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WE NOW ENTER UPON A LONG, CONNECTED, AND PROGRESSIVE PERIOD in British history—the Prime Ministerships of Gladstone and Disraeli. These two great Parliamentarians in alternation ruled the land from 1868 to 1885. For nearly twenty years no one effectively disputed their leadership, and until Disraeli died in 1881 the political scene was dominated by a personal duel on a grand scale. Both men were at the height of their powers, and their skill and oratory in debate gripped and focused public attention on the proceedings of the House of Commons. Every thrust and parry was discussed throughout the country. The political differences between them were no wider than is usual in a two-party system, but what gave the conflict its edge and produced a deep-rooted antagonism was their utter dissimilarity in character and temperament. “Posterity will do justice to that unprincipled maniac, Gladstone,” wrote Disraeli, in private, “—extraordinary mixture of envy, vindictiveness, hypocrisy, and superstition; and with one commanding characteristic—whether preaching, praying, speechifying, or scribbling—never a gentleman!” Gladstone’s judgment on his rival was no less sharp. His doctrine was “false, but the man more false than his doctrine. . . . He demoralised public opinion, bargained with diseased appetites, stimulated passions, prejudices, and selfish desires, that they might maintain his influence . . . he weakened the Crown by approving its unconstitutional leanings, and the Constitution by offering any price for democratic popularity.” Thus they faced each other across the dispatch-boxes of the House of Commons: Gladstone’s commanding voice, his hawk-like eyes, his great power to move the emotions, against Disraeli’s romantic air and polished, flexible eloquence.

When Gladstone became Prime Minister in 1868 he was deemed a careful and parsimonious administrator who had become a sound Liberal reformer. But this was only one side of his genius. What gradually made him the most controversial figure of the century was his gift of rousing moral indignation both in himself and in the electorate. In two great crusades on the Balkans and on Ireland his dominant theme was that conscience and the moral law must govern political decisions. Such a demand, strenuously voiced, was open to the charge of hypocrisy when, as so often happened, Gladstone’s policy obviously coincided with the well-being of the Liberal Party. But the charge was false; the spirit of the preacher breathed in Gladstone’s speeches. He was willing to break his party rather than deny his conscience. Soon after his conversion to Home Rule for Ireland he said to his lieutenant, Sir William Harcourt, “I am prepared to go forward without anybody.” It was a spirit which was to mismanage men and split the Liberals, but it won him a place in the hearts of his followers of which Britain had never seen the like.

To face Gladstone Disraeli needed all the courage and quickness of wit with which he had been so generously endowed. Many Tories disliked and distrusted his reforming views, but he handled his colleagues with a rare skill. He has never been surpassed in the art of party management. In all his attitudes there was a degree of cynicism; in his make-up there was not a trace of moral fervour. Large sections of the working classes were held to Church, Crown, Empire, and aristocracy by practical interests which could be turned to party advantage. Or so he saw it. He never became wholly assimilated to English ways of life, and preserved to his death the detachment which had led him as a young man to make his own analysis of English society. It was this which probably enabled him to diagnose and assess the deeper political currents of his age. Long handicapped by his own party, he led it in the end to an electoral triumph, and achieved for a period the power he had always desired.

