IN FEBRUARY 1874 the Conservatives were returned with a majority of over one hundred seats. Declining energy, personal preference and prime ministeral instincts led Disraeli to concentrate on foreign policy issues. A willingness to delegate ensured that his Government met its electoral pledges by introducing several key pieces of domestic reform, including the Trades Union, Public Health, Artisans Dwellings and Factory Acts. Collectively the reforms amounted to the largest tranche of social legislation passed by a nineteenth-century government.
Although a century of politics and party allegiance separates them, Disraeli's style of cabinet government is not unlike that of Clement (later Earl) Attlee (1883-1967) and James (later Lord) Callagham (1916-2005). All three were pragmatic. Each was his own man, Lord Callaghan 'a cat that walked by himself' (Kenneth Morgan, Callaghan: A Life (Oxford, 1997), p. 476. Callaghan's Cabinet style was the most managerial since Attlee). His wish to be Attlee-like and delegate the detail to others (an intention Disraeli would have understood) was soon overtaken by events. Lord Callaghan's predecessor as Prime Minster, Harold (later Lord) Wilson (1917-95), included Disraeli in his 1977 television programme A Prime Minister on Prime Ministers. As the draft script (see No. 139) reveals. Wilson was alive to Disraeli's shortcomings but nevertheless suggested that Disraeli '... stands so high among Britain's Prime Ministers regardless of policy [because] he had the personal vision, and the skill to create a vision for his country, his Queen, and his people'.
Disraeli's purchase of the Suez Canal and his response to the Eastern Question were part of larger party political and foreign policy strategies. His Palmerstonian stance attracted the newly-enfranchised voters, consolidating the Conservatives' identity as a national party. Over thirty years earlier he had agreed with the Newcastle Radical Charles Attwood 'an union between the Conservative party and Radical Masses offers the only means by which we can preserve the Empire...United they form the nation' (Paul Smith, Disraeli: A Brief Life (New York, 1996: reissued Cambridge, 1999), p. 77). But now this emphasis on the British Empire was a response to the beginning of the decline in British power in the 1870s. In containing Russia and protecting trade routes to India he was pursuing traditional British objectives. His policies confirmed Britain as an 'Asiatic' power rather than a European one; the Dreikaiserbund, the alliance of three Emperors (Germany, Austro-Hungarian and Russian) left little scope for the latter (A.N. Wilson, The Victorians (London, 2002), p. 388)
The smouldering antagonism between Disraeli and Gladstone ignited again over the Eastern Question. Their clashes were not just about differences in political style and personality but conflicting visions for Britain's future.
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Last modified: 30 August 2005 by LwM