xxxxxIt was in November 1875 that the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, acting on his own initiative, bought the Khedive of Egypt’s shares in the Suez Canal Company. His opponents condemned his action as unconstitutional, but his quick action gave Britain a controlling interest in the management of the canal, a vital waterway in the defence of colonial India. Disraeli entered Parliament in 1837. At first his foppish ways and attire brought derision, but he soon impressed by his eloquence and political acumen. As a leading member of a group known as Young England, he saw the need for the Conservatives to champion social and electoral reform, and in 1846 he became leader of his party in the Commons when his brilliant attacks upon the Repeal of the Corn Law brought down his prime minister Sir Robert Peel. He served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Derby on three occasions, and in 1867 skilfully steered the Reform Act through the Commons. He was prime minister for a brief period the following year, but it was not until 1874 that he led the government for six years. During this time he introduced a large number of social and trade union reforms, but it was his foreign policy that made the headlines. Having gained the Queen’s and the public’s approval for his quick action over the Suez Canal in 1875, two years later he strongly opposed Russia’s advance into the Balkans during the Russo-Turkish War. He sent gun boats to prevent the Russians taking Istanbul, and at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 he assisted in restricting their influence in the Balkans. And to further the strength of the Empire he conferred the title of Empress of India upon his close friend Queen Victoria. In return she created him Earl of Beaconsfield. In 1880, however, his party was defeated at the polls - due mainly to a recession at home and military setbacks in Afghanistan and Africa - and he retired from politics. He died the following year. Disraeli was also a writer of some note. From 1826 he produced a series of novels, including Vivien Grey, The Young Duke, and Henrietta Temple. These were mainly romantic, fanciful stories with some biographical element, but later, in the 1840s he produced a trilogy of political novels - Coningsby, Sybil and Tancred - in which he set out his ideas on Conservatism. His time in parliament was noted for his long and bitter rivalry with the Liberal leader William Gladstone.

BENJAMIN DISRAELI  1804 - 1881  (G3, G4, W4, Va, Vb, Vc)


Disraeli: by the English photographer H. Lenthall (active 1857-1872), c1870 – National Media Museum, Bradford, Yorkshire, England. Lion’s Share: by the English cartoonist John Tenniel (1820-1914) – contained in the London satirical magazine Punch, February 1876. Speech: by the British artist Thomas Walter Wilson (1851-1912), from Hutchinson’s Story of the British Nation, c1923. Britannia: date and artist unknown. Empress of India: by the English cartoonist John Tenniel (1820-1914) – contained in the London satirical magazine Punch, April 1876. Cartoon: by the English illustrator John Tenniel (1820-1914), contained in the London satirical magazine Punch, February 1870.

xxxxxIt was in November 1875 that the British Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, learnt that the Khedive of Egypt, facing bankruptcy, was anxious to sell his shares in the Suez Canal Company, (just under half the total number). The British Parliament was not in session at the time, but Disraeli, knowing that France was also in the market and that he had to act swiftly, took matters into his own hands and bought the shares with funds provided by the English branch of the wealthy Rothschild family. It was an unconstitutional move, as his parliamentary opponents - particularly William Gladstone - were quick to point out, but his decision to gain a controlling interest in the management of the Suez Canal, ”the highway to our Indian empire and our other dependencies”, was applauded by the Queen and the general public. Parliament confirmed the purchase and paid the agreed price (£4 million), whilst Disraeli emerged triumphant, the champion of British imperialism.

xxxxxEarly in his parliamentary career Benjamin Disraeli (later Earl of Beaconsfield) was regarded as a conceited dandy who had no political allegiance and scrapped a living by writing cheap novels. In the event, his brilliant eloquence as a speaker and his shrewd political judgment took him to the top of what he called “the greasy pole” of British politics. He served three times as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Derby, was prime minister for a brief period in 1868, and then held this high office for six years beginning in 1874. For more than thirty years he played a dominant role in the political life of the country, during which time he transformed a weak, fragmented Conservative party into a party of government based on social reform, the extension of democracy, and the promotion of empire.

xxxxxHe was born in Theobalds Road, London, and, after attending private schools at Blackheath and Walthamstow, began work in a solicitor’s office at the age of 17. Within three years, however, by reckless gambling on the stock exchange and the dismal failure of his attempt to launch The Representative, a daily newspaper to rival The Times (!), he had amassed so large amount of debt that it took him some 30 years to pay it off. As a means of reducing this burden he began, like his father, to follow a literary career. His first novel, Vivien Grey, produced in 1826, was quite well received, and this was followed in the 1830s by The Young Duke, Contarini Fleming, Alroy, Henrietta Temple and Venetia. In general these novels provided a highly romantic, fanciful account of aristocratic life at the time, but they contained, too, a strong biographical element. Only the love story Henrietta Temple could be termed a notable success.

xxxxxIt was in 1832, on his return from a trip to Europe that took him to Spain, Turkey and the Middle East, that - still looking for somewhere to make his mark - he decided to enter politics. After four unsuccessful attempts to gain a seat - once as a Radical and three times as a Conservative - he was eventually elected as the member for Maidenhead in 1837. As a politician he made a colourful but disastrous start. Dressed in a green coat and a bright yellow waistcoat adorned with golden chains, his maiden speech was drowned out by catcalls and laughter. He was forced to sit down but - prophetically - informed the House that one day he would be heard (illustrated). This opportunity came sooner than expected. Excluded from Peel’s government in 1841, Disraeli helped to form a group of young Tories - known as Young England - the following year. This advocated a new direction for the Conservative Party in which the major aims were to be the preservation of the monarchy and aristocracy, a genuine compassion for the working classes, and a return to the religious values of the past. And these reformist ideas were cleverly woven into his trilogy of political novels which followed - Coningsby (or The New Generation), Sybil (or The Two Nations), and Tancred (or The New Crusade). Such a vibrant policy, he argued, in contrast to the “organised hypocrisy” of Peel’s government, would curb the power of the rich industrial classes and bring about social and economic justice.


