Disraelian Conservativism


What was Disraelian Conservativism?

Disraeli's three great objects:

  • Elevate the condition of the people
  • To preserve and enlarge the empire
  • To defend the nation's traditional institutions
  • 'One Nation Conservativism': Paternalistic, where the landed classes feel social obligation to help lower classes.
  • 'Tory Democracy': Coined by Randolph Churchill, where policy was designed to appeal to the working classes
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Why was Disraeli mistrusted?

  • His grandfather was an Italian immigrant, so many people saw him as a foreigner.
  • His family was Jewish.
  • He lacked the usual contacts of a politician because he didn't attend a public school or Oxbridge.
  • A financial scandal in the 1870s made him look unreliable.
  • It took him 5 attempts to get elected as an MP in the early 1830's, so he seemed to lack the necessaary ability and support.
  • He was a novelist, which was seen as a frivolous occupation.
  • His maiden speech in 1837 was a total failure.
  • His marriage to an older, richer woman made him seem scheming, unreliable and even unmanly. This is because she paid off his debts and the couple largely lived off of her income.
  • Disraeli's criticism of the repeal of the Corn Laws was largely due to bitterness at being kept out of Peel's government. This criticism arguably caused the Tory split and kept the party out of power for the next 20 years.
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The impact of the fall of Peel:

Impact on the Tories:

  • The fall of Peel was a complete disaster as the party would only hold office 3 times over the next 25 years, and only for short terms.
  • The party was deprived of its ableist MPs and those with any ministerial experience, which was a handicap as the party were trying to look capable.
  • The Conservatives were left with much weakness in organisation.

Impact on Disraeli:                                                  

  • Gave him the opportunity to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1852, despite his lack of public finance experience.
  • The Conservative's staunch patriotism only won them support in the eastern and central counties in 1847, so Disraeli tried to overcome this by emphasising paternalism.
  • Derby needed a strong leader in the Commons and Disraeli was the best option, following the death of Bentinck and the ineffectiveness of Granby as leader.
  • Disraeli outshone Granby and Herries on opposing the Whigs.
  • in 1849, he tried to get help for agricultural interests suffering from the impact of free trade.
  • by 1851, Disraeli was recognised as the sole leader of the commons.
  • The reduced focus on Protectionism- thanks to Disaeli- muted the fallout from the defeat of Peel.
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Derby's leadership of the Conservatives:

  • Strengths: Prepared to go into government in 1852, 1858-59 and 1866-68; he established the Conservatives as a "party of moderation and responsible reform"; he managed to re-establish the Conservative majority in the Lords; under Derby, Jews were able to become MPs in 1858 and the property qualification for MPs was abolished; the 1858 Government of India Act took power from the East India Company following the Indian mutiny; while the 1859 Reform Bill failed, in led the way for a more concerted attempt in 1866-68; "watchful inaction" proved to be useful as the Aberdeen coalition fell apart in 1855; Derby created divisions between the Whigs, Peelites and Radicals.
  • Limitations: Ministers were politically inexperienced under him; the 1852 ministry became known as the "Who? Who?" ministry upon the Duke of Wellington's response to the list of ministers, and a party couldn't rally support if ministers were unknown; led a majority administration; 1859 "fancy franchises" bill failed due to Radical opposition; Derby resigned after he failed to win Gladstone back after the Willis Rooms meeting, as most of the minsterial talent lay in other parties; Disraeli's poor knowledge of finance led to the savaging of his 1852 Budget by Gladstone; Derby didn't have a clear set of measures for how conditons for the poor could be improved; Derby walked a fine line as anything that seemed radical could lose them the middle class vote; Derby couldn't match the popular appeal of Palmserston; the church and crown were unlikely to rally support as the church was not in dange and the queen disliked the Conservatives for what they did to Peel; Derby struggled to persaude any party to link with the Conservatives.
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Disraeli's support for constitutional reform:

What explains his views?:

  • Support for reform in 1832
  • A need for Conservative support, hence the redistribution measure in 1867.

How and why did his view change by 1866?:

  • In response to public opinion
  • Household suffrage would be popular as ratepayers had a stake in the prosperity of the country.
  • The reform bill would allow the Conservatives to be considered as a serious alternative to the Liberals. Disraeli was determined for the bill to get through the Commons, and for the Conservatives to finally be able to achieve a piece of legislative reform.
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1867 Reform Act:

  • How was reform able to come about by 1867?: Formation of the National Reform Union in 1864 (led by wealthy merchants, industrialists and radical MPs) and the Reform League in 1865 (led by working class trade unionists and ex-chartists) began to work together by 1867; the death of Palmserston in 1865 as he was a rigid opponent of reform; the 1865 harvest was bad, leading to hundreds of people unexpectantly claiming poor relief; a league rally in 1866 turned violent and persauded Disraeli to take up the cause of reform; the Queen wrote to Derby in 1866 and asked for the question  of reform to be taken up in earnest; British interest in the American Civil War and Italian Unification fueled a desire for reform at home.
  • Why did Disraeli pass such a substantial Reform Act?: He was desperate to end the Liberal domination of British politics to achieving reform where the Liberals had failed would be a huge achievement; achieving substantial reform would make the Conservatives look like a credible alternative to the Liberals; largely in response to public opinion; the 1868 Redistribution Act consolidated Tory areas; Disraeli secured his position in the party by becoming the only possible successor as leader.
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Terms of the 1867 Reform Act:

  • Electorate almost doubled as 1/3 men could now vote. 
  • Electorate increased by about 45% in the counties.
  • Vast differences remained in the number of seats per constituency.
  • Only 52 parliamentary seats were redistributed in England and Wales.
  • Small boroughs lost MPs.
  • Royal commission set up to redistribute seats, which was mostly comprised of Conservative landowners.
  • Plural voting still allowed.
  • Elections began to be fought on national lines, with politicians taking a more active role in engaging with prospective voters to become public figures.
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Why did Disraeli lose the 1868 election?:

  • Partly the result of the popular appeal of the Liberals and Gladstone; partly the result of errors of judgement by the Conservatives and Disraeli.
  • The disestablishment of the Church of Ireland was a uniting cause for the Liberals. Non-conformists backed this as an attack on Anglican privilege; radicals hoped it was the first in a series of measures to curtail vested interests;  voters in Wales and Scotland saw this as relevent to their interests. 
  • All Disraeli did in response to this was to raise taxes for the English to increase endowment for Roman Catholic and Presbyterian churches.
  • Some Conservatives were inclined to support Gladstone, but Disraeli needed to have a clear distinction between parties and couldn't afford to lose the support of more reactionary Conservatives.
  • By 1868, the Liberals were still seen as the "natural party of government", with more experience and commitment to peace, prosperity and reform.
  • In fighting the election, Gladstone made impassioned speeches in Lancashire and encouraged his colleagues to follow suit in a nationwide campaign. Disraeli barely responded to this, and mistakenly relied on the "no popery" rallying cry of the earlier years.
  • The Conservatives won 274 seats and the Liberals won 384, so Disraeli resigned.
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Disraelian Conservativism by 1874:

  • Preservation of the Social Order: Sought to uphold the aristocratic settlement of the country; preservation of the social order by the landed classes was a natural feature of Conservativism; landowners had duties as well as privileges; "the palace is not safe when the cottage is not happy".
  • The Monarchy: The institution of the monarchy was a core belief; the rift between the Queen and Disraeli was mended by condolences and mutual bereavement after the loss of both Prince Albert and Disraeli's wife; Disraeli contributed to the security of the monarchy by persauding the Queen to come out of seclusion to reduce republican clamour; Disraeli's role may have been exaggerated as the near-death of the Prince of Wales in 1871 generated public sympathy; believed to be a much cheaper system than republics.
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Disraelian Conservativism by 1874:

  • The Church: The church was seen as essential for defence against revolution, an upholder of property rights and part of the traditional hierarchy; Disraeli used Catholic mistrust to his advantage; Disraeli opposed disestablishment of the Church of Ireland because he feared for the Church of England; Disraeli spearheaded resistence to non-conformist attempts to end the paying of Anglican rates, showing his view that the church formed national identity.
  • Foreign Policy: Disraeli was credited with a period of expansion after the defeat of the King of Abssynia in 1868, making him look like a strong defender of British interests; speeches in Manchester and the Crystal Palace in 1872, Gladstone's weak foreign policy was denounced; Disraeli's devotion to empire was more opportunistic than strategic as he complained about "wretched colonies" in 1852 which were "millstones around our necks".
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Disraeli's domestic reforms 1874-80:

  • 1874: Factory Act (reduced minimum working hours to 56.5 per week; ended employment of children under 10; introduced half days on Saturdays); Intoxicating Liquor Act (extended pub opening hours by 30 minutes; removed restrictions to watering down beer and reduced police rights to enter pubs as a reward for the brewers who voted Conservative); the Budget reduced income tax by one penny and cut duties on sugar. More funding is allocated for the treatment of the mentally ill, and income tax is raised later to cover the agricultural depression and colonial conflicts in South Africa.
  • 1875: Public Health Act (make it complusory for local authorities to provide adequate drainage and sewerage, to monitor and control infectious diseases, and to regulate burials and street lighting); Employers and Workmen Act ensures that strikers can't be prosecuted; Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act allowed peaceful picketing; the Artisans and Labourer's Dwelling Act allowed authorities to pull down slums (only taken up by 10/87 towns and cities by 1880; local authorities didn't want to add to their responsibilities or burden ratepayers); Sale of Food and Drugs Act established standards for food preparation and send inspectors to check food quality (abuses like padding out flour could only be detected by a strong inspectorate, but only 4 inspectors were appointed as loans to authorities dried up); Friendly Societies Act set up to register societies, regulate premiums and restrict the insurance of infants; Agricultural Holdings Act helped to secure the positions of tenant farmers, but was limited as it was permissive and commission to settle disputes was voluntary; Rivers Pollution Act failed to provide an adequate definition of pollution or ways of punishing polluters.
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Disraeli's domestic reforms 1874-80:

  • 1876:   Education Act meant that children between 10-14 could not be employed unless they had a certificate of school attendance or attainment and surplus school boards could be dissolved, but there was little provision for the enforcement of attendance and many rural families relied on their children's income; Enclosures Act to preserve green spaces for recreation; the Merchant Shipping Act was created to prevent the overloading of cargo, by printing a 'Plimsoll Line' to show maximum load after the Radical MP who proposed this- this was ineffective as there was no regulation as to where the line should be placed.
  • 1878: Factory and Workshop Act to establish inspections of workshops employing fewer than 50 people
  • Disraeli often spent cabinet meetings asleep, and he let the incompetant Charles Adderly continue his position at the Board of Trade for too long.
  • Some legislation followed enquiries by royal commissions, and the London Medical Office of Health and the Charity Organisation Society had been pressing for slum clearance schemes. The Liberal Torrens Act, put forward in 1866, was the basis for the Dwellings Act.
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Disraeli's Foreign Policy 1874-80:

  • Disraeli's aims: Consolidate British interests and the empire; happy to respond to events rather than plan for them.


  • Appointment of Carnarvon as Colonial Secretary as he bought more control to the Malay states, pacified Perak and set up the Gold Coast Protectorate which gave more autonomy, ended "blackbirding" in Fiji and abolished slavery in West Africa.
  • Bought the Khedive's shares in the Suez Canal which prevented French total ownership and protected British trade routes to India, which was vital as 4/5 of ships using it were British.
  • 1876 Royal Titles Act made the Queen Empress of India and arguably reduced republican clamour by bringing the monarch back into the public eye
  • Handling of the Eastern Question from 1875-78 as diplomacy saved the Turkish Empire through the Congress of Berlin, and Britain was ceded Cyprus from Turkey which allowed for better defence of the Suz Canal; the Dreikaiserbund was also weakened, which made Russian policy less hostile to Britain as they looked for allies elsewhere. Bulgaria had also become a strong independent state, making it an unlikely route to the Mediterranean and protecting British interests there.
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Disraeli's foreign policy 1874-80:


  • Carnarvon failed to exchange Gambia for French territory closer to British settlements, which went against demands from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to lessen costs. 
  • Acted too late to prevent the Zulu War of 1879, which was costly in men, money and reputation. The formation of federal government in South Africa was further away than ever.
  • Lytton was a misguided choice as Viceroy of India due to his failed invasion of Afghanistan, as the conflict caused loss of life for no gain.
  • Inaction during the Eastern Question and Bulgarian Horrors of 1875-78 created public outcry as Disraeli was accused of lacking sympathy for Christian suffering, and the lack of resolution in the Balkans would later contribute to WWI. The rejection of the Berlin Memorandum and the Treaty of San Stefano prolonged the crisis and split the Conservative cabinet as it let to the resignation of Carnarvon and Derby. Britain was also left with no military means of protecting Turkish Armenia. 
  • Disraeli had difficulty controlling his 'men on the spot', e.g. Lytton.
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Did Disraeli rely on his colleagues?:

  • Disraeli's colleagues: Disraeli was 69 when he became Prime Minister for the second time and lamented that "power has come to me too late", he was bound to leave much work to younger and more energetic men; the detail for social reform was often provided by Richard Cross, the Home Secretary; Sir Stafford Northcote- the Chancellor of the Exchequer- was the sponser of the Friendly Societies Act; Lord Sandon introduced the Education Act, but was prevented from introducing complusory education by backbenchers who felt that many parents still relied on the wages of children; George Sclater-Booth as the Local Government Board was responsible for the Public Health Act, the Sale of Food and Drugs Act and the Pollution of Rivers Act.
  • Disraeli Himself: Not very concerned with detailed legislation; his correspondence focuses on foreign affairs, and his criticism of ministers was much more marked when it was the Foreign or Colonial Offices at fault.
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Why did Disraeli lose the 1880 election?:

The Conservatives lost more than 100 seats, mostly in large boroughs and Scotland and Wales. The Liberals won 353 seats against 238 to the Conservatives

  • Disraeli delayed calling an election and the celebrations of the Congress of Berlin were past history.
  • Gladstone savaged Beaconsfieldism in his Midlothian Campaign and Disraeli did not refute his allegations adequately.
  • The party was less effective after the resignation of John Gorst in 1877 from the administration.
  • The wars in Afghanistan and South Africa were expensive and income tax had to be raised, which was an unpopular move. 
  • There was an economic depression which meant that wages fell and unemployment rose from about 2% in 1871 to 11% in 1879, and the government was blamed.
  • There was also an agricultural depression from 1879 and farmers set up an independent party which took votes from the Conservatives.
  • Disraeli and his government had no idea what to do about the depression beyond a relief commission and waiting for better times.
  • The working class vote returned to the Liberals after the Trade Union legislation made the reforms they wanted.
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Disraeli's Career:

  • 1835: Joined the Conservative party after failure to get elected as an independent candidate.
  • 1845: Famous speech savages Peel
  • 1848: Becomes leader of Conservatives in the Commons.
  • 1852: Becomes Chancellor of the Exchequer under Derby
  • 1868-74: First Ministry
  • 1874-80: Second Ministry
  • 1881: Death
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