Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party’s official historian. His website can be found here.
On 25 February 1868, Mary Anne Disraeli, whose adoration of her husband knew no bounds, wrote excitedly to her friend, Lady Charlotte de Rothschild: ‘By the time this reaches you, Dizzy will be Prime Minister of England!’ (the letter would have been delivered by the then highly efficient Post Office within a few hours).
The prospective new premier shared his wife’s attachment to the nickname by which he was widely and affectionately known; indeed, he often used it himself. By coincidence, he also wrote on that momentous day in his career to Lady de Rothschild, who had sent him a note asking who the new prime minister would be. He replied laconically: ‘ Your devoted Dizzy.’
He always appreciated, and responded warmly, to kindness, perhaps because he had to bear so many insults, even from within his own Party. A senior Tory backbencher, Sir Rainald Knightley, never ceased cursing ‘that hellish Jew.’ To his great credit, Disraeli uttered no public word of protest or complaint. He accepted that in Victorian England those of Jewish descent could not expect much general goodwill, unless they possessed great riches, like the Rothschilds.
In the afternoon of that memorable 25 February , the formal announcement of his appointment by Queen Victoria was made in the House of his Commons by his closest political friend at that time, Lord Stanley, eldest son and heir of the 14th Earl of Derby, who had led the Party for over twenty years and dominated its affairs.
Though Disraeli had been indispensable to him in the Commons, Derby had always had the last word on policy and tactics, supported by his lieutenant in the lower house who loyally deferred to him. The Party had no wish to change this long-standing state of affairs, despite its leader’s increasing ill-health. For some weeks, Derby dithered, but, racked by gout which made even the writing of a letter impossible, it finally became obvious to him that he could not go on. For months Disraeli had run the government, receiving and replying to long letters dictated by the immobile Derby at his ancestral seat, Knowsley in Lancashire, with Stanley, who in 1862 had been thought of as a candidate for the Greek throne, acting as messenger between them. (Ten years later, as the 15th Earl of Derby, he would resign as Foreign Secretary after a bitter clash with Disraeli, and go on to become a Liberal cabinet minister.)
When Derby told the Queen that he would have to resign, she immediately agreed, without seeking the views of anyone else, that there was only one possible successor. It has been argued recently that in such circumstances consultation within political parties had now become a settled duty; yet no one in 1868 seems to have expected it to occur. Everywhere, Disraeli, then in his sixty-fourth year, was accepted as the inevitable choice. At no point did he actively seek the premiership. His words on achieving the highest political office (he was the twenty-ninth person to occupy it) were to become famous: ‘Yes! I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.’
Did he actually say these words? They appear only in an unreliable book by a deeply distrusted figure on the fringe of Disraeli’s circle, Sir William Fraser, but it was exactly the kind of thing Dizzy would have said.
The existing, extremely competent cabinet, which included three dukes (Buckingham, Marlborough and Richmond), three other peers and two sons of peers, remained almost entirely unchanged, reflecting Disraeli’s unalterable view that government was a task for the upper classes, in which he confidently included himself (believing, wrongly, that he was descended from a family of high birth). A voluntary departure reduced the total size of the cabinet to fourteen.
The new premier wasted no time over his one and only sacking. He wrote to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Chelmsford, immediately after the announcement of his appointment , telling the unfortunate man peremptorily that ‘it is not in my power to submit your name for the custody of the great seal to the Queen.’ Chelmsford’s offence was insufficient partisanship: his speeches had lacked Tory passion and he had made judicial appointments impartially instead of reserving them for Tory lawyers. His very able successor from Belfast, Hugh Cairns, who both knew the law and loved party strife, was a man after Disraeli’s heart, and quickly became one of his most trusted colleagues.
The cabinet also gained a new Chancellor of the Exchequer, the post which Disraeli had held under Derby. The following day, 26 February, the Queen was informed that his successor would be the junior Treasury minister, Ward Hunt. ‘He is more than six feet four in. in stature’, Disraeli wrote, ‘but he has the sagacity of an elephant, as well as the form.’ From the start, it was clear that the new premier would not be altering his vivid, novelist’s prose.