xxxxxBy 1846 Disraeli had gained a reputation as a witty and eloquent speaker, and in that year he used his talent to devastating effect against Sir Robert Peel’s proposal to repeal the Corn Laws. In a series of brilliant tirades he denounced the policy of his own prime minister. The Repeal of the Corn Law was achieved, as we have seen, but it brought about the downfall of Peel, and the gradual emergence of Disraeli as the leader of the Conservative Party in the Commons. His career was about to take off. Over the next twenty years he served three times as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Derby’s minority governments, and in 1867, as leader of the House, skilfully steered the Reform Act through the Commons. This extended the franchise by nearly 90%, as we have seen, and, in his own words, “re-established Toryism as a national foundation.” He was prime minister for a brief period the following year, but there then followed six years in opposition against the Liberals, during which time he established the Conservative Central Office, the forerunner of the modern party organisation, and in 1870 published another novel, Lothair. A political comedy with religion as its dominant theme, it was well received.

xxxxxDisraeli became prime minister following a resounding Conservative victory in the election of 1874, and he was at last able to implement the ideas put forward from his early days in parliament. Over the next six years his government put through a series of social and trade union reforms, notably in factory legislation, public health, housing and slum clearance.

xxxxxBut it was his foreign policy, dictated by his belief in empire, that made the biggest headlines. In 1875, as noted earlier, he used his own initiative to seize a commanding interest in the management of the Suez Canal, a waterway he saw as a vital link to Britain’s possessions in the Far East, particularly India. Then a year later came the start of the Eastern Question - the Bulgarian Revolt followed by the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. Determined to restrict Russian ambitions in the Balkans - a gateway to the Mediterranean - he gave his full support to Turkey, despite the so-called Bulgarian Atrocities (which he dismissed as “coffee-house babble”). He sent gun boats to the Dardanelles to put a stop to the Russian advance on Istanbul, and then, as British plenipotentiary at the Congress of Berlin of 1878, he took a leading part in a drastic overhaul of the Treaty of San Stefano, forced on Turkey by Russia. As a result the Russian Bear was deprived of the bulk of the gains it had acquired in the Balkans, and Disraeli returned to England in triumph, claiming to have won “peace with honour”.

xxxxxIn the meantime, in furtherance of his imperialistic aims, in 1876 he brought in a bill conferring the title of Empress of India upon Queen Victoria (which greatly pleased her), and sent the Prince of Wales on the first royal tour of that country. As we have seen, during his six years as prime minister Disraeli struck up a very close and unique friendship with the Queen. She strongly supported his belief in empire, and his kindness, understanding and flattery towards her was a factor in helping her to make a full return to public life following the death of Prince Albert in 1861. In the same year, 1876, she created him the Earl of Beaconsfield in recognition of his services to the state. He remained prime minister as leader in the House of Lords.

xxxxxThe year 1880 saw the return of the Whigs to power, led by Gladstone. Military defeats in the Afghan and Zulu Wars in the late 1870s, a serious recession in British industry and trade, and Gladstone’s powerful condemnation of the government’s foreign policy - together with Disraeli’s decline in health - all contributed to a shattering Conservative defeat. Disraeli retired from politics and died in April the following year, soon after writing his final romance Endymion. He was buried in the family vault at Hughenden, near High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and a few days later Queen Victoria herself laid a wreath upon the tomb of her treasured friend.

xxxxxDisraeli was a man who attracted enemies and friends in like number. Whether he be labelled a power-seeking opportunist or a dedicated man with a mission, it is certainly true that by his acute political acumen he revived the fortunes of the Conservative party, bringing it to power and providing it with a future on a programme based firmly on social reform, popular democracy, the preservation of the monarchy, and a belief in Britain’s imperial destiny.  

xxxxxIncidentally, in 1817, following a dispute with the Bevis Marks synagogue in the city of London, Disraeli’s father, a writer on literary and history matters, converted his entire family to Christianity and changed the family name from D’Israeli to Disraeli. Without this conversion, the career followed by his famous son would not have been possible because until 1858 Jews were excluded from Parliament on religious grounds. ……

xxxxx…… The bitter rivalry between Disraeli and the Liberal leader William Gladstone, which came to a head over the Eastern Question in the 1870s, certainly played an important part in galvanising the emergence of the two parties, each with coherent policies and a central authority. The Punch cartoon shows Gladstone sparring up for a fight. ……

xxxxx…… In 1839 Disraeli acquired a place in high society by marrying Mrs Wyndham Lewis, a wealthy widow. Although he was often accused - perhaps with some justification - that he had married her for her money, the marriage was a very successful one. Ironically, when she died of cancer in 1872, her London home and her fortune were passed to members of her family. ……

xxxxx…… Known to his friends as “Dizzy”, Disraeli only made a few acquaintances in the literary world, but he did have a brief friendship with the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray.