Sunday, 18 November 2007

Disraeli (1804-1881) and Conservatism

Disraeli became Prime Minister for the second time in February 1874. This was his second period as Prime Minister as from February to October1868 he had headed a minority, caretaker administration, following Derby’s resignation because of ill health (gout). The Queen though this:
A proud thing for a Man “risen from the people” to have obtained.
I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.
During the years of opposition the Conservatives built up grassroots support. The Conservative Central Office was set up in 1870 and new associations were set up in many constituencies. In the election of February 1874, the Conservatives had a majority of 110 seats in England though only 50 in the nation as a whole. This pushed the Liberals more into the ‘Celtic fringe’, though in Ireland they lost seats to ‘Home Rulers’. Disraeli’s political cleverness lay in the fact that he enabled his party to take advantage of the slowly growing popularity of the Conservatives in the leafy suburbs. His election victory was such that die-hard former opponents such as the 3rd marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903) agreed to serve in his cabinet (India Office).

In August 1876 he moved to the Lords as Lord Beaconsfield - his wife, the former Mary Anne Lewis, had been given the title Viscountess Beaconsfield following the defeat of 1868. He sought to solace his craving for female company in a romantic attachment to two elderly sisters, the countess of Bradford and her sister the dowager countess of Chesterfield.

In spite of his commanding victory Disraeli believed,
Power has come to me too late.
He was 70 and in ill health, suffering increasingly from gout. He had led the Conservatives in the Commons for twenty-five years, though with only three brief periods on office. Now he had a substantial parliamentary majority but what was he to do with it?

His beliefs are hard to determine. He believed in a vague Christianity and was remarkably ignorant of Judaism. He was uninterested in the moral and intellectual problems of the day. In 1863 speaking in the Sheldonian in Oxford, he dismissed the Darwinian debate:
I am on the side of the angels.
This type of flippancy infuriated the intellectuals.

He also had a fantastic devotion to Queen Victoria, whom he figured as the second Gloriana, and styled to his inmates ‘the Fairy’. His relationship with her was similar to Victoria's with John Brown. The story that he said ‘we authors, ma’am’ ‘has never been authenticated, but it deserves to be true’. There were occasions when his language, if taken too literally, attributed anachronistic powers to the Queen. The monarchy was steadily losing power, largely as a result of the democratization of parliament and this made Disraeli’s romanticizing very unrealistic.

The Second Disraeli government
In contrast to Gladstone, he did not come into office with a programme of reforming legislation. A great deal of the government’s energy was devoted to the regulation of Anglo-Catholic clergy. In 1875 a disgruntled Conservative MP referred to ‘suet-pudding legislation’.

Disraeli had begun life as a radical, diagnosing England as ‘two nations’, rich and poor. As Prime Minister he presided over social legislation, though most historians do not believe that this was part of a considered programme. It was electorally necessary to make concessions to working-class demands, but his legislation did not mark a substantial shift from laissez-faire to state intervention. His Public Health Act was passed in 1875. His Home Secretary, R. A. Cross, with Disraeli’s full backing, reformed trade union law, by removing strike action from the law of conspiracy. The other major reform of 1875 was the Artisans’ Dwelling Act (1875), which empowered municipal councils to draw up improvement schemes for districts certified as unhealthy by a medical officer - though the scheme had many weaknesses and was never fully implicated. The Merchant Shipping Act was a cross-party measure.

Disraeli's campaign against Gladstone in the 1874 election had been fought on traditional Tory grounds - attacking him for menacing ‘every institution, every interest, every class and every calling in the country’. But these were defensive slogans. He needed others, and found them in two causes, the monarchy and the empire.

Disraeli and imperialism
The traditional version is that Disraeli set out his vision of empire in his Crystal Palace speech of 24 June1872. In it he had claimed that the working classes
are proud of belonging to a great country, and wish to maintain its greatness - that they are proud of belonging to an Imperial country, and are resolved to maintain, if they can, their empire.
But the reference to empire was quite casual, with India barely mentioned.
The two causes came together when he masterminded the visit of the Prince of Wales (described by Disraeli as ‘our young Hal’) to India in the winter of 1875-6. His initiative on imperialism enabled him to position the Conservatives as the imperialist party.

