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The Conservative Party: The Party of Empire

Powerful Essays
When, how far and why did the Conservatives become ‘the party of Empire’?

That the Conservative party in the late nineteenth century became associated with empire and the so-called New Imperialism is accepted by all. When, how far and why this occurred, however, is extremely contentious, dividing both contemporaries and subsequent historians. Historiography on the subject was, and still is divided, largely around differing interpretations of Disraeli and his impact on the Conservative party. To some, Disraeli’s rhetoric and vision, if not his actions, are identified with the development of empire as a central theme of the Conservative party. Others, criticizing the ‘legend of Disraeli’ place this change later, often arguing that it is the second Salisbury administration that displays a new and distinctive Conservative attitude towards empire. This essay will offer an analysis of these conflicting arguments in an attempt to determine firstly when, and subsequently how far and why, the Conservatives became the party of empire.

The most suitable starting point is perhaps a consideration of Disraeli’s rhetoric and speeches, notably his Crystal Palace address of 1872, as it is apparently because of these, rather than specific actions, that Disraeli, and by extension the Conservative party, became linked with empire. Certainly Disraeli was the most influential Conservative to broadcast such views, but the impact these speeches had is harder to identify. Eldridge, citing The Times as an example, argues that “apart from the sparkle of Disraeli’s oratory, little interest was shown in the [Crystal Palace] speech by contemporaries”, a view that many historians disagree with. Ward suggests that the Conservative victory in 1874 can be b...

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