British politician and writer, b. London 1804-12-21, d. London 1881-04-19; prime minister of the United Kingdom 1868 and 1874-1880. He was born Jewish but in 1817 his father converted to Christianity. Later in life Disraeli would help overturn the ban on Jews entering parliament.

Disraeli is doubtlessly one of the most colourful figures in 19th century British politics. His acerbic wit, reformist ideals and bitter rivalry with William Gladstone left their mark on over twenty years of government. Educated as a solicitor and working as a law apprentice, he lost a fair sum of money speculating in the stock market from 1817 to 1820 and then turned to writing for a living, with considerably more success. He travelled to the Balkans, Spain and the Middle East in 1830 before deciding that he was more interested in power, though he did not particularly care which party with.

His earliest attempts to enter politics under the banners of the Whigs, the Radicals and finally as an independent candidate failed but he nevertheless made a name for himself with his populist writings. Eventually, in 1837, he was elected to parliament representing Maidstone as a progressive Tory. His first speeches as an MP were rather radical and populistic and much more in synch with the Chartists than with the Tory party. His very first one ended in jeers from his fellow MPs which led to one of his famous quotes: "I sit down now but the time will come when you will hear me."

Having married an enormously rich widow in 1839 in a marriage that turned from convenience into true love, he had the funds and moral support to begin a political career that aimed for nothing less than the top. His rejection by Sir Robert Peel when he asked for a spot on the cabinet led him to form a faction within the Conservatives that would eventually contribute to ending Peel's dominance. The turning point was the repeal of the unpopular Corn Laws in which Disraeli's protectionist views clashed strongly with Peel's. During his time as a backbencher he wrote a number of novels inextricably tied to his public life, where prominent figures made cameos or were thinly disguised as fictional but easily recognisable characters.

In 1852 Disraeli became Chancellor of the Exchequer under prime minister Lord Derby and at the same time was leader of the House of Commons. He held the Chancellery until 1859 when the balance of power shifted towards the Liberals but was reappointed to both posts upon Lord Derby's return to the premiership in 1866. During this tenure, he successfully proposed the landmark 1867 Reform Act which extended voting rights to 1.5 million males and reshaped the electoral map of Britain. Following Lord Derby's resignation in 1868, Disraeli briefly became prime minister (resulting in another famous quote: "I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole") but lost the 1868 elections to Gladstone. This was the spark that ignited the great rivalry (which had been simmering since a conflict over the 1852 budget) that continued until Disraeli's death.

"The political differences between them were no wider than is usual in a two-party system, but what gave the conflict its edge and produced a deep-rooted antagonism was their utter dissimilarity in character and temperament. "Posterity will do justice to that unprincipled maniac, Gladstone," wrote Disraeli, in private,"--extraordinary mixture of envy, vindictiveness, hypocrisy, and superstition; and with one commanding characteristic--whether preaching, praying, speechifying, or scribbling--never a Gentleman!" Gladstone's judgment on his rival was no less sharp. His doctrine was "false, but the man more false than his doctrine. ... He demoralised public opinion, bargained with diseased appetites, stimulated passions, prejudices, and selfish desires, that they may maintain his influence ... he weakened the Crown by approving its unconstitutional leanings, and the Constitution by offering any price for democratic popularity." Thus they faced each other across the dispatch-boxes of the House of Commons: Gladstone's commanding voice, his hawk-like eyes, his great power to move the emotions, against Disraeli's romantic air and polished, flexible eloquence."

--Winston Churchill,
A History of the English-Speaking Peoples,
Vol. 4.

Gladstone was definitely envious of one thing: Disraeli had the ear of Queen Victoria and her personal liking whereas she had a clear disdain of Gladstone. Gladstone's pressure for her to re-enter public life after Prince Albert's death did not go down well with the sovereign; Disraeli's personal charm, on the other hand, had much better results. Gladstone was convinced Disraeli had "bagged" the Queen for the purposes of the Conservative Party. The fact that, in 1876, Disraeli talked the Queen into accepting the title of Empress of India did not help dispel this conviction.

After six years in the opposition, Disraeli returned to power once again in 1874 at the head of the Conservative Party. During the six years that followed, he established himself as one of the great legislators of the 19th century by passing groundbreaking laws in the fields of labour such as regulating working hours and empowering trade unions, as well as other social reform measures including housing and public health legislation. In doing so he gave the Conservative Party the identity it had been lacking and lasting support among the voters. It must be said though that much of this progress was based on the previous administration's efforts under Gladstone.

At the same time, his foreign policy was one of expansion and imperialism. Whereas Gladstone had trodden cautiously and economised where the military was concerned, Disraeli was aggressive and inclined to promote British world domination and naval supremacy. One of his most important moves was to purchase almost half the stock in the Suez Canal in 1875 and thus safeguard the vital trade route to India. His dangerous dabblings in Balkan politics lead to gains for both Britain and the other Great Powers at the expense of the Turks.

