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Benjamin Disraeli

Prime Minister 1868, 1874 - 80

William Gladstone once said: "Mr Disraeli was in the centre of three rings - his party, which he understood perfectly and governed completely; the House of Commons, of which his knowledge was good; the country, of which he was very ignorant" (quoted in The Prime Ministers Vol2 P85). Perhaps, however, Disraeli understood more than Gladstone realised. Gladstone with his religious earnestness assumed that he could change the fate of nations. With his sense of man's centrality to the world he felt that the highest office in the world's most powerful country must confer real power on its holder. Disraeli knew better. He realised that managing Parliament was a symbolic act in managing Britain, but did not always go much further. Disraeli was very clear sighted about life, where others believed in various conventional delusions. Thomas Carlyle said: "Dizzy is a charlatan and knows it. Gladstone is a charlatan and does not know it." If you have to be a charlatan, then it is much safer to know the reality of what you are dealing with.


A view of the circular Reading Room at the British Museum - close to the Disraeli family home in Bloomsbury - where Isaac D'Israeli spent much of his working life.


Benjamin Disraeli was born 21st December 1804, son of the writer Isaac D'Israeli, and brought up in Holborn and Bloomsbury, London. His parents were Jewish, but seemed to reject most of their religion. Young Benjamin had lessons in Hebrew, but his main lesson in affairs of religion was that appearances were more important than substance. The importance of religious appearances was learnt early when Isaac D'Israeli was persuaded that his son's prospects would be improved if the boy became a member of the Church of England; and this is what happened, at the age of 12. Later the apostrophe in Benjamin's name would be dropped to further distance himself from a Jewish inheritance. But the reality of this "conversion" seemed clear even to the 12 year old boy. No dogma was imposed on him, and he accepted none. Disraeli's education was one of discovery from the inside rather than imposition of beliefs from the outside. Little is known about his early schooling, and it seems that there was much self education in Isaac D'Israeli's huge library in the house at Bloomsbury. "I was always a bad learner, and although I loved knowledge from my cradle I liked to acquire it in my own way. I think I was born with a detestation of grammars" (quoted in Disraeli by Stanley Weintraub P29). So young Benjamin was used to education as the excitement of finding things out, rather than the experience of being taught how to look at things. It was an important aspect of this self education that the end of any formal schooling came early. This was so different to Gladstone who went through the most regular of schooling, which imposed a body of accepted knowledge and belief. Gladstone was a star at Oxford, and saw religion as a reality. Disraeli left school at fifteen, entered a solicitor's office for three years, and saw religion as a potentially useful way of manipulating people's preconceptions of him. Of course many factors go into creating an individual, but it seems likely that the manner of Disraeli's education would tend to instill a sense that knowledge is not something imposed from on high. Benjamin Disraeli looked at knowledge as something he could think about in his own way.


Being outside the accepted run of life may have given young Benjamin a wider perspective, but it also caused difficulties. In many ways religious institutions join forces with educational and career institutions to structure lives, and reduce the painful need for an individual to find their own way. Disraeli had none of that. He could not find direction from the religion he had been born into, nor from the religion he had supposedly converted into as a young boy. Disraeli reached the age of 20 as an ambitious young man going nowhere. Meeting publisher John Murray through his father, Murray recognised literary talent and offered employment as a reader of manuscripts sent in from authors. Meanwhile frantic efforts were made to win a quick fortune by buying shares in mining companies, and setting up a newspaper called The Representative, in which amongst other things, the mining companies in which Disraeli owned shares would be talked up. But the mining shares collapsed in value, and the newspaper project, struggling through 1824-26, eventually failed, losing its publisher, John Murray, £26,000. There was then an unwise novel in which Murray was portrayed under an assumed name, which actually sold well, until the secret of Disraeli's authorship leaked out. Murray reacted by ejecting the young man from his charmed circle. This period ended with debts that wouldn't be paid off for many years. Disraeli promptly had a breakdown. His family sent him to the Mediterranean in 1830 - 31, and the change of scene seemed to help their troubled son, who returned fitter, but still unconventional. He had an affair with Henrietta Sykes, wife of a baronet, and used his attractiveness to women to get invites to all the best parties in London. In this way he met the powerful aristocrat Lord Lyndhurst. By now Disraeli had decided to join the Conservative Party, and try to enter Parliament. A significant motivation in doing this was the fact that MPs were immune from imprisonment for debt. Powerful friends like Lord Lyndhurst were there to help, and Disraeli was willing to play the political game: part of the deal for Lyndhurst's support of Disraeli's political career involved passing on Henrietta to Lord Lyndhurst! After three failed attempts success finally came in 1837 when Disraeli entered Parliament as MP for the two member constituency of Maidstone, Kent. Disraeli, always popular with the ladies, was supported by Mary Anne, wife of established Maidstone MP Wyndam Lewis. When Wyndam Lewis died of a heart attack in March 1837, Disraeli's relationship with Mary Anne continued, and they eventually married in 1839. As John Vincent writes, Disraeli had reached middle age with "nothing more useful that an indifferent marriage (in the world's eyes) a bad name, and large debts" (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P86).



