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British Prime Ministers - 1859-1892

1859-1865 Viscount PalmerstonLiberal
1865-1866 Earl RussellLiberal
1866-1868 Earl of DerbyConservative
1868Benjamin DisraeliConservative
1868-1874William Ewart GladstoneLiberal
1874-1880Benjamin DisraeliConservative
1880-1885 William Ewart GladstoneLiberal
1885-1886 Marquess of SalisburyConservative
1886 William Ewart GladstoneLiberal
1886-1892Marquess of SalisburyConservative

The period 1847 to 1859 was one of ministerial instability. Disputes between the Liberals, under Lord John Russell and Vicomte Palmerston, the foreign minister, undermined the Liberal position, and in 1852 the Conservatives, under the leadership of Derby, returned to power. In 1853, however, the free trade Conservatives joined the Liberals, overthrew Derby, and placed in office a coalition ministry under Aberdeen. This government maintained itself until 1855, when, by reason of discontent aroused by his management of England's part in the Crimean War, Aberdeen resigned and was succeeded by Palmerston, at the head of another Liberal ministry. Foreign difficulties drove Palmerston from office early in 1858, and the establishment of a second Derby ministry marked a brief return of the Conservatives to control.

Vicomte Palmerston, Liberal Prime Minister from 1855-1858 and 1859-1865, did not become PM until he was 71, making him the oldest prime minister in history to take up the office for the first time. His premiership was dominated by foreign events, making him a truly global statesman. A vivacious aristocrat well known in society circles, Palmerston was first elected at the age of 26. Over the next four-and-a-half decades, he built up an impressive long record of ministerial service. He served first under Tory prime ministers as Junior Lord of the Admiralty and then, for two decades, as Secretary for War. During that period, Palmerston was chiefly known as a man of fashion, a junior minister without influence on the general policy of the cabinets he served. Around 1830, Palmerston defected from the Tories to the Whigs because of his support for Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform. Earl Grey made him Foreign Secretary, a position in which he excelled, although he was headstrong and independent rather than instinctively diplomatic. Highly patriotic, Palmerston did not shirk from threatening the use of force in the national interest.

Palmerston became prime minister himself in 1855 when Lord Aberdeen was blamed for the disasters of the Crimean War. Palmerston successfully ended the war, and served as the Prime Minister for eight years despite his old age. In his first term, 1855-58, Palmerston had a chance to put his foreign experience into practice. He responded successfully to the Indian mutiny of 1857, supporting a lenient approach in the face of British calls for hard treatment. In February 1858 he introduced the Government of India Bill to transfer the administration of India from the East India Company to the Crown. Palmerston was out of office for a year and a half. During that time he helped to form the Liberal Party in 1859. He returned to government as PM a few days later.

The Liberal Party was the successor of the old Whig party, representing the political party opposed to Toryism or Conservatism, and claiming to be the originators and champions of political reform and progressive legislation. The term came into general use definitely as the name of one of the two great parties in the state when Mr Gladstone became its leader, but before this it had already become current coin, as a political appellation, through a natural association with the use of such phrases as "liberal ideas," in the sense of "favourable to change," or "in support of political freedom and democracy." Its old watchword, "Peace, retrenchment and reform," indicated its tendency to avoidance of a "spirited" foreign policy, and to parsimony in expenditure.

A defensive naval policy was central to the conditions definitely adopted by Lord Palmerston's Government in 1860, only ten years before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. A Royal Commission then solemnly decided that the English Channel, Britain's main sea frontier, should not be defended. Cruisers were to be placed on the trade routes, some sort of naval force was to be maintained in the Mediterranean, but the main reliance of this island people for safety in time of war was to be placed on the Army, the Militia, and the recently-formed Volunteer Force. It was held that the creation of any Grand Fleet involved a financial expenditure which this country would never undertake. In accordance with that policy, millions of pounds sterling were spent on the construction of fortifications along the coast, in their time the source of confidence on the part of the people.

Earl Russell, Liberal Prime Minister from 1846-51 and 1865-6, served twice as prime minister. Neither period of office proved smooth, and his achievements were limited by weak leadership and difficult circumstances. When Palmerston suddenly died in 1865, Russell formed a second government; his advanced age was outweighed by Queen Victoria's trust in him. Russell immediately tried to introduce a further Reform Bill to extend the political franchise, but his Cabinet failed to support him, and he resigned with little regret the next year.

