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?He was essentially an opportunist and always placed Britain?s immediate interests
above any underlying principle or moral consideration.? (Lee)
The above quotation describes Disraeli very well. His primary and permanently
sustained goal was his own political career, and the short-term interests of
Britain. This can be seen as both a criticism and a positive aspect. Such a
description is justified by looking at Disraeli?s foreign policy during his
period in office between 1874 and 1880. Such policy falls into four main categories;
the purchase of Suez Canal Shares, the Zulu War, the Afghan War and the Eastern
As outlined above, Disraeli was an opportunist and, by nature, was always
more interested in the short term than the long-term, simply because the long-term
had no immediate benefit to him, the Conservatives or the country. ?Disraeli
believed in the greatness of Great Britain? (Scott-Baumann) and this is very
much apparent in his handling of the Eastern Question. This question was arguably
the most complex of all problems faced by nineteenth century diplomats. The
crumbling Ottoman Empire and the oppression of the Christian races in the Balkans
both heightened these peoples? want for freedom and the desire of the Russian
Empire to expand southward at the expense of the Turks. Disraeli?s involvement
in this issue came from the fact that Russian expansion might threaten the vital
Suez Canal, and also that he felt British prestige in the Eastern Mediterranean
and Central Asia were also at stake. To Disraeli, the issue was obvious ? ?Constantinople
is the key to India,? and this principle laid the foundation for Britain?s commitment
to upholding the Ottoman Empire.
It was not until June 1876, when news reached London of an uprising in Bulgaria,
which the Turks had repressed with appalling brutality, killing 12,000 Bulgarian
peasants, that Disraeli?s imperial conduct suffered massive criticism. Gladstone
produced a pamphlet attacking Disraeli vigorously, and succeeded in appealing
to the better moral nature of a large section of the electorate. Disraeli deepened
this criticism of him by dismissing the reports of Liberal newspapers as being
based on nothing more than ?coffee-house babble.? This was a very bad error
of judgement, as it portrayed him as being heartless and callous, and went against
the popular prominence of moral politics in the Victorian era. In this instance,
Disraeli very much deserved the criticism he received, as ?The blunder revealed
. . . an insensitivity to the passionate moral earnestness that inspired the
political commitments of many Victorians.? (Scott-Baumann)
However, with relevance to The Eastern Question, Disraeli?s masterstroke was
at the Berlin Congress. Because of the treaties of San Stefano, Russia gained
a lot of Turkish Land, and this humiliated the Turks a great deal. While the
Suez Canal and Egypt were not threatened, thus meaning there was no direct threat
to Britain, Disraeli and Britain were not the only nation to react angrily to
the Russian expansion. The Austrians joined Britain in demanding a world conference,
and when Bismarck joined in and offered Berlin as a neutral venue, the congress
took place, the Russians knowing they had no choice but to agree. The Russians
played for time and Disraeli used this to good effect by re-distributing troops
from India to the Mediterranean. Disraeli agreed to defend Turkish interests
in return for the purchase of Cyprus, which he planned to use as a naval base.
Russia were then allowed to keep Caucasus and the Austrians occupied Bosnia
and Herzegovina. The threat to Constantinople was completely removed by the
division of ?Big Bulgaria? and Disraeli returned home, having secured Cyprus,
claiming ?peace with honour.? At the time, few disputed this. However, Disraeli?s
imperialist conduct here was not supported by Derby, and Derby resigned and
was replaced by Salisbury. While Salisbury was excellent in this field, finalising
the details for most of the above arrangements this did cause unrest in the
cabinet and lessened the triumphant impact of the Berlin Congress.
A further area in which Disraeli deserved praise was in his purchasing of
the Suez Canal shares. The Khedive of Egypt, faced with bankruptcy, out 175
million Suez Canal shares up for sale. Acting quickly, and without Parliamentary
authority, Disraeli borrowed 4million pounds from the bankers Rothschilds and
bought all of them. This made Britain the single largest shareholder, and besides
getting one over on France, this secured the Suez Canal as a ?passage to India?
and also lessened Britain?s dependence on Constantinople, thus dramatically
strengthening the growing Empire. The purchase itself is described by John Ramsden
as ?a personal coup on Disraeli?s part, conducted with skill and resolution.
Disraeli?s disappointments came in the shape of the Zulu and Afghanistan wars.
In 1876 he appointed a keen imperialist, Lord Lytton, as Viceroy of India, sponsored
a new British mission to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, aimed at extending
British influence, and keeping the Russians at bay. At first this seemed a success
but in September 1879, they were all massacred. This was a disaster for Disraeli,
and Gladstone violently attacked this area of ?Beaconsfieldism? again preying
on the support for moral politics. However, it is true that the Viceroy acted
against instructions, and so this limits justification for criticism of Disraeli,
but nevertheless, Disraeli appointed him, and as Prime Minister is very much
accountable for his government?s and indeed his nation?s actions.
Similarly, the Zulu war proved a big embarrassment to both an imperialist
government and population. Indeed, the defeat at Isandhlwana was ?the worst
humiliation ever suffered by a British Army in Africa.? (Lee) Although in his
defence, Britain eventually won both the Zulu and the resulting Afghanistan
War, both events were a great embarrassment to him and the nation, particularly
as both wars were entirely self-induced and rather unnecessary.
Lastly, there was the Royal Titles Act. This was when Disraeli made Queen
Victoria the Empress of India. Much of the population adored this, as it so
well depicted Britain?s world authority. One such admirer was the Queen herself,
who promptly made him Earl of Beaconsfield. However, Gladstone again attacked
this, saying how the Queen being Empress of India was intrinsically ?unenglish?.
Furthermore, many people realised at the time that this was just another example
of Disraeli as an opportunist. Bearing this in mind, The Royal Titles Act can
be looked on as both a success and a failure. Perhaps it did deserve the criticism
it received, as it is more than likely that it was, in truth, an attempt to
receive further support from Queen Victoria, a very popular public figure.
In conclusion, Disraeli?s foreign and imperialist policies were of mixed success.
Both the Suez Canal shares and the Congress of Berlin were highly successful
and received little criticism. On balance though, in an era with a great admiration
for moral politics, personified in Gladstone, he was very na?ve to support the
Turks, even after their atrocious deeds, and later to compound this by dismissing
it as ?coffee-house babble.? The Zulu and Afghan Wars were further examples
of Disraeli?s opportunistic imperialism, and perhaps exposed a passion for prestige
so strong he was unconcerned with the means of achieving this. However, Disraeli
and Gladstone are, without any shadow of a doubt, the most beautiful example
of British adversarial politics, and criticism, by its very nature, comes from
opponents, and in the case of these two men, praise does not. Bearing this in
mind, Disraeli did deserve the criticism he received on issues such as the Afghan
War and the support for Turkey, but also deserves equal praise for his expert
handling of the Congress of Berlin and the Suez Canal.
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