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Queen Victoria

The Age of Disraeli and Gladstone

A Monarchy in Transition

A Golden Age of Empire

In Victoria's reign, the years between 1867 and 1885 are most known for two great, contending prime ministers—the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli, and the Liberal William Gladstone. Victoria's relationship with the former was very good; the latter she disliked immensely. On the whole she favored Disraeli's conservative politics and his imperialist views in foreign policy. She detested Gladstone's democratic sensibilities as well as his personality.

Benjamin Disraeli was Jewish by heritage, though a Christian convert in his faith. In January 1867, while the Conservatives were in power, Disraeli introduced the Second Reform Bill, which passed both houses of Parliament. The bill was urged along by a popular movement to expand the vote to members of the British working class, most of whom owned no property and lived in the cities. It was ironic that Disraeli the Conservative pushed through the Reform Bill, but his politics were more democratic than previous Conservative and Tory prime ministers. The bill itself reduced property requirements for voting, and working-class folks who earned a certain income were given the vote. It primarily affected the middle classes, however, and relatively wealthy artisans and workers who lived in the towns and cities. The bill was seen as an important achievement for Disraeli, who became Prime Minister in February 1868. His ministry was short-lived, however, and the Liberals under William Gladstone took control of the Commons in December that year.

Queen Victoria was upset at the arrival of Gladstone's ministry. Although she generally wished to preserve a policy of official neutrality between the two political parties, her generally conservative views—and her dislike of Gladstone's manner—made it difficult to get along with him. Historian G.M. Trevelyan explains that Gladstone alienated the Queen with "not only by his views, but by his habit of industriously expounding them to her as if she were a public meeting." Gladstone, on the other hand, always felt a strong loyalty toward Victoria, which came from his genuine reverence for the British monarchy.

Fortunately for the Queen's nerves, February 1874 brought a Conservative victory at the polls, along with a second Disraeli ministry. His relations with the Victoria were exceptionally good. Indeed, a number of historians have said that he shamelessly flattered the Queen on many occasions, and that she succumbed to his flattery too easily. A chief example of such flattering behavior was Disraeli's decision to press her desire to be officially titled "Empress." On May 5, 1876, the act was passed which enabled Victoria to be crowned "Empress of India." She rewarded Disraeli by making him Earl of Beaconsfield.

1878 brought renewed tensions in the Balkans, when in March the Russians advanced on Turkish lands. Uncharacteristically, the Queen desired to go to war with Russia. Disraeli promptly threatened the Russians with war, ordering Imperial troops from India to Malta. However, compromise was reached before any conflict with the signing of the Treaty of Berlin, which restored Turkish power in the Balkans and which also gave Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Austro- Hungarians. Disraeli was generally congratulated for the treaty. Victoria had thought, throughout the crisis, that her prime minister had been lukewarm in even his aggressive actions in Malta. Those in the government who had been opposed to war with Russia received outright denunciations from their Queen.

By 1879, the Liberal party had strengthened its political organization throughout Britain, and as the elections of 1880 approached, Liberal victory seemed imminent. William Gladstone, introducing new methods of political campaigning, traveled around by train in what was called his "Midlothian Campaign," or by its detractors, the "Pilgrimage of Passion." Queen Victoria's anti-democratic sensibilities were horrified at the picture of Gladstone, most likely her new prime minister, addressing crowds from the windows of railway cars on the details of foreign policy. When the Liberals won at the polls and came into power in April 1880, the Queen tried to use her influence to have them choose the Marquess of Hartington rather than Gladstone as their Prime Minister. Her influence did not carry, however, and she was forced to deal with a Gladstonian cabinet for the next five years.

Domestic politics during those five years were dominated by a push for a third Reform Bill and by what was always referred to as the "Irish Question." Using her influence successfully to ease the tensions between Gladstone and Conservative Lord Salisbury during the debate over the Third Reform Bill, compromise was reached between Liberals and Conservatives and the Act passed in January 1885. This Reform Act was notable for extending the vote to poorer agricultural workers.

Tensions over the "Irish Question" never eased. Gladstone had begun to support Home Rule for Ireland. His policy would have given Ireland its own parliamentary body. At the time, Irish representatives sat in the Parliament in London, rarely gaining support for measures favorable to their countrymen. In the 1870s and 1880s, however, the Irish member of Parliament Charles Stewart Parnell coordinated an effective strategy of filibustering the Commons, and with Gladstone's support for Home Rule, the issue became one of the most contentious of the day. The Home Rule effort was doomed from the start; most British officials were very much against granting Ireland political independence, something which would not be granted for several decades (1922), and then only after a significant number of people had died in the struggle.

Queen Victoria herself was very much against Home Rule for Ireland, which was one of the reasons she considered Gladstone's politics so disagreeable. She was relieved from dealing with him in her Cabinet in June 1885, when the Conservatives retook Parliament and Lord Salisbury, who the Queenfavored, replaced Gladstone as Prime Minister.

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