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Benjamin Disraeli - Prime Minister - 1868, 1874-1880

Disraeli's two premierships (1868, 1874-80) did a good deal to give new encouragement to Disraeli's idea of the constitutional function of the crown. Disraeli thought that the queen ought to be a power in the state. His notion of duty at once a loyal and chivalrous one was that he was obliged to give the queen the best of his advice, but that the final decision in any course lay with her, and that once she had decided, he was bound, whatever might be his own opinion, to stand up for her decision in public. The queen, not unnaturally, came to trust Disraeli implicitly, and she frequently showed her friendship for him.

A few days after parliament met in 1868, Lord Derby's failing health compelled him to resign, and the first place in the cabinet passed in 1868 from Lord Derby to his lieutenant, Disraeli. On Derby's resignation in 1868 the Queen raised Disraeli to the head of the government, but his defeat on Gladstone's Irish Church resolution led to a dissolution. The electors gave the Liberals a large majority, and in December 1868, Gladstone became premier and inaugurated a period of reforming energy that filled Victoria with some alarm.

The change added interest to political life. Thenceforward, for the next thirteen years, the chief places in the two great parties in the state were filled by the two men, Gladstone and Disraeli, who were unquestionably the ablest representatives of their respective followers. But the situation was also remarkable because power thus definitely passed from men who, without exception, had been born in the 18th century, and had all held cabinet offices before 1832, to men who had been born in the 19th century, and had only risen to cabinet rank in the 'forties and the 'fifties. It was also interesting to reflect that Gladstone had begun life as a Conservative, and had only gradually moved to the ranks of the Liberal party; while Disraeli had fought his first election under the auspices of O'Connell and Hume, had won his spurs by his attacks on Sir Robert Peel, and had been only reluctantly adopted by the Conservatives as their leader in the House of Commons.

The country, after the long political truce which had been maintained by Lord Palmerston, was again ranged in two hostile camps, animated by opposing views on Irish Home Rule. It was virtually asked to decide in 1868 whether it would put its trust in Liberal or Conservative, in Gladstone or Disraeli. By an overwhelming majority it threw its lot in favor of Gladstone; and Disraeli, without even venturing to meet parliament, took the unusual course of at once placing his resignation in the queen's hands.

The history of the next five years is Mr Gladstone's. The Irish Church abolished, he set to work with passionate good intention on the Irish land laws. The while he did so sedition took courage and flourished exceedingly, so that to pacify Ireland the constable went hand in hand with the legislator. The abolition of the Irish Church was followed by a coercion act, and the land act by suspension of Habeas Corpus. Disraeli, who at first preferred retirement and the writing of Ltlliair, came forward from time to time to point the moral and predict the end of Mr Gladstone's impulsive courses, which soon began to fret the confidence of his friends.

Prime Minister - 1874-1880

Disraeli had no expectation victorylittle hope, indeed, of any distinct success. Yet when he went to Manchester on a brief political in 1872, he was received with such acclaim as he had never known in his life. He was then sixty-eight years old, and this was his first full banquet of popularity. The elation and confidence drawn from the Manchester meetings were confirmed by every circumstance of the 1874 elections. But he was well aware of how much he owed to his opponents' errors, seeing at the same time how safely he could lay his future course by them. He had always rejected the political economy of his time, and it was breaking down. At one of the great Manchester meetings he said," Do not suppose, because I counsel firmness and decision at the right moment, that I am of that school of statesmen who are favorable to a turbulent and aggressive diplomacy. I have resisted it during a large part of my life."

The news that the khedive's Suez Canal shares had been bought by the government was so received with boundless applause. It was a courageous thing to do; but it was not a Disraeli conception, nor did it originate in any government department. It was suggested from without at a moment when the possibility of ever acquiring the shares was passing away. On the morning of 15 November 1875, Frederick Greenwood, then editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, went to Lord Derby at the foreign office, informed him that the khedive's shares were passing into the hands of a French syndicate, and urged arrest of the transaction by purchase for England. (The shares being private property their sale could not, of course, be forbidden.) The purchase for England was taken up and went to a speedy conclusion.

As if upon the impulse of this transaction, Disraeli opened the next session of parliament with a bill to confer upon the queen the title of empress of India a measure which offended the instincts of many Englishmen, and, for the time, revived the prejudices against its author. The bill for conferring on the queen the title of "Empress of India." It met with much opposition, and Disraeli was accused of ministering simply to a whim of the sovereign, whereas, in fact, the title was intended to impress the idea of British suzerainty forcibly upon the minds of the native princes, and upon the population of Hindustan. The prince of Wales's voyage to India in the winter of 1875-76 had brought the heir to the throne into personal relationship with the great Indian vassals of the British crown, and it was felt that a further demonstration of the queen's interest in her magnificent dependency would confirm their loyalty.

The dissolution of 1874 placed the Conservatives under Disraeli in power, much to the satisfaction of the queen; and in 1876 the Royal Titles Bill, conferring upon her the additional title of Empress of India, was passed. The passing of this bill may be taken as marking the formal beginning of the movement known as Imperialism, with which Queen Victoria was from the first in hearty sympathy. Disraeli was rewarded for his services by being raised to the upper House as Earl of Bcaconsfield, and the new regime in India was signalized by the institution in 1877 of the Orders of the Indian Empire and the Crown of India.

More important was the revival of disturbances in European Turkey, which, in their outcome, were to fill the last chapter of Disraeli's career. But for this interruption it is likely that he would have given much of his attention to Ireland, not because it was an attractive employment for his few remaining years, but because he saw with alarm the gathering troubles in that country.

