In the 1874 election, which Disraeli won, his theme was essentially negative. He had promised “a respite from the incessant and harassing legislation”. Many historians have argued that Disraeli’s efforts towards his domestic policy were merely, “general commitments”. This essay will argue this statement, untangling aspects of social reforms in Disraeli’s second Ministry and assessing whether they were dynamic or flaccid. After Disraeli’s paradoxical speech at Crystal Palace it seemed there would in fact be reform in his second ministry, he proclaimed he would use his power “to elevate the physical as well as the moral condition of the people”.
Having said this, with a reduced cabinet of twelve ministers and no clear plan when writing to the Queen outlining his future proposals, Disraeli gave the impression of older style Tory rule; lack of reform. Cross stated “From all his speeches, I had quite expected his head to be full of legislative schemes but such did not prove to be the case.
One of the most famous Acts of the period was the Artisans Dwelling’s Act of 1875. This was “our chief measure” according to Disraeli. It gave authorities the power to purchase slum housing inner city and replace it with better housing. This was a big step in the right direction in repairing England’s slum conditions. Although Disraeli used his influence in the Commons to push this Act through Parliament it was Cross who piloted the scheme. Also in 1875 the Sale of Food and Drink Act prevented producers from using harmful substances when preparing their foodstuffs.
For example, it was common for publicans to add salt to beer making customers more thirsty.
Again this is a step in the right direction for the Tories but it was down to the work of the President of the Board of Local Government, George Sclater Booth, not Disraeli. In the same year the Public Health Act was a codifying piece of legislation that brought existing laws together in an attempt to clean up British society in general. Lasting till the 1920s, this Act was well founded but sadly unoriginal and was waiting to be passed. The Factory Act of 1874 proved beneficial for women and children but was sadly disappointing in regard to male workers. It limited the week to 56.5 hours and reduced the maximum working day to ten hours.
Developed again by Cross, Disraeli had no part in the Act. Even though the Tories missed out on helping the males, the Act was better than nothing. The Employer and Workman Act of 1876 amended the careless ruling of the “Master and Servant Act” on how ‘unfair dismissal’ was handled. In previous years the employee could not sue an employer if dismissed unfairly whereas the employer could sue the employee if he/she had broke the contract. This was popular amongst Trade Unions as it brought further equality to the workplace. The last Act of 1875 was the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act. This removed a grievance against Gladstone’s government which legalised Trade Unions but had now denied them the right to engage in further picketing. This was extremely popular among the public.
Similarly, to gain credibility with the citizens the Tory’s response to Home Secretary Bruce’s Licensing Act of ’73 was to create a Licensing Act of their own in 1874. It simply enabled drinkers to remain in pubs for a further thirty minutes. A populist measure, devised and executed by Cross, standing him in good stead with the working class. The Education Act of 1876 sought to set up School Administration Committees that ensured an education for children up to ten and consequent examinations for those who wished to leave before the age of fourteen. In 1876, as result of pressure from Liberal MP Samuel Plimsoll, the Merchant Shipping Act came about. The legislation decided that to stop overloading, merchant ship owners would have to draw a Plimsoll Line on the side of their boats that had to be constantly visible. Viscount Adderly, President of The Board of Trade was responsible for this – yet again, not Disraeli.
All these reforms were along the right lines for the Tories and Disraeli but unfortunately they left a lot to be desired. Having said this, the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act in particular was praised by Alexander McDonald, a Trade Unionist. He stated, “The Tories have done more for the working classes in five years as the Liberals had done in fifty”. However most of the reforms had flaws which hindered Disraeli’s promises to improve the ‘sanitas’ of the country after his speeches in 1872. But also, there was always a protectionist aspect to Disraeli’s speeches and even before during his Young England membership. This was why Disraeli always steered clear of constitiutional reform during his second misnistry – even after the success of the Second Reform Act. Although some reforms were in essence good, many proved to be rather inrrelevant.
A classic example is within the Sale of Food and Drink Act. Only ten out of eighty-seven local authorities actually used the power. Food analysts had to be employed by these governments and as before, there was no obligation, just the power to do so. Also in line with local authority, the Artisans Dwelling Act proved to be an insignificant measure when looked at in depth. Although the power is given to local authorities to purchase and destroy slum housing, no mention of necessity is given. Only ten out of eighty-seven local authorities actually used the power, the most significant being Lord Mayor Joseph Chamberlain of Birmingham. Another example is the Merchant Shipping Act because the ship owners could draw the plimsoll line pn themselves, rendering the act superflous. But also, hadn’t Disraeli been elected on the basis that he’d promised a respite from reform?
In a more general sense the reforms were limited for a number of reasons. Disraeli didn’t want to spend that much money. His Chancellor, Lord Northcote who wanted to show that the Tories could handle money and ensure fiscal probity, supported this idea. So, Disraeli was effectively “boxed in by a prevailing climate of Peelite Orthodoxy.” Disraeli was a great believer in laissez-faire; it was the 19th century zeitgeist. For the Prime Minister it was importnat that local authorities should have control over their boroughs. His distrust in central government was enhanced by certain flaws in his Acts, a prime example being how the Artisans Act did not actually make local authorities get things done, it simply gave them the power.
In places like Liverpool this act simply displaced working class people. Also it was a Tory belief that it was not the duty of the state to provide a great deal for the working classes. Most, including Cross believed in decentalised individualism. In fact he even said “It is not the duty of government to provide any class of citizens with the necessities of life, it would inevitably tend to make the class dependent not on themselves, but upon that which was done elsewhere.” Moreover, his motive for election had been founded, a break from incessant and harassing legislation. Therefore it would simply be perverse to start drastically reforming Britain especially as events on the international stage were becoming more and more intense further involving Disraeli in foreign instead of native affairs.