Disraeli: An unprincipled adventurer in politics Essay
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“An unprincipled adventurer in politics.” How fair is this interpretation of Disraeli in the period 1837- 1846? 1st DRAFT
Over the years, the political character of Disraeli has bewildered historians as much as it did his colleagues. Previously historians, such as Machin, had an inclination to accept the view of his contemporary critics which was often, that in the obscurities of his politically life prior to 1846, Disraeli was “An unprincipled adventurer in politics”, motivated by his own personal ambition rather that a doctrine of political principles.
Yet recently there has been an upsurge in the number of historians that believe Disraeli did possess a clear set of ideas.
These principles originated from Disraeli’s understanding of English history and values, and that a desire to defend and realize his conception of England gave his career coherence. Disraeli saw himself as a foe of dangerous cosmopolitan ideas that were damaging the national spirit and creating social conflict.1 Whilst Disraeli can be considered as unprincipled in his methods, Disraeli’s underlying sense of political purpose, and the rhetoric he used to promote his objectives, never changed thus showing that he was truly a principled politician.
In the early 1830s Disraeli stood in several elections as a Whig, Radical and as an Independent. However, Disraeli was a Tory by the time he won a seat in the House of Commons in 1837 representing the constituency of Maidstone. These frequent changes of allegiance to the different political groups are one of the ways which one can claim Disraeli to be unprincipled but was he? Disraeli claimed that his switch to conservatism was due to his belief in the fact that Conservatives defended the interests of the people. This claim for can be proven by the fact that in the 1822 the Tory party under Lord Liverpool’s administration argued for the rights of Dissenters and even repealed the Test and Corporations Act which allowed for protestant dissenters to hold positions in public office.
In addition, in 1836 Disraeli wrote and published the pamphlet ‘Vindication of the English Constitution (1835). In this pamphlet, Disraeli described the Whigs as a party, tried to monopolise the government by enslaving the monarchy during the 18th century. This evidence also leads to Ian St John’s conclusion that Disraeli was always a ‘Tory Radical’ who believed that the Tory party was the true party since the Whigs pursued ‘a selfish agenda in the interests of a narrow elite’2 . In addition, he claimed that the Tories had shown themselves to be a truly ‘national party’, representing the views of ‘nine-tenths of the people’.3 This evidence agrees with Disraeli’s own claim that the Tory party was the actual party of the people, and in this way one can say that Disraeli’s switch to conservatism was based upon a principled grounding.
Further arguments that Disraeli’s switch to conservatism was based on his principle and not on his own personal ambitions are that during Disraeli’s earlier attempts for Parliament, he had always argued for agricultural assistance. This belief formed an integral part of the Tory party’s principals since in 1815 a Tory government had introduced the Corn Laws as a means of protecting the British agricultural market from an influx of cheap foreign corn. In addition, one can argue that Disraeli’s switch to Conservatism could also be a result from the fact that the Conservative party was the party Disraeli grew up around. During his youth Disraeli had met George Canning who was a friend of his father, in addition in the 1830s Disraeli was drawn to the Conservative’s party social circles.
Through these functions he was introduced to Lord Lyndhurst (a former Tory Chancellor) by Lady Henrietta Sykes.4 Therefore one can say that through his background, fundamental beliefs and social circles, Disraeli was a natural Conservative in the same way that Gladstone was a natural Liberal However, for many historians these are not the main reasons as to why Disraeli became a Conservative MP. In 1834 Disraeli received Conservative financial support from Lord Lyndhurst who was his patron.5 This inextricably linked Disraeli to the Conservative party, especially when one considers the fact that Disraeli was not competent with his domestic economics and would therefore never be able to repay Lyndhurst. In conclusion one can say that Disraeli’s conversion to the Conservative party was mainly a genuine switch even though it may have been influenced by the generosity of Lord Lyndhurst
The character of Disraeli can also been seen to be principled in is by his belief that rich members of society have a duty to the poor. This belief was expressed in Disraeli’s reaction to the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. This Bill founded a Poor Law Commission to supervise the national operation of the Poor Law system, included the moulding together of small parishes into Poor Law Unions and the building of workhouses in each union for the giving of poor relief. The act was “Whig-Benthamite reforming legislation of the period”6 passed by Earl Grey in order to dissuade people from becoming poor and wanting to join the Work house system.
