Disraeli, Benjamin, Earl of Beaconsfield

Disraeli, Benjamin, Earl of Beaconsfield
   A politician, statesman, and Conservative prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli was a commanding figure of British imperialism. The term imperialism was invented in its modern sense to describe - indeed to condemn - his foreign and imperial policies. Disraeli was born into an assimilated Jewish family and was baptized an Anglican in 1817. His father was a bookseller and antiquarian, and Disraeli grew up in literary circles. He initially attempted a literary career, publishing witty autobiographical novels and historical romances now remembered largely for their biographical significance. Although his novels made some money, Disraeli lived a fast life, dressed extravagantly, traveled extensively, and ran up large debts in financial speculations. He first ran for Parliament in 1832, as a radical. In 1835, he joined the Tory party, arguing that Tories shared with radicals a concern for the people as against the Whig oligarchy. That the Whigs were a self-interested ruling class hiding behind spurious appeals to liberty was an argument he made repeatedly, and most notably in his 1835 Vindication of the English Constitution.
   Disraeli was finally elected to Parliament in 1837. In 1839, he married the widow of another Tory member of Parliament, whose independent income, along with his own prodigious novel-writing, helped to salvage his parlous finances. In the 1840s, Disraeli became known as a member of the “Young England” group of socially conscious Tory members of Parliament. He continued to write novels in which Whig oligarchs and utilitarian politicians were the villains, and enlightened noblemen the heroes: his most famous, Sybil of 1845, proclaimed that England consisted of two nations, the rich and the poor, and offered a kind of enlightened noblesse oblige as the solution. Another of Disraeli’s so-called “Young England” trilogy, Tancred, or the New Crusade, has been famously accused by the theorist of Orientalism, Edward Said, of creating the model for future imperialism in the Middle East, alhough the novel in fact says little about the empire. The great political crisis of the 1840s was the rupture of the governing Tory party over Sir Robert Peels 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws, in the name of free trade. The Whigs and radicals had been clamoring for repeal; in response to Peel’s conversion to their cause, Disraeli famously denounced him as “a burglar of others’ intellect.”
   Disraeli took the leadership of the protectionist Tories, whose defection pushed Peel out of office in December 1846. As Peel was able to carry most of his cabinet with him, Disraeli became one of the fewer remaining effective parliamentary speakers on the Tory front bench. As a consequence of the death of the initial protectionist leader Lord George Bentinck, he became almost by default the Tory leader in the House of Commons, notwithstanding the lingering anti-Semitism of some backbenchers. Disraeli became chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House of Commons in the 1852 minority Tory government of Lord Derby, during which time he led the Tories to accept that a return to protection was politically impossible. The Tories were out of power until 1858, when, owing to Lord Palmerston’s missteps, they once again formed a minority government with Disraeli as chancellor. The minority government lasted until June 1859, when the Liberals came back into power, and the Tories went once more into opposition for an extended period. The failure of Russells 1866 Reform bill, however, presented an opportunity. Disraeli, once again chancellor and leader in the House of Commons under the minority premiership of Derby, was able to fashion with great tactical skill a working if unstable majority of Tories and radicals, which put through the Second Reform Act of 1867.
   On the resignation of Derby, Disraeli became prime minister, for the first time in February 1868. His minority administration, its major achievement the Reform Bill behind it, lasted only until the end of the year; it was nevertheless a great and improbable achievement for an assimilated middle class Jew, a man-about-town, and a sometime novelist to have, in Disraeli’s own words, reached “the top of the greasy pole.” In imperial affairs, Disraeli’s administration was notable for the successful completion of the Abyssinian expedition, which demonstrated the long reach of British power. The election of 1868, held under the new franchise, resulted in a great Liberal victory, the Liberals now being under William Gladstone. It did not appear that Disraeli would ever again be prime minister, and it seemed that the Tories’ minority status had once again been confirmed. But Gladstone shortly ran into difficulties with his own supporters over ecclesiastical and subsequently educational issues. The perceived indifference to the empire of the Liberals - many of whom, given the orthodoxies of free trade, did in fact regard the empire as an albatross - also offered Disraeli an opportunity. In 1872, he made a speech at the Crystal Palace in which he denounced in stirring tones, “the attempts of Liberalism to effect the disintegration of the Empire of England.”