The Earl of Derby, Conservative Prime Minister from 1852, 1858-9 and 1866-8, was unusual for serving in both Whig and Tory administrations. Derby is considered to be the father of the modern Conservative Party. His tenure as leader of the party lasted for 22 years - to date the all-time record for the party.

The new liberalism was paralleled by a new conservatism, whose principal exponent was Benjamin Disraeli. The new Conservatives likewise advocated franchise reform and legislation for the people, although they put more emphasis upon the latter than upon the former; and they especially favored a firm foreign policy, an extension of British interests in all parts of the world, and the adoption of a scheme of colonial federation. They appeared, at least, to have less regard for peace and for economy than had the Liberals.

Benjamin Disraeli, Conservative Prime Minister from 1868 and 1874-80, had an Anglican upbringing after the age of twelve. With Jews excluded from Parliament until 1858, this enabled Disraeli to follow a career that would otherwise have been denied him. He was Britain's first, and so far only, Jewish Prime Minister. After Derby's resignation in 1868, Queen Victoria invited Disraeli to become PM, and they soon struck up a remarkable rapport thanks to Disraeli's charm and skilful flattery. On finally achieving his long ambition, Disraeli declared, "I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole". Disraeli now faced Gladstone across the Dispatch Box, and it became Britain's most famous parliamentary rivalry.

British politics were dominated by the rivalry (though not enmity) between Disraeli and Gladstone until Disraeli's exit in 1880. Gladstone went on into the 1890s. William Ewart Gladstone, Liberal Prime Minister from 1868-74, 1880-85, 1886 and 1892-94, provoked strong reactions. Queen Victoria described him as a "half-mad firebrand". In 1867, Gladstone became leader of the Liberal party following Palmerston's resignation, and became prime minister for the first time the following year. The results of the doubling of the electorate were manifest in the substantial majority which the new Liberals acquired at the elections of 1868, and the Disraeli ministry (Derby had retired early in the year) gave place to a government presided over by the indubitable leader of the new Liberal forces, Gladstone. His policies were intended to improve individual liberty while loosening political and economic restraints.

In his first government (1868-1874) Gladstone legalized unions and took an interest in the Irish question (land tenure and home rule) but did nothing much about it. Her Majesty's Secretary of State for the Colonies repudiated [House of Lords, May 12, 1874] the course of action which has made Her Majesty the greatest sovereign whom the world has ever seen. "It is the wish of Her Majesty's Government to abstain from any territorial acquisitions and from contracting any new obligations." It was surprising to hear words that suggested he had become a pervert to the Manchester School of Radicals. Close upon the heels of this first word spoken for the right, came Mr. Disraeli's declaration determination that Her Majesty's dominions should not be diminished under his stewardship, and of hope that they would be increased.

Richard Cobden (1804-1865) was a member of the British Parliament and an advocate of free trade, a non-interventionist foreign policy, peace, and parliamentary reform. The apostle of Free Trade was a pioneer of progress, who noted how desirable it is to husband resources in times of profound peace, and so set free the springs of industry and lessen the burdens of the people. He was concerned by the dangers to nations from profuse and reckless expenditure of the public money. History tells in many a melancholy page how much such a policy has tended to the decline and fall of States.

By 1870 British policy had entirely changed in this direction. It had given up meddling in every petty dispute which breaks out on the Continent of Europe; it had ceased to talk of the balance of power; it had got quit of nearly all those wretched provisions, in the Treaty of 1815, which provided merely for dynasties, without reference to nationalities or the wishes of the people. It had seen the establishment of a free Italy, and a compact, powerful Fatherland in Germany.

Britian had withdrawn the troops from British colonies; it had re-arranged the military system, so as to make it more efficient for defensive purposes. Britain had become the workshop and the shipbuilding yard of the world ; the people were wealthier, more prosperous, more contented than they ever were before. Why should Britain keep up a standing army, more numerous in this island than it ever was in any period of history, and a navy which would be able in a fight to give a good account of herself against many combined fleets?

