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