The most important formality of all was completed on 27 February. There was no question of the monarch, who was at Osborne, Prince Albert’s creation on the Isle of Wight, coming up to London in a considerate gesture to a busy new premier (in July 1886, Lord Salisbury had to trek 600 miles to Balmoral). At least Disraeli had a warm welcome when he reached Osborne at 7pm on the 27th ,as he told his devoted Private Secretary, Monty Corry, in a letter the following day:
‘I was standing in the Closet when the door opened & the Queen came in, radiant with smiles, & holding out her hand, saying “ You must kiss hands” which I did, immediately & most heartily, falling on my knee, & saying I kissed her hand in faith & loving loyalty. Then she sat down, which she only does with the chief minister, I still standing, & talked so long, that I had hardly time to dress. I dined with her quite alone—i.e. Princess L[ouise] & Dss of Ath[ole] & I dine again with her today.’
It was the start of a remarkable relationship, applauded by Tories but excoriated by their opponents. On 29 February, the Queen told her eldest daughter that ‘the present man will do well, and will be particularly loyal and anxious to please me in every way. He is vy. peculiar, but vy. clever and sensible’. She wrote again on 4 March with rapturous comments: ‘He is full of poetry, romance & chivalry’.
Within weeks, abundant consignments of spring flowers, primroses prominent among them, started arriving at the Disraelis’ house off Park Lane. A view was taking hold, thanks in large part to Walter Bagehot, that the monarch should be an impartial, ceremonial figure, entirely above politics. Neither the Queen nor Disraeli accepted that doctrine. Monarchs do not readily abandon the powers they have inherited. Victoria, though wilful and obstinate like her Hanoverian predecessors, was shrewd, perceptive and, after thirty years on the throne, extremely knowledgeable. Disraeli subdued her more unfortunate prejudices (though not as regards Gladstone), and profited from her sharp insights into people and affairs, particularly in relation to the Church of England, then a source of many problems as well of major patronage (five sees including Canterbury had to be filled in 1868) which she understood and he did not, thinking always in Party terms (‘Another Deanery! The Lord of Hosts is with us!’).
Naturally, Gladstone and his supporters complained bitterly about Disraeli’s rapport with the monarch and the political benefits it brought him. It was up to his great rival to find ways of overcoming it, but he never had the faintest idea of how to go about the task of building a successful relationship with her.
The Queen’s new friend, her first premier not to have a title, took his seat in the Commons as Prime Minister for the first time on 5 March. The Times reported that the galleries ‘were unusually crowded, and peers, ambassadors, and distinguished strangers overflowed into the lobbies and corridors.’ A gay Liberal MP, Lord Ronald Gower, recorded that ‘when he entered John Stuart Mill [then MP for Westminster] was on his legs, but he had to interrupt his speech for several minutes on account of the ringing cheers that Disraeli’s appearance evoked.’
The new premier delivered no magnificent oration, as many had hoped. He spoke only briefly, promising ‘a policy of peace’ abroad and ‘a liberal policy’ at home, leaving his listeners perplexed, a frequent Disraelian ploy. He told the Queen that he had been ‘very guarded, &,in that respect, so successful, that it prevented all discussion. At least, the leader of the Opposition was silent.’ A taciturn Gladstone was a source of particular pleasure to him.
‘Will you lend your reception rooms to my wife?’, Disraeli asked Lord Stanley, his Foreign Secretary, on 9 March. ‘There must be some high festivals on a very extensive scale–& she can do nothing with D[owning] S[treet]: it is so dingy and decaying’ (the Disraelis continued to live at their own London home). A great celebration of the new premiership with several hundred guests duly took place in the gleaming new Foreign Office building on 26 March; even the Gladstones came. Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, who was there, wrote in his diary:
‘Dizzy in his glory, leading about the Princess of Wales; the Prince of Wales, Mrs Dizzy’. It recalled scenes in Disraeli’s novels. In the words of George Buckle, the official biographer of Disraeli’s later years, ‘it was such a party as the author of Coningsby and Lothair loved to describe, with half enthusiasm and half satire; and this time the author himself and his wife were the leading figures in the show’.
The glittering Foreign Office reception with its royal guests did not help inaugurate a memorable, if brief, period of Disraelian government. He had a year of political glory behind him, and would not know another until the start of his second administration in 1874. The Tories’ capacity to direct the course of events in the late 1860s, while in a minority of sixty without a coalition partner – a situation inconceivable today – depended entirely on keeping Gladstone’s Liberals in total disarray.
