The 1st Earl of Beaconsfield’s unconventional background wasn’t an impediment to climbing the greasy pole and rising to the very top of British politics.
You think of some of the most iconic phrases and witticisms in the English language that are widely used today, such as: “ There are three kinds of lies: “lies, damned lies and statistics”; “change is inevitable, change is constant”; “Never complain, never explain”; “courage is fire and Bullying is smoke’’ all came from one man — Benjamin Disraeli, The first British Prime Minister, thus far, from an immigrant background.
Just exactly who was Benjamin Disraeli?
Benjamin Disraeli was born on the 21st of December 1804 to a Jewish man of letters — Isaac D’israeli, whose father emigrated from to London from the republic of Italy in 1748 and settled in North London as a merchant. His father had three other children and in line with Jewish customs, had all of his sons circumcised.
Following from a dispute with the local synagogue, Isaac D’israeli converted from Judaism to Christianity, in 1817 and had his progeny baptized into their new faith — a decision that would pave the way for his son’s entry into politics.
Our hero went to a working class private school — known disparagingly in the 18th and 19th centuries as ‘dame schools’. Dame schools were the means by which people of humble origin had any education at a time, when there was concerted opposition from the landed gentry and aristocracy to the mass education of the working classes, due to concerns about a possible revolution.
It is against the backdrop of a dame school education and some private tutoring that Benjamin Disraeli set out to test his mettle in the world and things couldn’t have gone any better; Teenage Disraeli was articled as clerk to a solicitor firm, owned by a friend of his father — T.F. Maples.
It was during his time at the solicitor firm, that he made two decisions that would shape the rest of his life: the first was a slight change to his surname from D’Israeli to Disraeli and the next was to pursue a literary career.
The literary career only came about, when his father’s friend surmised that young Benjamin, would never make a great barrister, but would do better as a writer. By the time, he had completed his first manuscript, his focus was diverted to the speculation boom of the shares of the South American mining company on the stock exchange — not dissimilar to the bitcoin madness of our time.
Our hero had borrowed huge amounts of money, from his agent — John Murray, who had designs on publishing a newspaper to rival, The Times and thought, young Disraeli, had what it took to make a difference. Disraeli, lost the huge amounts of money and owed 7,000 pounds to Murray. This unfortunate setback for a very young man, made him focus solely on writing as a means to raise money.
His first two novels, which were loosely autobiographical, have been described as decent reads, by eminent British historians of the twentieth century.
The Political Career
Disraeli had first tried to get into parliament as a radical, but this failed. It was when he contested as a conservative in July 1837, did he succeed.
In British politics, all newly elected politicians get to give a maiden speech, which is usually listened to, uninterrupted. When Disraeli sought to give his first speech as a parliamentarian, he made a few critical comments, which was shouted down, thus, marking an inauspicious start to our hero’s political career.
At the time of Disraeli’s election to parliament, the major political issue of the day was the corn laws.
For the wealthy land owners and aristocrats, the protectionist laws had helped them consolidate their wealth and position, but for the citizens of Ireland and everyone else, the shortage arising from the prohibition of imports, led to the great Irish famine, increased economic hardship for the British people.
The effect of the corn laws on British politics was profound — the splitting of the conservative party — leading to the departure of the leading conservative politician of the mid 19th century — Sir Robert Peel, going off with the Whigs to help repeal, the monopolistic law and the re-alignment of British politics as a whole — ushering a proper two party system.
Benjamin Disraeli, who could best be described as a “young man in a hurry” presciently saw the corn laws, as means of political advancement and sought to take full advantage. He took the side of the aristocrats and used his burgeoning oratorical skills to oppose its repeal. The speeches given by Disraeli, have been described as a “wonderful anthology of destructive remarks”.This course of action endeared him greatly to the land owners and there began, his political rise.
Leadership of the split conservatives did not in anyway accelerate the pace of his rise to the Premiership of the United Kingdom for a very long time and this remained this way, until, he was able to bring the various wings of the party together.
During the intervening years, he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer, in Russell’s minority governments.
First Premiership, 1868
Owing to the dynamics of electoral democracy, when the reform bill of 1867 was yet to be passed, creating a new generation of voters, Disraeli became Prime minister of a minority government, in 1868.
The main controversial decision as premier during this period, was the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, which was predominantly catholic. To understand the persecution of Catholics in Britain, is to appreciate the degree to which sectarianism has colored British history, for the better part of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Once a new electoral roll was fully generated at the end of 1868, a general election was called, which was won by his great rival of the liberal party — William Gladstone.
Leader of the Opposition
His popularity wasn’t at all affected during the years of opposition from 1868–1874. He married a wealthy widow and never sought to hide his reasons for doing so, published a novel, which was a best seller and also became a huge favorite of the then monarch — Queen Victoria. His ostentatious dress sense and his charismatic personality marked a stark contrast to the prostitute redeeming, austere, Gladstone.
Second Premiership, 1874–1880
It wasn’t until 1874, since the days of Sir Robert Peel, in the 1840s, that the conservative party won a full majority and a proper mandate to govern. But by then, Disraeli, was nearly seventy, lacking the energy and dynamism of his early years, it was at this point, that he made the famous remark, that he had climbed to the top of the greasy pole.
Having said that, Britain’s first Jewish premier, first two years, in power, were marked by great social reform , in terms of welfare, housing and the trade unions, were given a privileged position, which stood, until the first woman prime minister came into power.
Benjamin Disraeli’s Legacy.
Given his formidable literary talents, his speeches always gave the impression of imperial grandeur. From a rhetorical standpoint, He was the first imperial statesman of the nineteenth century. Disraeli, was the first one, who talked of a British empire, rather than a United Kingdom. It was also he, who gave the title of the “ Empress of India” to Queen Victoria. Her majesty, of course was entranced by “dizzy” and signed her name VR&I, to reflect the glorious splendour of her position.
Disraeli, also was the very first statesman, who analyzed politics in terms, not just in terms of ideas and principles but also in terms of class. It was he who said that “ Liberalism is middle class”, and opined that if the right to vote was given to the working class, they will go with the aristocracy — this, certainly, was at the heart of working class suffrage in 1867.
The two party system, that British democracy is known for, came as a result of his leadership, when he took over the reins of power in the split conservative party in the 1840s and opposed in very clear terms, the repeal of the protectionist corn laws.
And long before the wars were fought in Afghanistan by Gorbachev’s Soviet Russia in the 1980s, George Bush and Tony Blair, in the 2000s, Disraeli’s government had tried and failed miserably to bring the Afghans under British control and indeed the poem written by arch racist — Rudyard Kipling, comes to mind:
When you are wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains
and the women come out to cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow your brains
and go to your Gawd like a soldier
Disraeli was a man of romantic sensibilities, perhaps given his southern European/ North African background. He also was a man, who for the better part of his life, had crippling debts, which were settled, by marriage to a wealthy widow, who was much older than he was, and for whom, he secured a peerage, when he was out of power in 1869.
In an arena populated by colourful characters, Benjamin Disraeli, certainly, made his mark in the most striking way imaginable. Since 1880, Britain hasn’t produced a premier of immigrant background. This might be about to change, very soon, who knows?
Thanks very much for reading.
British Prime Ministers by A.J.P. Taylor