Britain's first and only Jewish prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, circa 1878. (Public domain)
Britain's first and only Jewish prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, circa 1878. (Public domain)
'Conservatives today look back on Disraeli as their prophet'

150 years ago, the UK’s first and only Jewish leader changed politics forever

Staring down vicious anti-Semitic attacks, Benjamin Disraeli became Queen Victoria's man of the people and built up the most successful party the country has ever seen

LONDON — Northwest of London, among the rolling hills of Buckinghamshire, lies Hughenden Manor. For 33 years, it was the home of Benjamin Disraeli, Britain’s first — and thus far only — Jewish prime minister.

In the early 1860s, Disraeli decided to have the house remodeled. Its modest 18th century Georgian features were stripped away. In their place, Gothic-style battlements and pinnacles were erected. The result, one architectural historian suggested, was “excruciating.”

Disraeli, however, was delighted. The works, he wrote a friend, were a “romance he had been many years realizing.” The manor’s terraces were ones “in which cavaliers might roam.”

All of this, however, conveniently ignored the fact that Hughenden had originally been constructed in the mid-18th century – almost a century after the monarchist cavaliers and parliamentarian roundheads fought the English civil war.

It is not hard to imagine the sneers with which his many contemporary critics might have greeted Disraeli’s creation.

For some, it would have symbolized Disraeli’s parvenu slippery phoniness; the desperation of this grandson of Italian immigrants to falsely present himself as part of the landed classes which still governed Britain and with whom he wished to inveigle himself. To others, it encapsulated his deeply conservative, almost reactionary, yearning to cling to a past – rural, aristocratic and hierarchical – that was fast slipping away in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of a powerful working class.

There is an element of truth in such criticisms. Perhaps, though, Disraeli’s “romance” simply reflected his abiding reverence for England’s long history — a subject which almost always featured in his speeches — and his desire to etch himself a place in it.

In that desire, there can be little doubt that Disraeli, who entered Downing Street for the first time 150 years ago this week, more than amply succeeded. A towering figure of 19th century British politics, his parliamentary jousting with William Ewart Gladstone, the Liberal leader and his arch-rival for the premiership, dominated the history of this period.

Prophet, high priest, philosopher

Disraeli led the Conservative party in the House of Commons for nearly three decades. At first glance, his electoral record was decidedly mixed: on his watch, the Tories lost six general elections. However, this ignores both Disraeli’s role in reestablishing the Conservatives — who spent much of the mid-19th century languishing in opposition — as a credible party of government and his enduring legacy.

As the late Lord Blake, an eminent Tory historian, suggested: “Many modern Conservatives look back on Disraeli as their prophet, high priest and philosopher rolled into one… He remains the most extraordinary, incongruous, fascinating, fresh and timeless figure ever to have led the Conservative party.”

Hughenden Manor, once the residence of Benjamin Disraeli, it’s now a National Trust property. (Public domain)

In the years since his death in 1881, the Tories have, though, shown considerably more admiration for Disraeli than many did when he was alive.

For one of his backbenchers, the Tory leader was “that hellish Jew.” For many others he was simply “the Jew.” In a thinly disguised public attack, Lord Salisbury, who later served as Disraeli’s foreign secretary and would go on to follow him into Downing Street, described him as “dishonest” and a “mere political gamester.”

Another Tory grandee disparagingly noted that “he bears the mark of the Jew strongly about him… He is evidently clever but superlatively vulgar.”

Disraeli himself was acutely aware of how the men he led in parliament viewed him.

“I wholly sympathize with you all because I was never ‘respectable’ myself,” he told one Tory dissident towards the end of his life. Perhaps his delight in the political game reflected his belief that, as he once put it, it offered the opportunity to exercise “power o’er the powerful.”

This mutual lack of warmth was accurately captured in the diary of John Bright, a leading Liberal, shortly after Disraeli became prime minister. It was, he wrote, “a triumph of intellect and courage and patience and unscrupulousness employed in the service of a party full of prejudices and selfishness and wanting in brains. The Tories have hired Disraeli, and he has his reward from them.”

Disraeli had once suggested that, to succeed in politics, men needed “breeding, money or a genius.” For many Conservatives, he had neither of the first two qualities, while in the “stupid party” — so-called because of the Tories’ habitual distrust of any whiff of intellectualism — the third was never highly rated.

Man of the people?

Born to a modestly wealthy London family in 1804, at a time when the capital’s Jewish population numbered little more than 20,000, Disraeli was very much an outsider. After appointing him prime minister for the first time in 1868, Queen Victoria — whose warmth for Disraeli exceeded that of any of the men who served in No.10 during her 64-year reign — wrote to her daughter that he was her “man risen from the people.”