That is what Disraeli achieved in 1867. Having brought the Liberals’ right wing into the Tory division lobby in opposition to a modest parliamentary Reform Bill harmful to Tory interests and demolished the Liberal government in July 1866, Disraeli, as Derby’s standard-bearer in the subsequent minority Tory government, then abandoned his first set of Liberal allies and passed a radical Reform Bill giving the vote to the urban working class – which no one, least of all Disraeli, had even contemplated at the outset – with the support of the Liberal left. The Bill was a gamble as regards the new urban electorate (‘a leap in the dark’, in Derby’s famous phrase), but greatly strengthened the Tories’ prospects in their heartlands, the county constituencies, which was the government’s principal objective.
It was a breath-taking triumph which only Disraeli could have brought off. It required mastery of political manoeuvre and intrigue combined with bravura performances at the despatch box. Disraeli, the finest debater of his time, never faltered during his annus mirabilis of 1867. No wonder Gladstone disliked him so much.
In 1868, Gladstone had his revenge. Ireland provided the means. The country itself was not a source of grave anxiety. It was largely peaceful after sporadic violence the previous year. Disraeli had complete confidence in his ministers, both of them Irishmen (an unusual occurrence), in Dublin: the Chief Secretary, the Earl of Mayo, who was rewarded with the Viceroyalty of India in July (four years later he was assassinated on a visit to the Andaman Islands), and the Lord Lieutenant, the Marquess of Abercorn, whose frequent pleas for a dukedom were answered at the same time. In April, the Prince and Princess of Wales made a successful visit to Dublin which Disraeli hoped would be followed by the establishment of a permanent residence for them, an Irish Balmoral, but the Queen vetoed the scheme. Gladstone, who later took up the scheme, had no more success .
It was the eruption of Irish violence in Britain on a serious scale for the first time which enabled Gladstone to regain the political initiative and ruin Disraeli’s chances of a successful premiership. Politicians at Westminster were shaken by incidents in late 1867 associated with the shadowy (and consequently much feared) Fenian terrorist movement, funded from the United States. A policeman was killed in Manchester; an explosion at Clerkenwell jail in London, set off to enable Fenian prisoners to escape, killed twelve people and injured 120. (Disraeli was incensed by the Met’s incompetence, and demanded the Commissioner’s dismissal.) Rumours of further outrages abounded.
Disraeli wrote to Derby on 16 December 1867 about ‘a plot, quite matured, to blow up the Houses of Parliament by gunpowder introduced through the gas-pipes.’ Ships were said to be on their way from America to kidnap the Queen at Balmoral. That level-headed woman dismissed the story as a hoax, which indeed it was.
In the wake of the Fenian threat, both Parties agreed, as they would again and again in similar circumstances over the next century and a half, that greater attention must be given to Irish policy. They would try to pretend that their response was wholly unconnected with Irish violence (dismissing terrorism in the late 20th Century as ‘ mindless’), but it was of course the shadow of the gun and the bomb that they sought to remove by taking new initiatives. In the atmosphere of crisis in 1868, Disraeli showed that he knew how to serve Irish interests as a whole rather better than Gladstone, though the latter would emerge with all the credit.
It was common ground between them that there were three issues above all which required urgent attention. First, a new university needed to be established, incorporated by charter, to provide for Catholic students (complementing Protestant Trinity College, Dublin). Second, the privileged position of the established Anglican Church of Ireland, which served no more than an eighth of the population, could not remain unchanged. Third, the unduly high rents which some, but by no means all, Anglo-Irish landowners charged their tenants should be brought down and kept under effective control. It was the final question which aroused the deepest feeling throughout Ireland (and from it sprang within ten years a mass movement, the Land League, which swiftly provided Irish nationalism with wide public support for the first time.)
At the beginning of 1868, the Tory government already had serious work in hand on all three, as well as on other issues including primary education and the extension of the railway system ‘affecting beneficially every part of the country’ as Disraeli told the Queen on 4 March after a two-day cabinet meeting devoted to Irish affairs. It was agreed at that meeting that, since the land question was more important than the others, a Bill to begin the process of improvement (no one expected a swift resolution of long-standing agrarian discontent) which Mayo, the Irish Chief Secretary had drafted, should be introduced in the Commons.
