ministry was largely composed of political unknowns, leading to the infamous name the "Who? Who?" ministry. Disraeli attempted to balance the books with a budget that purported to open up free trade with decreases in malt tax and tea duty, though offset by an increase to the income tax. The budget was demolished in the Commons by a man who would come to antagonise Disraeli for most of his political life, William Gladstone. Gladstone is an interesting man, entering parliament in Robert Peel's ministry as President of the Board of Trade, he moved to the Whigs after the 1846 schism between Peel and Disraeli, and thereafter harboured an intense dislike for Disraeli's apparent 'betrayal' of Peel. Defeat of Disraeli's budget brought about the demise of Derby's ministry, which was replaced by a Whig coalition under Lord Aberdeen, with Gladstone presenting a much more popular free-trade budget.
The Aberdeen ministry fell after criticism for the handling of the Crimean War, and was first succeeded by a government under Lord Palmerston (the aforementioned Foreign Secretary) which didn't last very long either. Re-enter Derby and the Tories, with Disraeli again as Chancellor and Leader of the Commons, in 1858. During this second term in the cabinet, Disraeli came up with two very important pieces of legislation, one of which succeeded and the other failed. Firstly, following the Indian Mutiny of 1857 where the locals rebelled against the East India Company, a Government of India Act was passed the following year whereby the rule of India transferred from the Company directly to the monarch, and created a Secretary of State for India out of the former President of the Board of Control. The post was given to Derby's son Lord Stanley, with Disraeli acting as a guiding hand over the proceedings. This Act would prove instrumental in the 1870s as will be revealed shortly! 1858 finally saw the effective Jewish emancipation (the Lords conceded to a bill that let each House decide what oath its members swore upon investiture), with Lionel de Rothschild sitting as the first Jewish member of parliament.
Disraeli then tried to introduce a Reform Bill in 1859 that moderately extended the franchise, but was defeated quite roundly. Disraeli had, in his novels of the 1840s, shown himself to be a paternalist, and while he still upheld the fundamental Tory principle of 'landed first', still thought it important that the landed class show themselves as responsible for the people of their land. The novel Sybil in particular shows him as an acute social thinker, and genuinely worried about the governance of the people. It is always so tempting to be cynical and think that Tory principles are only self-serving, but Disraeli emerges as a man who believes that only the right sort of people should rule. Yes, they may be the landed gentry, but it is a paternalistic, philanthropitic landed gentry that deserves to rule.
Unfortunately, this view became increasingly old-fashioned and antiquated as the 19th century marched on. So when Disraeli's Reform Bill also suggested that borough freeholders could not cast a vote in the counties as well, it was seen as self-serving the landed interest as more borough freeholders were more sympathetic to the pro-Industrialist Whig party. There were also more County seats than Borough seats, so this measure ensured the Tory supremacy in the Counties. Derby's ministry fell, to be succeeded by Lord Palmerston once again. Palmerston formed a coalition with Lord Russell, and this government has come to be recognised as the first truly Liberal government, prompting the old Tory Protectionist wing to identify more with the Conservative label. Palmerston was very popular because of his aggressive foreign policy (he was seen as the victor of the Crimean War, for instance, and made some rousing remarks during the Schleswig-Holstein crisis of 1864), and Gladstone at the Exchequer was successful with his budgets. In the national interest, Derby ordered his party not to diminish Palmerston's ministry, and Disraeli felt himself floundering in the wilderness once more.