Nothing created more bitterness between them than Gladstone’s conviction that Disraeli had captured the Queen for the Conservative Party and endangered the Constitution by an unscrupulous use of his personal charm. When Gladstone became Prine Minister Victoria was still in mourning and semi-retirement for Prince Albert, who had died in 1861. She deeply resented his attempts to bring the monarchy back into public life, attempts which culminated in a well-intentioned scheme to make her eldest son the Viceroy of Ireland. Gladstone, though always respectful, was incapable of infusing any kind of warmth into his relationship with her. She once said, according to report, that he addressed her like a public meeting. Disraeli did not make the same mistake. “The principles of the English Constitution,” he declared, “do not contemplate the absence of personal influence on the part of the Sovereign; and, if they did, the principles of human nature would prevent the fulfillment of such a theory.” He wrote to the Queen constantly. He wooed her from the loneliness and apathy which engulfed her after Albert’s death, and flattered her desire to share in the formulation of policy. At the height of the Eastern crisis in May 1877 he ended a report on the various views of the Cabinet with the following words: “The policy is that of Your Majesty, and which will be introduced and enforced to the utmost by the Prime Minister.” Victoria found this irresistible. She complained that Gladstone, when in office, never told her anything. Had he done so after 1880 it might have been transmitted to the Conservative Opposition. From then on she was not friendly to her Liberal Governments; she disliked Gladstone and detested the growing Radicalism of his party. But in fact little harm was done; Gladstone was careful to keep the person of the Queen out of political discussion and none of their disagreements was known to the public. He grumbled that “the Queen is enough to kill any man,” but he served her patiently, if not with understanding. In any case the development of popular Government based on popular elections was bound to diminish the personal power of the Crown. In spite of her occasional leanings, Victoria remained a constitutional monarch.


Gladstone always said that his Cabinet of 1868 to 1874 was “one of the best instruments of government that ever was constructed.” Driven by his boundless energy, it put into effect a long-delayed avalanche of reforms. This was the Golden Age when Liberalism was still an aggressive, unshackling force, and the doctrine of individualism and the philosophy of laissez-faire were seeking out and destroying the last relics of eighteenth-century government. The Civil Service, the Army, the universities, and the law were all attacked and the grip of the old landed interest began to crumble. The power of what James Mill had called the “sinister interests” shrivelled bit by bit as the public service was gradually but remorselessly thrown open to talent and industry. Freedom was the keynote, laissez-faire the method; no undue extension of Government authority was needed; and the middle class at last acquired a share in the political sphere equal to their economic power. Gladstone came in on the flood; a decisive electoral victory and a country ready for reform gave him his opportunity. The Liberal Party, for a rare moment in equilibrium, was united behind him. The scale and scope of his policy, directed at a series of obvious abuses, was such that Radicals, moderate Liberals, and even Whigs were brought together in agreement. He began with Ireland. “My mission,” he had said when the summons from the Queen reached him at his country home in Hawarden, “is to pacify Ireland,” and, in spite of bitter opposition and in defiance of his own early principles, which had been to defend property and the Anglican faith, he carried, in 1869, the disestablishment of the Protestant Church of Ireland. This was followed next year by a Land Act which attempted to protect tenants from unfair eviction. But Ireland was not so easily to be pacified.

In England the Government found no lack of work to do. After the Electoral Reform of 1867 Robert Lowe, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, had said that “We must educate our masters.” Voters ought to know at least how to read and write, and have opened to them the paths to higher knowledge. Thus the extension of the franchise and the general Liberal belief in the value of education led to the launching of a national system of primary schools. This was achieved by W. E. Forster’s Education Act of 1870, blurred though it was, like all education measures for some decades to come, by sectarian passion and controversy. At the same time patronage was finally destroyed in the home Civil Service. Entrance to the new administrative class was henceforth possible only through a competitive examination which placed great emphasis on intellectual attainment. Ability, not wealth or family connection, was now the means to advance. In the following year all religious tests at Oxford and Cambridge were abolished. The universities were thrown open to Roman Catholics, Jews, Dissenters, and young men of no belief. The ancient intricacies of the judicial system, so long a nightmare to litigants and a feeding ground for lawyers, were simplified and modernised by the fusion of courts of law and equity. The Judicature Act marked the culmination of a lengthy process of much-needed reform. For centuries litigants had often had to sue in two courts at once about the same matter. Now a single Supreme Court was set up, with appropriate divisions, and procedure and methods of appeal were made uniform. Offices that had survived from the reign of Edward I were swept away in a complete remodelling. All this was accompanied by a generally sound administration, and, what was perhaps closest to Gladstone’s own heart, a policy of economy and low taxation.

