The most remarkable Tory speech ever delivered in Manchester (where the Conservatives are holding their conference this week) was given by Disraeli in the famous Free Trade Hall on 3 April 1872.
It was not a speech to which Disraeli looked forward. He told his friend Lord Derby beforehand that “he did not like his visit to Manchester; it had been forced upon him by importunity continued ever since the last general election” which had taken place in 1868 and brought marked Tory gains in Lancashire.
He was greeted on arrival by huge enthusiastic crowds. In the Free Trade Hall, Lord Derby recorded in his diary, “there were said to be 6,000 persons… the heat was oppressive. D. spoke from 7.30 to nearly 11: 3 hours and 20 minutes”. The length of the speech diminished its effectiveness. “On the whole”, Derby felt, “the oration, though a remarkable intellectual feat, being admirable in point of style, and delivered without reference to a note, fell flat, being much too long: of which D. himself was quite aware.”
Remarkable indeed it was for a man aged 68 who rarely spoke outside Parliament. Two bottles of white brandy were imbibed to sustain him during this marathon performance.
Reaction to the speech was not universally favourable. Derby noted on 6 April that “the local and London press is (naturally) full of criticisms on Disraeli’s speech”. In Conservative history, however, the speech came to be hailed as one of the greatest enunciations of Tory principles.
About half the speech was concerned with constitutional issues; much of the remainder was dominated by foreign policy. One small portion has been given disproportionate attention. Two paragraphs were devoted to social issues. They proposed “the consolidation of existing sanitary legislation”. Disraeli made this humdrum improvement seem momentous by adding that “the first consideration of a minister should be the health of the people”.
By emphasising this fragment of the speech, Conservative propagandists turned it into a great declaration of Tory social reform. It is widely seen in that light today. Clare Foges, writing in The Times on 30 September, even asserted that Disraeli made his famous reference to “two nations” in the speech. The much-quoted words belong exclusively to his novel Sybil, published in 1845. Ms Foges can check them readily in a new slim volume, The Sayings of Disraeli, with a foreword by me.
Disraeli could not have been clearer about the speech’s real intentions. He concluded: “I now deliver to you, as my last words, the cause of the Tory Party, the English Constitution, and the British Empire.”