Benjamin’s father, Isaac D’Israeli, was a member of the Sephardic Bevis Marks synagogue — Britain’s oldest — in the City of London and ensured his eldest children had a Jewish upbringing.

However, Isaac bridled against religious authority. In 1813 he became entangled in a row with the synagogue trustees when he not only turned down their request to serve as a warden for a year, but also declined to pay the customary fine levied on those who so refused.

The row, in which neither side would back down, eventually led Isaac to resign his synagogue membership. Five months later, he had his children baptised into the Church of England.

This family rift would later have far-reaching consequences. It allowed Disraeli — who remained a member of the Anglican church until his death — to become a member of parliament and thus Prime Minister.

Not until 1858 would the long struggle for Jewish emancipation in Britain be completed when parliament — after years of obstruction, mainly but not exclusively, at the hands of the Tory party — lifted the bar which effectively prevented professing Jews from taking their seats.

Tory head and British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, circa 1878. (Public domain)

At the same time, however, Disraeli’s opponents would relentlessly use his Jewish origins to attack him. Moreover, the higher up the “greasy pole” — the phrase Disraeli famously coined to term the struggle for political advancement — that he climbed, the more frequent became the attacks and insinuations that he was somehow “foreign” and not fully English.

The underlying current of anti-Semitism which coursed through sections of the Conservative party until well into the 20th century found an outlet in the persona of its long-serving leader.

Though no less excusable, that the country squires who dominated the Conservative parliamentary party during his era found Disraeli’s appearance — as a young man, wrote the historian Jonathan Parry, he “adopted an appropriately eye-catching and narcissistic style of dress, with ruffled shirts, velvet trousers, colored waistcoats, and jewelry, and he wore his hair in cascades of ringlets” — more alien than exotic, is not altogether surprising.

But nor were many liberals and radicals — many of whom claimed a supposedly more enlightened stance on such issues — above resorting to low anti-Semitic blows.

During his ultimately successful bid to enter parliament in 1837, his radical opponent deliberately mispronounced his name to make sure voters were aware of his apparently foreign origins.

Not that some of them needed much encouragement. Cries of “Shylock” were shouted at hustings, while bacon was stuck on poles and waved in front of his face.

Later, Liberal politicians and newspapers — one would consistently refer to him as “B Dejuda” — would vent their fury at Disraeli using crudely anti-Semitic language. Others would invoke traditional anti-Semitic tropes — around dual allegiance and dark conspiracies — against the prime minister.

Disraeli’s Judaism: It’s complicated

Disaeli’s attitude towards Judaism was, as David Cesarani detailed in his book on the subject, complex.

As a young man, it seemed to pass him by completely. Traveling to Europe, he appeared to evince little interest in the continent’s Jewish communities. When he journeyed to the Middle East in 1831, he professed himself “thunderstruck” by the sight of Jerusalem, but he seemed to pay little or no interest in the Jews or Jewish sites in the “gorgeous city.”

Moreover, while Jews featured prominently in Disraeli’s many novels — written before and after he entered politics — he seemed to have little understanding of Jewish practices and made more than a few errors.

Disraeli’s writings were also seemingly contradictory. His novels occasionally featured Jewish characters that clearly drew on then common anti-Semitic depictions — his description of a Jewish money-lender, Levison, is particularly vulgar — while the Jewish wiseman Sidonia in “Coningsby” outlines a picture of Jews working through “subterranean agencies” to control world events that was later gleefully seized upon and repeated by virulent anti-Semites.

At other times, however, Disraeli’s novels laud Jews and the superiority of “The Hebrew.” Christianity, one of them states, was founded by a Jew at a time when the English were mere “tattooed savages.”

As Cesarani has suggested, Disraeli’s assertion of “Jewish rights based on Jewish superiority” may well have been meant as a signal to his Tory colleagues “that he would never surrender to their prejudices.”

A statue of Benjamin Disraeli in Aylesbury. (CC-SA-David Gearing)

Disraeli indeed took a certain delight in asserting — falsely — that he was descended from the Sephardic aristocracy of Iberian Jews, while the English aristocracy traced its genealogy back to “a horde of Baltic pirates.”

Disraeli was, though, hardly at the forefront of the effort to enable practicing Jews to sit in parliament — hitherto this required swearing a Christian oath — which began in earnest shortly after he entered the House of Commons. Unlike most of his Tory colleagues, he consistently voted for reform, but also attempted to keep his head down and rarely chose to participate in debates.

However, the election of Lionel de Rothschild — who, along with other members of the English branch of the family, he had developed a friendship with — meant that Disraeli could no longer remain publicly silent on the issue.