In 1840 Disraeli condemned the New Poor Law and the Work house system due to his belief that the government should help the poor in a paternal way. This marked the start of Disraeli’s belief in one nation Toryism. The idea of ‘One nation Toryism’ was present in Disraeli’s novel Sybil, where he described Britain as “Two nations … the rich and the poor.” 7 Disraeli believed that the ideology of young England, the 1852 budget and the 1867 Reform Act. Therefore this shows that Disraeli’s devotion to a Romanticised version of society where the upper classes had a duty to the poor was a stead fast principle of Disraelian politics.
Another way in which Disraeli expressed his principles of preserving social harmony and helping the poor was through his sympathy to the Chartists. Chartism was a movement established in 1836 and controlled by working men who wanted to achieve parliamentary democracy as a step towards social and economic reform. In 1840 Disraeli was one of only 5 MPs who argued against the heavy punishments given to Chartists. This was due to the fact Disraeli believed that that political rights ensured social happiness. In his Chartist novel, Sybil or the two Nations, Disraeli gave the only fictional account of Chartism which understood the political demands of the movement8.
This reaction to Chartism showed Disraeli as being principled as his desire to help the poor was present in his 1852 budget since he wanted to reduce indirect taxation on malt and tea, and levy the income budget. This would have helped with the working class who were more affected by indirect taxation than they were direct taxation as Gladstone would soon realise. In addition, one of the main values of Disraeli’s Young England was the conservative and romantic strand of Social Toryism that included the patronage of ‘noblesse oblige as the basis for its paternalistic form of social organization.’9 In addition, through his 1867 Reform Bill Disraeli also enhanced the franchise of the professional and middle classes.
Despite the fact that cynical historians such as —- may see Disraeli’s attempts to widen the political field as a way of getting a Conservative political stronghold, the line of thought that Disraeli was a ‘Radical Tory’ dispels their claim. This is because Disraeli was radical in the sense that he welcomed the Reform and wanted to push British politics towards a ‘democratic principle’ of government with ‘triennial elections and the secret ballot.’10 This notion of wider representation links in with the previous argument of why Disraeli became a conservative MP. By extending the political map Disraeli believe that the English Nation would be better represented as it would dispel the oligarchical control that the Whigs held in Parliament. Therefore one can argue that Disraeli’s support of Chartism shows him as a principal politician as it reflects his belief in a need for reform in the Victorian political system.
The case of Disraeli staying with his principles of a Romantic, paternalistic society is also evident in Disraeli’s works of fiction and his membership of Young England. Disraeli had helped to form the Young England group in 1842 based upon the that the middle class now had too much political power and an alliance between the aristocracy and the working class was needed to keep society functioning. Disraeli suggested that the aristocracy should use their power to help protect the poor yet a social hierarchy that should be maintained.11 Yet despite making these views of paternalism evident in his legislature such as the 1852 budget and his response to the 1843 Poor Law amendment historians such as Ian St John always ask how seriously did Disraeli regard young England? This is an obtuse question. Young England was an important tool of Disraeli’s as it helped him to publicise his political beliefs and during 1842 they helped him attack the Poor Law, and the rationalist system of thought.
In addition, due to his unconventional education, Young England was also vital to Disraeli as it allowed him to network within the Conservative party despite the fact that he was an outsider due to his Jewish ethnicity and middle class background. One can also argue that Disraeli showed a clear commitment to the ideologies of Young England due to his writings. Disraeli’s novels Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845) and Tancred (1847) all show concern about poverty and the injustice of the parliamentary system.
In Coningsby, Disraeli attacked the Tamworth Manifesto as ‘an attempt to construct a party without principles’. Moreover, his subsequent novel Sybil shows the start of one nation Toryism as it shows concern about the development of two nations causing a schism in society. This novels are critical as they all show Disraelian principals since all the novels show a continuation of Disraeli’s beliefs of a Romantic notion of government and desire for reform and in this way can be said to be principled. Moreover Young England is proof of Disraeli’s principles as it shows that his belief in a Romantic system of government and paternalism was as present in his ideals as a young man, as they were when he was Prime minister in the 1870s.
