Rt Hon Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) was a novelist, statesman and Prime Minister credited with introducing ‘one nation’ Conservatism to British politics. A great orator, Disraeli introduced numerous memorable aphorisms to the language such as ‘never complain and never explain’, ‘I am prepared for the worst, but hope for the best’, ‘there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics’ and, in 1868 on first becoming Prime Minister, ‘I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole’. Disraeli’s rivalry with Liberal opposition leader William Ewart Gladstone was one of the most robust in Parliamentary history while his chivalric relationship with Queen Victoria was one of the closest between monarch and first minister.

Born to Italian-Jewish parents, Disraeli was baptised a Christian hence his eligibility to enter Parliament in 1837 after four attempts at being returned as Tory MP for Maidstone. Jews were excluded from Parliament until 1858. Despite his Anglican upbringing, Disraeli defended the faith into which he was born replying to an attack in the Commons by opposition MP Daniel O’Connell ‘yes I am a Jew. And when the ancestors of the Right Honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon’.

Disraeli’s path to power as British Prime Minister was anything but smooth. Aged 20, Disraeli lost his capital speculating on the Stock Exchange. He then attempted to launch a rival newspaper to The Times with publisher John Murray entitled The Representative. This endeavour foundered and Disraeli turned his attentions to a satirical novel called Vivian Grey published in 1826 under the anonymous moniker ‘A Man of Fashion’. Unmasked, Disraeli was threatened with defamation leading to an apparent nervous collapse. For the next decade Disraeli wrote a series of novels and stood successively for Parliament until returned in 1858. His maiden speech was mocked and Disraeli replied prophetically, ‘the time will come when you will hear me’.

A charismatic orator, Disraeli was kept on the Back Benches during Sir Robert Peel’s administration due to his opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws. Lord Derby appointed him Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1852 during his minority government and, on Derby’s retirement in 1868, Disraeli was appointed Prime Minister. Disraeli, christened ‘Dizzy’ by the yellow press, struck up an unlikely ‘knight and fair lady’ relationship with Queen Victoria telling his Cabinet ‘first of all remember she is a woman’. The Queen was not amused when the Conservative government fell and Gladstone – whom she loathed – became Prime Minister for the next six years.

Disraeli’s marriage was unconventional. A widow, Mary-Anne married Disraeli in 1839 a year after the death of her MP husband Wyndham Lewis. She was twelve-years older than he and, in later years, said ‘Dizzy married me for my money but if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love’. When the Reform Act was passed in 1867, Disraeli snuck away from a celebration at the Carlton Club to enjoy a Fortnum & Mason picnic at home in Hyde Park with Mary-Anne. As he said of her, ‘why, my dear, you are more like a mistress than a wife’.

Despite her eccentricities, Mary-Anne Disraeli was equally popular with The Queen as her husband. Queen Victoria was amused when Mary-Anne said to her at a Windsor Castle dine-and-sleep, ‘I wish you could see my Dizzy in his bath’. She also told The Queen that she slept with her arms around her husband’s neck. Mary-Anne’s Times obituary of 1872 read, ‘we are glad to believe that the romance of real life often begins at the point where it invariably ends in fiction’.

In 1874 Disraeli’s Conservatives were returned with a substantial majority and he pursued legislation that would lead Liberal MP Alexander Macdonald to declare in 1879 ‘the Conservative party has done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty’. Important one nation Conservatism acts that Disraeli championed included the Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act, the Public Health Act, the Sale of Food & Drugs Act, the Factory Act and the Protection of Property Act.

In 1876 Disraeli cemented his friendship with Queen Victoria by passing the Royal Titles Act that proclaimed her Empress of India. He was rewarded with the title Earl of Beaconsfield in 1879. Disraeli’s most successful gamble on the international stage was to persuade Baron Lionel de Rothschild to loan the British government the funds to acquire a 44% stake in the Suez Canal venture. Disraeli died in 1881 and is remembered as one of the great 19th century Conservative Prime Ministers.

When asked if Queen Victoria could visit him on his deathbed, he quipped ‘she’d only want me to pass a message to Albert’. When he was buried, The Queen sent a wreath of primroses with a hand-written card reading ‘his favourite flower’. Benjamin Disraeli visited Henry Poole & Co only twice in 1860 and 1861 when he was serving as an opposition MP. His orders for a fancy stripe Angola vest and trousers, an embroidered vest, black twill Melton short lounging jacket lined silk and fancy stripe buckskin morning trousers confirm his reputation as one of Parliament’s best dressed dandies.

(c) James Sherwood

Photo © (c) James Sherwood Collection.