Twelve days later Gladstone made his dramatic move, which transformed the entire political situation and brought doom to Disraeli and his minority government. Though he had no quarrel with the Tory programme of action and fully acknowledged the importance of the land question, he suddenly insisted that the Church of Ireland must take precedence over all else. On 14 March, Disraeli told the retired, but still closely involved Derby that Gladstone was ‘in a furious rage.’ Late in the evening of the 16th, he vented his rage on the Anglican Irish Church, calling it ‘an insult to every Roman Catholic’ which ‘as a State Church, must cease to exist.’
Tories were swift to point out that just three years earlier he had assured his Oxford constituents that the Irish Church question was ‘remote and apparently out of all bearing on the practical politics of the day’. Now, suddenly, it was overwhelmingly urgent. How lucky Gladstone has been that there have always been historians ready to take at face value his insistence that he acted at all times from the purest motives untainted by Party political considerations. (It is a view that Professor John Vincent, who died recently, and I challenged in a detailed study of another serious Irish crisis – over Home Rule – in the mid-1880s.)
Inconsistencies count for nothing when the political stakes are high. A single radical reform, unexpectedly produced and offered with all Gladstone’s eloquence as the solution to Irish discontent, seemed to many infinitely preferable to Disraeli’s complicated package of measures, which would take time to produce results. Gladstone encouraged them to believe that disestablishment of the Church of Ireland would put an end the Fenian threat to British peace and, in his well-known phrase, pacify Ireland.
George Buckle described it as ‘Gladstone’s most brilliant and successful stroke as a party leader.’ It brought the squabbling groups within his Party, who had pulled in different directions over parliamentary reform, together again. Harmony reigned for the first time since 1865. The Liberals were back in full possession of their sixty-seat majority. When asked why out of the blue his Party had taken up the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, Gladstone’s friend and cabinet colleague, the Duke of Argyll, replied with refreshing candour ‘there really was no other way of getting Dizzy out of office.’ Just three weeks had passed since Disraeli had knelt to kiss the royal hand so fervently, taking it in ‘both his’, as the Queen had noted with surprised pleasure.
Gladstone’s demarche had come, said Disraeli, ‘like a thief in the night.’ During the rest of March and April, Irish disestablishment dominated Commons debate. It was now the Tories’ turn to fall apart, as they tried to work out a response to Gladstone. English love for the embattled Irish Church was in short supply. The cabinet could not agree whether to defend it a`outrance , to reform it, to endow Catholics and Presbyterians as well, or to disestablish it themselves (an option that only a few supported). Disraeli settled for a vigorous defence of the principle of Church establishment which, if completely breached in Ireland, would lead ineluctably to its abrogation elsewhere, and destroy the constitutional settlement of 1688.
The first of three Gladstonian resolutions demanding disestablishment was passed with a majority of 65 in the early hours of 1 May. Some cabinet ministers wanted to resign; Disraeli ignored them, and, with the Queen’s vigorous support, announced on 4 May that Parliament would be dissolved ‘as soon as the public interests permit, and that an earnest endeavour should be made by the Government that such an appeal should be made to the new constituency.’ In other words, the government intended to remain in office until new electoral registers including those enfranchised under the 1867 Reform Act were ready. Disraeli made clear that meant an election in November, unless Gladstone carried a motion of no confidence in the government ,which would precipitate what Disraeli called ‘a penal dissolution’ without delay.
Gladstone, relishing his new-found political strength, was happy to let the Tories remain in office without power. A Gladstonian Bill, paving the way for Irish disestablishment, passed the Commons in June (but made no progress in the Tory-dominated Lords). Measures acceptable to the Liberals proceeded. Bills implementing parliamentary reform in Scotland and Ireland were passed. Public executions were abolished. The first nationalised industry was created; the telegraph service passed into public ownership so that the Treasury could acquire its anticipated profits (they never materialised).
