Peel and Disraeli

The king of the forest stands erect, proud, defiant.  In front of him, two hounds circle, baying for his blood.  The famous Doyle cartoon which you have before you this evening depicts the prelude to one of the greatest acts of savagery in modern British political history.  Indeed, it is hard to think of a parallel among the ranks of Prime Ministers.  Neville Chamberlain was not so greatly troubled by Churchill and other Tory dissidents as he sought an accommodation with Nazi Germany:  he kept an iron grip on his Party until shortly before his downfall which occurred quite suddenly in May 1940.  Margaret Thatcher’s departure in November 1990 was dramatic and painful, but not long drawn-out. Other Prime Ministers have been sent packing in disagreeable circumstances by their colleagues rather than the electorate.  But none had to endure the intense vilification to which Peel was subject in 1845-6, his last eighteen months in office during which he repealed the Corn Laws and ended economic protection for agriculture in the United Kingdom.  The great stag was given no respite or relief by the two remorseless hounds that pursued him and the large pack of angry Tories who supported them.


Both hounds, Lord George Bentinck and Benjamin Disraeli, were extremely fierce.  Bentinck, the second surviving son of the 4th Duke of Portland, was probably the more dangerous.  His jaws ensured the great stag’s downfall.  Throughout his life he had devoted himself almost entirely to gambling and horse-racing. He had been an MP for 20 years, but had never spoken in an important debate.  In 1846, however, he abandoned his accustomed, much-loved sports and took up a new one: the destruction of Peel in order to punish him for bringing forward the repeal of the Corn Laws.  He ‘plunged into the Protectionist cause, driven by a grinding hatred of Peel, and talking wildly of honour and betrayal.  “My sole ambition”, he wrote in 1847, “was to rally the  broken and dispirited forces of a betrayed and insulted party, and to avenge the country gentlemen and landed aristocracy of England upon the Minister who, presuming upon their weakness, falsely flattered himself that they could be trampled upon with impunity.”’[1]


 Bentinck discovered a hitherto unsuspected eloquence with which to denounce Peel and a talent for figures that proved invaluable in attacking the economic case for repeal (an area where Disraeli was not strong).  The angry, but not very articulate, ranks of Protectionist MPs had found a champion.  He belonged firmly (as Disraeli did not) to their great landed order of England – to them the chief source of the country’s greatness and stability – and they trusted him completely.  Bentinck thus became the leading hound in bringing the mighty stag crashing to the ground.


Bentinck rarely gets the attention he deserves, despite Disraeli’s biography of him which must count as one of his finest works.  It was through Bentinck that the country squires who dominated the Tory ranks learned to accept – though not to love – Disraeli as an immense asset to their cause.  ‘Over and over again’,

recalled Sir William Gregory, one of the more broad-minded MPs, ‘did Lord George... speak with almost fury of the resistance of the squires to the prominence of the “d -  d Jew”’.[2]  It was Disraeli’s Jewishness  (he was not received into the Church of England until he was twelve ) which so often provided the basis for disparaging comments about him.  As late as the 1860s back bench Tory MPs were still inveighing against that ‘hellish Jew’.[3]   This anti-semitism frequently served as a kind of shorthand for the many other reasons why his stolid, not very imaginative Party of landowners was never willing to make him its hero during his lifetime (reserving its full adulation until he was safely dead when, through the Primrose League,[4] he became the only British politician of any Party ever to have a cult created in his honour).


The living Disraeli often spoke, and wrote, in epigrams, anticipating Oscar Wilde. He published novels (something no serious politician had ever done before), which members of his Party found perplexing and overblown.  As the political crisis of the mid-1840s  moved to its climax, he brought out two of his most famous novels and the first ever to have political themes, Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1845), showing  incidentally how fully he had adopted the mid-Victorian work ethic, just like Gladstone .  Two years later came Tancred with its exposition of the superiority of two great races, the Jewish and the British, to all others in the world.  

Modern scholars, like Jane Ridley and Jonathan Parry[5], have drawn from Disraeli’s famous trilogy many of the central ideas that, taken together, show that Disraeli, so often dismissed as a supremely  accomplished opportunist, in fact possessed a reasonably coherent and extremely interesting political philosophy.  Disraeli thought deeply about ideas: Peel, the great master of public business, did not.


But in the 1840s, a decade of acute political and economic crisis, no more than 3,000 copies of each work were sold.  The average reader – a category into which Peel’s backbench critics fell – was struck mainly by the threadbare plots, cardboard characters and lack of any clear answers to the pressing political problems, particularly Sybil’s two nations, that loomed so prominently in them.  The novelist did not have a tumultuous reception at the time. Acclamation came much later.


