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Neither Disraeli nor Gladstone had much direct experience with foreign policy or relations with Europe, before their corresponding reigns as prime minister. However it could be said that during their ministries, both Disraeli and Gladstone played a major role in upholding Britain’s vital interests in terms of British imperialism. They both intervened in highly important issues such as Naval Supremacy, Trade, balance of power, and ultimately each had their own approach in tackling these key issues.
There are differences between Gladstone and Disraeli on foreign policy, Disraeli was keen to seize any opportunity to pursue British interests in a traditional way, whereas Gladstone had a broader, multilateral perspective in that he believed in reviving the concert of Europe to maintain European peace.
The eastern crisis in the mid- 1870’s was a harsh episode for the Disraeli government. This was mainly due to a clash between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian people of Balkans, which meant the large scale mass murder of the Christian Serbs, Croats and Bulgarians. Although this didn’t go down well in terms of public sympathy towards Turkey, the serious problem lied with the imminent threat from Russia. Disraeli however did have successes in remedying this problem through his decisive actions and diplomatic technique, like effectively ending the Russo-Turkish war by a British fleet to Constantinople, when Russia captured Adrianople and reacted swiftly to the treaty of San Stephano, which was considered very much against the interests of Britain.
Even though in Disraeli’s reign, we see him focused more on the Britain’s vital interests in propping Russia, stopping them gaining access to the Black Sea, Gladstone moves away from Turkey to secure the vital trade in Egypt I.e. the Suez Canal. Although Disraeli at the Berlin conference had restored the nation and saved Turkey through diplomacy, and so in a sense did secure Britain’s vital interests, Gladstone’s occupation of Egypt can be seen as more of a bold and progressive move in terms of securing Britain’s vital interests. It not only safeguarded one of our main trade interests the Suez canal, but removed a threat of a military uprising in Egypt and also to certain degree restored some of the credibility of his government which was in a fragile state.
Another major issue that helps in comparing both Gladstone and Disraeli’s ability to successfully secure Britain’s vital interests was trade. Both Disraeli and Gladstone did draw parallels in that they both supported free trade, but was it really a right policy is a growing competitive world? During the 1850’s Disraeli had made many accusations, often referring to Britain’s colonies as “wretched colonies” or “a milestone around our necks”, but after becoming the conservative leader it seems his entire tempo had changed, and so eventually producing various successes in terms of maintaining Britain’s imperialistic interests. Even though Gladstone should be given credit in that he secured and safeguarded Britain’s vital interest i.e. the Suez canal in his occupation of Egypt, Disraeli’s successes in initially purchasing the initial Suez canal seem to outweigh it.
The purchase increased Britain’s use of the canal and eventually cut by 75% the shipping costs of goods to and from Australia and New Zealand. Not only was it pragmatic, as it became one of the world’s major key routes after opening on 1869, but it safeguarded a route to of Britain’s most important colonies at the time India, and also negated French influence. Overall not only did this make sense in upholding British vital interests, but Disraeli knowingly or not proved Gladstone right as he claimed that it would paved way towards Egypt. Another decisive step that furthers the argument that Disraeli did more than Gladstone to was he decision in 1876 to secure the queen’s title of “Empress of India”. This scheme had been planned ever since the Indian mutiny of 1857-8, but it was effective in 2 ways by ultimately boosted Britain’s image abroad and also helped sustaining Britain’s vital interest: India.
In terms of Empire, Disraeli’s government suffered some horrific disasters, which often not only damaged the reputation of the British Empire, but also in a sense failed to secure these vital interests. His first mistake was his inability to control Frere’s policy of expansionism in Southern America. Another crucial blunder was that fact that Disraeli unlike Gladstone was too focused on playing statesmen over the Balkans crisis, failed to react quickly enough to the Zuluprising. This resulted in one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history – Isandhlwana. In a sense Gladstone’s did want to secure Britain’s vital interests by restoring British prestige, an example of this was the elimination of Zulu military power, to make the Boers in the Transvaal less dependent on British protection. But this immediate relation was another miscalculation by Disraeli’s, as in his pursuit to maintain British pride, he unleashed the Boer Wars of 1880-1.
Although Disraeli did try and rectify his mistakes which diminished British prestige overseas and so threatened their vital interests in Africa and Afghanistan, his attempts to make it right simply backfired, Gladstone on the other hand knew when to leave these fragile issues alone. He avoided the sort of involvement in Afghanistan which had been handled so badly by Disraeli, who simply allowed him to be talked into a major and unsuccessful military invasion that in sense improved Afghan relations with Russia. It must be said that although Disraeli did try to solve threats to vital interests in terms of empire, a more passive approach of avoiding these problematic scenarios taken by Gladstone would have done more to maintaining vital interests, than Disraeli’s series of chaotic blunders which lead more problems than solution.