Neither man was of the aristocratic background from which Britain’s political elite were traditionally drawn, in character and personality they could not have been more different (their mutual loathing was manifest) yet for more than forty years they were to bestride the Victorian political landscape like a colossus – they were the flamboyant Jewish convert to Christianity Benjamin Disraeli and the priggish and evangelical William Ewart Gladstone.
Benjamin Disraeli was born on 21 December 1804, the son Isaac D’Israeli a popular and successful author who as a member of the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London often found himself at loggerheads with the local Rabbis whom he considered an impediment to his own and his family’s future prospects and prosperity.
Following yet another dispute and at the end of his tether in 1817, he converted to Christianity.
Although he didn’t yet know it the young Benjamin’s baptism aged 12, had opened up a career for him from which he would otherwise have been barred for no practising Jew could sit in the House of Commons.
But his Jewish origins would cast a shadow over his political career and he was to be the subject of virulent anti-Semitic abuse for the rest of his life often being portrayed in the satirical cartoons of the day as some kind of long-nosed, exotically dressed Eastern Potentate, egregious, fawning, and shifty.
Indeed it wasn’t unusual for him, certainly during his early years of campaigning to be greeted on the hustings by opponents holding up sticks topped with pork and shouting – here’s something for the Jew!
In public at least he took it in good heart but then he was proud of his Jewish roots and did nothing to conceal them, not that he was shy of romanticising his background and dressed accordingly cutting a quite extraordinary figure in his garish waistcoats, floppy felt hats, bejewelled fingers, and perfumed hair (an obsession of his) carefully combed into ringlets.
It was the physical manifestation of a character that still needed taming and it made him a difficult man to take seriously, a view that his early choice of career in both law and then finance would go some way to cementing with the former lacking the creative edge he required and the latter leaving him in debt for much of the rest of his life.
Seemingly not cut out for the hum-drum of the workplace he turned his hand to writing becoming the author of what was known as ‘Silver Fork Fiction’ or tales of aristocratic life written for the entertainment of the aspiring middle-classes.
His first novel Vivian Gray, though it sold and made him a little money money was also the cause of much merriment and some ridicule for he did not mix in the highest social circles and everyone knew it.
In fact, he cut an absurd figure with his tortured patois, foppish demeanour and exaggerated mannerisms conducting himself like some latter-day Beau Brummel.
Others were less flattering.
Even if his literary star waxed and waned it made him a living but it also left him dissatisfied and unfulfilled.
He looked elsewhere for inspiration and it was to be the issue of Electoral Reform that brought the still ambitious but floundering Disraeli into politics, though it seemed at first with no greater chance of success than his previous choice of careers.
He was in favour of extending the franchise and stood as a Radical candidate for the constituency of High Wycombe in the General Election of 1832, and lost. He was to lose again three years later and it seemed as if his attempts to enter the political fray were going nowhere.
At least since distancing himself from the gentle literary admonitions of popular fiction his reputation as an author of merit had improved and he was beginning to move in social circles that had previously been barred to him, and he was to prove a popular dinner guest, even if he lived in constant fear that his creditors would catch up with him and that his carefully constructed world would be brought crashing down in an instant.
Despite his previous setbacks it was in politics that his ambitions now lay but unless he could find a supporter with influence and the requisite financial wherewithal to lend his candidacy some weight then it seemed that he would continue to be thwarted.
Surprisingly perhaps given his reputation as a dilettante who was more show than substance he found one, though in somewhat bizarre circumstances.
In 1834, he was introduced to Lord Lyndhurst, a leading Tory and former Chancellor of the Exchequer by the lover they shared but rather than their mutual appreciation of Lady Sykes being the cause of petty jealousy the two men, both incorrigible gossips with a love for the finer things became firm friends.
Lord Lyndhurst took the aspiring politician under his wing bringing him to the notice of his colleagues and recommending him for membership of the influential Carlton Club. He also suggested that Disraeli should turn his considerable literary skills to writing letters and pamphlets on behalf of the Conservative Party.