The balcony in Maidstone, Kent, where Disraeli made his acceptance speech on becoming an MP in 1837

Prime minister Robert Peel did not give any important job to the new MP for Maidstone, so Disraeli teamed up with three young men just down from university, and created a group called Young England. This group argued for the maintenance of tariffs to protect British goods from foreign competition, and called for a return to an idealised view of lost England. In many ways Disraeli did not so much passionately believe in the Young England policies as understand the appeal of this kind of thing as a reaction to the policies of Robert Peel. It was a way to clearly define himself in the party and make his name. In this he was successful. Meanwhile he wrote three good novels, Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845) and Tancred (1847). In Sybil particularly he laid out the philosophy which would dominate his future in politics. Sybil or Two Nations was a story about the rich and poor in Britain living in what amounted to two separate countries. It was towards one nation including rich and poor that Disraeli looked. But this idealistic aim did not cloud Disraeli's supremely realistic approach to politics. He continued with his speeches attacking Peel for adopting the policy of his Liberal opponents in wanting to end protective tariffs. In 1846 Disraeli made a famous speech in which he said that only if there remained "a demarcation between parties" could a party system survive. No matter how you look at it this seems to be true. If parties do not represent different positions how does democracy work in choosing between them? And of course human nature loves a conflict, something to unite behind - and it is difficult to see how a party can be held together if it largely shares its beliefs with other parties and has nothing to fight for. This was an argument for sticking to principles, not because those principles were believed to be right, but because principles, no matter what they were, were useful in themselves. They gave clarity and unity, and Disraeli, already a master of the political game, chose a set of principles and used them to make his way. He was not the first to see politics in this way, and would not be the last. In 1979 Barbara Castle was telling Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan that legislation had to be passed curbing union power. Callaghan agreed, but said "let the Conservatives do it" (see Callaghan A Life by Kenneth Morgan).


In 1848 Disraeli had solid support in the Conservative Party. He began to confirm his new status by buying, with the help of wealthy supporters, the country estate of Hughenden near High Wycombe. When in 1852 Robert Peel was replaced as prime minister by Lord Derby, Disraeli finally began to play a prominent role as chancellor of the Exchequer. But then just as a major career advance seemed in prospect, the Crimean War began. Palmerston took over as a popular prime minister, and Disraeli had to take a back seat once again. This time was spent planning a strategy for the future. While others took religion seriously and earnestly, Disraeli decided to use its symbolism to his advantage. In 1857 he aligned himself more closely with the Church of England. The plan was to appear conventional on religious questions, which would then provide cover for a more radical approach on political and social reform. As he said in a set of essays called The Infernal Marriage in 1834: "I am convinced... that provided a man frequent the temples and observe with strictness the sacred festivals, such is the force of public opinion, that there is no crime which he may commit without hazard" (quoted Weintraub P156). Manoeuverings such as this now brought Disraeli closer to the top of his party. When Lord Derby returned as prime minister in 1866, Disraeli was being seen as his potential successor. Taking over as prime minister in 1868 when Lord Derby fell ill, Disraeli had to decide how to react to the passage through the Commons of a bill reforming voting rights. His main aim was not idealistic reform, but the maintenance of as much party unity as possible. It was clear that without unity there would be no reform at all. A deliberate policy of procrastination was adopted, and in this way, inspite of violent differences of opinion, the Tory party managed to stay together. The bill which was eventually passed bore little resemblance to the one originally introduced, but that did not take away from the achievement of Disraeli. While Gladstone's Liberal party disintegrated, Disraeli held his men together. He realised that this was his job, with any conception of changing society coming second. He knew he could only be master of his house, this little bit of England which reflected the bigger picture. If he could look after his little bit of England, then the wider world would have a symbolic unity of government to follow.


Following his clever performance over the voting rights bill, Disraeli was established as Conservative Party leader in 1868. This triumph did not quite take him to the top of what he famously termed the "greasy pole" of political success. Gladstone playing on religious divisions managed to defeat the Conservatives in the election of 1868, and Disraeli went through a difficult period in opposition, blighted by health problems, and the death of his wife in 1872. But hanging on until 1874, Disraeli finally returned as prime minister. 1875 saw Disraeli embarking on a legislative programme, the legacy of which is still with us today. Home secretary Cross passed two bills supporting trade unions. These bills have been described as the "Magna Carta of trade unionism" (see Prime Ministers Vol2 P98). Peaceful picketing was legalised; all breaches of contract, whether by employer or employee were covered by the same legislation. The Artisans Dwelling Act made cheap government loans available for the building of working class housing. The savings of small investors and working people were protected by the Friendly Societies Act. The Public Health Act modernised Britain's sanitary codes, and the Food and Drugs Act created quality standards and medical licensing requirements for medicines. The River Pollution Act made it an offence to foul rivers and streams. Long years of work holding a party together by whatever means necessary had their reward, giving the unity which could be used to achieve something. Concentrating on his party and its own affairs, eventually allowed Disraeli to influence the wider country.


Disraeli in 1873. This image is copyright free

Sadly Disraeli's years at the peak of his career did not last long, with his health declining by 1877. But there was one last great triumph, which shows Disraeli at his best. Most of the prime minister's flagging energy at this time was focused on chaotic affairs abroad. Fearing Russian expansion, attempts were made to support Turkey against Russia. This was a complicated situation. Turkey was ruthlessly suppressing rebellion in Bulgaria, then part of Turkey's Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile Russia threatened to take advantage of Turkey's troubles to win influence in disputed Balkan territories. Then Gladstone waded in, whipping up religious hysteria by writing pamphlets portraying the Turks as the bad guys, brutally oppressing Christian people in Bulgaria. The Turks did do some terrible things in Bulgaria, but the Russians were doing equally terrible things elsewhere, in their treatment of Romanian Jews for example (see Weintraub P 564). It is also the case that Gladstone was infatuated with the wife of a member of the Russian General Staff, which influenced him to favour the Russians. This all fed into Gladstone's overheated moral outlook and caused him to urge a crusade against the evil Turks. It is interesting that in the twentieth century another religiously influenced prime minister Tony Blair would wade into the morass of the divided Balkans and expect to pick out a bad guy. Blair's crusade in Kosovo in 1999 was a disaster. After the failure of initial air strikes Blair did not back off. Instead using language of moral crusade, he pushed for ground troops to go in. As Blair's biographer Anthony Seldon wrote: "... in a moment of hubris, he compared himself to Gladstone, the high moralist of late Victorian politics, about whom he knew little" (Blair by Antony Seldon P401).

Both Blair and Gladstone felt they were standing by religiously inspired principles in their view of the Balkans. Only someone like Disraeli who wore his principles much more lightly, could see the folly of this approach. It was Disraeli's triumph that he did nothing, ignoring the moral arguments of Gladstone and his supporters who wanted action against Turkey; and also ignoring those who like Queen Victoria, wanted military action against an expansionist Russia. Disraeli's managed to hang on, until things settled down somewhat, and a peace congress was arranged in Berlin. This meeting culminated in 1878's Treaty of Berlin which cobbled together a workable peace in eastern Europe. When Disraeli returned from Berlin he experienced perhaps his most triumphant moment. It is fitting that this was the moment when the term "prime minister" was adopted in an official sense. The first official use of the term prime minister was actually in the Treaty of Berlin where Disraeli was called: "First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister of her Britannic Majesty."

Unfortunately this highpoint was quickly followed by disasters in other parts of the world which soon had Disraeli's electorate forgetting about the Treaty of Berlin. War began in Afghanistan when Viceroy Lytton acted alone to start hostilities. The same thing happened in South Africa, when Sir Bartle Frere simply decided that waging war against the Zulus would be a good idea. In February 1879 Disraeli heard of the destruction of a British force at Isandhlwana. This was virtually the first he knew of the Zulu war. He was furious, but could do little. The choice was between appearing out of control, or appearing in charge of an unpopular and poorly fought campaign. Disraeli was in a no win situation, and lines from The Infernal Marriage come to mind: "All is ordained, but man is nevertheless master of his own actions."


Disraeli had always been a brilliant operator, but he also knew that he was operating in a world where the trick was to seem in control, when actually being in control was impossible. Disraeli could find no way out of the disasters overseas and was defeated in the general election of 1880. His last years were blighted by health problems and loneliness, but he still took time to finish one of his best novels, Endymion, about the conversion of a wealthy English aristocrat to Catholicism. Disraeli died of bronchitis on 18th April 1881 at 19 Curzon Street in Mayfair.


Disraeli was a great realist. He saw things as they were. Certainly he dealt in illusions, but he stood outside them, seeing clearly the illusions he dealt in. This was in contrast to Gladstone, the great evangelist who was defined by his sincerity. In judging these two figures it all comes down to how you see politics. Plutarch is supposed to have said of politics "They are wrong who think that politics is like an ocean voyage, or a military campaign, something to be done with a particular end in view, something which leaves off as soon as that end is reached. It is not a public chore to be got over with. It is a way of life" (attributed to Plutarch in The Great Quotations by Georges Seldes P 570). Politicians such as Gladstone, for all their qualities, tend to see life in terms of final destinations. Gladstone always had to have a cause to fight for, and acted in a way which suggested there was only one right direction in life, and only one destination. History is full of examples of passionate politicians with grand causes and definite ends in view, who express the worst in their societies. Disraeli was more of a Plutarch. In a speech to the House of Commons in 1859 he said: "Finality is not the language of politics" (quoted Weintraub in Preface). He saw no promised end, no shining city on a hill. Without this ultimate destination there is nothing to finally judge any action against. As Tolstoy wrote, "The activity of Alexander or Napoleon cannot be termed beneficial or harmful, since we cannot say for what it is beneficial or harmful" (War and Peace P1341). Disraeli saw politics as an endless way of life, and acted accordingly. He was detached, flexible, enigmatic, hard to judge or categorise. Good for him.