‘Disraeli did infinitely more for the working classes than Gladstone.’ Do you agree?

Both men, who served as Prime Ministers, reformed many institutions with many of them effecting the working class like education (bringing up the working class), trade union (helping the working class fight for work wrights), public health (living conditions affecting the working class) and licensing (the way many working class people passed the time), along with the electoral institution (workers being able to vote on the matters which the work upon, such as factory conditions and education).
Many historians, such as William Kuhn, argue that William Gladstone, the Liberal Prime Minister, passed many other reforms as well to help the working class, including the Ballot Act of 1872. However, some historians, such as Monypenny and Buckle, say that Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister, did more to help the working class, including passing the Second Great Reform Act of 1867. The issue of trade union reforms was heavily involved in both Prime Minister’s term of offices, to which Disraeli seemed to do more for, even though Gladstone provided the building blocks for the reforms.
Gladstone was the first PM to recognise the rights of trade unions to exist. His legislation of 1871, the Trade Union Act, gave the unions legal protection and the freedom to exist and collect subs. On first reading, then, it would seem that Gladstone truly understood the concerns of working men and collective security against unscrupulous employers. However, the Act did not allow Unions to go on strike, due to a clause which ‘failed to define intimidation clearly’, which even a bad look could send someone to jail, which irritated the Radicals.

