Who was Benjamin Disraeli?
Novelist and statesman, social outsider turned aristocrat; Britain’s first Jewish Prime Minister reflects the vibrancy and complexity of nineteenth century politics.
Benjamin Disraeli was born in London in 1804 into a moderately wealthy Jewish-Italian family. Immodest and easily bored, he abandoned being a solicitor to become a writer; dressing in ostentatious colourful clothes in homage to his idol, the poet Lord Byron.
Though his novels were received generously, his early works never achieved the commercial success needed to pay off the debts he accrued in attempting to impress in literary circles.
For an ambitious young man seeking action and financial security, there was thus only one place to go: politics. After all, MPs couldn’t be imprisoned for debt.
A ‘One Nation’ Conservative
In the unstable political atmosphere of the 1830s and 40s – many genuinely feared a revolution in Britain – Disraeli became a Tory and swapped his elaborate attire for a new uniform of black frockcoat, plush waistcoat, and grey trousers.
Attention to image did not, however, mean aversion to thought. In a series of novels, most famously 'Coningsby' (1844) and 'Sybil' (1845), he attacked the extremes of wealth and poverty generated by the Industrial Revolution.
He argued instead for an alliance between masters and men – unsurprisingly to be led by a charismatic young politician – to restore the greatness of Britain’s institutions.
Earl of the manor
Despite rising quickly in the Tory Party, Disraeli’s Jewish origins and social standing limited his success. As such, his political sponsor, Tory leader Lord Bentinck, helped him purchase Hughenden Manor in 1848 where he went on to live with his beloved wife, Mary Anne.
Although never really a ‘country man’, it was Hughenden’s woods that Disraeli enjoyed the most. In a telling contrast to his great political rival, the Liberal leader William Gladstone who Disraeli often accused of playing fast and loose with the Constitution, Disraeli preferred removing ivy from trees rather than – as in Gladstone’s case – chopping them down.
Disraeli’s eventual rise to the premiership in 1868 was to be the result of both port and policy. The Prime Minister Lord Derby was forced to resign on account of gout, and Disraeli, flushed with success after securing a bill to double the number of voters (more ironically than Gladstone intended), was his natural successor.
This initial spell in office was brief – the Liberals under Gladstone triumphed in that year’s General Election – and Disraeli didn’t return to Number 10 until 1874.
During this government he introduced legislation designed to improve the conditions of the working class – judged by most historians to be greater in rhetoric than reality – and undertook a bold imperial policy, including audaciously purchasing a controlling interest for Britain in the Suez Canal.
Arguably more Boris Johnson than Theresa May, to some Disraeli remains a literary adventurer who led his country like a character in one of his novels. To others he is the founder of modern progressive Conservatism.
The evidence can support both interpretations. Yet, whatever our view, Disraeli reminds us that style and money (or a lack of it) have always played a part in politics. If only he had been alive in the age of Twitter.