After yet another unsuccessful attempt to win the seat of High Wycombe standing as a Radical he disavowed his previous rejection of the old Tory Party as a relic of Britain’s past and embraced the Conservative cause without equivocation – the candidate of the Left had become a man of the Right.
Whilst Benjamin Disraeli was climbing what he would later describe as the greasy pole William Gladstone, four years his junior, was making a name for himself in the hallowed halls of Oxford University, the educational establishment of choice for the scions of Britain’s ruling elite which though he was of more modest background fitted the supremely confident young Gladstone like a glove.
He had been born on 29 December 1809, into a prominent Liverpool merchant family which had made much of its wealth in the trans-Atlantic slave trade something that appeared not to trouble the morally self-aware young Gladstone at all.
Indeed, commerce, trade, and the wealth accrued from it he found a great comfort though one may not have thought so by the manner of his dress and clumsy demeanour.
Sober, priggish, and deeply religious he was a young man old before his time with a sense of mission whose constant moralising and evangelical approach to life did not always sit well with his fellow students who on one occasion at least would break into his room and beat him up.
It wouldn’t be the last time he would be assaulted in such a manner.
On 16 May 1831, he addressed the Oxford Union in opposition to the extension of the franchise and for all his unpopularity as a bore the force of his convictions and the power of his oratory saw him end the debate to a standing ovation and an overwhelming victory.
Gladstone had greatly impressed those present one of whom was the son of Lord Newcastle who recommended him to his father who agreed to support the young Gladstone as candidate for the Rotten Borough of Newark.
In 1832, the same year as Benjamin Disraeli was being rejected by the voters of High Wycombe at the age of just 22, William Ewart Gladstone was elected without opposition to Parliament.
The future leader of the Liberal Party began his political career as an orthodox High Anglican Tory and supporter of the status quo who opposed electoral reform, factory legislation and made in his maiden speech to the House of Commons a staunch defence of the slave trade working hard in Parliament to secure adequate compensation for his father who’d had to free the many slaves he still owned in the Caribbean following its abolition in 1834.
Whilst Gladstone was making a name for himself on the backbenches Disraeli was still struggling to get, himself elected.
In April 1835, he was nominated the official Tory Party candidate in a by-election for the safe Whig Seat of Taunton – he lost again but had performed well on the hustings reducing substantially his opponents majority; his willingness to fight so hard in a losing cause at last earned him the respect he had previously lacked and in the General Election of August 1837 that followed the death of William IV and the accession to the throne of his niece Victoria he was at last elected the Member of Parliament for the Constituency of Maidstone.
But there were harsh lessons still to be learned and his maiden speech in the House of Commons was nothing short of a disaster.
Dressed flamboyantly his affected mannerisms and grandiloquence of speech were greeted with so much laughter and howls of derision that barely able to make himself heard he cut short his oration with the words:
“I shall sit down now but you will hear me hereafter.”
Never again would he endure such humiliation, except that is at the hands of William Gladstone.
Benjamin Disraeli, much like his future rival, was under pressure to find a wife but always popular with the ladies the problem was not one of scarcity but preponderance – who of his many paramours would best suit his interests? In the end his choice would be a calculated, if unexpected, one.
He eventually alighted upon Mary Anne Lewis (nee Evans) the daughter of a Naval Officer and widow of his recently deceased colleague, Wyndham Lewis.
His choice surprised many she being twelve years his senior and with a reputation for coquettish behaviour bordering on the silly. She was notorious for her non-sequiturs and if there was a foolish remark made at a dinner party she was likely to have been the source of it. Even Disraeli’s own first impressions were less than flattering but they were to change and he would later say:
“I married her for money but I would have married her for love.”
She was in fact far less wealthy than he originally thought but their affection for one another was genuine enough and when he was with her it was said his troubles simply melted away. She was, he was fond of saying, more of a mistress than a wife.
Finding a woman willing to marry William Gladstone was to prove far more problematic for he lacked the charm of Disraeli and had few of the social graces; he didn’t do small talk, he was clumsy and unkempt, and had an intensity of conviction that left little room for romance – he simply wasn’t attractive to women.
His amorous advances were spurned time and again.
