Benjamin Disraeli, born Benjamin D’Israeli, was one of the UK’s most influential Prime Ministers, but since the turn of the 20th century, he has largely disappeared from school curricula. He grew particularly close to Queen Victoria during his two terms as Prime Minister (February – December 1868 and 1874-1880). But why was Disraeli such an influential politician in an era of big personalities and imperial exploration?
Disraeli’s early years
Benjamin was born on 21 December 1804 in Bloomsbury, London, to Jewish parents, Isaac D’Israeli, a literary critic and historian, and Miriam Basevi, a descendant of wealthy Italian mercantile Jews. Unlike his four siblings, of which Benjamin was the eldest son, he was not educated at Winchester College, instead being sent to Revd. Eliezer Cogan’s private school in Walthamstow.
At the age of 16, and now a convert to the Church of England, Disraeli worked for a number of solicitors’ firms, and most notably wrote a pamphlet that criticised the Reform Bill that was progressing through parliament. The pamphlet, entitled England and France: or a cure for Ministerial Gallomania was published in a Tory publication, surprising his friends who saw him more as a radical than a Tory.
It was not until 1836 that Disraeli openly declared himself a Tory, when he was selected to join the exclusive Carlton Club. Upon Victoria’s accession to the British throne after the death of her uncle, William IV, the Tory party used the dissolution of Parliament to select the young Disraeli as a candidate for the constituency of Maidstone in Kent. He quickly became a strong supporter of Sir Robert Peel, but in 1841, requested a move to the Shrewsbury constituency, as he found the demands in Maidstone too stressful.
Disraeli’s rise to power – first term in office
After a long and eventful number of years as an MP, in which he was repeatedly sidelined by party leaders, Disraeli became Prime Minister in February 1868, leading a minority Tory government, which had successfully passed the Reform Bill and the introduction of a voter registration system across the country. Although Disraeli’s first government was dissolved in December of the same year, he was able to pass laws that banned public executions, ended electoral bribery, brought all telegraph companies under Post Office ownership, amended laws relating to railway operations and schooling, and ordered the expedition against Tewodros II of Ethiopia.
It was also during his first few months in office that Disraeli grew close to Queen Victoria, who by this time, was an old hand at dealing with politicians, having reigned for some 30 years. What made this close relationship so unusual was the drastically different backgrounds from which they both came: Victoria was born and raised in the highest echelons of nobility, but Disraeli had no aristocratic lineage, nor was he public schooled or a veteran of a war.
Notable writers at the time commented on Disraeli’s travels across the Ottoman Empire in his younger years, visiting palaces and meeting Vizirs who held power that he could only ever imagine in his wildest dreams. This, many argued, is why he was so adamant that he and Victoria would form an unbreakable bond like no other, save for that between Victoria and Albert.
After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Victoria had largely retreated from public view, meeting her government officials only in private. The only government official that she agreed to be seen in public with was Disraeli. This was arguably evidence of the close relationship between the two, and Disraeli’s ability to comfort his queen and give her strength at the darkest time in her life.
Power again – second term in office
In 1874, and now in the House of Lords as the Earl of Beaconsfield, Disraeli came to power again as Prime Minister with a cabinet comprising six Lords and six commoners. Disraeli passed several important reform laws, including pay for MPs, to ensure that anyone could stand for parliament without requiring a wealthy background, and the enactment of the Public Health Act 1875, which modernised sanitary codes across the country. He also provided loans for the construction of working-class housing, enabled workers to sue employers who broke contracts, and made it illegal to openly sell opium and other recreational drugs.
On the international stage, Disraeli ordered the purchase of the Suez Canal as an important passage to India, at which time he told his Queen: “It is settled, you have it, ma’am!”. Various wars and conquests that were undertaken on the orders of Disraeli were regularly undertaken “to preserve Her Majesty’s honour”.
Disraeli and his Queen
At first, Queen Victoria disliked Disraeli, largely because of his treatment of Sir Robert Peel after he stepped down from power, but her distrust quickly softened. When Disraeli first met the Monarch, he knelt down on one knee and kissed her hand – to her biographer later in life, Victoria said, “Everybody likes flattery; and, when you come to royalty, you should lay it on with a trowel.”
Disraeli shrewdly recognised that Tsar Alexander II held a higher title than Victoria, as Emperor of Russia (empires are larger than Kingdoms and their rulers are therefore are seen as more senior); thus, he passed a bill through parliament that officially recognised his Sovereign Queen as Emperor of India and the British Empire.
Throughout his time in power, Disraeli often consulted with Victoria about foreign policy decisions, including on the Zulu War, Afghanistan campaign, the Congress of Berlin, and the Balkan Wars.
When he died, Victoria was, for the first time since Prince Albert’s funeral, publicly distraught and she told reporters that she felt like she had lost a lover once again. Although she did not physically attend his funeral, Victoria sent a wreath of primrose flowers to be laid atop Disraeli’s coffin, with the simple message “His favourite flowers”. This may not seem much, but every single time he visited the queen, he took a primrose flower; the Prime Minister also established a Tory pro-imperial pressure group called the Primrose League, which lived on long after his death.
So what of Disraeli?
Benjamin Disraeli divides opinion. He is personally my favourite former British Prime Minister, and his close relations with Queen Victoria make his legacy even more endearing. He introduced important domestic policies that gave the working classes homes, working rights, and brought about sanitary conditions that made Britain the cleanest country in the world at the time. I think he should be remembered most, however, for his ability to enhance Britain’s position on the world stage: he cemented British influence in the Middle East, in Southern Africa, in Europe, and made Britain the world’s most influential imperial power – with his Queen, “The Empress of India” at its head.
Disraeli was a moderniser who changed the country and the world. He loved his country and his Queen. And he put his all into making life in Britain better for everyone.