The Beaconsfield Administration 1874-1879
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
According to the Conservative theory the country did not want heroic legislation and reconstruction such as the Liberals had attempted, but minor reforms which would make life work more smoothly for the working classes. In the philanthropic legislation of the past the Conservatives had been quite as active as the Liberals, since orthodox Liberalism was closely associated with the manufacturing class, and had been largely dominated by the economic theories of what was called the Manchester School, the doctrines of unqualified competition. Though it was true that there had always been a Radical wing with sympathies very much more democratic and humanitarian than those of the official Liberals, it was not particularly difficult for the Conservatives to claim that they were the true friends of the working-man.
It was therefore the Conservatives not the Liberals who now threw over the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and did actually give to the trade unions all that they had demanded. The application of the Conspiracy Law to trade disputes was limited. The terms "employer" and "workman" were substituted for those of "master" and "servant" in a new Act which made the agreements between them a simple civil contract, in which the two parties stood on the same legal footing. The "coercion" and "molestation" of the Criminal Law Amendment Act disappeared; persuasion which stopped short of violence or actual intimidation ceased to be punishable, and peaceful picketing was expressly sanctioned. Also a Nine Hours' Bill, limiting the work of women and children to nine hours, was now obtained by the Lancashire cotton spinners, though the Liberal Government had stubbornly refused it.
Again, as the friends of the people, the Conservatives passed a series of Acts - an Agricultural Holdings Act, a Labourers' Dwellings Act, and others - which would have been extremely useful to the working, classes if they had been compulsory. As they were merely permissive, the practical benefits derived from them were open to question, since in one group of cases local authorities made little use of the powers conveyed to them, while in others one party could practically insist upon the other agreeing to "contract out." In fact, among Liberals as well as among Conservatives there was still a strong feeling against interfering with freedom of contract. It remained for later parliaments to apply the principle that in actual fact such contracts very rarely are free and the desired end can only be secured by compulsion. For Ireland, after the sweeping measures of 1869 and 1870, the Government had no legislation to offer except the renewal of the Peace Preservation Act, which appeared to have been attended by entirely satisfactory results.
The real interest, however, of the Beaconsfield administration - so called because during 1876 Disraeli withdrew from the Commons to the Lords, with the title of Earl of Beaconsfield - lies in the revival of British activity in the field of foreign politics. The policy of non-intervention had been professed theoretically by every British minister from Castlereagh and Canning down to Palmerston and Gladstone; but the interpretations -and applications of the policy had followed exceedingly diverse lines.
With Canning and Palmerston it had at least been a first principle to insist that their voices should be heard in the councils of Europe; that Britain was not to be treated as a negligible quantity. On the other hand, another school, at this time dominant in the Liberal party, was disposed to be somewhat ostentatiously pacific; and the results of their diplomacy during the late administration had undoubtedly been viewed with extreme dissatisfaction by the country. It was to the Conservatives not to the Liberals that the Palmerstonian tradition had passed. Disraeli, the most imaginitive of English statesmen, adopted as his own the magnificent view of the high destinies of the British Empire and its moral supremacy among the nations; also be was of opinion that the other nations should understand that it would in no way suffer its own interests to be ignored.
The Suez Canal
To those principles he added a predilection for startling and theatrical effects. Thus in 1875 he took the world by surprise with an exceedingly ingenious stroke which gave the British Government a dominant control over the Suez Canal, the new waterway from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The canal itself had been constructed mainly by French enterprise and practically without British support. It was the property of a commercial company in which the dominant influence was French, while the Khedive of Egypt was by far the largest shareholder. But the Khedive was very much in want of cash, and contemplated the sale of his shares; Disraeli was no sooner made aware of the fact than he fore-stalled all other buyers by purchasing shares for the British Government at a cost of ￡4,000,000. It was obvious that circumstances might arise when British control would be of the utmost importance, but from a merely commercial point of view it was a sound investment for the nation.
At the same time the entire unexpectedness of the step created an uneasy feeling in the minds of that very large portion of the British public which particularly dislikes being taken by surprise. The capture of the Canal shares emphasised the interest to Britain of Egypt, the Eastern Mediterranean, and, by consequence, the Turkish Empire. Disraeli inherited from Palmerston that statesman's views upon Russian aggression, and his policy towards Russia is the dominant feature of his administration both in its European and in its Indian aspects.
The Turkish Empire
The root of the troubles in the Near East is always to be found in the Turkish government's treatment of its Christian subjects. A united Europe in which the great Powers trusted each other and each one might be counted upon to act with pure disinterestedness could always have brought the Turk to reason. But the Turk enjoyed a deep-seated conviction that the Powers distrusted each other, would never be roused into taking active steps in unison, and yet would never permit any one Power to take action independently. He had no objection to making the most satisfactory promises, but the promises never materialised in action.
British statesmanship generally regarded the preservation of the Turkish Empire as necessary to British interests, and was equally convinced that Russia in her own interest desired Turkey's disintegration. Therefore while Britain might view favourably the application of a strictly joint pressure by the Powers upon Turkey, she was emphatically opposed to permitting the independent intervention of Russia. Germany regarded the whole question as secondary; and Austria had no inclination to active intervention unless she could reap her reward in the Balkan States.