The sufferings and disgraces of the Crimea had made it evident that the great Duke of Wellington’s practices, in the hands of lesser men, had broken down. The Prussian victories in France administered a shock to military and civilian opinion. Reforms were long overdue at the War Office. They were carried out by Gladstone’s Secretary of State, Edward Cardwell, one of the greatest of Army reformers. The Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Cambridge, was opposed to any reform whatever, and the first step was taken when the Queen, with considerable reluctance, signed an Order in Council subordinating him to the Secretary of State. Flogging was abolished. An Enlistment Act introduced short service, which would create an efficient reserve. In 1871 Cardwell went further, and after a hard fight with Service opinion the purchase of commissions were prohibited. The infantry were rearmed with the Martini-Henry rifle, and the regimental system was completely reorganised on a county basis. The War Office was overhauled, though a General Staff was not yet established.

All this was achieved in the space of six brilliant, crowded years, and then, as so often happens in English history, the pendulum swung back. Great reforms offend great interests. The Anglicans were hit by several measures; the Nonconformists found little to please them in the Education Act. The Army and the Court resented Cardwell’s onslaught. The working classes were offered little to attract them apart from a Ballot Act which allowed them to exercise the newly won franchise in secret and without intimidation. The settlement for fifteen million dollars of the Alabama dispute with the United States, though sensible, was disagreeable to a people long fed on a Palmerstonian diet. They began to suspect that Gladstone was half-hearted in defending British interests. An unsuccessful Licensing Bill, prompted by the Temperance wing of the Liberal Party, estranged the drink interest and founded an alliance between the brewer and the Conservative Party. Gladstone was soon to complain that he had been borne down from power “in a torrent of gin and beer.” Disraeli, now at the height of his oratorical powers, painted this portrait of the Ministry: “Her Majesty’s new Ministers proceeded in their career like a body of men under the influence of some deleterious drug. Not satiated with the spoliation and anarchy of Ireland, they began to attack every institution and every interest, every class and calling in the country. . . . As time advanced it was not difficult to perceive that extravagance was being substituted for energy by the Government. The unnatural stimulus was subsiding. Their paroxysms ended in prostration. Some took refuge in melancholy, and their eminent chief alternated between a menace and a sigh. As I sat opposite the Treasury Bench the Ministers reminded me of one of those marine landscapes not very unusual on the coasts of South America. You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest. But the situation is still dangerous. There are occasional earthquakes, and ever and anon the dark rumbling of the sea.”

Nevertheless Gladstone’s first Government stands high in British history; but there were few fresh Liberal ideals to expound when Parliament was dissolved in 1874. He fought the election on a proposal to abolish the income-tax, which then stood at threepence in the pound, and to the end of his life he always regretted his failure to achieve this object. But the country was now against him and he lost. He went into semi-retirement, believing that the great reforming work of Liberalism had been completed. Most of his Whig friends agreed. The Radicals thought otherwise. All of them were wrong. “The Grand Old Man” was soon to return to politics, and return in a setting and amid a storm which would rend and disrupt the loyalties and traditions of English public life in a manner far more drastic than any of them yet conceived.


While his great adversary devoted his leisure to felling trees at Hawarden and writing articles about Homer, Disraeli seized his chance. He had long waited for supreme power. For twenty-five years he had been the leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons, and now he was over seventy. His physique had never been robust, and his last years, made lonely by the death of his wife, were plagued by gout and other ailments. “Power—it has come to me too late. . . . There were days when, on waking, I felt I could move dynasties and Governments; but that has passed away.” But at no time had his problems been simple. Apart from the interlude of the Peel Ministry of 1841-46, an interlude which had ended in party disaster, the Tories had been more or less in opposition for close on half a century. Labelled the party of reaction, its members mocked as the heirs of Eldon, Sidmouth, and other hard-shelled old Tories, it now had to face a democratic electorate. The fact that the extension of the franchise had been sponsored by the Tory leader made it no less “a leap in the dark” for them. But Disraeli had no doubts. He remained true to the spirit of the Young England movement, which he had founded a generation before, and he never believed that the working men of England were Radicals or would-be destroyers of the established order. He saw clearly that although many of the new electors were attracted by the ideas of tradition, continuity, and ordered social progress such feelings would never ripen into electoral advantage under the inert conservatism of his own back-benchers. He had not only to win over the electorate, but also to convert his own party.

