Saturday, 12 May 2012

Gladstone and Disraeli - Approach to Foreign Policy Part 2



In comparison, Disraeli seemed to relish in the business of empire. In 1872 in the Crystal Palace and Manchester Speeches he set down the maintenance of the British empire and British  interests, such as trade, as a central part of his belief in Tory Democracy. He was prepared to engage the British in campaigns regardless of cost. And he was the master of opportunity. For example, Disraeli jumped at the purchase of the Suez Canal Shares: Gladstone called it a ‘ruinous and mischievous misdeed’, but it was an important sign that the British government was prepared to defend her overland routes to India. It was interesting that Gladstone when he returned to power in 1880 did not reverse the purchase. Indeed, the irony is that Gladstone in 1882 ordered the bombing and complete occupation of Egypt in order to preserve British interests: arguably, this was much more of a forward policy than anything Disraeli proposed.


Gladstone was highly critical of Disraeli’s wars in South Africa and in Afghanistan. Gladstone was outraged at the way Disraeli dealt with the Bulgarian atrocities perpetrated by the Turks; Gladstone in his Midlothian Campaign said Disraeli had behaved savagely and in an UnChristian way; there was some implicit reference to Disraeli’s Jewish background. It is difficult to see what Gladstone would have done differently if he was in power. Both Gladstone and Disraeli were committed to upholding the Ottoman Empire, as a means of retaining the Balance of Power in Europe. The route to India had to be maintained at all costs, and an aggressive and hungry Russia kept at bay. It is hard not to reach the conclusion that Gladstone was using the Bulgarian issue to score party-political points.

It is equally true that Disraeli’s policies can be made to look aggressive, when in fact he never initiated any of the decisions. The actions of his ‘men-on-the-spot’ forced his hand. It was Bartle-Frere who worked-up the conflict with the Zulu, and it was Lord Lytton who deliberately ignored Disraeli’s instructions and invaded Afghanistan. It is arguable that Disraeli had no choice but to support them, and in the case of Afghanistan Lytton’s actions later proved to be in Britain’s best interests.

As always with Disraeli it is crucial to distinguish between the rhetoric and the reality, between what he says and what eh actually does. An awareness that Gladstone’s propaganda may have coloured the historical record is also worth bearing in mind. 
Back to Part 1