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Disraeli And Gladstone Essay Examples

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:

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'.

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

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

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.


Face to face

Benjamin Disraeli  © 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.


Clashes of policy and personality

William Gladstone, pictured here in 1898.  © 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.

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.


Find out more


Disraeli by Robert Blake (reprinted Prion Books, 1998)

The Conservative Party from Peel to Major by Robert Blake (New Edition Arrow, 1997)

Gladstone by Roy Jenkins (Macmillan, 1996)

Gladstone 1809-1874 by HCG Matthew (Clarendon Press, 1988)

Gladstone 1875-1898 by HCG Matthew (Oxford University Press, 1986)

Places to visit

Hughenden Manor The home of Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the Conservative Party during Victoria's reign, from 1848 until his death in 1881. This was his retreat from the rigours of parliamentary life and houses many of his personal effects. Hughenden Manor, High Wycombe, Hertfordshire HP14 4LA Tel: 01494 532580

Kilmainham Gaol Opened in 1796 and 1924, leaders of many Irish rebellions were detained here such as Robert Emmet, Thomas Francis Meagher, Charles Stewart Parnell and the key figures of the 1916 rebellion. Kilmainham Gaol, Kilmainham, Dublin 8 Tel: 00353 1 4535984


Disraeli was the first of the two to become Prime Minister, which he did in February 1868 when Lord Derby resigned on health grounds. Disraeli had been very effective in steering the 1867 Reform Act through the Commons, even attracting Gladstone’s reluctant admiration. However, the new Act called for a fresh general election, at which a large number of new voters had a chance to play a role in changing the political complexion, which they did by voting the Liberals (the name now used by Gladstone’s Peelite/Whig coalition) into power. Disraeli's first stint in the top had lasted for a mere nine months.

Gladstone stayed as Prime Minister until 1874, instituting a series of major reforms including his “mission to pacify Ireland.” Disraeli continued as Leader of the Opposition and spent the six years (when not writing novels) being a constant thorn in Gladstone’s flesh, but without ever sparking a major row.

When Disraeli returned to power in 1874, this time for an extended stay in the Prime Ministerial role, he proved to be just as reforming as Gladstone, even taking over many Liberal policies and making them his own.

However, hostilities between the two men were to flare alarmingly in 1876 when the Ottoman Turks put down a rebellion in Bulgaria with excessive force. There were reports of terrible atrocities committed against the civilian population, with as many as 12,000 being killed. Disraeli claimed that the reports were exaggerated, but Gladstone went to great lengths to publicise the “massacre” and published a pamphlet entitled “The Bulgarian Horrors and Question of the East,” which had a wide readership.

For the 1880 General Election, Gladstone stood for the Midlothian seat in Scotland, which he cultivated in advance by making a series of long political speeches in the constituency. The “Midlothian Campaign” has been called the first modern political campaign in that Gladstone took the issues of the day out of the House of Commons and into the public domain, as well as vilifying his chief opponent on every conceivable occasion. He took Disraeli to task not only for Bulgaria but also for Britain’s military ventures in Afghanistan and South Africa.

Gladstone consequently won the 1880 election and became Prime Minister for the second time. Disraeli could not bring himself to congratulate his rival, only conceding that his defeat was caused by “the distress of the country.”

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