Disraeli’s campaign began long before Gladstone fell. He concentrated on social reform and on a new conception of the Empire, and both prongs of attack struck Gladstone at his weakest points. The Empire had never aroused his interest, and though passionate in defence of the political rights of the working class he cared little for their material claims. Disraeli, on the other hand, proclaimed that “the first consideration of a Minister should be the health of the people.” Liberals tried to laugh this off as a “policy of sewage.” In his first full session after reaching office Disraeli proceeded to redeem his pledge. He was fortunate in his colleagues, among whom the Home Secretary, Richard Cross, was outstanding in ability. A Trade Union Act gave the unions almost complete freedom of action, an Artisan’s Dwelling Act was the first measure to tackle the housing problem, a Sale of Food and Drugs Act and a Public Health Act at last established sanitary law on a sound footing. Disraeli succeeded in persuading much of the Conservative Party not only that the real needs of the electorate included healthier conditions of life, better homes, and freedom to organise in the world of industry, but also that the Conservative Party was perfectly well fitted to provide them. Well might Alexander Macdonald, the miners’ leader, declare that “The Conservative Party have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty.” Gladstone had provided the administrative basis for these great developments, but Disraeli took the first considerable steps in promoting social welfare.

The second part of the new Conservative programme, Imperialism, had also been launched before Disraeli came to power. Gladstone’s passion for economy in all things military, his caution in Europe, and his indifference to the Empire jarred on a public which was growing ever more conscious of British Imperial glory. Disraeli’s appeal was perfectly tuned to the new mood. “Self-government, in my opinion,” he said of the colonies, “when it was conceded, ought to have been conceded as part of a great policy of Imperial consolidation. It ought to have been accompanied by an Imperial tariff, by securities for the people of England for the enjoyment of the unappropriated lands which belonged to the Sovereign as their trustee, and by a military code which should have precisely defined the means and the responsibilities by which the colonies should be defended, and by which, if necessary, this country should call for aid from the colonies themselves. It ought, further, to have been accompanied by the institution of some representative council in the Metropolis which would have brought the colonies into constant and continuous relations with the home Government. All this however was omitted because those who advised that policy—and I believe their convictions were sincere—looked upon the colonies of England, looked upon even our connection with India, as a burden upon this country; viewing everything in its financial aspect, and totally passing by those moral and political considerations which make nations great, and by the influence of which men alone are distinguished from the animals.”

Well, what has been the result of this attempt during the reign of Liberalism for the disintegration of the Empire? It has entirely failed. But how has it failed? Through the sympathy of the colonies for the Mother Country. They have decided that the Empire shall not be destroyed; and in my opinion no Minister in this country will do his duty who neglects any opportunity of reconstructing as much as possible our Colonial Empire, and of responding to those distant sympathies which may become the source of incalculable strength and happiness to this land.

At first Disraeli was brilliantly successful. The Suez Canal had been open for six years, and had transformed the strategic position of Great Britain. No longer was the Cape of Good Hope the key to the route to India and the Far East. The Foreign Office had been curiously slow to appreciate this obvious fact and had missed more than one opportunity to control the waterway. In 1875 Disraeli, on behalf of the British Government, bought, for four million pounds, the shares of the Egyptian Khedive Ismail in the Canal. This Turkish satrap was bankrupt and glad to sell; his holding amounted to nearly half the total issue. The route to India was safeguarded, a possible threat to British naval supremacy was removed, and—of fateful importance for the future—Britain was inexorably drawn into Egyptian politics. In the following year Queen Victoria, to her great pleasure, was proclaimed Empress of India. Such a stroke would never have occurred to Gladstone, or, indeed, to the next generation of Imperialists. But Disraeli’s Oriental, almost mystical, approach to Empire, his emphasis on Imperial symbols, his belief in the importance of outward display, gave his policy an imaginative colour never achieved by his successors. His purpose was to make those colonies which he had once condemned as “millstones round our necks” sparkle like diamonds. New storms in Europe distracted attention from this glittering prospect.


