Disraeli and Gladstone: opposing forces in action by Robert Blake

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Disraeli and Gladstone: opposing forces in action

by Robert Blake

Punch, 14 May, 1870

Disraeli and Gladstone were both politicians of extraordinary ability - but their personalities clashed and they heartily loathed each other. Robert Blake, the British constitutional historian, compares their political careers, and charts their stormy relationship.

Mutual dislike

In the general election of 1 April 1880, the Conservative party under Benjamin Disraeli was crushingly defeated by the Liberals (known as Whigs) - under William Gladstone. Lord Granville, a moderate Whig, wrote to Queen Victoria who would, he knew, be bitterly disappointed by the decision of the electorate:

'Lord Beaconsfield [Disraeli] and Mr Gladstone are men of extraordinary ability; they dislike each other more than is usual among public men. Of no other politician Lord Beaconsfield would have said in public that his conduct was worse than those who had committed the Bulgarian atrocities. He has the power of saying in two words that which drives a person of Mr Gladstone's peculiar temperament into a state of great excitement.'

There is no doubt that the two statesmen hated each other. Disraeli referred to his rival in a letter to Lord Derby as '…that unprincipled maniac Gladstone - extraordinary mixture of envy, vindictiveness, hypocrisy and superstition'. And Gladstone more moderately said of his old enemy, 'the Tory party had principles by which it would and did stand for bad and for good. All this Dizzy destroyed'.

There is no doubt that the two statesmen hated each other.

When Lord Granville wrote to Queen Victoria, Disraeli, born in 1804, had one more year to live; Gladstone, who was born in 1810, had another eighteen. They had been leaders of their respective parties since 1868, but were dominant figures long before that. They had very different social origins. Gladstone was a quintessential member of the rich upper middle class educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. Disraeli's parents were of Italian Jewish descent, his father was a distinguished man of letters, and the young Disraeli was brought up as an Anglican - 'the blank page between the Old Testament and the New', as he described himself.

Gladstone had always regarded the Church as his preferred profession, but was diverted by the offer of a safe Tory seat in 1832, though he remained deeply religious for the whole of his life. Disraeli was educated at obscure schools and never went to a university. As a young man he was dandified, debt-ridden, affected and extravagant. He wrote several bad novels to raise money to placate his creditors, and in 1838 he relieved his financial situation to some extent by marrying a rich widow. His youth was as disreputable as Gladstone's was respectable. Gladstone's role model was Sir Robert Peel, leader of the Conservative party; Disraeli's an amalgam of Burke, Bolingbroke and Byron. After several attempts as a radical he got into Parliament in 1837, as a Tory.


The duel begins

Peel won the election of 1841. Gladstone, as a rising young Tory, was given office. Disraeli, who had expected a government post, was not, and he never forgave Peel for this.

Sir Robert Peel, British Statesman and Prime Minister (1788-1850)

Hitherto Disraeli and Gladstone had had little occasion to notice each other. But in 1846 there occurred one of those rare convulsions in parliamentary life that shape politics for a generation. This was Peel's decision, as a result of the Irish famine of the late 1840s, to complete his policy of free trade by repealing the Corn Laws. These protected British agriculture from cheap foreign imports of grain - which could have alleviated some of the hardship in Ireland. They also, however, as many Conservatives believed, protected the livelihood of the party's sturdiest supporters, the agricultural interest, the farmers and landowners.

Disraeli saw this as an opportunity. Acting ostensibly as adjutant to Lord George Bentinck, the leader of those with landed interests, he made a series of brilliant attacks on Peel, who replied to them feebly and, as Gladstone said later, with a sort of 'righteous dullness'. Unluckily Gladstone, who, though still a minister, had lost his seat, was not in the House to support his hero.

The upshot of the party's split was that, though the Corn Laws were repealed, Peel was forced to resign. The party was divided into Peelites, largely leaderless, and Protectionists, led by the 14th Earl of' Derby - with Disraeli as his second-in-command. For the next 28 years, the Torys were to be the minority party, with occasional intervals in office.

The first of these was in 1852, giving Gladstone the opportunity to get his own back on Disraeli. The latter was briefly the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and finance, whether his own or the nation's, was not his forte. His budget was thought by many to be a disaster. Gladstone, who was now a member of the opposing Aberdeen coalition (consisting of Whigs, Peelites, radicals and independents, headed by Lord Aberdeen), tore it to pieces, and the Derby / Disraeli government fell. The duel had begun in earnest. Disraeli's task was to rebuild the party that he had himself done so much to destroy.

Disraeli's task was to rebuild the party that he had himself done so much to destroy.

Benjamin Disraeli

Face to face

The task was not an easy one. Free trade had triumphed, and was the basis of a long economic boom, which only ended in the late 1870s. The Conservatives abandoned protection but unwillingly; they could not oust the Liberals, whom Gladstone eventually joined in 1859, and whom he fortified with a series of notable budgets. From 1846 to 1868 there were no serious issues of principle. Politics became a matter of the 'Ins' and 'Outs' but not the less bitter for that.