Once when invited to dine with the daughter of a friend she was so repelled by his appearance as he walked up the driveway to the family home that she said aloud – I could never marry a man who carries his bag like that!
When he did eventually marry, to Catherine Glynne, the daughter of a Baronet, it was a surprise to everyone especially as only Gladstone could include a 140 word sentence in praise of the Almighty in his letter proposing marriage, but perhaps less so when one considers she was every bit as brilliant and eccentric as he though in a more attractive way – she was lively, engaging, absent minded, and untidy.
A union between the sociable Catherine and the curmudgeonly Gladstone did not seem a match made in heaven but it was to endure 50 years and produce 8 children, though elements of dissatisfaction were to emerge in Gladstone’s behaviour.
He was also delighted to be able to move into Catherine’s ancestral home Hawarden Castle in Flintshire, Wales.
Its environs were his solace, and it was a place he hated to leave.
Disraeli and Gladstone first met on 17 January 1835, at a dinner party arranged by Lord Lyndhurst to introduce his young prodigy to the Grandees of the Tory Party, and it was perhaps the beginning of their mutual antipathy for neither man merits a mention in their respective accounts of the night.
Politics in the 1840’s were dominated by the issue of the Corn Laws and the determination of the Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel to abolish them.
The Corn Laws had been introduced upon the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars to restrict the importation of wheat from abroad thereby maintaining the profits of landowners at home but in doing so this kept the price of bread and other foodstuffs artificially high and was seen by many as an impediment to free trade, economic growth and increased prosperity.
Moreover, the ‘Hungry Forties’ as they became known were a time of great economic hardship which saw poor harvests, rising prices, increased unemployment, and the Workhouses full.
There was also the looming disaster of famine in Ireland.
None of these issues could effectively be dealt with whilst restrictions on trade such as the Corn Laws remained in place.
But the Conservative Party was in large part made up of the very landowners whose protection Sir Robert Peel now sought to strip away.
Disraeli, not a landowner himself, had barely expressed an opinion on the issue of the Corn Laws but spurred on by the sense of grievance he still felt at being overlooked by in Peel for a place in his Cabinet he now seized the opportunity to lead the opposition to their repeal in Parliament.
In a series of withering verbal assaults in the House of Commons Disraeli paid scant respect to the most prominent politician of his day and the leader of his own party, that he did so with wit and good humour only made the barbs more effective.
Peel, reduced to appealing for Whig support succeeded in repealing the Corn Laws in 1846 but Disraeli’s attacks upon him had so destroyed his authority that not long after he not only resigned as Prime Minister but left the Conservative Party altogether taking a third of its MP’s with him, amongst them William Gladstone.
Gladstone, a long-time admirer of Peel never forgave Disraeli for what he perceived to be nothing short of self-aggrandising opportunism, and in this he had a point.
The ‘Peelites’, as they were known would never return to the Conservative fold despite repeated attempts at a reconciliation but instead under Gladstone’s influence coalesced with the Whigs and the Radicals to form the Liberal Party.
The rancour between the Conservative Party and the Peelites was such that it allowed the Whigs to form a minority Administration that would see them excluded from power for the next five years.
Disraeli used his time in opposition to good effect utilising all his political skills and powers of persuasion to rise rapidly through Conservative Party ranks becoming the leader of the party in the House of Commons, a position of prominence that made him a difficult man to overlook.
This was no mean feat given the proclivity of his enemies to beat him with the proverbial stick of his Jewish origins and all the perceived negative traits this entailed – money grubbing, casuistry, deceit, and louche behaviour.
Disraeli took all such abuse on the chin not that his forbearance in such matters indicated a forgiving nature for he understood well-enough the brutality of politics and would respond accordingly when required:
“There is no act of treachery or meanness of which a political party is not capable; for in politics there is no honour.”
Gladstone, by contrast, though political to his fingertips would from time-to-time display an unwillingness to engage and opposition bored him. He decided to indulge other pursuits, in particular his ‘calling’ to improve the morals of mankind and to do God’s Work.
In 1848, he founded the Church Penitentiary Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women, an abiding interest of his.
