Victorian parliamentary politics is remembered for its great reforms and ideological battles. William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli have come to define this period. This was no age of the soundbite and there was certainly no ‘call me Tony’ culture in the corridors of power, Gladstone’s first speech as Chancellor went on for almost five hours (though by all accounts it was a good one).
In their long careers Gladstone and Disraeli were to clash frequently, though they both entered Parliament as Conservatives they quickly fell apart over the issue of protectionism.
The Irish Famine of the 1840’s and the subsequent repeal of the protectionist corn laws by the Prime Minister Robert Peel caused the Conservative Party to split. With the ‘Peelites’ went Gladstone and most experienced Conservative politicians to form the Liberal Party, left behind were Disraeli and the remainder of the Conservative Party. This ideological split would resonate throughout their careers.
Disraeli’s beliefs were based upon the assumption that the upper classes were best suited to run and maintain the interests of the country, this paternal ‘One-Nation’ Conservatism laid the groundwork for the modern Conservative Party. Though he is remembered proudly by Conservatives, in his lifetime he was subjected to insults and gossip based upon his scandalous past, his Jewish descent, his flamboyant appearance and his policies.
In contrast Gladstone was the picture of straight-laced Victorian masculinity. When he wasn’t engaged in marathon speeches he could be found chopping down trees on his country estate. One critic observed “his amusements, like his politics, are essentially destructive.
Every afternoon the whole world is invited to assist at the crashing fall of some beech or elm or oak. The forest laments in order that Mr Gladstone may perspire.” In his four terms as Prime Minister Gladstone was to pass some of the most significant acts of the Victorian era. The 1884 Reform Act extended the vote to 6 million more men, and he enshrined in law property rights for Irish tenants during a period of great social turbulence.
Where Disraeli promoted the interests of the ruling classes Gladstone championed the rights of the individual. Gladstone’s impact on politics was mirrored in his nicknames, ‘GOM’ the ‘Grand Old Man’ by his supporters –‘ God’s Only Mistake’ by Disraeli.