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-
BENJAMIN DISRAELI 1804 -
Disraeli: by the English photographer H. Lenthall (active 1857-
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 -
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 -
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-
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 -
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 -
xxxxxDisraeli was a man who attracted enemies and friends in like number. Whether he be labelled a power-
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 -
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.