Prime Ministers and Some Others

Date: 1918

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Five Prime Ministers of Great Britain





I always count it among the happy accidents of my life that I happened to be in London during the summer of 1867. . . . I was in the thick of the fun. My father3 was the sergeant-at-arms attending the House of Commons, and could always admit me to the privileged seats "under the Gallery," then more numerous than now. So it came about that I heard all the most famous debates in Committee on the Tory Reform Bill,4 and thereby learned for the first time the fascination of Disraeli’s genius. The Whigs, among whom I was reared, did not dislike "Dizzy" as they disliked Lord Derby, or as Dizzy himself was disliked by the older school of Tories. But they absolutely miscalculated and misconceived him, treating him as merely an amusing charlatan, whose rococo oratory and fantastic tricks afforded a welcome relief from the dulness of ordinary politics.

To a boy fourteen thus reared, the Disraeli of 1867 was an astonishment and a revelation — as the modern world would say, an eye-opener. The House of Commons was full of distinguished men — Lord Cranborne, afterward Lord Salisbury, John Bright and Robert Lowe, Gathorne Hardy, Bernal-Osborne, Goschen, Mill, Kinglake, Henley, Horsman, Coleridge. The list might be greatly prolonged, but of course it culminates in Gladstone, then in the full vigor of his powers. All these people I saw and heard during that memorable summer; but high above them all towers, in my recollection, the strange and sinister figure of the great Disraeli. The Whigs had laughed at him for thirty years; but now, to use a phrase of the nursery, they laughed on the wrong side of their mouths. There was nothing ludicrous about him now, nothing to provoke a smile, except when he wished to provoke it, and gaily unhorsed his opponents of every type — Gladstone, or Lowe, or Beresford-Hope. He seemed, for the moment, to dominate the House of Commons, to pervade it with his presence, and to guide it where he would. At every turn he displayed his reckless audacity, his swiftness in transition, his readiness to throw overboard a stupid colleague, his alacrity to take a hint from an opponent and make it appear his own. The bill underwent all sorts of changes in committee; but still it seemed to be Disraeli’s bill, and no one else’s. And, indeed, he is entitled to all the credit which he got, for it was his genius that first saw the possibilities hidden in a Tory democracy. . . .

What was Dizzy in personal appearance? If I had not known the fact, I do not think that I should have recognized him as one of the ancient race of Israel. His profile was not the least what we in England consider Semitic. He might have been a Spaniard or an Italian, but he certainly was not a Briton. He was rather tall than short, but slightly bowed, except when he drew himself up for the more effective delivery of some shrewd blow. His complexion was extremely pale, and the pallor was made more conspicuous by contrast with his hair, steeped in Tyrian dye, worn long, and eked out with artificial additions.

He was very quietly dressed. The green velvet trousers and rings worn outside white kid gloves, which had helped to make his fame in "the days of the dandies," had long since been discarded. He dressed like other men of his age and class, in a black frock-coat worn open, a waistcoat cut rather deep, light-colored trousers, and a black cravat tied in a loose bow — and those spring-sided boots of soft material which used to be called "Jemimas". . . .

Disraeli’s voice was by nature deep, and he had a knack of deepening it when he wished to be impressive. His articulation was extremely deliberate, so that every word told; and his habitual manner was calm, but not stolid. I say "habitual," because it had variations. When Gladstone, just the other side of the table, was thundering his protests, Disraeli became absolutely statuesque, eyed his opponent stonily through his monocle, and then congratulated himself, in a kind of stage drawl, that there was a "good broad piece of furniture" between him and the enraged leader of the Opposition. But when it was his turn to simulate the passion which the other felt, he would shout and wave his arms, recoil from the table and return to it, and act his part with a vigor which, on one memorable occasion, was attributed to champagne; but this was merely play-acting, and was completely laid aside as he advanced in years.

What I have written so far is, no doubt, an anachronism, for I have been describing what I saw and heard in the session of 1867, and Disraeli did not become prime minister till February, 1868; but six months made no perceptible change in his appearance, speech, or manner. What he had been when he was fighting his Reform Bill through the House, that he was when, as prime minister, he governed the country at the head of a parliamentary minority. His triumph was the triumph of audacity. In 1834 he had said to Lord Melbourne,1 who inquired his object in life, "I want to be prime minister" — and now that object was attained. . . .

The situation in which the new prime minister found himself was, from the constitutional point of view, highly anomalous. The settlement of the question of reform, which he had effected in the previous year, had healed the schism in the Liberal party, and the Liberals could now defeat the government whenever they chose to mass their forces. Disraeli was officially the leader of a House in which his opponents had a large majority. In March, 1868, Gladstone began his attack on the Irish Church,1 and pursued it with all his vigor, and with the support of a united party. He moved a series of resolutions favoring Irish disestablishment, and the first was carried by a majority of sixty-five against the government.

This defeat involved explanation. Disraeli, in a speech which Bright called "a mixture of pompousness and servility," described his audiences of the queen, and so handled the royal name as to convey the impression that her Majesty was on his side. Divested of verbiage and mystification, his statement amounted to this — that, in spite of adverse votes, he intended to hold on till the autumn and then to appeal to the new electorate created by the Reform Act of the previous year. As the one question to be submitted to the electors was that of the Irish Church, the campaign naturally assumed a theological character. . . .

Parliament was dissolved in November, and the general election resulted in a majority of one hundred for Gladstone and Irish disestablishment. By a commendable innovation on previous practice, Disraeli resigned the premiership without waiting for a hostile vote of the new parliament. He declined the earldom to which, as an ex-prime minister, he was by usage entitled;2 but he asked the queen to make his devoted wife Viscountess Beaconsfield. As a youth, after hearing the great speakers of the House which he had not yet entered, he had said, "Between ourselves, I could floor them all" — but now Gladstone had "floored" him, and it took him five years to recover his breath.

1 G. W. E. Russell, . London, 1918. T. Fisher Unwin, Ltd.

2 Russell, , pp. 35–41.

3 Charles Russell, the sixth son of the sixth duke of Bedford.

4 The Second Reform Act, passed in 1867, enfranchised the working classes.

1 Viscount Melbourne was prime minister in 1834 and again between 1835–1841.

1 The established (Anglican) Church in Ireland.

2 In 1876, during his second premiership (1874–1880), Disraeli accepted the title of earl of Beaconsfield and entered the House of Lords.


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Chicago: "Disraeli," Prime Ministers and Some Others in Readings in Modern European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: D.C. Heath, 1926), 375–377. Original Sources, accessed September 29, 2023,

MLA: . "Disraeli." Prime Ministers and Some Others, in Readings in Modern European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, D.C. Heath, 1926, pp. 375–377. Original Sources. 29 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Disraeli' in Prime Ministers and Some Others. cited in 1926, Readings in Modern European History, ed. , D.C. Heath, Boston, pp.375–377. Original Sources, retrieved 29 September 2023, from