Where is your Christianity, if you do not believe in their Judaism?

“The very reason for admitting the Jews,” he argued when he finally addressed the issue, “is because they can show so near an affinity to you. Where is your Christianity, if you do not believe in their Judaism?”

Behind the scenes, Disraeli advised de Rothschild on tactics and eventually played a key role in brokering a deal between the pro-reform House of Commons and the House of Lords where opponents held the whip hand.

Despite the fact that Disraeli’s position was deeply unpopular in his own party, the “energy and intelligence” he exerted in the final stages of the effort to ensure Jews sit in parliament, Cesarani believed, justifies his “inclusion in a Jewish pantheon.”

Perhaps Disraeli himself best captured his seeming ambivalence towards Judaism, describing himself as “the blank page between the Old and New Testaments.”

Life of a gambling man

Despite becoming the Tories’ effective leader in the House of Commons in 1849, many of his colleagues harbored grave doubts about Disraeli. These, though, extended far beyond the issue of his Jewish origins. Even allowing for the fact that many of his contemporaries would not have survived the scrutiny to which modern politicians are subjected, Disraeli’s personal life had a somewhat colorful hue.

Late into his life, he was saddled with massive debts initially ran up in his youth by ill-advised commodity speculation in South America. These were no secret: when he ran for parliament in 1841, the seat was plastered with posters listing his huge unpaid debts and various court judgments against him. Indeed, some have speculated that Disraeli was so keen to get into parliament because it offered immunity from imprisonment for debt.

An 1847 drawing of Lionel de Rothschild. (Public domain)

And the purchase of Hughenden Manor was itself dependent in part on loans from a close parliamentary ally.

Nor was Disraeli’s somewhat shady reputation enhanced by the widespread knowledge in London political circles that he had entered into a relationship with Henrietta Sykes, the influential wife of a baronet, and then agreed to share her amorous attentions with Lord Lyndhurst, a former Lord Chancellor and the ambitious young man’s first political patron.

Disraeli’s later marriage to Mary Anne Lewis, a wealthy widow, helped to ease Disraeli’s financial problems — but not for long.

Thankfully, help was at hand from Sarah Brydges Willyams, a rich elderly Jewish widow, with whom Disraeli struck up a friendship after she wrote to him expressing her admiration for his efforts on behalf of the “race of Israel” and strongly indicating that she intended him to benefit from her will.

Disraeli later inherited £2m in today’s money from her. Lionel de Rothschild also proved a generous benefactor, giving him around £1m.

Some were more understanding of Disraeli’s lifestyle than others. As the Earl of Derby, the Tories’ leader in the House of Lords and Disraeli’s predecessor as prime minister, delicately put it to Queen Victoria: “Mr. Disraeli has had to make his position, and men who make their positions will say and do things which are not necessarily to be said or done by those for whom positions are made.”

That Disraeli was somewhat reckless with money was confirmed in the eyes of many when a brief spell as Chancellor of the Exchequer produced a budget whose sums were swiftly ripped apart across the dispatch box by the rather more financially numerate Gladstone.

Benjamin Disraeli’s arch-rival William E. Gladstone. (Public domain)

It was, however, the charge of political opportunism that was to dog Disraeli most throughout his career. In an otherwise sympathetic portrait, Harold Wilson, the former Labour prime minister, suggested that during the course of his political rise, Disraeli was “utterly principled except in terms of his immediate political advantage.”

He, for instance, opposed the cause of free trade in the 1840s, helping to bring down the Tory prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, and split the party over the issue. Disraeli ultimately lost the argument and went on to swiftly abandon the fight for protectionism.

On the other great issue which roiled British politics throughout the 19th century — the extension of the voting franchise — Disraeli took a similarly opportunistic stance.

In 1866 he succeeded in wrecking the Liberal government’s reform proposals and forcing the resignation of the prime minister. Disraeli’s tactics helped the Tories into government, where he then set about introducing his own reform bill which proved more radical than that he scuppered barely a month previously.

The result — the 1867 Reform Act — doubled the size of the electorate and gave urban working-class men the vote. For some on his own backbenches, Disraeli’s actions — which helped smooth his path to the premiership — were yet more evidence of his “recklessness,” “venality” and “cynicism.”

In truth, he had done the Tories a favor. Disraeli knew that it was politically hazardous for the party to be seen as die-hard opponents of reform. He also knew that the Tories were more likely to limit any potential electoral damage the new measures might inflict upon them if they were in the legislative driving seat.