The main argument for Disraeli being an ‘unprincipled adventurer’ in politics is often due to his relationship with Peel. There are often three main views to this section of Disraeli’s early political career. The first view is that Disraeli led his attack on Peel for revenge. According to Norman Lowe Disraeli was ‘furious when Peel did not offer him a place in his 1841 cabinet and perhaps because of this Disraeli lead the attack on Peel over the Corn Law repeal’12.However this account for Disraeli’s attack on Peel is highly flawed. In his biography on Disraeli, Christopher Hibbert claims that in 1844 Peel had wrote to Disraeli apologising for dismissing his offer to work in his cabinet and stating that if he had offended Disraeli it was ‘wholly unintentional on [his] part”13 Hibbert then goes on to state that this apology showed that the animosity between the two men was no longer tangible and, soon after the apology was made Disraeli and three member of Young England ‘voted with the government’14!
In fact, Hibbert then goes onto disclose that Peel actually praised Disraeli’s speech on the Irish question calling it ‘very able’. These are all very clear examples showing how Disraeli’s direct and very public attack on Peel over the issue of the repeal of the Corn Laws could not have been a result of Peels rebuff in 1841. Both men had declared a truce with each other (although Grenville did comment in his diary that Disraeli’s speech on the Ireland question was ‘under the guise of compliment making an amusing attack on Peel’15) and it was for the benefit of the Tory party if this truce was maintained. After all as the historian Southgate remarked ‘[Disraeli had] no principle except that of maintaining party unity’.16 Therefore the claim that Disraeli’s attack on Peel was ‘unprincipled’ as it was based upon a personal vendetta against the Tory leader is historically inaccurate.
Another interpretation for Disraeli’s attack on Peel given by Machin is that Disraeli’s attacks stemmed from a personal ambition. By attacking Peel over the 1846 Corn Law Crisis Disraeli apparently, made him name as an able orator and gave him his first political influence. Whilst the latter half of this statement may be viewed as true, Hibbert had already shown that Disraeli’s skills for oration were already known by 1846 due to his speech on the Irish question which ‘was so widely admired …that his wife asked him to note down’17 However one cannot dispute that by defeating Peel Disraeli gained a political advantage.
Even Jenkins states that the ‘subsequent events helped to catapult Disraeli into a position of authority which he could never have expected to achieve so quickly if at all’. Whilst this may be true by toppling Peel from power Disraeli has left the Tory party ‘in the political wildernesses’18 according to Machin. Commonsense dictates that whilst he was the most promising Conservative MP, a person cannot fulfil any political ambitions whilst their party is divided and weak. Therefore it is illogical to say that Disraeli uprooted Peel from power in a bid to further his own political career, as without Peel leading the Tories, any chance of political victory would have been harder to achieve.
The final and perhaps most justified reason why historians such as Monypenny believed that Disraeli lead the attack on Peel was due to ‘a clear question of principle and…pressure from his constituents’19. Whilst many historians believe that Peel was a true statesman, David Eastcote takes the Victorian contemporary view that Peel was actually a turncoat. By championing the ideas of Catholic Emancipation, the Maynooth Grant and the Corn Law repeal ‘Peel had quite deliberately isolated himself, and in so doing he had destroyed his party, or at any rate driven an immovable wedge between Peelism and Toryism. The destruction of the party was not an unfortunate, unintended consequence of the Corn Law crisis – it was, rather, quite deliberately engineered by Peel’.20 Although many people view that the Tory party disintegrated with the exodus of the Peelite fraction of the party, it is important to realise that Peel’s decision were unpopular with the core base of ultra-Tories.
This was due to the fact that even though his party was in power, there were no real Tory party decisions as Peel preferred a Presidential style of governing rather than an executive governing style. In addition one can argue that Disraeli held a principle attack on peel due to the fact that whilst he had supported Peel in 1842 over further relaxation of the Corn Laws, he was unable to support Peel over their complete repeal. This was because he saw Peel’s desertion of ‘Protection and as a betrayal of agricultural interest’ which was the ‘backbone of the party’21.Disraeli therefore declared alongside Lord Bentinck that they would ‘never…be guilty or double dealing with the farmers of England….or betraying our constituents’ 22highlighting the fact that Disraeli was fighting the issue of Corn law repeal based on his principles of agricultural protection as well as a having a sense duty to his constituents. This interpretation can also be verified by the fact that 242 former supporters of Peel also rebelled against his 1846 proposal for Corn Law repeal.
