When, how far and why did the Conservatives become ‘the party of Empire’?
That the Conservative party in the late nineteenth century became associated with empire and the so-called New Imperialism is accepted by all. When, how far and why this occurred, however, is extremely contentious, dividing both contemporaries and subsequent historians. Historiography on the subject was, and still is divided, largely around differing interpretations of Disraeli and his impact on the Conservative party. To some, Disraeli’s rhetoric and vision, if not his actions, are identified with the development of empire as a central theme of the Conservative party. Others, criticizing the ‘legend of Disraeli’ ...view middle of the document...
The Home Secretary, Richard Cross, in his famous description of Disraeli’s first Cabinet meeting confirms that Disraeli’s speeches were influential, at least amongst members of the parliamentary party. Cross writes, “From all his speeches, I had quite expected that his mind was full of legislative schemes, but such did not prove to be the case … there was some difficulty in framing the Queen’s speech.” Cross, and we can assume him to be typical of many contemporaries, believed Disraeli’s speeches to be substantial. Whether or not they were is, in this case, not as important as the fact that people perceived them to be. It seems reasonable therefore, that Disraeli’s speeches had a significant impact on his contemporaries, from members of the parliamentary party, to the workers of Lancashire, and the rest of the country beyond.
However, this is not to suggest that the Conservative party became linked with empire in 1872 simply because Disraeli made a speech asserting that the “maintenance of the Empire” was the “second great object of the Tory Party”. Such a change would have occurred over a period of time, not because of one event. It seems reasonable, however, to suggest that these speeches mark the start of the transition, though how far Disraeli alone is representative of the Conservative party remains a problem that needs to be addressed. It is for this reason that actions, rather than words, now need to be considered. For many historians, as has been noted above, the second of Salisbury’s ministries is the time when the Conservatives truly became the party of empire, as evidenced principally by the expansion of British power in Africa. However, events in Disraeli’s second ministry, as well as Gladstone’s critique of it in his Midlothian campaign, suggest that a distinctive Conservative attitude towards empire policy was developed, and put into practice in this ministry.
One event above all stands out as the most important event in linking the Conservatives with empire – the Eastern Question. Not only did the government’s handling of this issue demonstrate a new and deliberate attitude towards Colonial affairs and Foreign Policy, it also united the party around Disraeli’s attitude towards empire.
The assertion of British interests in a display of Palmerstonian realpolitik in sending the fleet to Constantinople and the subsequent movement of Indian troops to Malta, show Disraeli’s determination that Britain should “play the independent role in European affairs that her interests demanded”. The subsequent Congress of Berlin in July 1878 was one of Disraeli’s greatest triumphs and displays most clearly his attitude to the British Empire, and one that was distinct from previous Conservative policy. For Disraeli the empire needed to be maintained as it was the source of Britain’s greatness, allowing its leader to play the role of a world statesman. At Berlin Disraeli and Salisbury did just that, forcing Russia to give up...