It was a half-hearted measure that alarmed the Whig-conservative elements and frustrated the hopes of working men, as the interpretation was lost in courts. Many saw it as a pointless decision, and it took Disraeli in 1875 to allow unions the right to strike. Disraeli’s legislation differed from Gladstone’s in that he was much more practical in his social reforms. Gladstone’s reforms required cooperation from the working classes; it places demands on them to respond.
Disraeli’s approach was to provide non-controversial legislation that was beneficial to all in society, including letting the Employers and Workmen Act have a clause that accepted that breaches of conduct such as pay and working hours by employers and workmen to be treated as offences under civil law, with even Alexander MacDonald, a trade unionist and a Liberal MP, saying that “the Conservatives have done more for the working classes in six years than the Liberals had in sixty.”
This shows that in trade union reform, Disraeli did more for the working class due to effectively allowing peaceful picketing. Another issue that Disraeli and Gladstone both put reforms into was public health to which it seemed Gladstone did more to help the working class. Gladstone, in 1872, passed the Public Health Act, which established the Urban & Rural Sanitary Authorities for public health in the local areas. This all came from a Commission in 1871 saying that the sanitary laws should be made uniform.
Even though these were abolished in a Local Government Act in 1894, the 1872 Act led the way for Urban and Rural District Councils that still run to do run to this day. On Disraeli’s attempt, he passed the Public Health Act of 1875, due to the actions of George Sclater-Booth, a Conservative MP for Health. The Act brought together all the previous legislation under a newly established system of power and checks for issues such as sewage/draining and public toilets.
This was seen as a massive success due to the fact that there was no public health measures for the next 60 years after the passage of the act. However, with the fact that it he paved the way for local government control that still exists today to help the working class, Gladstone did more to help the working class than Disraeli did in the public health reform. The issue of licensing snuck into both Prime Ministers’ time. In both cases, it didn’t do any good for the ruling party.
For Gladstone’s, the 1872 Licensing Act gave JPs the right to grant licenses to publicans, to fix operating hours and check for the adulteration of the alcohol. Gladstone introduced the act due to the commonness of widespread drunkenness in 19th Century Britain. However, it didn’t do any good for the Liberals, due to that moderateness of the act which disappointed two Liberal pressure groups of the party (mostly single issue MPs), who thought the act was ‘too lenient’. There is also historical view from Lowe that the Act affected “a positive permanent shift of the publicans and brewers of the Tory Party.”
Lowe then observes that the Licensing Act was major cause of the Liberal defeat in 1874. The same reform ideas went into Disraeli’s second term with the Intoxicating Liquoring Act, which again, curtailed opening hours and in the end, pleased nobody. Even though both attempts failed to sort out the problem of licensing, Gladstone lost a lot of working class support due to the licensing Act, as there were a number of near riots to enforce closing hours, and as Lowe writes, many brewers went to the
Tories after the 1872 Act, so Disraeli seemed not to harm the working class as much as Gladstone did to his own party and the working class. An issue the two honourable Prime Ministers shared in working on education, to which Disraeli seemed to do more for the working class. Gladstone’s work on the Forster’s Education Act established the principle of universal elementary education. The state was taking on board the responsibility and the costs of educating all children up to a certain age.
This had a link with meritocracy because Gladstone wanted the working classes to be aspiring: education would encourage workers to be more reflective and focus on moral and ethical progress, furthering one of Gladstone’s aims. This was not necessarily appreciated by the working man and woman. Gladstone’s high-minded ideals were very far removed from the daily experiences of the ordinary family who were trying to scrape together a living. Ensuring that children had to receive schooling meant that there was less money coming into the family household.
Disraeli’s Education Act 1876, clarified Forster’s Act, by placing a duty on parents to ensure that their children received elementary instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic; created school attendance committees, which could compel attendance, for districts where there were no school boards; and the poor law guardians were given permission to help with the payment of school fees, giving a way of working class families a chance to get a child in education and made employment of children under 10 illegal, incentivising parents to send their kids off to school.
This shows that in education neither Gladstone or Disraeli had any significant understanding of the plight of working class lives especially in a pre-welfare age. However, since Disraeli was able to further the work done by Gladstone, I believe that Disraeli managed to help the working class more, due to that managed to help the working class children get into school. One final comparison between the two figureheads of Gladstone and Disraeli that we can make is the reforms electorally.
Gladstone passed the Ballot Act of 1872, which made voting in elections happen by secret ballot and that candidates shouldn’t be nominated at the hustings. The Act enhanced the right of the voters to cast their votes without intimidation, which pleased many working class people, as they didn’t have to vote to their landlord’s wishes. Disraeli however, did pass the Second Great Reform Act, which extended the right to vote still further down the class ladder, adding just short of a million voters, including many working men, and doubling the electorate to almost two million voters in England and Wales alone.
Even though both prime ministers were successful in helping the working class secure their say in government, I believe that Gladstone did more to help the working class, with the upper class getting less voting power with their single ballot and that landlords couldn’t compel their tenants to vote the way that they wanted to. There was a reason for the differences in why Gladstone and Disraeli did different things.
Gladstone, from his strict religious beliefs, thought that by helping the working class, they would become more moral. In this case, Gladstone’s reforms in Licensing were due to the immorality of the large problematic situation he found in drinking houses. As a committed Anglican Christian, he believed that the church, which was the official state religion of the UK at the time, had a important role of defending ‘God’s’ plan to help people and deter them from sin, and by helping the people, he would be seen as helping ‘God’s’ creation.
Disraeli, on the other hand, perused reforms, which many were compromises on behalf of the elite. One of the main aims of Disraeli was to maintain the traditional aristocratic constitution of the country, and this was seen in many of his reforms, such as the education reforms, which was designed to uphold the ascendancy of squire and parson in rural England. The reforms weren’t really meant to help the poor, they were there to help settle a possible class conflict of ideas and interests. There are many historical opinions about who did more to help the working class.
There are some, such as Lee, who claim that there was no real worked out legislation programme, more of a typical 19th Century politician “paying off electoral debt”. For Gladstone, Matthew describes his pattern of reforming as the ‘reforms on the inefficient administrations of the UK,’ showing that he reformed to keep government expenditure low and wanted to liberate people from outdated restrictions, like he did with trade union reforms, which were giving trade unions legal protection.
In conclusion, I believe that with these categories, I agree that Disraeli did do more, but the word “infinitely” is too far for my understanding. Even though the reforms were to protect the interest of the aristocrats and gave more the working class, Gladstone gave the building blocks for many of the reforms, such as giving trade unions the legal protection that they wanted and setting the way for local councils with the public health reforms.

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