There were other reasons why Disraeli in 1846 needed to pursue his campaign against Peel in the company of Bentinck, the truly authentic Protectionist hound who could set the minds of the Tory faithful at rest. Disraeli wore extravagant, brightly coloured clothes, and covered his fingers with rings.  His closest relationships were with older women – particularly his adoring, dotty wife – and younger men. He was almost certainly bisexual.  He was up to his eyes in debt, owing in the 1840s some £30,000 – a colossal sum, equivalent to some £2.5million today. 


Once in the absence of his wife he had the entire contents of their London home valued by loan sharks – a home which Disraeli did not even own. If Disraeli had not been in Parliament which gave him immunity from arrest, he would have been in a debtor’s prison.


As if all this was not enough, Disraeli in the 1830s had flattered Peel and had pressed him for a job in his government in 1841.  Writing in 1836 Disraeli hailed his Party leader ‘clad in the panoply of your splendid talents and your spotless character...  Never, not even under Pitt, has the Tory party been so united as it is now’.[6] Loving a good meal – and rarely getting one in Victorian London – Disraeli hastened to Peel’s generous table.  ‘The dinner was curiously sumptuous’, he reported to his doting sister in 1839.  He was served ‘every delicacy of the season, and the second course of dried olives, caviare, woodcock-pie, foie gras, and every combination of cured herring, etc. was really remarkable’[7].  Disraeli watched his host closely, ‘reading signs of favour into his words and smiles as avidly as a courtier at Versailles’.[8]  


The request for office in 1841 was utterly brazen.  Mrs Disraeli wrote to the triumphant new Prime Minister telling him: ‘My husband’s political career is forever crushed if you do not appreciate him... Do not destroy his hopes and make him feel his life has been a mistake’.[9]  Disraeli himself rested his claims on the sufferings of a Jew in British politics.  ‘I have had to struggle against a storm of political hate and malice, which few men ever experienced, from the moment...  I enrolled under your banner.’[10]  So wrote the man who regularly had pieces of pork flung at him during election campaigns.  Peel was totally unmoved.  Would not his own ‘storm of political hate and malice’ five years later have been abated if he had found a post for Disraeli?  As it was, he briefly disconcerted the baying hound in 1846 by referring to the latter’s begging letter at the end of one of the dramatic Corn Law debates.  If he had been able to find the actual correspondence there and then, and had used it against Disraeli, his suffering would surely have been diminished.  The moralistic, judgemental Protectionist MPs would have found it hard to forgive a man who had wanted to serve their enemy in government.


Disraeli’s brief moment of discomfort passed.  There were no Peelite hounds ready to counterattack, disregarding all scruple in the way that Disraeli and Bentinck did. 


Peel himself, who had first held office way back in 1812, went on until the last expecting to be honoured and obeyed unquestionably as he took what he regarded as the right decisions in the national interest.  As has often been pointed out, Peel saw himself primarily as the first minister of the crown rather than as the leader of a political party with obligations to those who had been elected with definite pledges – above all to support protection – in 1841.  As the majority of  Tory MPs slipped further and further away from him at the start of 1846, Peel once again rehearsed his old doctrine which simply confirmed their disaffection: ‘I must, for the public interest, claim for myself the unfettered power of judging of those measures which I conceive will be better  for the country to propose...  I will only hold that office [of first minister] upon condition of being unshackled by any other obligations than those of consulting the public interests, and of providing for the public safety.’[11] 


It was now that Disraeli really came into his own.  In 1845-6 he gave Peel and Parliament a master class in the essential requirements of party politics which the Tory leader now openly despised.  Disraeli used to devastating effect the straightforward, uncomplicated charges which over the centuries have destroyed so many political careers in the party political arena: inconsistency and abandonment of principle.  Some of Disraeli’s words achieved instant immortality.  ‘The  right. hon. Gentleman caught the Whigs bathing, and walked away with their clothes.  He has left them in full enjoyment of their liberal position, and he is himself a strict conservative of their garments.’[12]  As the 1846 crisis reached its climax, Disraeli denounced Peel for lacking any principles of his own.  ‘The right. hon. Gentleman has traded on the ideas and intelligence of others.  His life has been one great appropriation clause. He is a burglar of others’ intellects... from the days of the Conqueror to the termination of the last reign, there has been no statesman who has committed larceny on so great a scale.’[13] Disraeli’s great series of  anti-Peel  philippics gave him the fame which he always said was one of  his chief  reasons for entering politics, the other being the advancement of his country’s greatness and glory.


Disraeli’s invective was unyielding.  The passionate language captured the mood of the 200-odd Tory MPs who opposed Peel over the repeal of the Corn Laws. 