In these circumstances the Porte [Ed. The Turkish foreign ministry] suavely ignored the European concert, and continued its misrule in the mainly Slavonic and Christian provinces of the Balkan's and of the Danube. Consequently in 1875, just before the purchase of the Suez Canal shares, the Western Provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina revolted. In the following January the Powers, at the instance of Austria, addressed a note to the Porte without any tangible result. In the summer a series of palace revolutions ended by placing Abdul Hamid on the Turkish throne. Meanwhile the insurrections had spread to Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria, and England was startled and horrified by the appalling reports sent home by newspaper correspondents of the atrocities committed by Turkish troops in Bulgaria.
A strong anti-Turkish agitation was set on foot. The continued failure of the Powers to influence the action of Turkey, which merely amused itself by promulgating empty projects of reforms, gave Russia excuse or justification for implying that if the Powers would not take effective action in concert, she would do so independently; and in the spring of 1877 war was declared between Russia and Turkey.
In England the anti-Turkish agitation had risen high, but it sank as the anti-Russian agitation rose. All the old suspicions of Russian intentions and Russian methods were excited to the highest pitch, and the magnificent defence of Plevna and of the Schipka Pass by the Turks against tremendous odds appealed powerfully to British sentiment. At the turn of the year the Russians had forced the Balkan passes and were moving towards Constantinople.
The British Government made it clear that they regarded war with Russia as something more than a possibility, and their attitude in making active preparations was indubitably popular. Every barrel-organ in the country was grinding out the strains of the popular ditty, "We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do," which introduced the new term jingoism, which has ever since held its own in political slang. The British fleet was despatched to the Sea of Marmora to protect British interests. But a few days later, on March 3rd, it was announced that Russia and Turkey had agreed upon the Treaty of San Stefano.
The Treaty of San Stefano
The terms of the treaty were less alarming than had been anticipated; but in Lord Beaconsfield's view Russia and Turkey were not to be permitted to settle matters on their own account. The Treaty of San Stefano must be referred to the Powers, in accordance with the Treaty of Paris. Russia declared her willingness to refer the treaty to the Powers, but reserved to herself the right of accepting or rejecting their proposals. Britain refused to attend the congress on such terms; war appeared to be almost inevitable, and the Foreign Minister, Lord Derby, who was opposed to war, resigned. His place was taken by Lord Salisbury. Active preparations continued, and the country was again startled by the announcement that the Crown, without reference to Parliament, had ordered a contingent of Indian troops to be despatched to Malta.
Nevertheless war was averted. Russia agreed to submit the treaty to a European congress to be held at Berlin. That change of attitude was due to a secret agreement negotiated by Lord Salisbury. Another secret agreement had been made with Turkey. The terms did not, in fact, insist upon all the objections which had been raised to the Treaty of San Stefano. Lord Beaconsfield, accompanied by Lord Salisbury, attended the Berlin Congress, and the practical outcome was a triumph for his diplomacy. Roumania, Servia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria north of the Balkans, were made independent principalities. Austria was to control the administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reservation of Southern Bulgaria secured the Turkish frontier.
The Berlin Treaty
This was the sum of the Russo-British bargain. But the Berlin Treaty did not touch the separate British treaty with Turkey, by which Britain gave an' independent guarantee to defend the Turkish dominion in Asia by force of arms, and herself occupied the island of Cyprus. Turkey, of course, gave the usual promises with regard to the treatment of her Christian subjects and the introduction of necessary reforms. Lord Beaconsfield returned to England, having achieved the proverbial "Peace with honour." Thus in the summer of 1878 his government was at the high tide of its popularity, yet in less than two years it had fallen.
Of the troubles in India and Africa which contributed to this end we shall speak in the next sections. But apart from these, though submerged for the time by the popular excitement over the restored European prestige of Britain, was a latent sense of uneasiness caused by Lord Beaconsfield's devotion to a policy of surprises, his habit of announcing decisive steps taken before the nation had any inkling of what was coming. That feeling sprang into renewed life as soon as the Government met with failures instead of successes. And at home nothing was done to attract popular favour.
Lord Beaconsfield's programme had been expensive; there was no relief of taxation, and the country was passing through a period of depression for which the Government was held responsible. Beaconsfield's withdrawal to the House of Lords had left the Commons without a strong leader, and there Charles Stewart Parnell had organised the band of "Home Rule" Irishmen into an instrument for the prevention of all government.
Every available form of the House was systematically employed to make the efficient conduct of business impossible. In Ireland also he created the Land League, a body whose primary object was to insist upon fair rents and, if fair rents were refused, refusal to pay any rent at all, with the secondary intention of ultimately converting tenancies into ownership. At the same time he made it apparent that his own ultimate intention was at least to destroy the English ascendency, if not to sever Ireland from the British Empire.
Fall of Disraeli's Administration
The inability of the leaders to control the House of Commons detracted from the dignity of the Government. In Afghanistan and Zululand there were disasters. At the end of 1879 Gladstone, who had retired from the active leadership of the Liberals, emerged from his comparative seclusion to denounce the ministry in his famous Mid-Lothian campaign. A bill was introduced by ministers to transfer the property and powers of London water-companies to a single central body. It seemed likely to prove that- the bargain proposed was a very bad one; and the bill was unpopular.
The Government had now held office for six years; Lord Beaconsfield appealed to the country, and discovered too late that the country had turned against his policy. Of the 652 members returned to the House of Commons 349 were Liberals, and of the rest 60 were Irish Home Rulers. Beaconsfield resigned; the Liberal party recognised, and its chiefs impressed upon the queen, that the electorate demanded a government with Gladstone at its head.