   Although Disraeli himself had once likened the colonies to “millstones round our necks,” there was enough truth to the charge of Liberal indifference that it stuck, and Disraeli was able to reappropriate to the Tory party the mantle of popular nationalism that had for a generation belonged to the party of Palmerston: Disraeli, like Lord Palmerston, saw himself as the inheritor of a tradition of national greatness going back to the two Pitts. The appeal, in combination with Liberal divisions, was successful in producing, with the election of 1874, the first outright Tory majority since the days of Peel. In government, however, Disraeli had little in the way of a clear domestic agenda, his entire career, spent largely in opportunist opposition to a liberal consensus, having spared him the need for such a thing. Like many Tories, he regarded programmatic state activity with suspicion, although at the same time was less bound by the more dogmatic aspects of classical laisser-faire political economy than were many Liberals. Disraeli was open to opportunistic and piecemeal social reforms, his government putting through such measures as slum clearance, sanitary legislation, and labor laws. But Disraeli himself was primarily interested in foreign and imperial affairs - “politics worth managing” - which appealed to his sense of national greatness. In 1876, Disraeli, by then feeling his age and not being up to managing the House of Commons, moved to the House of Lords as Earl of Beaconsfield. In the same year, he put through the Royal Titles Act, at Victoria’s request, making the Queen Empress of India.
   Like much of Disraeli’s legacy, the imperial title was symbolic without being purely symbolic: it demonstrated a concerted effort to associate national greatness with England and not coincidentally with conservatism. The outcome of the Franco- Prussian war and the preeminence of Bismarck called into question what had come to appear Britain’s almost effortless prominence in earlier years. In 1876, Disraeli masterminded the purchase of the Egyptian Khedive’s Suez Canal shares, thus reasserting Britain’s imperial status; it was a move that led unintentionally to Gladstone’s later occupation of Egypt. The Eastern question and the Bulgarian atrocities of 1876, in which Balkan nationalist risings encouraged by Russia were put down with ferocity by the Turks, gave Disraeli his opportunity to assert British power by opposing Russian expansion and defending Turkey, a traditional British ally. But the Liberals, led by Gladstone, were outraged that Britain should go to the brink of war in support of an Islamic despotism guilty of atrocities against Christian populations. The Liberals became the party of international morality and cooperation, tarring Disraeli and Tories with immoral cynicism.
   The 1878 Berlin Conference, in which Disraeli played an equal part with Bismarck, secured Britain’s objectives and temporarily settled the Balkan question. Along the way, Britain had taken Cyprus, a move denounced as superfluous and arrogant expansionism by many Liberals. It was during these crises that the term jingoism (“we don’t want to fight/but by Jingo if we do/we’ve got the ships/we’ve got the men/we’ve got the money too”) became associated with Tory imperialism. In 1877, Britain annexed the Transvaal, largely as a result of the initiative by the “man on the spot,” Sir Theophilus Shepstone. This led rapidly to difficulties with both the Transvaal Boers and the Zulus, the traditional enemies of the Boers. In 1879, war broke out in Zululand. The Zulu War began with the catastrophic defeat of Isandhlwana, but concluded successfully, if bloodily and expensively, with the collapse of Zulu power in the wake of Lord Chelmsford’s victory at Ulundi. In 1878, war had also broken out in Afghanistan, prompted by Britain’s objections to a Russian ambassador at Kabul. Abandoning the traditional Liberal policy of “masterly inactivity” on the Northwest frontier, Disraeli’s Viceroy Lord Lytton issued an ultimatum that led to a declaration of war. Initially successful at marching to Kabul and installing a British candidate on the Afghan throne, Britain shortly found itself embroiled in a guerilla war that dragged on through the election of 1880, until Gladstone ordered a withdrawal in 1881.
   The term imperialism , initially used to compare Disraeli’s Royal Titles Act to the tinsel regime of Napoleon III (see Bonaparte, Louis Napoleon ), came to be applied to forward imperial policies in general, and in particular with the numerous wars and threats of war associated with Beaconsfield’s government. Gladstone, in his Midlothian speeches of 1879, called for Britain to respect the rights of other nations and to avoid unnecessary wars. It was, however, to the partisan uses of imperial jingoism that Gladstone primarily objected. The latter’s convincing victory in the election of 1880 was in part a verdict on Beaconsfield’s imperialism, although rising taxes and the state of the economy, which in the 1870s had entered what until 1929 was called the “great depression,” also played a large part in Disraeli’s defeat. Disreali, by then infirm, resigned the premiership on April 21, 1880. He died a year later, on April 19, 1881. Disraeli’s legacy has been extensively fought over. He was at once the original “imperialist” and something of a progressive reformer; he spoke in edifying, not to say magniloquent, terms of imperial greatness, but could also be cynical and manipulative; he split the Tory party over the Corn Laws, but then weaned the party away from protection and did much to get it through its long subsequent period of exclusion from more than minority office; an opponent of Liberalism and a defender of an aristocracy to which he did not belong, his Reform Act made Britain effectively a democracy; he was always an English nationalist, although at times indifferent to the colonies; a consistent opponent of Palmerston, he was yet able to appropriate the forces of popular nationalism and to make them seem synonymous with Toryism. The Earl of Beaconsfield was above all an imitable personality - a self-made man.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Blake, Robert. Disraeli, London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1966;
    Eldridge, C. C. Disraeli and the Rise of a New Imperialism. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1996;
    Monypenny, W. F., and G. E. Buckle. The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. 6 vols. London: John Murray, 1910–1929.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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