The idea that the rebel against Peel over the corn Law crisis was based on a notion of having a duty to his electorate is also present in Walton’s verdict of 1846 where he states that Disraeli attacked Peel for ‘changing his policy without consulting the electorate or listening to the views of his supporters’23. Ian Machin also concedes that although Disraeli did have something to gain from usurping Peel, there was a strong public opinion in the constituencies that was for the idea of retaining the Corn Laws. Therefore one can logically conclude that Disraeli’s attacks on Peel in 1846 Disraeli’s attacks on Peel could be argued as being unprincipled on the surface as they are often seen as being based upon an underlining tone of resentment and antipathy due to Peel’s refusal to give him a position of power in 1841. However there is stronger evidence to suggest that Disraeli’s attacks were due to Peel’s betrayal of the Conservative party as well as pressure from his constituents.
However, once one has argued away the beliefs that Disraeli was unprincipled due to his relationship with Peel, one is left with arguments Disraeli’s contemporaries held for him being unprincipled. The majority of reasons why Disraeli is often seen as an unscrupulous politician are due to his background. Due to Disraeli’s Jewish heritage he was often received with Anti-Semitic bias. This is recognised when Derby writes “there is no one in our arty who can compete with you…but…your formal establishment in the post of leader would not meet with a general and cheerful approval…”
This means that whilst Disraeli was a recognised key political player in the Conservative party (thus eliminating the idea that he was a mere adventurer), his personal background would always work against him. However not only did Disraeli’s Jewish roots help to hinder his political progression. However all this argument is invalid since it does not state that he was unprincipled due to his political beliefs, but rather, that he was unprincipled due to his ethnicity. These arguments are therefore irrational and further alienate the claim that Disraeli was an irrational politician as historians no longer view Disraeli with a racial bias.
In conclusion, the statement “An unprincipled adventurer in politics” is not a fair interpretation of Disraeli in the period 1837- 1846. By studying Disraeli’s early political career there is a key notion that the principles of a paternalistic Romanticised society is truly maintained, as well as a belief that the Tory party is the true party of the nation. In addition in regards to Disraeli’s dispute with Peel over the 1846 Corn Law crisis, one can see that on deeper examination the underlying roots of Disraeli’s arguments were held upon the as same convictions which he campaigned for as an independent MP and the same principles that made him a ‘Radical Tory’. Therefore one can convincingly argue that during the period 1837- 1846 Disraeli was as principled as a politician can be.
1 T.A. Jenkins ‘Benjamin Disraeli and the Spirit of England’, History Today 54:12 (December 2004), 9-15
2 Ian. St John, Disraeli and the Art of Victorian Politics, (London: Anthem) 2005, pg 10
3 Jenkins, 54
4 William M. Kuhn, the Politics of Pleasure: A portrait of Benjamin Disraeli (Michigan: Pocket) 2007 pg 174
5 William M. Kuhn, the Politics of Pleasure: A portrait of Benjamin Disraeli (Michigan: Pocket) 2007 pg 175
6 Norman. Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel (London: Longman) 1953, pg 395
7 Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies: An Introduction, (Basingstoke: PalgraveMacmillian),2003 p88
8 Norman Lowe, Mastering Modern British History, (Basingstoke: Macmillan) 1984 pg 118
9 Wikipedia, Young England, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_england (January 4, 2009)
10 Ian . St John, Disraeli and the Art of Victorian Politics, (London: Anthem) 2005, pg 10
11 William M. Kuhn, the Politics of Pleasure: A portrait of Benjamin Disraeli (Michigan: Pocket) 2007 pg 185
12 Norman Lowe, Mastering Modern British History, (Basingstoke: Macmillan) 1984 pg 247
13 Christopher Hibbert, Disraeli- A personal history, (Hampshire: HarperPerennial) 2004 pg 160
14 Christopher Hibbert, Disraeli- A personal history, (Hampshire: HarperPerennial) 2004 pg 160
15 Christopher Hibbert, Disraeli- A personal history, (Hampshire: HarperPerennial) 2004 pg 160
16 John Walton, Disraeli, (London: Lancaster pamphlets) 1990 pg 59
17 Christopher Hibbert, Disraeli- A personal history, (Hampshire: HarperPerennial) 2004 pg 160
18 Ian Machin, Disraeli (Canada: Pearson Education) 1996 pg 110
19 Mary Dicken, Disraeli, (London: HarperCollins) 2004 pg 20
20 David Eastwood, ‘Peel-Statesman or Turncoat’, History Today 23 (December 1995)pg 20-25
21 Mary Dicken, Disraeli, (London: HarperCollins) 2004 pg 17
22 Mary Dicken, Disraeli, (London: HarperCollins) 2004 pg 19
23 John Walton, Disraeli, (London: Lancaster pamphlets) 1990 pg 8