Money was raised to support establishments that would provide for a fallen woman’s education and imbue them with the moral discipline that would save them from the path of sin but Gladstone himself preferred a more hand’s on approach.
In May 1849, he began his ‘rescue work’ as he liked to call it visiting those areas of London where prostitutes were known to ply their trade always with an eye for the prettier among them.
Those fallen women he encountered would be invited to accompany him home and avail themselves to a little moral persuasion before being released back onto the streets with food for thought whilst Gladstone dutifully noted in his journal, often in Italian should someone accidentally stumble across its contents, the events of the night.
Sometimes the entry would be decorated with the small drawing of a whip perhaps indicating a predilection or the need for self-chastisement, perhaps neither.
Whilst he may have harboured private doubts as to the propriety of his actions in public he did not.
When in May 1853, an unemployed man who went by the name of Wilson recognised Gladstone approaching prostitutes in Panton Street near Piccadilly Circus he threatened to reveal his behaviour to the press unless he provided him with money, or at least a job.
Gladstone did not hesitate to summon a policeman and have Wilson arrested and charged with blackmail.
A leading politician importuning prostitutes in the dead of night would today herald the end of a glittering career but a Victorian man of substance was given the benefit of the doubt and Wilson was found guilty and sentenced to a year in prison.
Perhaps out of a sense of guilt Gladstone would later get this sentence reduced.
When he wasn’t saving fallen women and labouring for the betterment of mankind Gladstone liked nothing more than to return to Hawarden Castle and spend time with his family (he was to have 8 children by Catherine whilst Disraeli and his wife Mary were to remain childless) and indulge his passion for self-improvement translating Homer and other ancient texts for reasons of intellectual discipline before rolling up his sleeves and chopping down trees, the physical manifestation of a muscular Christianity.
Disraeli, who had neither the energy of his great rival nor any burning desire to inculcate the religious ethos and improve the morals of mankind, did not allow work to impinge upon what were in any case brief enough moments of relaxation.
When he disengaged from the intrigues of Westminster to return to Hughenden Manor (the house he had purchased with loans of over a million pounds from Conservative allies, a level of indebtedness he was willing to undertake to secure the lifestyle he believed a prominent member of the party should be accustomed to, that of a country gentleman) it was to gaze upon the morning sun as it cast its light upon his gilded life away from politics, to read and drink champagne, to walk in the grounds with his darling wife, and plant flowers in the garden, the primrose being a particular favourite.
In June 1852, the Whig Government of Lord John Russell fell and in the subsequent General Election the Conservatives were unable to secure a majority but as the leader of the largest party the Earl of Derby was nonetheless asked to form an Administration.
Its prospects of survival were slim reliant as it was upon the support of the Peelites, now led by Lord Aberdeen since the death of Sir Robert Peel in 1850.
Given that this was the case Derby’s choice of Disraeli to be his Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed to fly in the face of reason for though he was the rising star of the party, its most capable parliamentarian and an outstanding orator, within the ranks of disgruntled Peelites he was little short of a hate figure.
Yet it was he who was now tasked with devising a budget that would unite all factions behind the new Government.
Disraeli was no economist and was to spend many a sleepless night nervously pondering the likely reception to a budget the details of which were a mystery even to him but his appointment to one of the leading Ministerial posts in the land and the likely financial rewards it would bring him personally had simply been too great to decline.
Lord Derby’s assertion that he need not worry the figures would be provided for him he found less than reassuring and his fear that he was about to make a fool of himself remained a very real one.
But his powers of erudition had not deserted him and delivering his budget speech on 3 December 1852 before a packed House of Commons as a storm raged outside which howled with nascent fury and made the window panes shudder he held his audience in the palm of his hand mocking his opponents with caustic wit and no little charm before recommending his budget to the House and sitting down to thunderous applause.
Yet all the brilliance of his oratory could not disguise the failings of the budget itself and his evident delight at its reception was to be short-lived as an earnest and somewhat animated William Gladstone pushed himself to the fore to respond.
In a carefully calculated address he proceeded to forensically pick apart and demolish Disraeli’s budget proposals revealing as he did so, to his mind at least, the Chancellor to be the fraud and charlatan he undoubtedly thought he was.
