Saturday, 20 December 2008

Disraeli: a study in opposition 1841-1845

Disraeli[1] made his maiden speech in parliament on 7th December 1837, in a debate on MPs’ privileges. It was another challenge to Daniel O’Connell, the previous speaker, and was hooted down by jeering O’Connellite Irishmen, though not before its extraordinarily elaborate and affected language had caused much hilarity. After that unpropitious beginning, Disraeli avoided publicity for most of the rest of the parliament, generally supporting Peel and attacking the free trade agitators. However, he did urge respect for the Chartist movement. Feeling unable to satisfy the financial expectations of the electors of Maidstone, he sought a cheaper seat for the 1841 election; his friend Lord Forester secured him the nomination at Shrewsbury.

When Peel became prime minister after the 1841 election, Disraeli sought office from him; unsurprisingly, he did not get it. He continued his support for Peel in 1842 and 1843, seeking fame by attacking the foreign policy of the late government. He blamed the economic depression partly on the Whigs’ warmongering extravagance and failure to sign a commercial treaty with France. He projected himself as an authority on the needs of British international trade, urging a reversion to the historical policy of commercial diplomacy and reciprocity. He went to France in late 1842 in order to make connections at the court there which would assist his claim to be promoting a new entente with that country. His contacts there, supplied through Bulwer, Count d’Orsay, and Lyndhurst, gained him an audience with Louis Philippe.

In a memorandum to the French king, Disraeli talked of organising a party of youthful, energetic Tory back-benchers in pursuit of a policy sympathetic to France. Though nothing came of this notion as such, it showed his susceptibility to the excitement of high intrigue with a group of youthful men of independence and vision. A small group of such men was in fact forming on the Tory benches, inspired by George Smythe, Lord John Manners, and Alexander Baillie-Cochrane. This trio had been at Eton and Cambridge together and had a romantic attachment to the ideals of chivalry, paternalism, and religious orthodoxy which had become fashionable in some landed and university circles in reaction to reform, utilitarianism, and political economy. Disraeli did not adopt all of the specific enthusiasms of Young England, as the group came to be known in 1843.

But by the end of the session Disraeli was accepted as a fertile contributor to its activities in the house, and some of the group’s enthusiasms rubbed off on him, especially a respect for historic religious ideals evident in Sybil. Over the winter of 1843–1844 Disraeli wrote Coningsby, his most effective and successful novel to date, a vibrant commentary on the political and social worlds of the 1830s. Featuring the three friends, it gave considerable publicity to the idea of Young England, contrasting its ideals with Peel’s lack of principle. Published in May 1844, it quickly sold 3,000 copies, for which Disraeli received about £1,000. In 1843, Disraeli offended the Conservative leadership by his vote against the Canada Corn Bill and his speech against Irish coercion. Early in 1844 Peel rebuked him by omitting him from the list of MPs to be summoned to the official party meeting at the start of the session. Over the coming months Disraeli made three speeches containing pointed and sarcastic criticism of the party leadership, such as his attack on its inability to tolerate dissent over the sugar issue.

In October 1844, Disraeli, Manners, and Smythe made successful addresses to young artisans at the Manchester Athenaeum, testifying to the impact made by Young England. While in the north, Disraeli also collected observations about industrial life which he used in Sybil, the novel which he wrote over the winter of 1844-5 and published in May 1845, again to considerable interest; it too sold 3000 copies. But Young England broke up in 1845, partly owing to a difference of opinion on the government’s proposals for the Maynooth seminary and partly because of parental pressure on Smythe and Manners not to be disloyal to the party. Meanwhile, Disraeli’s abuse of Peel was mounting. In late February he made a celebrated, extended, and neatly vindictive assault on Peel’s shiftiness, described by one onlooker as ‘aimed with deadly precision’, yet delivered with Disraeli’s normal ‘extreme coolness and impassibility’. On 17th March he declared that a ‘Conservative government is an organised hypocrisy’. His opposition to the Maynooth grant (11th April) was similarly based on the argument that Peel cared nothing for Tory principles and sought to extend the ‘police surveillance’ of Downing Street to entrap Irish Catholics, when they required independence and respect. By the end of the 1845 session Disraeli had become a celebrated orator. He undoubtedly helped to stimulate the questioning of Peel’s trustworthiness on the back benches. Yet he stood essentially alone, without allies, and in such circumstances his capacity to tolerate abuse and short-term political injury is testimony to his remarkable self-confidence and self-reliance. Disraeli’s position was transformed by the events of late 1845 that brought Peel to the Commons in January 1846 as an advocate of repealing the Corn Laws, in defence of which the vast majority of Tory MPs had been elected in 1841.


[1] Valuable studies of Disraeli include: W. F. Monypenny and G. E. Buckle The life of Benjamin Disraeli, 6 volumes, 1910–20, R. Blake Disraeli, 1966, Disraeli’s reminiscences, ed. H. M. Swartz and M. Swartz, 1975, Benjamin Disraeli, letters, ed. J. A. W. Gunn and others, 1982-, R. Vincent Disraeli, 1990 and P. Smith, Disraeli: a brief life, 1996.

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