In 1876 the Eastern Question erupted anew. The Crimean War had been mismanaged by the soldiers, and at the peace the diplomats had done no better. Most of the Balkans still remained under Turkish rule, and all attempts to improve the Ottoman administration of Christian provinces had foundered on the obstinacy of the Sultan and the magnitude of the task. Slavs, Rumanians, and Greeks were united in their detestation of the Turk. Revolt offered little hope of permanent success, and they had long looked to the Czar of Russia as their potential liberator. Here was a fine dilemma for the British Government. The possibility of creating independent Balkan states, in spite of Canning’s example in the small Greek kingdom, was not yet seriously contemplated. The nice choice appeared to lie between bolstering Turkish power and allowing Russian influence to move through the Balkans and into the Mediterranean by way of Constantinople. The threat had long been present, and the insurrection which now occurred confronted Disraeli with the most difficult and dangerous situation for Great Britain since the Napoleonic wars.

Rebellion broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where forty years later an assassin’s bullet was to start the First World War. Germany, Austria, and Russia, united in the League of Three Emperors, proposed that Turkey should be coerced into making serious reforms. Disraeli and his Foreign Secretary, Lord Derby, resisted these plans, arguing that they “must end very soon in the disintegration of Turkey,” and to emphasise British support of Turkey a fleet was dispatched to the Dardanelles. But these diplomatic manœuvres were soon overtaken by the news of terrible Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria. Disraeli, handicapped by faulty reports from his ambassador at Constantinople, who was an admirer of the Turks, failed to measure the deep stir in public opinion. In reply to a Parliamentary question in July he took leave to doubt whether “torture has been practised on a great scale among an Oriental people who seldom, I believe, resort to torture, but generally terminate their connection with culprits in a more expeditious manner.” This tone of persiflage fanned into fierce and furious activity the profound moral feeling which was always simmering just below the surface of Gladstone’s mind.

In a famous pamphlet, The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, Gladstone delivered his onslaught on the Turks and Disraeli’s Government. “Let the Turks now carry away their abuses in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and their Yuzbachis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the provinces they have desolated and profaned. This thorough riddance, this most blessed deliverance, is the only reparation we can make to the memory of those heaps on heaps of dead; to the violated purity alike of matron, of maiden, and of child. . . . There is not a criminal in a European gaol, there is not a cannibal in the South Sea Islands, whose indignation would not arise and overboil at the recital of that which has been done, which has too late been examined, but which remains unavenged; which has left behind all the foul and all the fierce passions that produced it, and which may again spring up in another more murderous harvest, from the soil soaked and reeking with blood, and in the air tainted with every imaginable deed of crime and shame. . . . No Government ever has so sinned; none has proved itself so incorrigible in sin or—which is the same—so impotent for reformation.” After this broadside relations between the two great men became so strained that Lord Beaconsfield (as Disraeli now was) publicly described Gladstone as worse than any Bulgarian horror.

At the end of the year a conference of the Great Powers was held in Constantinople at which Lord Salisbury, as the British representative, displayed for the first time his diplomatic talents. Salisbury was the direct descendant of Queen Elizabeth’s great servant, William Cecil, and of James I’s Minister, Robert Cecil, whose namesake he was. Over a period of twenty years, in both Houses of Parliament, he had been highly critical of his chief. He had joined Disraeli’s Government only after much heart-searching. But in office gradually the two men grew together. Salisbury’s caustic, far-ranging common sense supplemented Disraeli’s darting vision. As Secretary of State for India, and later at the Foreign Office, Salisbury established himself as the next predestined Tory leader. At Constantinople a programme of reform for Turkey was drawn up, but the Turks, sustained in part by a belief that Salisbury’s zeal for reform did not entirely reflect the views of his Prime Minister and the British Cabinet, rejected it. The delegates returned to their capitals and Europe waited for war to break out between Russia and Turkey. When it came in the summer of 1877 the mood of the country quickly changed. Gladstone, whose onslaught on the Turks had at first carried all before it, was now castigated as a pro-Russian. Feeling rose as, month after month, in spite of heroic Turkish resistance, especially at Plevna in Bulgaria, the mass of Russian troops moved ponderously towards the Dardanelles. At last, in January 1878, they stood before the walls of Constantinople. Public opinion reached fever-point. The music-hall song of the hour was:

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!

