Disraeli became Prime Minister. He was 70 years old,in frail health and desolated by his wife's death, but he made the most of his opportunity at the top—after a quarter-century rebuilding the Tory party. Disraeli pushed through Factory Acts in 1874 and 1878, increasing government regulation of business. Disraeli's Trade Union Act essentially put labor union bosses above the law. With the Sale of Food and Drugs Act, Disraeli's government assumed responsibility for the health of people. The Artisan's Dwelling Act authorized local governments to take private property for housing projects.
More distressing for Gladstone, Disraeli promoted imperialism. He spent more money on armaments. He got involved in the war between Russia and Turkey. He occupied Cyprus. He had British forces invade Transvaal, South Africa, and Kabul, Afghanistan. He guaranteed to protect three states on the Malay Peninsula. He claimed about 200 Pacific islands. He acquired controlling interest in the Suez Canal—a move which afforded more secure access to British India but became an 80-year occupation of Egypt, including wars, big military expenditures and political embarrassments. Disraeli flattered Queen Victoria by naming her Empress of India, and she cherished the thought that the sun never set on the British Empire. Gladstone was outraged.
Events in the Mideast brought Gladstone back into the public arena. Between April and August 1876, Turkish forces slaughtered some 12,000 rebellious Bulgarian Christians. Disraeli played this down, because he supported the Turkish empire to offset Russian influence. Gladstone insisted that moral standards apply to everyone, including allies. Gladstone wrote a pamphlet, The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, which came out in early September and soon sold 200,000 copies. Disraeli dismissed the pamphlet as passionate, vindictive, and ill-written. Disraeli added: There may be more infamous men but I don't believe there is anyone more wicked.
To Gladstone, imperialism inevitably meant more burdens on British taxpayers and more risks of war. On May 7, 1877, he declared: Consider how we have conquered, planted, annexed, and appropriated at all the points of the compass, so that at few points on the surface of the earth is there not some region or some spot of British dominion at hand. Nor even from these few points are we absent. . . . And then I ask you what quarrel can arise between any two countries or what war, in which you may not, if you be so minded to set up British interests as a ground of interference. Gladstone went on to warn against the arrogance of good intentions which end up squandering blood and treasure in foreign wars.
Russia and Turkey negotiated a treaty, but Disraeli objected because Russia gained the upper hand. He claimed it was Britain's business to push back the Russians, and this was his aim at an international diplomatic conference held in Berlin, June 1878. He succeeded and enjoyed a hero's welcome back in London. Gladstone denounced Disraeli's imperialist pretensions as all brag . . . prestige . . . jingo.
Disraeli scorned Gladstone as a sophisticated rhetorician, inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity, and gifted with an egotistical imagination that can at all times command an interminable and inconsistent series of arguments to malign an opponent and glorify himself.
Disraeli's imperialist policies, however, brought unwanted complications. He tangled with the Emir of Afghanistan, who refused to let British diplomats into the country. In South Africa, about 800 British soldiers were killed by Zulus. European pressures led Disraeli to ask for an expanded British naval presence in the Mediterranean.
Because of all this, as Prime Minister, Disraeli hiked taxes by \P5 million and incurred \P6 million of budget deficits versus Gladstone's previous five years marked by \P12 million of tax cuts and \P17 million of budget surpluses.
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