The famous Andrassy Berlin memorandum, the Bashi-Bazouk atrocities, and the accumulative excitement thereby created in England, reopened the Eastern question with a vengeance. The policy which Disraeli's government now took up may be truly called the national policy. Springing from the natural suggestions of serf-defence against the march of a dangerous rivalry, it had the sanction of all British statesmanship for generations, backed by the consenting instinct of the people. It was quite unsentimental, being pro-Turkish or anti-Russian only as it became so in being pro-British. The statesmen by whom it was established and continued saw in Russia a power which, unless firmly kept within bounds, would dominate Europe; more particularly that it would undermine and supersede British authority in the East. And without nicely considering the desire of Russia to expand to the Mediterranean, the Pacific or in any other direction, they thought it one of their first duties to maintain their own Eastern empire; or, to put it another way, to contrive that Great Britain should be subject to Russian ascendancy (if ever), at the remotest period allowed by destiny. Such were the ideas on which England's Russian policy was founded.

In 1876 this policy revived as a matter of course in the cabinet, and as spontaneously, though not upon a first provocation, became popular almost to fury. And furiously popular it remained. But a strong opposing current of feeling, equally passionate, set in against the Turks; war began and lasted long; and as the agitation at home and the conflict abroad went on, certain of Disraeli's colleagues, who were staunch enough at the beginning, gradually weakened.

Disraeli was prepared, in all, senses of the word, to take strong measures against such an end to the war as the San Stefano treaty threatened. Rather than suffer that, he would have fought the Russians in alliance with the Turks, and had gone much farther in maturing a scheme of attack and defence than was known at the time. That there was a master motive for this resolution may be taken for granted; and it is to be found in a belief that not to throw back the Russian advance then was to lose England's last chance of postponing to a far future the predominance of a great rival power in the East. How much or how little judgment shows in that calculation, when viewed in the light of later days, is a different matter. What countenance it had from his colleagues dropped away.

At the end the voices of his colleagues were strong enough to insist upon the diplomatic action which at no point falls back on the sword; Lord Derby (foreign minister) being among the first to make a stand on that resolution, though he was not the first seceder from the government. Such diplomacy in such conditions is paralytic. It cannot speak thrice, with whatever affectation of boldness, without discovering its true character to trained ears; which should be remembered when Disraeli's successes at Berlin are measured. It should be remembered that what with the known timidity of his colleagues, and what with the strength and violence of the Russian party in England, his achievement at Berlin was like the reclamation of butter from a dog's mouth; as Prince Bismarck understood in acknowledging Disraeli's gifts of statesmanship.

It should also be remembered, when his Eastern policy in 1876-1878 is denounced as malign and a failure, that it was never carried out. Good or bad, ill or well calculated, effective existence was denied to it; and a man cannot be said to have failed in what he was never permitted to attempt. The nondescript course of action which began at the Constantinople conference and ended at Berlin was not of his direction until its few last days. It only marked at various stages the thwarting and suppression of his policy by colleagues who were haunted night and day by memories of the Crimean War, and not least, probably, by the fate of the statesmen who suffered for its blunders and their own.

Disraeli also looked back to those blunders, and he was by no means insensible to the fate of fallen ministers. But just as he maintained at the time of the conflict, and after, that there would have been no Crimean War had not the British government convinced the tsar that it was in the hands of the peace party, so now he believed that a bold policy would prevent or limit war, and at the worst put off grave consequences which otherwise would make a rapid advance.

At the Berlin conference he had established a formidable reputation; the popularity he enjoyed at home was affectionately enthusiastic; no minister had ever stood in more cordial relations with his sovereign; and his honours in every kind were his own achievement against unending disadvantage. But he was soon to suffer irretrievable defeat. A confused and unsatisfactory war in Afghanistan, troubles yet more unsatisfactory in South Africa, conspired with two or three years of commercial distress to invigorate "the swing of the pendulum" when he dissolved parliament in 1880. Dissolution the year before would have been wiser, but a certain pride forbade. The elections went heavily against him. He took the blow with composure, and sank easily into a comparative retirement.

Gladstone's passionate denunciations of Beaconsfield's Eastern policy and of his aggressive imperialism in other parts of the world during the years 1876-9 were extremely distasteful to the queen, and his return to power after the overwhelming Liberal triumph of 1880 was far from welcome to her. The Queen disapproved strongly of the action of her ministers in regard to the Transvaal in 1881, and during the Egyptian and Sudan troubles of 1882-5, which culminated in the unhappy fate of the brave Gordon, she never ceased to urge strong action upon her advisers.

All English statesmen in the later nineteenth century were bred in the belief that Russia was irrevocably their foe; and every move in the world's politics which seemed to Russia's advantage appeared a direct stab at the interests of their own empire. This feeling Disraeli possessed, even beyond the run of his peers. He was anything but a pacifist in his theories, and repeatedly he seems to have been quite willing to force diplomatic action with Russia to the breaking point, and then to welcome the bloody issue. His colleagues in the ministry could usually restrain him, but to the end of his career he remained the distrustful foe of anything satisfactory to the czar.

Disraeli, one of the first modern statesmen to undertake an aggressive foreign policy, was put out of office in 1880 because his acts failed to meet with popular favor; and the Gladstone ministry which succeeded him fell five years later, on account of the public disapproval of its vacillating conduct of foreign affairs. But it is safe to say that, when the British Government took a prominent and dignified part in the forward movement for territory during the last fifteen years of the nineteenth century, it had the support of the people behind it.

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Page last modified: 16-07-2016 15:42:28 ZULU