Forced to remain mute as a result of his own inadequacies he was unable to respond to Gladstone’s withering assault able only to think this man was unhinged and not a gentleman.
When it came to the vote his budget was rejected by 16 votes on the Floor of the House. Well might he remark:
“My idea of an agreeable person is a person who agrees with me.”
Gladstone’s dismantling of Disraeli’s budget was not to be without its consequences.
A few days later whilst relaxing at his Club a number of Tory thugs burst in grabbed hold of him, rained blows down upon him, and generally roughed him up before trying to throw him out of the window.
They failed in the latter but he was badly shaken nonetheless.
Just over three weeks later following the fall of the Conservative Government, William Gladstone replaced Disraeli as Chancellor.
It was a tradition that the departing Chancellor would be compensated by his successor for the cost of furniture at the Treasury.
Despite his own always precarious financial circumstances Disraeli paid his predecessor as expected but Gladstone refused to heed precedent and when the departing Chancellor complained he was told to take up the issue with the Office of Public Works.
It seemed Disraeli was right – the new Chancellor was no gentleman at all.
In response Disraeli refused to hand over the ceremonial robe of the Chancellor of the Exchequer thereby denying Gladstone the insignia of his rank.
Politics had just got personal.
Gladstone considered, himself a man of probity and sound finance, and so it would prove to be.
His terms as Chancellor, in marked contrast to his immediate predecessor contained few rhetorical flourishes metaphorical or otherwise; there would be no needless taxes nor money provided for vanity projects and reckless overseas adventures.
He was not a tax-and-spend Chancellor, instead good management would prove the foundation of sound finance and his budgets intended to cover the expenses of Government and little else would be a business model for the Treasury that is still followed to this day.
Gladstone was to be Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten of the next fourteen years and his budget day address would become one of the great set-piece events of the parliamentary calendar for though they might be long, detailed, and exacting they were never dull.
He neither liked taxation or the imposition of duties and tariffs but he disliked borrowing even more, nonetheless he would reduce all three year on year.
If he had to raise taxes they would fall upon those able to pay and his reduction in the number of duties would see cheaper food on the table. Also, his determination to abolish duties on paper which restricted the poor’s access to information, the so-called tax on knowledge, was to facilitate the emergence of the radical and popular press.
Such budget enactments earned him the reputation, not entirely merited, as the ‘Peoples William.’
Gladstone then, was thought a radical, and as a radical he would surely support the extension of the franchise. In fact, he hadn’t supported it in 1832 and he still didn’t favour it well into the 1860’s but this was to change as he rode the wave of popular acclaim.
Whilst Gladstone was establishing his reputation as the outstanding Chancellor of his and future generations, Disraeli was becoming an increasingly effective and powerful, if not always popular, Leader of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons opposing the rarely less than belligerent and bellicose Administration of Lord Palmerston.
In February 1858, the Conservatives were briefly returned to power and Disraeli having learned the lesson that it is sometimes wise to do no more than required returned to the Treasury a much chastened man.
Despite his desire to be considered a great Chancellor of the Exchequer he never had as firmer grip on the finances and fiscal mechanics of the job as Gladstone, and he knew it.
The Earl of Derby’s Second Administration lasted less than eighteen months but it was enough time for Disraeli to force through rules that would allow the House of Commons to determine what denominational oath an elected Member would be permitted to take making it possible for those not of the Christian faith to take their seat in the Chamber.
Not long after, much to Disraeli’s satisfaction, Lionel de Rothschild became Britain’s first practising Jewish Member of Parliament.
Despite his now prominent role within the Liberal Government Gladstone remained a Peelite but many still considered him to be a High Tory Anglican at heart and as leader of the Tories in the House, Disraeli was under pressure to lure him back into the party. As a consequence he wrote to his arch-enemy pleading with him to put personal animosity aside and rejoin the ranks. His attempt to heal the rift was given short shrift by Gladstone who replied indicating that the rift was far deeper than he could ever imagine or know.
It wasn’t long before the Liberal Party was returned to power and such was Palmerston’s popularity in the country that the Earl of Derby was disinclined to oppose him in Parliament believing that to do so was detrimental to the Conservative Party’s future prospects.
