Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Gladstone v. Disraeli: The Great Victorian Rivalry

[Above: Punch cartoon of Disraeli on left, and Gladstone as two characters from an operetta by Burnand and Sullivan]

William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli ("Dizzy") both served as Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom in the late Victorian era. Gladstone held the premiership on four separate occasions, more than other PM in British history. Disraeli held the highest office twice. 

Both were men of great ability. They were also bitter rivals, who hated one another. Gladstone considered Disraeli to be devoid of any political principle beyond personal ambition. "The Tory Party," Gladstone claimed, "had principles by which it would and did stand for good and for bad, but all this Dizzy has destroyed." Disraeli, he more than implied, was a mere opportunist. To some extent, that was true. On one occasion he told a fellow Tory, "Damn your principles! Stick to your party."

Disraeli returned Gladstone's criticism with interest. Gladstone, he once said "has not a single redeeming defect." Asked to define the difference between a misfortune and a calamity, Disraeli replied, " If Mr. Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. If someone fished him out again, that would be a calamity." Gladstone, he said was an "unprincipled maniac ... [an] extraordinary mixture of envy, vindictiveness, hypocrisy, and superstition."

Personality wise, they were very different. Gladstone was moralistic and serious. He was an excellent speaker who coined many lofty and oft repeated phrases, such as 

"Justice delayed is justice denied."

"Nothing that is morally wrong can be politically right."

"National injustice is the surest road to national downfall."

"Selfishness is the greatest curse of the human race."

"We look forward to the time when the Power of Love replaces the Love of Power."

"Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear."

He was also long-winded. Some of Gladstone's contemporaries decried his long detailed speeches and apparent lack of humor  His wife once wrote him, "If you weren't such a great man, you'd be a terrible bore." Queen Victoria came to despise the cold way he addressed her: "Mr. Gladstone speaks to me as if were a lamppost," she wrote. [Below: Gladstone in 1879, portrait by John Everett Millais]

Disraeli, by contrast was witty and fun loving. On one occasion, having been reproved by the Speaker of the House of Commons for saying that half of the cabinet were asses, he replied, "Mr. Speaker, I withdraw my claim that half of the cabinet are asses -- half of the cabinet are not asses." On first becoming Prime Minister in 1867, he announced jokingly, "I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole."

Disraeli mastered something Gladstone never could: flattery. Victoria came to love Dizzy because he fawned on her, treated her as a woman and a great woman at that. He delighted her by arranging her to receive the title "Empress of India." Of their relationship, he wrote, "Everyone likes flattery; and when it comes to royals, you should lay it on with a trowel." [Below: photo of Disraeli, 1873]

The two men differed considerably on many key issues of the day. Gladstone was a reluctant imperialist, Disraeli an enthusiastic one. Gladstone was a devout Anglican but championed freedom of religion. 

Dizzy, who was of Jewish heritage but raised as an Anglican, defended stoutly the privileges of the state Church of England. It may have been out of conviction, but more likely it was for political reasons. It was an essential stance for a Victorian Tory leader. 

Gladstone championed the political rights of the masses but often turned a blind eye to their social needs. He was a fiscal conservative and an economic liberal who condemned anything he considered socialistic. Freedom, for Gladstone, meant freedom from political oppression and economic restraints. People should be provided with opportunities to compete, but not aided by government. In Victorian terms, he favored laissez-faire economics. But he also campaigned fervently for the extension of political rights to the working class. 

Once he became convinced of an injustice, Gladstone could devote himself to removing it. A case in point is Ireland. In the 1840s, at the time of the Irish Famine, he wrote,  "Ireland! That cloud in the west! That coming storm." He crafted numerous acts designed to remove glaring injustices, believing it was the only way to make the Irish loyal to the UK. 

In the end, it was not enough. In the 1880s, he declared "We are bound to lose Ireland in consequence of years of cruelty, stupidity, and misgovernment, and I would rather lose her as a friend than as a foe." He attempted. and failed, to pass a Home Rule Bill that would have given Ireland a large degree of autonomy. The effort cost him his political leadership. A large part of his own party deserted him. 

Parliament enacted Home Rule in 1914, but the outbreak of WWI delayed its implementation. When the war ended four years later, Home Rule became irrelevant. Most of Ireland opted for and fought for, independence. 

Disraeli was more pragmatic about such issues. He championed selective government intervention to improve working class housing and working conditions, to regulate the sale of food and drugs, and to enact uniform sanitary codes. He introduced the first Workmen's Compensation Act in 1875.

In his first term as PM Disraeli tried to outflank Gladstone by introducing legislation to expand the suffrage to some of the working class. The move shocked many in his own party, who had long opposed any move toward democracy. Disraeli understood that the world was changing and that the Tories had to change with it. 

The Reform Act of 1867 turned out to be more radical than his original proposal, partly because Gladstone and the Liberals proposed a number of democratic amendments. To the consternation of many Conservative MPs, Disraeli accepted most of them. He knew he would need Liberal votes to get the bill passed.

Disraeli hoped and expected to benefit from the Reform Act. He called an election, but Gladstone won a large majority. The new voters gave credit for the Act to the Liberals. In time, Disraeli was credited as the father of "Tory Democracy" who had dragged the party some way into the modern world. Gladstone later introduced a bill that gave the vote to all adult male heads of households. Despite their rivalry and their failings, they both contributed to the democratization and modernization of the UK in different ways. 

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