In 1874 a heavy defeat at the General Election led to Gladstone's arch-rival Disraeli becoming prime minister. Gladstone retired as leader of the Liberal Party, but remained a formidable opponent, attacking the government fiercely over their weak response to Turkish brutality in the Balkans, known as the Eastern Crisis.

Benjamin Disraeli became the head of a safe Conservative majority in both houses of Parliament. His advent signalized a decided change in governmental policies. Whereas Gladstone in the preceding years had occupied himself with domestic problems, internal reforms, and the material prosperity of the Kingdom, Disraeli attempted to kindle the imaginations of Englishmen by the idea of imperialism, by a picture of the British colonies consolidated with the mother country into the farthest flung and mightiest empire the world has ever seen. Great Britain's destiny was far more magnificent than the mere material prosperity of the British Isles : Englishmen should look abroad, around the world. Himself gifted with the vivid imagination of the east, Disraeli attempted to impress his dreams upon the narrow and somewhat conventional British mind.

In 1875, when he had been minister but a single year, an opportunity was offered him to make a sensational move in this new imperial policy. The Suez canal, built by a French company and formally opened in November of 1869, had been an immediate success and had changed radically the conditions of commerce with the Far East. Chinese, Australian, and Indian commerce, which formerly had gone the long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope, now sailed direct through the canal. Inasmuch as Great Britain had become the world's great sea-carrying nation, practically seventy-five per cent of the tonnage by this route was British. Above all, the canal was the direct route to Great Britain's richest colony, India.

Of the 400,000 shares of the canal company, 176,602 were owned by the inefficient and bankrupt Khedive of Egypt. In 1875 it came to Disraeli's knowledge that the Khedive was contemplating the sale of these shares, that indeed he was preparing to enter into negotiations with France on the matter. With the utmost haste and secrecy, Disraeli got into communication with the Khedive by telegraph and bought the shares for the British government for about four million pounds. The announcement of the purchase surprised and delighted the people. It was the first startling awakening in recent years to an interest in a world of affairs outside those of their own narrow islands. A year later, 1876, Disraeli proposed and put through Parliament a measure designed still further to impress upon Great Britain the imperial idea - namely, a measure creating the British Queen the Empress of India. Victoria, pleased at what she considered an addition to her titles, assumed the imperial dignity January 1, 1877.

During the five years covered by the life of the second Disraeli ministry [1874-1880] British imperialism reached flood tide. Conservative leaders interested themselves principally in foreign and colonial questions, and home affairs received but scant attention. The result was public discontent, and at the elections of 1880 the Liberals obtained a parliamentary majority of more than one hundred seats.

In 1880 Gladstone became PM for a second time, much against Queen Victoria's will. Gladstone obtained a new majority (1880-1885) during which suffrage was extended to allow farm workers to vote. Despite his anti-imperialism, Gladstone allowed the occupation of Egypt in 1882 to safeguard the Suez Canal, although his delay in going to the aid of Charles Gordon, besieged by the Mahdi in Khartoum, did not make him popular among imperialists, who counted with the support of the general public including workingmen.

Gladstone returned to power in 1886 and Home Rule took its place in the formal program of the Liberal party. The Conservatives opposed it solidly, many of the Irish Nationalists were dissatisfied with it, and upwards of a hundred Liberal members, led by Joseph Chamberlain, flatly refused to follow the majority of their fellow-partisans in voting for it. Under the name of Liberal Unionists these dissenters eventually broke entirely from their earlier affiliation; and, inclining more and more toward the position occupied by the Conservatives, they ended by losing their identity in the ranks of that party. Their accession brought the Conservatives new vigor, new issues, and even a new name, for the term Conservative was supplanted very generally by that of Unionist.

Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Marquess of Salisbury, Conservative Prime Minister from 1885-6, 1886-92 and 1895-1902, ranked among Britain's longest-serving prime ministers. Salisbury's main interests lay in the direction of foreign affairs, especially British interests in Africa. His other political legacy was strengthening the Conservative party by unifying different factions. Salisbury took over the Conservative leadership on Disraeli's death in 1881, and reluctantly became prime minister of a minority administration in 1885. The PM's diplomatic skills were demonstrated in 1890-91 through a settlement reached with the other European imperial powers over African territories.

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Page last modified: 08-09-2017 18:19:03 ZULU