Palmerston died in 1865, the last Prime Minister to die in office, and was replaced by Lord Russell, who failed to hold the party together and Derby returned for his third term at the top, again with Disraeli at the Exchequer. The American Civil War in 1865 had affected British politics in a similar manner to the French Revolution, with Russell wanting to avert a crisis by enfranchising "respectable" workers such as skilled labourers. Lowering the franchise to a £7 householder qualification was thought to include a much larger proportion of the middle class who, it was hoped, would be naturally inclined towards Liberalism. The Liberal party split over the issue, helped along by Disraeli encouraging anyone against the bill to speak out. Now in power, Disraeli introduced his own bill in 1867 which snowballed quite out of control. While still only seeking moderate electoral reform, the bill became amended in debate to triple the electorate, enfranchising most men in the new industrial towns through an amendment granting the franchise to all men who paid rates in person and who had lived in their house for one year. Conservative amendments, while still extending the franchise further than originally desired, did so with so-called "fancy franchises" designed to protect their own interests, so included anyone in the counties with £50 savings, and any graduates or professionals in the boroughs. While in debate, Disraeli accepted any and all amendments to his original bill, provided they did not come from Gladstone, and so while Disraeli had initially rejected the 1866 Liberal Bill for going too far (it would bring into parliament 'a horde of selfish and obscure mediocrities, incapable of anything but mischief'), his own bill went further still.
Disraeli hoped that the 1867 bill would create a new image for the Conservatives, something that has been labelled 'Conservative Democracy'. It is ridiculous to think that Disraeli wanted a true democracy given his earlier novels and his remarks quoted above - his ideology had always been based on paternalism and the idea that some people are made to rule etc. It would be more accurate, I feel, to say Disraeli's ideas stem from Social Paternalism, his sense of duty towards the poor that stems from the idea of responsibilities of landowners in the feudal system (remember Young England?) However, he was keen to increase the party profile with the newly emerging classes, and not to be seen as outmoded in the face of Gladstone and his progressive Liberals. Enfranchisement of more of the industrial north, including Middlesborough, Stalybridge and Darlington, while halving the representation of important Conservative seats at Wycombe and Buckingham, proved to be the undoing of the party at the 1868 general election, however.
The 1867 Reform Act still didn't address women voters, the ratepayer franchise still favoured the landed, and there were still some aspects of corruption (no secret ballot, certain electors could vote twice, etc). Still, the franchise extended to include over 900,000 men, increasing the electorate to 2.5million.
Disraeli's moment in the spotlight was increased in February 1868, with Lord Derby's health failing. Derby resigned, urging Queen Victoria to call Disraeli to be Prime Minister. He later said of this moment 'I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole'. However, when the general election was called later in the year, the Conservatives generally did not contest, Disraeli himself thinking that most of the new electorate would be so grateful for the vote that they would use it to return the Conservatives to power. Oh, how wrong. Gladstone had become leader of a reunited Liberal party, and won the election by more than 100 seats. The 1868 election was the last British election where only two parties were elected, as an interesting aside!
Gladstone had a great interest in Ireland, and his first acts while PM were the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland in 1869, which removed Anglicanism as the state religion (and thus, removed Irish clerics from the House of Lords), and the Irish Land Act 1870, which prohibited Irish landlords from setting rents however they wanted. These attacks on Anglicanism and landowner privilege in Ireland caused a stir as many feared they set a precedent that might be followed at home, also. Domestic policies ranged from the Civil Service Act and Army Regulation Act, both 1871, which ensured equality of opportunity for entry - you no longer bought an army commission, nor did your family ties land you a top job in Whitehall - to the Trade Union Act, which legalised strikes and pickets, and the Licensing Act, which reduced pub opening hours. The most momentous, however, was the Ballot Act of 1872, which introduced secret ballots rather than voting at the hustings. Disraeli criticised Gladstone as having 'harassed every trade, worried every profession, and assailed or menaced every class, institution and species of property in the country'. Despite illness making him face criticism within his own party, Disraeli made a pair of speeches in 1872 that attacked Gladstone as unpatriotic and trying to diminish the Empire.
These speeches single-handedly forge Britain's sense of national identity, and today form the basis of the popular idea of Victorian Britishness - that is, the strongest country in the world, with an Empire upon which the sun never sets. He sets out the objectives of the party as:
- 'to maintain the institutions of the country';
- 'to uphold the Empire of England', and
- 'the elevation of the condition of the people'.