The Conservatives were weakened by the loss of nearly all their leading figures over the Corn Law crisis. Otherwise Disraeli would never have been their leader. He was distrusted and unpopular, but they could not do without him. He was the only man on their side able to cope with a Liberal front bench consisting of such formidable figures as the 3rd Viscount Palmerston, Lord Russell and Gladstone.

The ideological lull in politics came to an end in 1868. Russell had brought in a new Reform Bill extending the franchise. There was a Liberal revolt, the Bill was lost, and the Liberal government fell. Derby and Disraeli, once again briefly in power, decided to out-manoeuvre the Liberals by introducing a Bill of their own. Disraeli, despite being in a minority, exploited the Liberal divisions to pass a measure much more radical than the Liberal one which he had just defeated. It was a masterstroke of political ingenuity, scandalised Gladstone, and confirmed Disraeli as the inevitable leader of his party - he became prime minister in February 1868.

The two leaders were now face to face. Their style of debate was as different as their personalities - Gladstone torrential, eloquent, evangelical, vehement and 'preachy'; Disraeli, urbane, witty and worldly, with a streak of romance as well as cynicism. Campaigning on the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Ireland, Gladstone won the election called at the end of 1868, and proceeded on a strenuous programme of what would nowadays be called 'modernisation'. Entry into the army and civil service was reformed, the judicial system was overhauled, electoral procedure was rationalised and the secret ballot was introduced. Disraeli saw which way the tide of opinion was moving and confined himself in Parliament to detailed criticism rather than blanket opposition.

Their style of debate was as different as their personalities...

William Gladstone in the House of Commons, outlining his plans for Irish Home Rule in 1886.

The tide turns


In 1874 the tide turned, and Disraeli - to his own surprise - won the first clear Conservative victory since Sir Robert Peel in 1841. He saw that the country had had enough constitutional reform. The English people, he said, would be 'idiotic' if they had not long perceived that the time had arrived 'when social and not political improvement is the object which they ought to pursue'. And his government passed a series of measures of that sort in the field of health, housing, sale of food and drugs, factory conditions and agricultural tenancies. They may not have been as important as later Conservative propagandists have claimed, but at least they showed that the party was not opposed to all changes and had a reformist side.

What really mattered to Disraeli, however, was not home affairs but foreign and imperial policy. He was a strong supporter of empire and of English nationalism. This was a traditional Conservative mantra, but as long as Palmerston was leader of the Liberals it was hardly possible for the Conservatives to outbid them in terms of patriotic self-assertion. Palmerston's death left a vacancy. Gladstone was altogether more internationally minded - the protagonist of an ethical foreign policy that sometimes meant compromise over some of Britain's interests. Disraeli was all for cutting a dash - as with his purchase of the Suez Canal Company's shares, and, though somewhat less enthusiastically, with the passing of the Royal Titles Act in 1876, making the Queen Empress of India.

What really mattered to Disraeli, however, was not home affairs but foreign and imperial policy.

William Gladstone,
pictured here in 1898.

Clashes of policy and personality


It was after 1874 that Disraeli's love affair with the Queen began. Her power was limited, but mattered just enough for it to pay a prime minister to be on good terms with her. This Gladstone could never do. He lacked Disraeli's gift of flattery, and some of his ideas were anathema to her, especially in the field of foreign affairs. These clashes of policy and personality came to a head over the eastern question, in 1876-78.

Disraeli regarded Turkey as a necessary bulwark against an alleged Russian threat to the route to India. However atrociously the Sultan behaved towards his Christian Bulgarian subjects, Russia must at all costs be prevented from seizing Constantinople. Gladstone's fervent anti-Turkish crusade cut no ice with Disraeli or the Queen. Ethics must give way to Realpolitik, and, as Disraeli was in power, they did. The Congress of Berlin checked the Russian advance and preserved Europe from major war for the next 36 years. At least some of the credit for this must go to Disraeli as well as to Bismarck. It did not, however, impress the electorate, and Disraeli in 1880 went down to as big a crash as Gladstone had, six years earlier.

...clashes of policy and personality came to a head over the eastern question, in 1876-78.

It is difficult to compare such very different characters. Perhaps one should not try but go back to Lord Granville - 'Lord Beaconsfield and Mr Gladstone are men of extraordinary ability' - and leave it at that.

Robert Blake retired from the Provostship of the Queen's College, Oxford, in 1987. He is the author of 'The Unknown Prime Minister, Life of Andrew Bonar Law' (Eyre Methuen, 1955); 'Disraeli' (Prion, 1998); 'A History of the Conservative Party from Peel to Major' (3rd edition Arrow, 1998).














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