Disraeli was given just one cause for celebration. On 26 April, news arrived of a British triumph in Abyssinia, to which an army had been sent the previous year to rescue a group of British subjects, consisting chiefly of missionaries, held in chains in the remote mountain fortress of Magdala. Glad tidings of victory, achieved with insignificant casualties, were delivered to Disraeli at home, where he was found ‘gorgeously arrayed in a dressing-gown and in imposing headgear’. Having released the prisoners, the British forces withdrew .A barren and unprofitable territory was not added to the British Empire.
Disraeli naturally made the most it all, rejoicing that ‘ the standard of St. George was hoisted on the mountains of Rasselas.’ He continued:
‘We have asserted the purity of our purpose . In an age accused, and perhaps not unjustly, of selfishness, and a too great regard for material interests, it is something, in so striking and significant a manner, for a great nation to have vindicated the higher principles of humanity. It is a privilege to belong to a country which has done such deeds.’
The expedition cost twice as much as the government had estimated. Disraeli was unrepentant, writing airily ‘ it certainly cost double what was contemplated, and that is likely to be the case in all wars for which I may be responsible. Money is not to be considered in such matters: success alone is to be thought of.’
Naturally, Gladstone did not make life easy for his great opponent’s government. Disraeli wrote to the Queen on 18 July that ‘Parliamentary work has been so protracted, severe, & exhausting: amounting to upwards of twelve hours a day.’ The main item of business, as the Parliament elected in 1865 drew to a close was, he told her, ‘the bill for the prevention of the Cattle plague, by establishing separate markets for foreign meat at the ports of embarcation.’
Parliament was prorogued, prior to its dissolution, on 31 July. The speech from the throne read on behalf of the Queen invited the nation to reject Irish disestablishment (and by implication the Liberals) at the forthcoming election. She expressed the hope that the people’s verdict ‘on those great questions of public policy which have occupied the attention of Parliament and remain undecided, may tend to maintain unimpaired that civil and religious freedom which has been secured to all my subjects by the institutions and settlement of my realm.’
Disraeli always supervised Tory election campaigns in some detail, not unlike a 20 Century Party Chairman (a post created in 1911). In 1868, he scrutinised intently the work of the Conservatives’ election management committee, composed of grandees and apparatchiks. He solicited £10,000 from each of his cabinet colleagues (the three dukes were very reluctant to pay up) to put towards an election war chest of £100,000, which, to his disappointment, he came nowhere near achieving.
He seemed to have an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the recent electoral history of each county constituency, and the prominent local families from whom Tory candidates had been drawn. Many received letters from him, urging them to keep the faith and hinting at knighthoods and baronetcies in return. Advice was offered about how local difficulties could be overcome. Those who needed financial help were put in touch with wealthy neighbours. Throughout the summer he hardly rested. ‘I have written so much today that I am almost blind & can’t guide my pen any more’, he told Lord Stanley on 21 August. This was an era in which Prime Ministers wrote nearly all their own letters, delegating only the most humdrum matters to private secretaries
Unlike Gladstone, however, Disraeli did not set off on the campaign trail. For this, he was chided by the official biographer of his later life, George Buckle:
‘He had given the vote to a hitherto unenfranchised million of his fellow countrymen, belonging in the great majority to the working classes ; but so absolutely incapable was he of demagogic arts that he neglected, almost to a culpable degree, to endeavour to utilise his great legislative achievement to secure their support…Gladstone and several of his colleagues undertook impassioned electoral campaigns in which the new Irish policy of their party was eloquently expounded. But Disraeli contented himself with issuing an address, undoubtedly of some length and elaboration, to the electors of Bucks’, his constituency.
This was one of the greatest contrasts between the two famous adversaries. Disraeli was an outstanding Parliamentarian who rarely spoke on public platforms; Gladstone was formidable in, and outside, Westminster. Even Disraeli’s election address, dominated by disestablishment, contained nothing to make the new working-class electors feel that he would improve their lives. ‘One nation’ was conspicuous by its absence, but then he never claimed to be in the business of trying to create it, or even used the term.
