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"An oppertunist who had no principles" is this a fair assessment of Disraeli's foreign policy between 1874 and 1880?

Categories: Foreign Policy

By 1874 Gladstone and the liberal party had alienated so many groups due to their social reforms that Disraeli was made prime minister in a reactionary vote. The liberal ideas of Peace, Retrenchment and Reform were replaced by Disraeli’s conservative policies of Crown, Church and Aristocracy. This change has led some historians to question whether Disraeli had firm principles in the way that Gladstone had, or whether he was just dealing with each situation separately, acting in a way he felt was best for himself or Britain.

Some historians such as Adelman argue that Disraeli was not working on principle, and that his decisions were all made with a basis of opportunism. Adelman claims that Disraelis foreign policy is “the result of his own interests, prejudices and misapprehensions”. There are other historians that agree with this view as well, Lowe writes, “Disraeli did not have a clear blue print for his administration”. This opportunism and the application of seemingly subjective principles can be seen in some of his foreign policy decisions.

Disraeli’s most famous opportunistic decision was undoubtedly the purchase of the Suez Canal shares.

The purchase of the Suez Canal shares was Disraeli’s opportunism at its best. When the Khedive of Egypt decided to sell his forty four percent stake in the Suez Canal in 1875 Disraeli could see he potential problems is the French raised the money to buy the rest of the shares. Lowe describes it as “a splendid piece of opportunism”. Disraeli could see that if action was not taken, the trade routes with India could be affected by raised tariffs on the canal.

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It could be argued that this shows principle, it was the protection of British interest abroad which was also important to Gladstone. However Gladstone criticised the action at the time saying that it was just an excuse to move Britain into Egypt, and that it would lead to eventual occupation. An example that could show Disraeli working without set out principles was the crowning of Victoria as Empress of India in 1876.

Adelman argues that Disraeli was not working on principle when organising the crowning of queen Victoria, only opportunism and political expediency. Queen Victoria had always been a great supporter of the empire, and after the mutiny of 1857 was keen to try and make India feel part of the empire again. She proposed to Disraeli that she should be crowned empress of India, so that the Indian people could feel they were citizens of the empire. Disraeli had always been keen to be on good terms with Victoria so agreed and forced the issue in parliament. Pearce and Stewart write “Disraeli was eager to comply”, this decision was more about improving the Queens opinion of him than helping the country in anyway. However, although Lowe agrees that Disraeli was no doubt thinking of himself he writes that Disraeli did truly believe that it would help to unite the people of India. While in power Disraeli had to preside over a number of wars which also tested his skills in foreign policy.

South Africa was divided into many different states, all of which were under threat from the local tribes who were fighting for their land back. Lord carnavon was in charge of the situation, and so the results cannot be blamed entirely on DisraeliCarnavon appointed Bartle Frere as high commissioner of south Africa, he was an expansionist keen to build the empire. Under the orders of Disraeli, Frere was to form a federation of south African states to attempt to come to a diplomatic solution to the problem with the Zulus. Disraeli and the cabinet did not want a war, and carnavon and Frere were strictly warned not to use military force. Frere did not agree with this, he felt that the Zulu threat should be wiped out and declared war against his orders, by the time the new reached London the war was already in motion. Lowe writes about Disraeli “it [the war] was forced upon him by the men on the spot”. Disraeli was not in favour of military action. This could be because he felt that it was immoral action, as suggested by Lowe. It could also be that Britain was busy in other conflicts and Disraeli did not feel that Britain could handle two wars. Whatever the reason it would seem as if Disraeli was not taking advantage of an opportunity to overthrow a threat in South Africa, and if Lowe is correct he made a principled decision not to fight. While the war in South Africa was starting, Britain was already involved in conflicts in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was an important country to the British empire, it provided a buffer between India and Russia. Disraeli was keen to build good relations with the Amir, Sher Ali. He sent Lord Lytton to India as viceroy to attempt to persuade the Amir to accept a British mission in Kabul. Lytton was not unlike Frere, he was an expansionist and prone to disobeying orders. Blake writes of him “he was curiously unbalanced in judgement”. In July 1887 a Russian mission arrived in Kabul, Lytton was ordered by Disraeli not to take any action until diplomatic channels had been set up. Lytton ignored this and sent in 35,000 troops, after a short was the Russians withdrew and Sher Ali fled and was replaced by his son Yakub Khan who signed a peace agreement with Britain. The war looked as if it had been a complete success, however Lowe notes “Disraeli was secretly displeased with Lytton”. The decisions made on Disraeli’s part again do not seem to be of an opportunistic and non-principled nature. Disraeli ordered diplomatic talks with the Russians, and gave strict orders not to go to war. If he was looking for a easy solution, or possibly to annex Afghanistan it would seem that he would have ordered troops into the country. This is another example of Disraeli ordering his troops not to fight until diplomacy works, this does not seem like an action of a man who has no principles. One area of foreign policy that made Disraeli the most unpopular, and tested Disraeli’s foreign policy skills was the incident in Balkans.

The Balkans crisis was an embarrassing situation for Disraeli, and it made people draw comparisons between what seemed to be a cold Disraeli and a caring Gladstone. The Balkans were part of the ottoman Empire in 1875 which was run by a Muslim sultan. The inhabitants of the Balkans, especially Bulgaria, were Christian. The sultan began to send his troops into the Balkans to begin systematically killing the Christians. Disraeli was very wary about what he could do; he was worried that if he intervened and upset the Turkish balance of power the Russians would be able to move further down into the east. Disraeli did not feel that Britain should threaten the Turkish, because if the Russians gained control it could be a threat to British security. When the Berlin memorandum was proposed, Disraeli did not sign it for this reason. This gave the sultan the impression that the British government did not care that he was massacring the Christians, and so he sent in 12000 more troops and step up the ethnic cleansing. In this situation it would seem that Disraeli believed he was doing what was best for Britain and that that meant not intervening in the Balkans. This made him very unpopular, but this action would seem to show some sort of principled stance against the Russians.

In conclusion one feels that to say that all of Disraeli’s Foreign policy between 1875 and 1800 was based on opportunism rather than principle is unfair. He did not lay down his principles like Gladstone, and his principles would have been different due to Gladstone’s deeply religious background, but one feels he did have a set of principles. If he was just working on opportunity then he could have moved into Afghanistan without the attempt at diplomatic talks, and he oculd have ordered a war in South Africa and then claim British rule over all the states. Disraeli seems to have avoided conflict wherever possible, whether as Adelman suggests this is just because of the money involved, or as Lowe suggests it was because of the human cost dos not matter. This policy of diplomacy before violence shows principle. Disraeli did carry out a lot of opportunistic actions, but had they been presented to any other prime minister they would have probably done the same.

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"An oppertunist who had no principles" is this a fair assessment of Disraeli's foreign policy between 1874 and 1880?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

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