The tension which existed between Gladstone and Disraeli is well known, with British historian Robert Blake writing that there was “no doubt that the two statesmen hated each other”; Disraeli himself confirmed this enmity by stating that “if Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune; and if anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity.” This tension leads many to the assumption that they stood for directly contrasting ideals, that they represented political polar opposites; indeed, this assumption is justified with regards to issues such as Ireland. However, there is also an argument from eminent historians such as Willis and Feuchtwanger that their respective stances on matters both domestic and imperial were actually very similar.
The first interpretation that Gladstone and Disraeli did indeed pursue very different policies during their times in government has much to commend it. One area in which they could hardly have been more different is that of foreign policy. While Disraeli is seen to be following Palmerston’s aggressive example in the international arena, pursuing an aggressive policy in order to preserve the empire (seen by his actions in Afghanistan and South Africa), it could clearly be seen that Gladstone pursued a more moral and peaceful approach in foreign affairs. In his first ministry, he believed in the concert of Europe, in the peaceful resolution of problems via arbitration. This was an issue which cost him public opinion, as many saw Gladstone’ foreign policy as weak, especially concerning Russia and the Black Sea Clauses: The Times labelled his policies ‘demoralising’. In his second ministry, however, Gladstone was much more prepared to defend British interests in Egypt, and then again in Afghanistan, sending troops to quash an uprising in the former and threatening force in the latter.
However, due to the death of General ‘Chinese’ Gordon and the contradictory nature of his foreign policy, public opinion remained against Gladstone in terms of foreign policy. So, the fact that Gladstone had thought about British interests mainly in terms of Egypt and Afghanistan means that he had, at one point at least, had similar ideals to Disraeli, namely those of protecting British interests and expediency. However, issues like the Eastern Crisis (1875-77) saw a firm split in opinion between the two, with Disraeli’s actions here leading to Gladstone’s Midlothian Campaign, where he criticised ‘Beaconsfieldism’ and slammed Disraeli’s foreign policy in his pamphlet “The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East”. This attack may have been to do with simple party politics, but nevertheless foreign policy highlights a key difference in their respective stances: expedient Disraeli and moral Gladstone. Another issue which they differed on (rather more clearly) is that of Ireland.
Where Gladstone, upon being notified that he was to form a government, declared “My mission is to pacify Ireland”, Disraeli was content to ignore Ireland; he did not see it as a problem which needed dealing with. As such, the Irish people did not expect as much from Disraeli as they did from Gladstone, leading to more unrest under Gladstone. Gladstone also later converts to Home Rule (as revealed by his son Herbert through the ‘Hawarden Kite’), whereas Disraeli staunchly opposed it throughout his political life. However, like foreign policy, there is a question as to whether Gladstone pursued peace in Ireland for party political reasons rather than genuinely moral reasons. In this case, there would be similarity to Disraeli, who arguably only reformed for party political reasons.
In the case of Ireland, after voting reforms, the Home Rule Party came to hold a large amount of seats, holding the balance of power; it was while they formed their coalition with Lord Salisbury that Gladstone converted to Home Rule, so there could be a party political motive within this conversion. However, despite this possible similarity, the fact remains that the actions and policies of the two were utterly dissimilar with regards to Ireland. Finally, their views on women’s rights also differed: where Gladstone introduced legislation to increase the rights of women with regards to property, in both his first and second ministry, Disraeli seemed content to do nothing. This would suggest that Gladstone truly was a moral warrior, whereas Disraeli was indifferent to anything which wouldn’t get him votes or increase the well-being of the nation, a view which could also be gleaned from the conduct abroad and in Ireland.
It has already been noted that Gladstone and Disraeli could have been similar in that their policy could be seen to be geared towards furthering the interests of their respective parties. However, there Is an interpretation that their ideals and policies where intrinsically similar. This can be seen clearly in terms of their laissez-faire approach to the economy and trade. It was Gladstone, of course, who, under Palmerston, removed so many duties and tariffs, giving rise to the mid-Victorian boom. This convinced many, including Disraeli (who was steadfastly protectionist at the time), that free-trade was the best way forward. Even as countries like USA and Russia began to increase duties and import tariffs, making British exports less competitive, Disraeli and Gladstone doggedly persisted with laissez-faire economics in their respective ministries.
Another way in which Gladstone and Disraeli were similar was their approach to domestic social reform. Gladstone’s first ministry is also known as a ‘Great Reforming Ministry’ for its scope and scale of reforms, including reforms to the education system, the judicial system and the Civil Service and Army. Notable social reforms were also passed in Disraeli’s ministries, with the consolidation of Factory Acts, the 1875 Public Health Act and the 1875 Employers and Workmen Act being major steps forward in making Britain a democratic and safe place to live and work. However, much of the legislation was permissive, meaning that it was not adopted by many councils. The adoptive nature of many of these reforms, then, means that they simply were not as effective as Gladstone’s reforms; they facilitated change rather than enforcing it.
Another point of view, ascribed to T. A. Jenkins, was that much of Disraeli’s social reform was a “thank you” to groups that had deserted the Liberals at helped to bring the Tories to power, rather than genuine ‘Tory Democracy’. This being the case, the difference between Gladstone’s moral reforms and Disraeli’s self-serving and apathetic reforms would highlight differences in their overall stance: the possibility of Gladstone reforming to further his own party’s fortunes, though, cannot be ruled out, and this possibility would introduce a similarity in stance. Despite these possible differences, it is still clear that Gladstone and Disraeli were similarly active in terms of domestic social reform.
A final similarity between the two statesmen which has already been noted was their willingness to preserve British interests abroad. Disraeli’s role as the “Lion of the Congress” at the Treaty of Berlin and his purchase of shares in the Suez Canal in 1875 are clear examples of this, whereas Gladstone intervention in Afghanistan and Egypt exhibited similar ideals. It can thus be seen that, despite the glaring mutual animosity they shared, Gladstone and Disraeli would actually have agreed on various aspects of government, even if they may have done so for different reasons (regarding cynical party politics or frank morality).
Gladstone and Disraeli clashed very publicly and very ferociously on foreign policy and Ireland, which has given rise to the interpretation that they were as politically incompatible. However, there were areas of domestic policy which they did not dispute and consistently followed, such as social reform and laissez-faire: indeed, there were few late Victorian politicians who would have disputed either. It may be most prudent to suggest that their differences were based more on style than on substance.
Whether they were motivated by morality, expediency, party politics or a combination of all of these, they often followed similar courses of action, often with a common goal. So, despite the popular (and partially justified) interpretation that they were ideological opposites, their policies were frequently similar. The only area in which it could be said that they employed completely different ideological and practical courses of action was Ireland; in all other areas, there was at least some concurrence between the two.