Disraeli was born in 1804, one year before the battle of Trafalgar. He was a son of Jewish parents converted to Christianity. Certainly not the first or only writer who went gladly into politics, he published his first novel, Vivian Grey, at twenty-two. The book was a success, but Disraeli is better known for two novels written about politics – Coningsby (1844) and Sybil a year later. One can detect a distinct note of Romantic Toryism in all three books, which are severely critical of industrial development or progress.
He joined the ‘Young England’ movement, which claimed to disapprove of social equality or reform, and became its leader. Almost at once he attacked Sir Robert Peel’s free trade policies, and ensured that the people knew who he was and what his ideas were. He attracted attention, partly because of his flamboyantly Jewish, saturnine looks at a time when Britain was as anti-Semitic as any other European country. He was a splendid public speaker, and known for his quick wit. When his wife asked him what he thought about the enormous house where they had both just been entertained during a ‘Friday to Monday’ visit, a house owned by a great magnate, he replied ‘our host and his house are very cold, in fact the warmest thing I found during our visit was the champagne.”
When the followers of Peel left the House of Commons, Disraeli became its Conservative Party leader, and was Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Derby’s minority governments in 1852 and 1858/8. It was he who pushed through the 1867 Reform Bill, showing that he had much changed from his callow youth.
When Derby resigned in 1868 Disraeli became Prime Minister, shocking many anti-Semites on both sides of the Commons and the Lords. He was quickly defeated in the same year in a general election and certain Englishmen heaved a sigh of relief, but Disraeli was from being squashed. In 1874 he became PM again and stayed PM until 1880. By then he had become a favourite of Queen Victoria, with whom he was always gallant. He also knew the Queen loathed his chief rival William Ewart Gladstone, an Old Etonian. The truth is that Disraeli only consolidated reforms already started by Gladstone, though he preferred not to mention this to the Queen his admirer.
When shares in the proposed Suez Canal became (secretly) available, Disraeli decided Britain ought to be at least half-owner (with the French) of this enormously important sea link between the Mediterranean and the Orient nut time was short and he knew how long it would take to talk Parliament into making a decision; he used his friendship with the (London-based) Rothschild, who advanced the cash needed immediately, at very low interest; Britain became half-owner of the Suez Canal. The House of Commons, at first shocked by the presumption, grudgingly accepted the brilliant move as a fait accompli.
Meanwhile Disraeli’s popularity with Queen Victoria had not waned in the least, especially when he proposed that she should become Empress of India (1876). Having made his queen Empress, Disraeli went off to the Congress of Berlin in 1878 where he greatly contributed towards European peace after the war between Russia and Turkey in the Balkans. Then suddenly things changed: to the Queen’s dismay, Gladstone and the Liberals defeated him in 1880, and much to her chagrin he retired to the beautiful house (Hughenden Manor, shown above) he had bought for his family. Within a year he was dead, but not before becoming Lord Beaconsfield.
The Queen’s favourites throughout her long life were Melbourne (her first PM), and Disraeli; her bêtes noirs were Peel and (though he affected not to notice), Gladstone.