The Suez Canal
In 1869 the Suez Canal had been opened, enabling the journey from Britain to India to be cut by several weeks and some thousands of miles. In 1875 four fifths of its traffic was British, though most British ships continued to use the Cape route. Its strategic importance was even greater than its commercial. In the event of another Indian Mutiny or an invasion by Russia, it could carry reinforcements far more quickly than by the old Cape route.

In November 1785 Disraeli purchased the shares of the bankrupt Khedive of Egypt in the Suez Canal Company for £4m. This was a tricky operation because Parliament was not sitting and it could only be done by loan. The money was loaned by Baron Rothschild rather than the Bank of England. Disraeli to the Queen: ‘You have it, Madam’. To Lady Bradford: ‘The Fairy is in ecstasies’. In fact, Disraeli was confusing the ownership of the Canal Company with the ownership of the Canal itself, and he was wrong to believe that Britain now had a controlling interest in the Canal. But the loan prevented the strengthening of French interests and deepened the British involvement in Egypt. Gladstone was furious and attacked the episode in the Commons - though to no great effect. Disraeli managed to cloak the affair in a mysterious Asiatic melodrama and to claim that somehow the Canal had fallen into British hands.

The conferment of the title Empress of India in 1876 was another example of the importance he attached to the British position in Asia. Essentially it arose out of the trauma of the Mutiny and was a counter to the advance of the Tsar into Central Asia. However, the timing was not of his choosing but was chosen by the Queen, who badgered him into giving her the title.
The Empress-Queen demands her Imperial Crown.
It was also part of his policy to consolidate British rule by the reinforcement of hierarchies. By not consulting the opposition over the matter, he caused a row. The Queen never forgave Gladstone for the ferocity of his attack.

The Bulgarian crisis
See other post.
Disraeli despised Gladstone’s ‘ethical’ foreign policy, especially in the Balkans, and, in spite of gross human rights violations, he continued to support Turkish rule.

The Zulu War
In 1879 Disraeli’s relaxed approach to running a government eventually forced imperial affairs upon parliamentary and public attention in a manner highly damaging to the Conservatives. With the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa in the 1860s those who wanted to expand British territory there became more assertive.

In the spring of 1877 the Governor and High Commissioner Sir Bartle Frere annexed the Boer Republic of the Transvaal. In an attempt to mollify the outraged Afrikaaners, he then moved against the traditional enemies the Zulus. This was not British government policy: the Colonial Secretary Sir Michael Hicks Beach, told Frere that ‘we entirely deprecate the idea of entering on a Zulu war to settle the Zulu question'. But in an age before the telegraph, it was the men on the spot who held sway. On 11 December 1878 Frere sent an ultimatum to Cetshwayo, the Zulu chief that he knew would be disbanded. He naturally refused, and on 22 January 1879 a Zulu army destroyed General Lord Chelmsford’s temporary base at Isandhlwana. In one of the worst defeats the British Empire ever suffered, 800 white and 500 African soldiers were killed. On the same day 150-155 British troops of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Foot: later the South Wales Borderers and now the Royal Regiment of Wales, men of the Royal Artillery, Royal Engineers, Army Service Corps, Commissariat and Medical Corps, successfully held off 4,000 Zulu warriors at the Rorke's Drift outpost (a Swedish mission). The following day up to 500 wounded Zulus were slaughtered in cold blood. Eleven Victoria Crosses were (deservedly) won, but this was a smokescreen to disguise the disaster.

The news reached London in mid-February. In a period when racial prejudice was intensifying, a defeat at the hands of black men was a great humiliation and, to make matters worse, the government reacted indecisively. Lord Chelmsford escaped blame by blaming two conveniently dead officers though Disraeli told the queen that he held him responsible for a ‘dreadful disaster’. Victoria was not convinced.

In July that Cetshwayo was defeated and captured at the battle of Ulundi (at which Napoleon III's son, the Prince Imperial, was speared to death), his army destroyed and his kingdom broken up. Zululand was annexed and incorporated into Natal. With the Zulu threat removed, the Boers quickly recovered. In retrospect it had been a grave mistake to go to war with the Zulus, who would have been very useful allies against the Boers.

Cetshwayo was reinstated in 1883 but he died, probably of a heart attack, in 1884.

The second Afghan War
See other post.