Disraeli's rule ended in 1880 when the nagging of minor failures over the preceding years combined with a recession that took a serious toll on agriculture allowed Gladstone to force his way back into power. Disraeli retired from politics and planned to spend his retirement writing books. However, illness found him before he could realise this goal and write more than one book; he died one year after his retirement. He had modelled a brand of populism and reformist character that would be seen again in many 20th century leaders.

Disraeli's bibliography:

Factual sources:
Winston Churchill, The History of the English-Speaking Peoples (Vol. 4: The Great Democracies)
Spartacus Educational Reference Library
Mark Telford
Victorian Web at Brown University
The Peel Web by Marjie Bloy

If you may permit me to be so crude, Benjamin Disraeli was the height of the new generation of Jewish intelligentsia who were born to their banker fathers in the nineteenth century. His singular achievement was perhaps not his conquering of the House of Commons and position as Queen's Minister, but his victory over London high society. For whatever measures had been taken to emancipate European Jewry in political terms, they always remained on the whole social pariahs. Aristocractic society demanded from its non-aristocratic participants eccentricity, by virtue of which a Jew could perhaps find admittance - but they were required not just to be exceptions from the rest of Jewry, but exceptional human beings in themselves.

Disraeli was a product of the secularization of the Jewish intelligentsia, the shift in focus from Judaism to "Jewishness". He was inordinately proud of his Jewish identity, a pride matched largely by his ignorance of the conditions of his fellows. English Jewry was largely made up of what were called in the parlance of the time "exception Jews" - but in England they were no exceptions at all. This was not because of the lavish equality of English Jewry, merely because of its small size - after the expulsion of the Jews from England by King Edward I, English Jewry was composed largely of rich Jews from Portugal. Disraeli knew very little about the political truth of the Jewish condition on the Continent, but he did a very good job of analysing what the truth appeared to be - the very "truth" that anti-Semites would later peddle.

The Jewish state bankers on the Continent were the nexus of the conspiracy theories. Although totally a-political themselves, the appearance fooled even the Jew Disraeli - the international financial network set up and operated by the Jews, with its careful transfer of information and close connections, had all the outward trappings of a secret society. Disraeli was convinced that the bankers pulled the strings of government - as a Jewish chauvinist, he indeed believed his people were superior to everyone else. He saw the acts of the House of Rothschild, a famous banking cartel, as a controlling one - they did, he said, hold the world's destinies in their hands. There was talk of "revenge" by his people on Christianity. All of this was obviously very dangerous talk indeed.

As an insatiable careerist himself, Disraeli had trouble believing that the "Jewish money" of the bankers was being used for anything other than the furtherance of what he saw as his people's goals. He could not conceive of their indifference to politics. Of course, the "international Jewish conspiracy" never existed, and no-one at this time ever even really thought of it save charlatans, but the fact Disraeli could arrive at this conclusion shows just how easily reality could be distorted by a fantasy that seemed more credible. Disraeli had always had a vivid imagination - one of his early novels described a Jewish Empire with an élite ruling class of his people. And if in later life his ideas mellowed somewhat, they never entirely touched ground - even in the 1870s he talked of "secret organisations" which moved "beneath the surface" to determine the course of history.

Anti-Semitic propaganda rested largely on this notion that Disraeli stressed so vigorously. Even the particularly ludicrous notion that both the Jewish capitalist and the Jewish Communist worked in tandem, which was much favoured by Adolf Hitler, was expressed by Disraeli - he claimed the Jews were at the heart of every Communist group and that they made the politics of Russia (the Tsar's Byzantine autocracy made this a patent falsehood, more the pity for both the Russian people and Russian Jewry as a subset of them). Of course, there was an outward kernel of truth to such claims - because the Jews had rarely engaged in capitalistic enterprise, the proletariat didn't develop an antagonism towards them as it did the bourgeoisie. Class antagonism towards the Jews came largely from the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, because at this time the banker was seen as an exploitative element (no-one went for a loan unless in misery, so the banker was seen as profitting from misfortune).

The last property of Disraeli's thinking that should be stressed is the idea of the Jewish race as a "caste" apart. Aristocratic society was based on the snobbery of birth and blood, and the Jewish intelligentsia claimed a similar role for itself. They knew that their very acceptance into high society was based on their Jewishness, but also on them being somehow "different" and more "acceptable" than other Jews. Disraeli confronted the snobbery of the aristocracy with a snobbery of Jewish identity, which a bored and degenerate bourgeoisie society lapped up. He claimed that race was the "key to history" which existed regardless of "language and religion". He was "the chosen one of the chosen people". The similarities to modern racialism need not be stressed, and although there was no hint of the dark political tragedy to come, the groundwork was all too clear.

I'm not saying Disraeli is responsible for anything. I'm saying his perceptions hold the key to many things.

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