This last is of particular note, as it is once again evidence of Disraeli's great Social Paternalism - 'the health of the people [is] the most important question for a statesman', and 'It is impossible to overrate the importance of [sanitary legislation]... After all, the first consideration of a minister should be the health of the people...' These are not just remarks made to inspire public affiliation and ensure success at the next general election, but the long-held principles of the author of Sybil three decades previous. Disraeli was a man of the people, even while still being a traditional Tory.
However, the picture is not all perfect. Disraeli and the Conservatives won the 1874 election more through anti-Gladstone feeling than perhaps anything else. When the cabinet was formed, Home Secretary RA Cross was surprised to find Disraeli had no actual social programmes planned. 'Disraeli's role was to dream the dreams, not to implement them' as one historian has since said. A series of Acts followed whereby Britain was 'cleaned up', with Public Health and Education both major beneficiaries. However, these Acts have been noted as sounding good, but offering little help from central government - the Artisans' Dwelling Act of 1875, for example, allowed local authorities to compulsorily purchase, clear and rebuild houses deemed unhealthy, a prospect that would improve living conditions for the working classes living in slums. However, the Act merely allowed the councils to do this, it didn't give them any further apparatus to effect any real change. However, the social reforms passed by Disraeli's second ministry were affected by Cross's principle that 'it is not the duty of government to provide any class of citizen with the necessities of life', so while social reform was on the agenda, it still wished to preserve the natural order intact, with local government trusted to know what was best for its own people.
As mentioned above, Disraeli was also very keen on the subject of Empire. Something that has been hinted about in this now-exhaustive look at 19th century political history is a growing unease between classes in Britain, though so far it has been confined to the franchise. With growing numbers of people eligible to vote, 'dangerous' rhetoric and philosophy from the Continent concerning the 'rights of man' and egalitarian principles of government, class conflict was inevitable. Disraeli's answer was the Empire. Instilling a sense of national pride in the general population, based on the strength of the country and its power abroad, had begun in the 1872 speeches, where he had said that 'the great body of the people of this country were Conservative. When I say "Conservative", I use the word in its loftiest sense. I mean that the people of England, and especially the working classes of England, are proud of belonging to a great country...that they believe, on the whole, that the greatness and the empire of England are to be attributed to the ancient institutions of the land...' By linking the power and prestige of Britain to its Empire, and the working classes to the idea of Empire, and then portraying Gladstone as attacking the Empire and trying to diminish it (Gladstone had allowed parts of South Africa to secede during his administration), he ensured popular support for Conservative foreign policies.
Foremost among these was the Eastern Question - the Ottoman Empire had been in decline for most of the century, and with the Russo-Turkish War 1877-8 (more in a bit), went further into decline. The expanse of Russia was an alarm to most of Europe, but particularly for Disraeli who saw it as possible that Russia would seek to expand into India. During the Suez Crisis of 1875, 44 shares in the Suez Canal came up for sale from the Egyptian Wali, and competition ensued where Britain and France both tried to secure a majority share in the company pursuant to their own interests. Disraeli went behind the Cabinet's back to obtain a loan from Lionel de Rothschild (remember him from the Jewish Emancipation issue of the 1840s/50s?), member of the prominent Austrian-descended banking family and one of the richest men in Britain. Disraeli managed to buy the shares for Britain in time, ensuring Britain controlled shipping through the Canal, though his use of the British Government as collateral was perhaps a step too far.
It is of course concerning India where Disraeli is perhaps most remembered. Having guided through the Governance of India Act in 1858, he now began to build further upon that foundation. Queen Victoria had become a recluse since the death of her beloved Prince Albert in 1861, and the lack of a visible monarchy led to republicanism gaining a toehold in Britain. True to the natural Conservative instinct of upholding ancient institutions, Disraeli began to gently persuade the Queen to return to public life. All his life he had been a great flatterer and had a reputation as something of a dandy, and turned the charm into wooing Victoria back to her central position. In 1876 Disraeli pushed through the Royal Titles Act, which made Queen Victoria Empress of India, marked by a particularly flamboyant ceremony in Delhi the following year.
