To what extent was Disraeli personally committed to social reform?

Disraeli’s government which succeeded Gladstone’s in 1874 implemented a series of reforms which were seen at the time to be successful and helpful to the lower classes. However, historians have often debated over whether the policies that the Conservatives followed were precise and devoted to their cause and if they were coherent with the objectives composed by Disraeli. After having heavily criticised the Liberals for their social reform programme through the famous Manchester and Crystal Palace speeches, there comes the belief supported by John Walton that “the social reforms were not a Disraelian programme but a series of responses to problems caused by the Liberals”1 thus discrediting Disraeli’s commitment. Also, though the reforms can be deemed as successful, many historians claim that Disraeli was in fact merely the helmsman of the social reforms programme; it was left up to his extremely able Home Secretary, R.A. Cross and others in the cabinet to draft the legislation. These claims suggest the view that Disraeli was not an avid social reformer. However, despite these allegations, there is evidence to suggest that Disraeli was in fact committed to social reform. Through his novels he invented the “one nation” ideology that was created to resolve the “Condition of England”. As for his lack of personal input towards social reforms Paul Smith excuses Disraeli by “Such administrative details bored him and he preferred to delegate, leaving ministers free to manage measures relating to their own department”2.

To understand whether Disraeli was committed to social reform, it is first required that we understand his background. As a Tory backbencher in the 1840’s he had been extremely concerned with the “Condition of England” and had heavily supported the 10 hour movement and criticised the Poor Law. In his books, The Young England Trilogy, Disraeli outlined the evils of factory labour and recognised the two nations of rich and poor concluding that his target was “One Nation”. One Nation Toryism stresses the threat of a divided society and urges the aristocracy to aid the lower classes. However despite this facade of social compassion, Paul Smith points out that Disraeli had opposed an Inspection of Mines Bill in order “to please his coal-owning friend Lord Londonderry”3. John Vincent also questions the interpretation of The Young England novels; stating that he does not see social compassion or anger in the books but detachment and above all irony. To further question Disraeli’s stance on social reform and the class divide Lord Derby noted his “odd dislike of lower-class men”4. The conclusion to be drawn from this is that before 1872, Disraeli cannot be described as a committed social reformer and therefore any future leniency to social reform should be regarded as political opportunism and not personal desire to carry out reform.

Blake claims that, this political opportunism was famously put into practice in the 1867 Reform Act. Having just defeated the Liberals over a similar bill, it came as a surprise when Disraeli led the Conservatives to pass the “Second Great Reform Act”. Blake concludes that this volte-face was seen by Disraeli “as the one great issue that was sure to divide their opponents”5, emphasizing his use of social reform as a tool to gain political advantage rather then personal belief in the need to strengthen the institutions of the country. Disraeli was never a statesman but a politician whose commitment to social reform was based more on presentation than reality. It was convenient, and not political belief or ideology, for the Conservative Party to be portrayed by Disraeli as the unifier of the classes. Indeed Disraeli later claimed that he was trying “to educate” his party, and that the Second Reform Act had “taken a happy opportunity to enlarge the privileges of the people…strengthen the institutions of the country … and guard the rights of the people”. We can see from this, that Disraeli was inclined to do what he believed was best in the interests of himself and his party, which in this case was to use the subject of reform as a tool to enhance public opinion. The importance Disraeli gave to popular politics is evident as the Second Reform Act can be considered primarily a political stunt in the attempt to gain the support of the electorate.

Mary Dickens questions the two significant public speeches made by Disraeli in 1872 in Manchester and at Crystal Palace “as a vote winning programme of social reform”. In the former, he emphasised “many kindred matters may be legitimately dealt with by the legislature.” At the latter, he accentuates similar themes, chiefly citing the Conservatives as the ‘national party’ which could unite the nation, impressing upon his listeners that it was social reform, not political reform, which was now needed: ‘Another great object of the Tory party … is the elevation of the condition of the people.’ However despite the obvious turning point noted by historians to be around 1872 one can clearly assess the view that the speeches were a mere presentational stunt, highlighting as Brasher dubs the “showman Disraeli”6. For one, Feuchtwanger points out that the speeches contained no specific legislative programme and “all references to social reform were quite short and lacking in detail”.7

Even R.A Cross, Disraeli’s Home Secretary, stated his disbelief; “From all his speeches, I had quite expected that his mind was full of legislative schemes, but such did not prove to be the case”8. The need for the “showman Disraeli” to produce these flamboyant presentations was down to, as Paul Adelman suggests, his own political survival. Having lost the General election of 1868, Disraeli assumed a less prominent position for himself due to the overwhelming Liberal majority, his own health, general exhaustion and that of his wife’s. However, soon his leadership was being questioned and he needed to reassert his role through the 1872 speeches9. So it is easy to conclude that Disraeli’s performance in 1872 was not an example of his commitment to reform but more a “vote winning” act to topple the Liberals and reassert his leadership. The opportunistic, showman and presentational trait Disraeli used in the speeches, disguises his actual lack of true commitment to reform just like, Dickens points out, it did in the 1867 Reform bill showing continuity in Disraeli’s motives.

After the election victory of 1874 Paul Smith comments that Disraeli wanted to “consolidate the Conservative victory by rewarding those on whose votes it had mainly rested”10 in finally toppling the Liberals. After Gladstone’s reforms, Disraeli wanted to respond and it may have been that the Conservatives after 1874 were prepared to recognise the working class demands. The liberal middle classes increasingly saw the Conservatives as the party most likely to maintain and consolidate the position in society that they had recently won. They did not want any more ‘harassing legislation’ from Disraeli’s government and they did not appreciate the idea of the working classes gaining more political and social rights. However, Disraeli needed the working class to associate the Conservative party with social reform and this may be evidence of his non-committed approach: he was simply attempting to satisfy the working classes with legislation which was neither new nor far reaching. Ian Machin comments that the “social acts did not produce any collective revolutionary change and was not intended to do so”11. Also the government produced a lot of permissive legislation, such as the Artisan’s dwelling Act which by 1881 only ten of the eighty seven towns to which it applied to had taken it up. Brasher points out that “The way in which Plimsoll had to struggle so hard in order to obtain the passage of the Merchant Shipping act of 1876, securing better safety for seamen, is equally significant in revealing the governments lack of independence on social issues” evaluates the efficiency of the government12. Despite Bruce Coleman’s claims that the government also had to please the Conservative backbenchers who did not take kindly to higher taxes or responsibility, if Disraeli was truly committed to social reform, he would have made the legislation more effective.

Further proof of Disraeli’s uncommitted position on the topic of social reform has come from the legislation itself. Disraeli’s commitment, or lack of it, is shown in how much personal exertion he put into the drafting of the Bills. Whilst he undoubtedly supported his cabinet ministers in the drafting of legislation, he himself took a rather ‘back seat’ attitude. In fact, much of it was due to the hard work of R.A. Cross. The fact that his cabinet ministers did much of the work, shows that Disraeli was not committed to social reform. Jenkins agrees that Disraeli was not very active in social reform and even fell asleep during cabinet discussions. Indeed in his acclaimed biography R.N.W Blake comments “it would be wrong to suggest that he played any great personal part in them (the social reforms), as he detested details, and his own interest was mainly in foreign affairs”13. However, one must not review Disraeli’s commitment to the reform programme by his lack of involvement, as one can be committed to a cause without personal input.

It is easy to judge Disraeli’s leadership on the back of a Gladstonian tenure – whose intrusive nature was the reason he served as both Premier and chancellor in 1873 – but as John Vincent says (“One must not judge Conservative leaders by Liberal Criteria”) this was not the style of nineteenth century British politics. Feuchtwanger argues that Disraeli’s delegated approach was a success as it made for a “harmonious atmosphere”. He also argues that Disraeli’s approach, though non-interfering, was cautious despite his assertions about the condition of England, but he “remained faithful to his stated view that useful, non-contentious social reform measures were an appropriate form of actions for the Conservatives”14. Jenkins aptly summarises Disraeli’s contribution in providing the “impetus for a constructive Conservative policy through his general assertions of the party’s intentions to devote its energies to social legislation, even if it never specified what that social legislation was going to be”15. Therefore, though Disraeli’s contribution to the detailed aspects of the social reforms is imperceptible, we cannot conclude that his commitment was likewise. It is known he detested detail, and that the subject bored him, but he acknowledged the value of social reforms, and through his delegated approach he spurred his ministers to act successfully.

