by Dr Ian St John
The nature of the topic
Benjamin Disraeliís political career, which extended over
the years 1837 to 1881, generated much controversy at the time and continues to
provoke debate amongst historians. Disraeli is not merely a fascinating
character; he played a key role in a dynamic phase in British history. For
success in this topic you need to situate Disraeliís personal agenda within
the shifting balance of Victorian political and social forces: to understand how
Disraeli shaped events and how events shaped Disraeli.
The vital first steps
There are three steps towards understanding Disraeliís
place in Victorian history. First, appreciate the motives, ideas, and tactical
thinking of Disraeli. Second, place him within the framework of the Victorian
Conservative Party and the challenges it was facing in an age of rapid change.
Third, relate Disraeliís Conservatism to the wider forces of Victorian
politics - in particular the role of Gladstone and the Liberal party, the
expansion of the working and middle classes, and the effects of electoral
reform. This sounds like a tall order. Fortunately Disraeliís career can be
broken down into more bite-size portions.
a. Disraeliís early career 1832-1841. Having campaigned as a
Radical, Disraeli entered the Commons as a Conservative. How plausible was his
argument that the Conservatives were defenders of the interests of the people?
Was this a genuine belief - or a justification for his switch in allegiance?
What was Disraeliís attitude towards the New Poor Law and the Chartist
b. Clash with Peel 1841-46. Why did Disraeli attack Peel? Was it to
advance his career, or were real issues at stake? What was the ideology of Young
England and how seriously did Disraeli regard it? Note Disraeliís trilogy of
novels: what was their function and what message did they contain? Why did
Disraeli lead the backbench rebellion in defence of the Corn Laws: belief in
agricultural protection? Anger at Peelís betrayal of party? Personal ambition?
c. Opposition leader 1846-1874. How successful were Disraeliís
attempts to build a Conservative majority? Did Disraeliís tactics help or
hinder his party? Was Disraeli an asset or liability? Was Disraeliís pursuit
of a policy of moderate Liberal reform an effective strategy? Was there an
d. The Reform Act 1867. Why did the Conservatives introduce a Reform
Act - fear of public unrest; desire to hang on to power; belief that it was in
the partyís interests? Was the extension of the vote to the urban working
class a realisation of Disraeliís long-standing commitment to Tory Democracy -
or the opportunistic result of the need to maintain a Commons majority?
e. Prime Minister 1874-1880. Focus here on two issues. First, social
reform. Did the social reforms of 1874-76 reflect a principled commitment to the
well being of the poor? Or were they, as historians often argue, a pragmatic
response to immediate problems? How far was Disraeli responsible for the
reforms, and how much was due to the initiatives of individual ministers? Did
the reforms make much difference to the lives of ordinary people? Second,
foreign policy. What were Disraeliís objectives in the Eastern Crisis of
1876-78 and how far did he realise them? Did he achieve ĎPeace with Honourí?
Did Disraeli possess an imperial policy and if so was it to expand the empire or
only consolidate it? How much responsibility should Disraeli bear for the
failures in South Africa and Afghanistan?
f. Defeat and Death 1880-81. Why did the Conservatives loose in 1880?
Was it due to governmental policy failures, or economic recession, or the
revival of the Liberals under Gladstone? Was Disraeliís career, ultimately, a
a. Did Disraeli possess a coherent Conservative ideology? Was his thinking
consistent over his career? What was the function of Disraeliís ideas - a
basis for political action or an exercise in rhetoric designed to appeal to the
b. How much scope for political initiative did Disraeli have? He was
distrusted by many Conservatives and until 1868 was subordinate to Lord Derby.
Could Disraeli have survived without Derbyís backing? Who did more to shape
Conservative policy - Derby or Disraeli? More generally, note that Victorian
beliefs in limited government and low taxation precluded active social reform or
an aggressive foreign policy.
c. Was Disraeli a consistent imperialist? What about his 1850s remarks that
the colonies were Ďmillstones around our necksí? How seriously did Disraeli
take the Empire?
d. Was Disraeli a Tory Democrat? Did he seriously wish to extend political
power to the working class? Can this be reconciled with his views about the
benefits of aristocratic rule and paternalist policies?
e. How and why have interpretations of Disraeli changed over time? Why did
Conservatives take up Disraeli as an icon, emphasising his commitment to social
reform and empire? How have historians since the 1960s undermined these ĎDisraeli
f. Was there such a thing as Disraelian Conservatism - or was Disraeliís
career a series of tactical decisions driven by ambition?
Further Reading. Several solid accounts of Disraeliís career exist.
E. Feuctwangerís Disraeli (2000) provides basic narrative, but T.A.
Jenkins, Disraeli and Victorian Conservatism (1996) and J. Walton, Disraeli
(1990) give greater attention to analytical issues. The serious student will
need to look at R. Blakeís classic Disraeli (1966) and should dip into
W. Monypenny and G. Buckleís monumental The Life of Benjamin Disraeli (1910-20).
Insights into recent debates concerning Disraeli can be gained from P. Smith, Disraeli:
A Brief Life (1996) and the stimulating J. Vincent, Disraeli (1990).
A. Hawkins, British Party Politics 1852-1886 (1998) is a good
introduction to Victorian politics. For the Conservative party, see B. Coleman, Conservatism
and the Conservative party in Nineteenth Century Britain (1988) and R.
Blake, The Conservative party from Peel to Thatcher (1985).