Gladstone condemned it as 'theatrical bombast' but the effect was positive. Queen Victoria was generally a lot more sympathetic to Disraeli than Gladstone, famously remarking of the latter 'he addresses me like I am a public meeting'. Disraeli is notably the first Prime Minister who was allowed to sit in the Queen's presence, because of his gout. Perhaps because of his flattery and charm, the Queen thought much more positively of "Dizzy", as she affectionately called him, and was very supportive of his ministry, including his aggressive foreign expansionist policy. The Queen's view of Empire was one of benign civility, bringing prosperity to otherwise barbaric corners of the globe, and it is one shared by a lot of other people at this time, also, least of all Disraeli.
And so to Russia. Russian expansion, as noted above, was becoming a problem, and in 1877 the Russians went to war with the Ottoman Empire partly in defense of atrocities committed by the Ottomans in Romania and Bulgaria after the Balkan Uprisings of the mid-1870s. It is tempting to think of Russia as more interested in expansion than in protecting the Balkans, however, and their advance into Turkey in an attempt to control Constantinople after the Treaty of San Stefano effectively concluded hostilities in 1878 is further evidence of that. The British, concerned with a Russian presence so close to the Suez Canal, sent troops to Constantinople to fend off a Russian attack, a move primarily organised by Disraeli without Cabinet support, and managed to prevent further war.
Disraeli's masterpiece came with the Congress of Berlin in 1878, where all of the major powers in Europe, under Otto von Bismarck's lead, redrew the map of south-east Europe following the Ottoman retreat. Hailed as a magnificent effort in peace-keeping, nobody could have predicted that the outcome would eventually lead to the First World War.
^ Disraeli is standing to the left of the centre. Bismarck is man in the black standing to the right of the centre - notice how he is the tallest of everyone in the room?
Disraeli returned to Britain viewed by many as the Conqueror of the Russians, and said he had achieved 'peace with honour'. He was by this time increasingly frail with age, and Queen Victoria had worried about his taking part in the Congress at all. He had been elevated to the peerage in 1876 as Earl of Beaconsfield and Viscount Hughenden, at last making it to the aristocracy. However, the Conservatives lost the 1880 election to Gladstone and the Liberals, largely because Ireland had become so much of a problem that Disraeli hadn't really addressed while he was looking to Europe. The following year, Disraeli was dead.
^ statue of Disraeli as Lord Beaconsfield in Parliament Square, London
I like to think of Disraeli as the last exciting Prime Minister of Britain. Increasing accountability seems to have made subsequent statesmen much more sober fellows, while Disraeli remains something of a maverick, you can almost imagine the gleam in his eye as he secures the Suez Canal for Britain. His ideology is perhaps more important in theory than in practice, but it reveals him to be a very important social thinker, keen to preserve landed interests perhaps, but also very much aware of the social responsibility that comes with land-ownership. I said at the beginning that he has been a personal hero of mine, and this is in part because of his unflappable determination to get the job done, whether the job is climbing the 'greasy pole' of politics, or improving the standing of the nation. His rise to power was beset with some fairly sturdy obstacles, particularly his 'exotic' ancestry and his unorthodox behaviour, but he didn't let any of that get in the way of his career. When he was at the top, he provided effective leadership for his government, if not the nuts-and-bolts of the policies themselves. It is unfair to say, as Lord Blake asserted, he was merely interested in getting to the top, 'and that he had no particular ideas what he wanted to do before he got there'. His novels of the 1840s provided a showcase for his theories on government and power, and his ideology remained consistent with this right through his second ministry. His belief in the power of Empire and his efforts in this regard form the cornerstone of Victorian dominance on the global stage.