We’ve fought the Bear before, and while we’re Britons true

The Russians shall not have Constantinople.

In February, after considerable prevarication, a fleet of British ironclads steamed into the Golden Horn. They lay in the Sea of Marmora, opposite the Russian army, for six uneasy months of truce; the whale, as Bismarck said, facing the elephant.

In March Turkey and Russia signed the Treaty of San Stefano. Andrassy, the Austrian Foreign Minister, in anger called it “an orthodox Slavic sermon.” It gave Russia effective control of the Balkans, and was obviously unacceptable to the other Great Powers. War again seemed likely, and Lord Derby, who objected to any kind of military preparations, resigned. He was replaced at the Foreign Office by Lord Salisbury, who immediately set about summoning a conference of the Great Powers. They met at the Congress of Berlin in June and July. Business was dominated by Andrassy, Beaconsfield, Bismarck, and the Russian Minister Gortchakov, a quartet whose combined diplomatic talents would have been difficult to match. The result was that Russia gave up much of what she had momentarily gained at San Stefano. She kept Rumanian Bessarabia, which extended her territories to the mouths of the Danube, but the big Bulgaria which she had planned to dominate was split into three parts, only one of which was granted practical independence. The rest was returned to the Sultan. Austria-Hungary, as we must now call the Habsburg Empire, secured in compensation the right to occupy and administer Bosnia-Herzegovina. By a separate Anglo-Turkish convention Great Britain received Cyprus and guaranteed the territorial integrity of Turkey-in-Asia in return for yet another pledge by the Sultan to introduce proper reforms. Beaconsfield returned from Berlin claiming that he had brought “peace with honour.” He had, indeed, averted war for the moment, Russia, blocked in the Balkans, turned her gaze away from Europe to the Far East. The arrangements at Berlin have been much criticised for laying the trail to the war of 1914, but the Eastern Question, as it was then posed before the nations, was virtually insoluble. No settlement could have been more than a temporary one, and the Congress of Berlin in fact ensured the peace of Europe for thirty-six years.

The following weeks saw the zenith of Beaconsfield’s career. But fortune soon ceased to smile upon him. Thrusting policies in South Africa and Afghanistan led, in 1879, to the destruction of a British battalion by the Zulus at Isandhlwana and the massacre of the Legation staff at Kabul. These minor disasters, though promptly avenged, lent fresh point to Gladstone’s vehement assault upon the Government, an assault which reached its climax in the autumn of 1879 with the Midlothian Campaign. Gladstone denounced a “vigorous, that is to say a narrow, restless, blustering, and self-assertive foreign policy . . . appealing to the self-love and pride of the community.” He argued that Britain should pursue the path of morality and justice, free from the taint of self-interest.


Her aims should be self-government for subject peoples and the promotion of a true Concert of Europe. His constant theme was the need for the nation’s policy to conform with the moral law. “Remember,” he said at Dalkeith, “that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan among the winter snows is as inviolable in the eyes of Almighty God as can be your own.” This appeal to morality infuriated the Conservatives, who based their case on the importance of defending and forwarding British interests and responsibilities wherever they might lie. They maintained that Beaconsfield’s policy had raised national power and prestige to new heights.

But the force of Gladstone’s oratory was too much for the exhausted Ministry. Moreover, their last years in office coincided with the onset of an economic depression, serious enough for industry but ruinous for agriculture. When Beaconsfield dissolved in March 1880 the electoral result was decisive; the Queen was forced to accept as Prime Minister for a second time the man whom she described in a letter to her private secretary, Sir Henry Ponsonby, as “that half-mad firebrand who would soon ruin everything.”