Disraeli always viewed the world and public affairs with tremendous optimism, one of his most attractive qualities. As the election approached, he was confident of victory. On 28 October, he told the Queen that the government ‘may reasonably calculate on the return of 320 supporters’, giving the Tories their first Parliamentary majority since 1841. He was utterly confounded when the election took place in November. Gladstone won a majority of over a hundred. Disraeli had done significantly worse than Derby in 1865. It was, he told the Queen on 24 November ‘a strange & most unforeseen result.’ On the 28th, Lord Stanley recorded that the cabinet ‘all agreed, without one dissentient voice, in the policy of immediate resignation’, setting aside the age-old convention that after losing an election an incumbent government would wait to be defeated in Parliament before leaving office.
On 1 December, Disraeli tendered his resignation to the Queen at Windsor. On the same day, the London Gazette announced that Mrs Disraeli ‘had been granted the dignity of Viscountess Beaconsfield, of Beaconsfield, in the county of Buckinghamshire.’ The Queen told him that she ‘can indeed truly sympathise with his devotion to Mrs Disraeli who in her turn is so deeply attached to him’. The new Viscountess wrote of her ‘happiness’ at knowing that she owed her honour ‘to Your Majesty’s appreciation of Mr Disraeli’.
Three significant overall conclusions can be drawn from this account of Disraeli’s first, brief premiership, which make it a suitable subject for a commemorative essay.
First, it shows that, to an extent not widely recognised, he was an accidental Prime Minister. In an age of elderly premiers, Derby had absolutely no wish to retire in 1868. He was 69, eleven years younger than Palmerston when he died in office in 1865. He wanted to be the first Conservative leader since 1841 to win a Parliamentary majority, and leave a lasting mark as head of a successful government.
It was Derby’s gout that made Disraeli Prime Minister in 1868. At no stage had Disraeli said that he expected to get to the top of the greasy pole; there are some indications that he did not. If Derby had stayed on for several more years, as he intended, Disraeli, five years his junior, might well have been overtaken by another senior Conservative – Lord Salisbury, for instance, his own ultimate successor, who at this stage loathed Disraeli as a man who was betraying true Conservative principles and ought to be ousted.
Second, it shows that Disraeli did not neglect, or misunderstand, Irish affairs, as has been widely alleged. They had their place on the government’s agenda before Fenian attacks in Britain gave them extra urgency. Disraeli then intensified the work that was then in hand, particularly on the land question which was at the heart of the Irish problem. Gladstone outmanoeuvred him by launching an onslaught on the Church of Ireland, reuniting his divided Party and sweeping the country at the November 1868 election.
Third, and most important, his first short spell at the top of the greasy pole in 1868 did him no good at all. His one substantial achievement was to make the Queen a Tory. The Party in Parliament was in a much weaker state at the end of 1868 than at the beginning. The beneficiaries of Disraeli’s 1867 Reform Act voted Liberal. Tories hate failure. In 1872, he nearly lost the leadership; only two of his ex-cabinet colleagues opposed a plan to replace him by the new 15th Earl of Derby. Disraeli himself lost heart. In 1872, his wife died; he said ‘I am totally unable to meet this catastrophe.’ Then suddenly Gladstone’s government ran into difficulty, and two years later the Tories reversed their 1868 humiliation.
The essential point here is that it was only at a very late stage in his career that Disraeli started to attract his Party’s acclaim. He was lauded after 1874, particularly as a result of his great triumph at the Congress of Berlin, from which he returned proclaiming ‘peace with honour’. The Tories now at last took him to their hearts. His sudden death in April 1881 produced an outpouring of feeling for him, which led, two years later, to the creation of the Primrose League , the two-million strong organisation that ensured his political immortality as the best-known and most loved Conservative of the nineteenth century.
BIBLIOGRAPHY – Robert Blake, Disraeli ( Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1966) and The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher (Fontana,1985). George Earle Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield, Vol. IV 1855-1868( John Murray, 1916) and Vol. V 1868-1876 (John Murray,1920). Michel W.Pharand et al., Benjamin Disraeli Letters, Vol X. 1868 (University of Toronto Press,2014).Richard Shannon, The Age of Disraeli 1868-1881 ( Longman,1992). J.R. Vincent ed., Disraeli Derby and the Conservative Party: The Political Journals of Lord Stanley 1849-69 ( Harvester Press,1978) and his essay ‘ Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield’ in Herbert van Thal ed., The Prime Ministers Vol. 2( George Allen & Unwin, 1975).