An argument in favour of Disraeli’s commitment to social reform can be seen by the legislating differences between Disraeli’s tenure and those of other Conservative premiers. Social reform, to the depth undertaken by this Government during the period 1874-1880, was untypical. Indeed, as P.R Ghosh points out, “the concept of social reform as such was a novelty in the mid 1870’s”16. But John Vincent notes that “we must remember that it is the job of Conservative leaders not to legislate”17. If this is the case, the question must be asked as to why then was the philosophy of Disraeli’s ministry differed so much to previous Conservative administrations? The credit for such changes in party ideologies can only be accredited to the party leader – Disraeli – and this is further supported by the fact that later Conservative governments have claimed to follow “Disraelian Conservatism”. Conversely Walton states that “it (social reform) was regarded as an inferior kind of activity, complicated but unglamorous”18 an activity not in keeping with the “showman Disraeli” image. This brings into question the motives behind Disraeli’s commitment to the social reform programme; did he sincerely follow his set ideologies or was he being a “rhetoric charlatan”.

Therefore we must consider what motives Disraeli may have had for the introduction of social reforms. Disraeli wanted the Conservative party to be a “national party” and he hoped that by emphasising this, more working class voters would vote for the Conservatives: “Reform would act as bait for the newly-enfranchised”19. However, Disraeli did not wish to level the social playing field for the working classes. He is quoted by Blake as saying that the fundamental task of the Conservative party was ‘to uphold the aristocratic settlement of the country’ and many historians have seen this aim as the one thread of consistency which runs through Disraeli’s ideas and policies. Blake suggests that the ‘aristocratic settlement’ stood not only for traditional order, stability based on ‘natural’ leadership rooted in common interests and mutual respect, but also for individual freedom20. These principles, which have come to be known as Tory Democracy or Disraelian Conservatism, were the antithesis of what he conceived to be the typical evils of the age:

Whig cosmopolitanism, the mercenary spirit of the manufacturing classes and the centralising tendencies of the Benthamite Radicals. Since these forces were also the enemies of the working classes, we have here the raw material for Tory Democracy. Conservatism now became associated, not only with tradition, but with social reform and imperialism too. It is fair to say, as Walton suggests, that Disraeli did have social motives for improving the working class. He wished to ‘restore and sustain that state of harmony between rich and poor, employer and employee, which he held to be the natural state of society’21. This shows that he did not believe in lowering the position of the aristocracy. He understood that, in order to unite the lower classes, he must be wary not to isolate the traditional support from aristocracy. This contradicts the argument made against the “showman Disraeli”, who used reform as a political tool. Instead it allows us to see a portrayal of a Disraeli similar to the common conception of the “man-on-a-mission” Gladstone, who followed his own sincere ideologies. This is supported by the continuity shown over thirty years as Disraeli comments on his ideas in the Young England Trilogy.

This then poses the question over the nature of the legislation; influenced by Disraeli’s ideologies or simply by momentary opportunism. Brasher argues “To believe Disraeli as a creature incapable of idealism or humanity is an error. His idealism was not as obtrusive as Gladstone’s; it was of a different nature yet an equal mainspring of action for domestic affairs”22. This suggests that the legislation did indeed follow a reforming programme and that the condition of England was greatly influenced by his ideologies during his premiership. In fact a Liberal-Labour MP commented in The Times in 1879 the success of the reforms; ‘the Conservatives have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty’23. However, historians such as Adelman and Feuchtwanger argue that Tory democracy was not a success as they say “Disraeli and his ministers were not motivated by any clear social philosophy and proceeded cautiously and empirically”24. Lord Blake identifies Disraeli’s social philosophy as the “ability to counter-attack the real policy maker, Gladstone”25. This confirms Disraeli’s showmanship as an aid for his ambitious opportunistic side, as it is clear he had no personal urge to “elevate the condition of the people”, as the programme he used, involved no new principle and owed its origin chiefly to the ideas of his opponents.

A point worth considering prior to concluding the verdict given to Disraeli’s stance on social reform, is whether it is acceptable to allow the possibility that the “showman Disraeli” was committed to social reform, not on the basis of an ideological belief but because it was in his best interests to be. The depiction of the “showman Disraeli” shows the man “at the top of the greasy pole” who uses social reform as an instrument to gain political advantages through presentation and rhetoric charlatanism. Therefore surely it is feasible that this Disraeli is still committed to social reform, although for intrinsic needs. However, being “personally” committed to social reform, requires a genuine belief that it is a sound and needed policy to resolve the “condition of England”.

In conclusion Disraeli’s commitment to social reform was dependable on when it would prove to be advantageous. Despite all allegations of opportunism, Disraeli’s government produced a programme of legislation, which made a difference to his party’s image for years to come. However Disraeli’s background, whilst appearing to be commitment-based, was probably pure rhetoric and his speeches of 1872 nothing but political expediency. His motives behind the reforms, both political and social, point to the fact that the legislation was provoked more by his desire for votes than by his genuine concern for the plight of the working class.