Disraeli and his senior hound, Bentinck, succeeded in destroying their quarry because Peel had become completely detached from political reality as most Tories then understood it.  To ensure there was no misunderstanding, Disraeli put the central issue in more measured terms.  ‘It is not a legitimate trial of the principles of free trade against the principle of protection if a Parliament, the majority of which are elected to support protection, be gained over to free trade by the arts of the very individual they were elected to support in an opposite career. It is not fair to the people of England’,[14] Disraeli concluded.  It has to be said, however, that this ringing declaration in favour of high ideals in political life was not one to which Disraeli himself was to adhere firmly during his subsequent career.


Disraeli never admitted the force of Peel’s case for repeal.  Peel was acutely conscious of the widespread fears of British economic decline and of revolutionary

plots which were so prominent in the 1840s—the decade of the Chartists . Repeal would dramatically reduce the threat to the prosperity and security of the state. As Jonathan Parry has put it, ‘repeal of the Corn Laws would show that the state was not in the hands of a narrow and selfish aristocratic clique, but was capable of responding to genuine grievances...repeal of the Corn Laws would help to maintain propertied dominance of politics...A cannier party politician would have presented repeal of the Corn Laws in a more leisurely, ambiguous and artful way, and would have set more store by consultation and compromise, but this was not Peel’s style’.[15]  Peel shared Disraeli’s and Bentinck’s objectives of maintaining  landed  aristocratic  power and  restraining  the growth of urban and  middle class political influence, but differed completely from them about the means of achieving  these crucial goals which would secure Britain’s stability and prosperity.


There is little doubt that in 1846 Bentinck came to hate Peel.  It is widely assumed that Disraeli did so too.  That is much less certain.  Disraeli delivered his most carefully considered verdict on Peel in a memorable chapter of his life of Bentinck, published in 1851.   Re-reading it twenty years later, Disraeli declared that ‘the character of Sir Robert Peel appears to me to be more true than any which has appeared of that eminent man’.[16]  There is no lack of criticism.  ‘He contrived to destroy the most compact, powerful, and devoted party that ever followed a

British statesman.  At the same time great stress is laid on Peel’s virtues.  ‘He was gifted with the faculty of method in the highest degree, and with great powers of application which were sustained by a prodigious memory’, enabling him to become ‘a transcendent administrator of public business and a matchless master of debate in a popular assembly’.  Disraeli ends on a note of pure eulogy.  ‘But what he   really was, and what posterity will acknowledge him to have been, is the greatest member of Parliament that ever lived.’[17]  That was quite a tribute from perhaps the greatest parliamentarian of the late nineteenth century.


For his part did Peel go to his grave cursing Disraeli for his conduct in 1845-6?  Christian charity seems to have prevailed at the last.  A remarkable account of Peel’s final moments in 1850 was recorded by Disraeli himself in a curiously detached, formal note.  It runs as follows :  ‘A day or two after Peel’s death, Gladstone was at the Carlton & said “Peel died at peace with all mankind; even with Disraeli.  The last thing he did was to cheer Disraeli.  It was not a very loud cheer, but it was a cheer”’.[18]  This must surely rank as one of magnanimity’s greatest victories.






[1] Jane Ridley, The Young Disraeli 1804-1846 (Sinclair-Stevenson, paperback edition, 1995) , p.324.

[2] Ibid., p. 338.

[3] John Vincent, ‘Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield’, in Herbert van Thal (ed.), The Prime Ministers, Vol. Two (George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1975),  p. 93.

[4] For an account of this remarkable organisation, see my short book A Gift from the Churchills: The Primrose League 1883-2004 (published by the Carlton Club, 2010).

[5] See Ridley, The Young Disraeli, chapters 11 and 12, and Jonathan Parry, Benjamin Disraeli (Oxford University Press, 2007).  An extremely valuable account of Disraeli’s intellectual development can be found in Paul Smith, Disraeli: A Brief Life (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[6] Ridley,  The Young Disraeli, p175.

[7] Norman Gash, Peel (one volume condensed life, Longman, 1976), p.189.

[8] Ridley,  The Young Disraeli, p.228.

[9] Ibid., p.254.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Sarah Bradford, Disraeli (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982), p.150.

[12] Ibid., p.143.

[13] Ibid., p154.

[14] Ridley, The Young Disraeli, p.321.

[15] Jonathan Parry, ‘The Age of Peel’, in The Conservative Party: Seven Historical Studies 1680 to the 1990s (Conservative Political Centre, 1997), p. 35 – a collection of essays which I edited.

[16] Benjamin Disraeli, Lord George Bentinck: A Political Biography (ninth edition, Longmans, Green and Co., 1874) , p.viii.

[17] Ibid., pp 219, 230-1.

[18] Helen M. Swartz and Marvin Swartz (eds.), Disraeli’s Reminiscences (Hamish Hamilton, 1975), p.33.