Some have seen Disraeli’s actions as the consequence of his belief in creating a “Tory democracy” — a union of the emerging working class and aristocracy against the Liberal-inclined middle classes.

It is, though, perhaps better viewed as a reflection of his pragmatism. “Above all, no program,” he is famously said to have warned the editor of a Tory magazine, reflecting his belief that politicians should be as free as possible from the constraints of policy commitments.

The gamble pays off

Disraeli’s efforts in 1867 did not initially reap rewards. In the general election fought under the new franchise, the Tories were slain and the new prime minister ejected from Downing Street after just 10 months in office.

Unsurprisingly, this caused discontent and plotting, but, ultimately, Disraeli’s gamble appeared to pay off. In 1874, he led the Tories back to power: sweeping gains enabled the party to win its first parliamentary majority in three decades.

Disraeli rested his party’s appeal firmly on the ground of what came to be called “One Nation” politics. The term comes from the title of one of his most famous novels, “Sybil – or The Two Nations,” which was published in 1845.

Drawing in part on his own travels in the north of England, it painted a bleak picture of the “constant degradation of the people” and the poverty and exploitation which blighted the inner cities and mill towns.

The division between rich and poor and the consequent threat of class politics, Disraeli believed, were dangerous and the Tory party should seek to heal it.

An 1854 photo of the Crystal Palace in London. (Public domain)

In one of his most famous speeches — at Crystal Palace in 1872 — he set out his “One Nation” vision: “The Tory party, unless it is a national party, is nothing. It is not a confederation of nobles, it is not a democratic multitude; it is a party formed from all the numerous classes in the realm.”

Principle and electoral calculation combined to produce a raft of social legislation — on health, housing, education and employment — which began tackling the problems of the slums and poor sanitation and strengthened the rights of workers against their employers by legalizing peaceful picketing.

Some have questioned the radicalism of the legislation and Disraeli’s own interest in it – he is alleged to have slept through some Cabinet discussions – suggesting that, when it comes to his role as a social reformer, “the record contradicts the legend.”

Nonetheless, as Wilson correctly suggested, when he left office in 1880, Disraeli “had the right to claim a greater advance in social legislation than that of any of his predecessors, almost more than all of them put together.”

“One Nation” and the defeat of class politics also meant seizing for the Tories the mantle of the “patriotic party.”

Disraeli’s own feelings about the Empire were ambivalent. The colonies were “millstones around our neck,” he privately suggested on one occasion, labeling them “deadweights” on another.  But that did not stop him assailing the Liberals for allegedly attempting to “effect the disintegration of the Empire of England.”

Queen Victoria. (Public domain)

In office, he further delighted Queen Victoria by pushing through legislation to bestow upon her the title of “Empress of India” and buying a minority share in the Suez Canal. The public were not disabused of their widely held belief that Britain had, in fact, purchased it — nor was the Queen, whom Disraeli informed: “It is settled; you have it, madam.”

Despite his deep patriotism, Disraeli was the subject of vicious anti-Semitic attacks from his political opponents. They charged that his failure as Prime Minister to do more to protect Christians in the Balkans from massacres by their Ottoman masters stemmed from his Jewish roots.

Many British Jews, as the Jewish Chronicle put it, recognized that the Turks were the “real protectors of the Jews in the East” and were understandably wary of Russia’s threats to intervene.

But Disraeli’s actions were not, as his critics suggested, the result of his “Jew feelings” or a reflection of an “Oriental indifference to cruelty” but a realpolitik calculation, strongly shared by Queen Victoria, that Russian expansionism posed a danger to British interests.

Even Disraeli’s eventual triumph — at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 he thwarted Russian designs on the Balkans — did not satisfy Gladstone, who continued to charge that Britain’s Jews had proved themselves “opponents of effectual relief to Christians.”

Watching Disraeli in Berlin, Bismarck proved more complimentary: “Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann [the old Jew, he is the man],” he remarked.

“One Nation” conservatism has gone through many iterations since Disraeli’s day. It is, though, a testament to the longevity of its appeal that, the morning after he was reelected in 2015, David Cameron pledged to lead a “one nation” government.

Perhaps more remarkable still, both Cameon’s defeated opponent – the Labour leader, Ed Miliband – and his successor in Downing Street, Theresa May, have both attempted to don the “one nation” mantle.

Disraeli’s conservatism was deeply held. The purpose of the Tory party, he believed, was “to maintain the institutions of the country” — the monarchy, the Church of England, the aristocracy. But that belief also necessitated knowing when it is best to reform in order to preserve.

It is this philosophy of governing that has been perhaps Disraeli’s greatest legacy to the Conservative party and which has allowed it to become the most electorally successful political party in the world.

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