While the duel between Disraeli and Gladstone held the centre of the stage far-reaching movements were taking shape below the surface of Parliamentary politics. The Reform Act of 1867, in granting the vote to virtually every adult male resident in a borough, killed the modified eighteenth-century régime which had persisted since 1832. The emergence of a mass electorate called for a new kind of politics. Sheer numbers rendered the old techniques ineffective in the large cities. Two things were required: a party policy which would persuade the electors to vote, and an efficient organisation to make sure that they did so. Of the two leaders Gladstone was slow to see the implications of the new age. The great demagogue was bored by the ordinary everyday business of party. Disraeli, on the other hand, produced both a policy and an organisation. Twelve years earlier he had appointed John Gorst as party manager, under whose guidance the Conservative Party was completely overhauled. The Central Office was established and a network of local associations was set up, combined in a National Union. The transition was remarkably smooth, and although there were to be storms in the early 1880’s the system created by Disraeli still largely remains at the present time.

In the Liberal camp the situation was very different. Gladstone’s coolness and Whig hostility prevented the building of a centralised party organisation. The impulse and impetus came not from the centre, but through the provinces. In 1873 Joseph Chamberlain had become Mayor of Birmingham. Aided by a most able political adviser, Schnadhorst, he built up a party machine which, although based on popular participation, his enemies quickly condemned as a “caucus.” A policy of “Municipal Socialism” brought great benefits to Birmingham in the shape of public utilities, slum clearance, and other civic amenities. The movement spread to other towns and cities, and a National Liberal Federation was born. The aim of its promoters was to make the Federation the Parliament of the Liberal movement, which would work out a Radical programme and eventually replace the Whigs by a new set of leaders drawn from its own ranks. This was a novel phenomenon. Unlike Chartism and the anti-Corn Law League, movements for reform need no longer operate on the fringe of party. Radicalism was now powerful enough to make a bid for control. This change was greatly aided by the clustering of the parties round opposite social poles, a process well under way by 1880, and which Gladstone recognised in the course of his election campaign. “I am sorry,” he declared, “to say we cannot reckon upon the aristocracy. We cannot reckon upon what is called the landed interest. We cannot reckon upon the clergy of the Established Church either in England or in Scotland. . . . We cannot reckon upon the wealth of the country nor upon the rank of the country. . . . In the main these powers are against us. . . . We must set them down among our most determined foes.”

At the election Chamberlain and his followers put forward a programme of reform which was unacceptable to the Whigs, and indeed to Gladstone. Their success exposed and proclaimed the wide changes which the new franchise had wrought in the structure of the party system.


Gladstone and Disraeli had done much to bridge the gap between aristocratic rule and democracy. They both believed that Governments should be active, and the Statute Books for the years between 1868 and 1876 bulge with reforming measures. Elections gradually became a judgment on what the Government of the day had accomplished and an assessment of the promises for the future made by the two parties. By 1880 they were being fought with techniques which differ very little from those used to-day. Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign, the first broad appeal to the people by a potential Prime Minister, underlined the change. It shocked the Queen that he should make a speech about foreign policy from a railway carriage window, but her protest echoed an age that had already passed. This was the way to become “the People’s William.”

Beaconsfield died a year later. His great task, taken on almost single-handed, had been to lead the Conservative Party out of the despair of the period after 1846, to persuade it to face the inevitability of democracy, and to endow it with the policies which would meet the new conditions. That he was successful is a remarkable indication of his skill in all matters related to party. He made the Conservatives a great force in democratic politics. The large-scale two-party system with its “swing of the pendulum” begins with him. Tory democracy—working men by hundreds of thousands who voted Conservative—became the dominant factor. The extension of the franchise which had hitherto threatened to engulf the past bore it proudly forward. Whereas the Whigs vanished from the scene, the Tories, though they were slow to realise it, sprang into renewed life and power with a fair future before them. Such was the work of Disraeli, for which his name will be duly honoured.

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