Disraeli disagreed but when in the General Election of July 1865, the Liberals were returned with an even greater majority Derby’s fears that the Conservatives would never again form a majority Government appeared to be borne out and they were plunged into a mood little short of despair.
Relief came when on 18 October the seemingly robust 80 year old Palmerston died suddenly to be replaced by the similarly aged Lord John Russell.
A vacancy would soon arise at the top of the Liberal Party and Gladstone was a leader-in-waiting – the ‘Peoples William’ now took to the road.
He’d had a political conversion (a mere change of the heart or opinion was never good enough for Gladstone) and he now embraced the issue of electoral reform with a gusto that only he could muster.
He toured the towns and cities of the industrial north to address rallies attended by thousands of people in support of his proposals for the extension of the franchise.
But Gladstone’s Reform Bill put before Parliament on 12 March 1866 to give the vote to working men who met the required minimum property qualification was met with fierce resistance both by the Conservative opposition and elements within his own party both for reasons of going too far and for being too modest.
Disraeli, who needed no encouragement to resist any proposal made by William Gladstone, brilliantly rallied the opposition ensuring not only the defeat of the Reform Bill but the fall of the Liberal Government as a result.
On 22 June 1866, the Conservatives formed yet another minority Administration but the death of Palmerston had provided them with the opportunity to revive their fortunes and Disraeli was determined to seize it.
When rumours reached Gladstone from sources close to the Prime Minister that Disraeli had plans for an Electoral Reform Bill of his own he dismissed them as mere poppycock and palpably absurd.
But the rumours were true.
Disraeli was aware of the need for Electoral Reform especially in the still rapidly expanding urban boroughs which remained largely disenfranchised but he was also responding to the fear expressed by the Earl of Derby that the Conservative Party’s future as an electoral force was under threat.
He believed that by giving the working class the vote he would guarantee their loyalty in future elections and that if the people were to become more involved in the democratic process then it should be the Conservatives who were responsible for it and it should be the Conservatives who benefited from it.
But many within his own party who believed any extension of the franchise to be an unnecessary and dangerous development and had rallied to Disraeli’s support in his opposition to Gladstone were shocked at what they now saw as a betrayal.
Disraeli dismissed their concerns but he would be reliant upon Liberal votes to secure the passage of the bill and as a result was forced to accept amendment after amendment making his Reform Bill even more radical than he had originally intended, though he refused to countenance any change proposed by Gladstone.
Passed in August 1867, the Disraeli’s Electoral Reform Bill gave the vote to 938,427 working men increasing the electoral roll by 88%, though some householders, most agricultural labourers, and of course women were still excluded.
Despite the fact that even after the Reform Bill only 2 in 7 adults were eligible to vote Disraeli had made Britain a democracy of the people and not just of the privileged few.
Discord within the Conservative Party caused during the debate over the Reform Act eased as Disraeli received widespread acclaim in the press and across the political spectrum for his determination and vision, though not from Gladstone who had seen his own plans gazumped in what he believed an act of outrageous and self-aggrandising chutzpah typical of the man.
Disraeli had taken responsibility for the passage of the Reform Act not only because it was his policy but also as a result of the Earl of Derby having to operate from the House of Lords and also because of his gout that often saw him absent from proceedings.
Indeed, his ill-health was to become so severe that by early 1868 he was effectively housebound and increasingly incapable of discharging his duties as Prime Minister.
In February, he wrote to the Queen tendering his resignation as Prime Minister and recommending that Benjamin Disraeli replace him.
Queen Victoria wrote to her eldest daughter in Germany:
“Mr Disraeli Prime Minister! A proud thing for a man risen from the people to obtain.”
William Gladstone thought otherwise and dwelt instead upon exactly what magic elixir he had concocted to obtain first the Chancellorship and then the Premiership ahead of him?
He returned to Hawarden to chop down trees.
As the letters and telegrams of congratulations flooded in a clearly delighted Benjamin Disraeli was often heard to repeat the remark he had made to the Queen following his appointment – I have climbed the Greasy Pole.