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568
BEACONSFIELD

Mr Earle, that gentleman said: “I know what your feelings must be about this Reform Bill, and I think it right to tell you that it was not Disraeli’s bill, but Lord Derby’s. I know everything that occurred.” Mr Earle gave the same assurances to the writer of these lines, and did so with hints and half-confidences (quite intelligible, however) as to the persuasions that wrought upon his chief. Mr Earle’s listener on these occasions confesses that he heard with a doubting mind, and that belief in what he heard still keeps company with Mahomet’s coffin. One thing, however, is clear. To suppose Disraeli satisfied with the excuses made for his adoption of the “dishing” process is forbidden by the whole tenor of his teaching and conduct. He could not have become suddenly blind to the fallacy of the expectations derived from such a course; and all his life it had been his distinction to look above the transient and trafficking expedients of the professional politician. However, the thing was done. After various remodellings, and amid much perturbation, secession, violent reproach, the Household Suffrage Bill passed in August 1867. Another memorable piece of work, the confederation of Canada, had already been accomplished. A few days after parliament met Premier, 1868. in the next year Lord Derby’s failing health compelled him to resign and Mr Disraeli became prime minister. Irish disaffection had long been astir; the Fenian menace looked formidable not only in Ireland but in England also. The reconstructed government announced its intention of dealing with Irish grievances. Mr Gladstone approved, proposing the abolition of the Irish Church to begin with. A resolution to that effect was immediately carried against the strong opposition of the government. Disraeli insisted that the question should be settled in the new parliament which the franchise act called for, and he seems to have had little doubt that the country would declare against Mr Gladstone’s proposal. He was mistaken. It was the great question at the polls; and the first elections by the new constituencies went violently against the authors of their being.

The history of the next five years is Mr Gladstone’s. The Irish Church abolished, he set to work with passionate good intention on the Irish land laws. The while he did so sedition took courage and flourished exceedingly, so that to pacify Ireland the constable went hand in hand with the legislator. The abolition of the Irish Church was followed by a coercion act, and the land act by suspension of Habeas Corpus. Disraeli, who at first preferred retirement and the writing of Lothair, came forward from time to time to point the moral and predict the end of Mr Gladstone’s impulsive courses, which soon began to fret the confidence of his friends. Some unpleasant errors of conduct—the case of Sir R. Collier (afterwards Lord Monkswell, q.v.), the Ewelme rectory case,[1] the significant Odo Russell (Lord Ampthill) episode (to help the government out of a scrape the ambassador was accused of exceeding his instructions)—told yet more. Above all, many humiliating proofs that England was losing her place among the nations came out in these days, the discovery being then new and unendurable. To be brief, in less than four years the government had well-nigh worn out its own patience with its own errors, failures and distractions, and would gladly have gone to pieces when it was defeated on an Irish university bill. But Disraeli, having good constitutional reasons for declining office at the moment, could not allow this. Still gathering unpopularity, still offending, alarming, alienating, the government went on till 1874, suddenly dissolved parliament, and was signally beaten, the Liberal party breaking up. Like most of his political friends, Disraeli had no expectation of such a victory—little hope, indeed, of any distinct success. Yet when he went to Manchester on a brief political outing two years before, he was received with such acclaim as he had never known in his life. He was then sixty-eight years old, and this was his first full banquet of popularity. The elation and confidence drawn from the Manchester meetings were confirmed by every circumstance of the 1874 elections. But he was well aware of how much he owed to his opponents’ errors, seeing at the same time how safely he could lay his future course by them. He had always rejected the political economy of his time, and it was breaking down. He had always refused to accept the economist’s dictum without reference to other considerations than the turnover of trade; and even Manchester could pardon the refusal now. The national spirit, vaporized into a cosmopolitan mist, was fast condensing again under mortification and insult from abroad uncompensated by any appreciable percentage of cash profit. This was a changing England, and one that Disraeli could govern on terms of mutual satisfaction; but not if the reviving “spirit of the country” ran to extremes of self-assertion. At one of the great Manchester meetings he said, “Do not suppose, because I counsel firmness and decision at the right moment, that I am of that school of statesmen who are favourable to a turbulent and aggressive diplomacy. I have resisted it during a large part of my life.”

But for the hubbub occasioned by the Public Worship Regulation Act, the first two years of the 1874 administration had no remarkable excitements till near the end of them. The Public Worship Act, introduced by the archbishop of Canterbury, was meant to restrain ritualism. Disraeli, who from first to last held to the Reformed Church as capable of dispensing social good as no other organization might, supported the Bill as “putting down ritualism”; spoke very vehemently; gave so much offence that at one time neither the bill nor the government seemed quite safe. For some time afterwards there was so little legislation of the kind called “enterprising” that even some friends of the government began to think it too tame; but at the end of the second year an announcement was made which put that fear to rest. The news that the khedive’s Suez Canal Suez Canal shares. shares had been bought by the government was received with boundless applause. It was a courageous thing to do; but it was not a Disraeli conception, nor did it originate in any government department. It was suggested from without at a moment when the possibility of ever acquiring the shares was passing away. On the morning of the 15th of November 1875, Mr Frederick Greenwood, then editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, went to Lord Derby at the foreign office, informed him that the khedive’s shares were passing into the hands of a French syndicate, and urged arrest of the transaction by purchase for England. (The shares being private property their sale could not, of course, be forbidden.) Lord Derby thought there must be a mistake. He could not believe that bargaining of that kind could go on in Cairo without coming to the knowledge of the British consul there. He was answered that nevertheless it was going on. The difficulties of purchase by England were then arrayed by Lord Derby. They were more than one or two, and of course they had a formidable look, but so also had the alternative and the lost opportunity. One difficulty had already come into existence, and had to be met at once. Lord Derby had either to make direct inquiry of the khedive or to let the matter go. If he inquired, and there was no such negotiation, his question might be interpreted in a very troublesome way; moreover, we should put the idea of selling the shares into the khedive’s head, which would be unfortunate. “There’s my position, and now what do you say?” The answer given, Lord Derby drafted a telegram to the British consul-general at Cairo, and read it out. It instructed Colonel Stanton to go immediately to the khedive and put the question point blank. Meanwhile the prime minister would be seen, and Lord Derby’s visitor might call next day to hear the reply from Cairo. It is enough to add here that on receipt of the answer the purchase for England was taken up and went to a speedy conclusion.[2]

As if upon the impulse of this transaction, Disraeli opened the next session of parliament with a bill to confer upon the queen the title of empress of India—a measure which offended

  1. The crown had in 1871 appointed the Rev. W. W. Harvey (1810-1883), a Cambridge man, to the living of Ewelme, near Oxford, for which members of the Oxford house of convocation were alone eligible. Gladstone was charged with evading this limitation in allowing Harvey to qualify for the appointment by being formally admitted M.A. by incorporation.
  2. For a detailed, if somewhat controversial, account of this affair, see Lucien Wolf’s article in The Times of December 26, 1905, and Mr Greenwood’s letters on the subject.