Benjamin Disraeli, First Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-81) was a great British statesman and novelist. He was born in London and came from a Jewish family that had converted to Anglicanism.
He was a most ambitious and a larger than life individual. He dressed in colorful clothes. He always chose his words carefully and spoke only when he had something memorable and witty to say.
He began life working for three years in a lawyer’s office. He then – unsuccessfully – tried to start a newspaper.
His first big breakthrough was when he achieved fame and success as a popular novelist. His first novel was Vivian Grey (1826). The most famous of his many novels were perhaps his two political novels, Coningsby (1844) and Sibyl (1845).
Disraeli joined the Conservative Party and in 1837 he entered the British Parliament as the member for Maidstone.
His first speech to Parliament was heckled by other Members of Parliament who disliked his flowery manner of speaking and his colorful clothing. In concluding his speech, he made the famous reply: “Though I sit down now, the time will come when you will hear me.”
He became the leader of the Young England movement, which was home to that section of the Conservatives known as the Romantic Tories. The Romantic Tories were political conservatives who were critical of the effects of the Industrial Revolution that were occurring in Great Britain at that time. They believed that the monarchy and the church were the natural protectors of the agricultural and industrial working classes and were suspicious of the Industrial Revolution’s tendency to destroy the traditional protections and obligations which had been in place in Britain since time immemorial.
He also opposed the free trade policies of his fellow Conservative, Sir Robert Peel. Peel engineered the repeal of the Corn Laws (1845-46), which controlled the price of wheat and of other types of grain via the imposition of protective tariffs on the import of foreign grain. Instead, Disraeli favored protectionism to protect British agriculture and industry. In later days, Disraeli stopped supporting protectionism to a large extent, having come to the view that the Corn Laws had mostly favored the interests of landowners and hurt the poor.
While in Parliament, Disraeli became Chancellor of the Exchequer three times and then became the leader of the Commons (the lower house of the British Parliament). In the latter role, he introduced the Reform Bill of 1867.
Disraeli served as prime minister of the United Kingdom for two terms – first, in 1868, and then, later and more extensively, in the period 1874-80. During his second prime ministership, he promoted British imperialism (that is, the extension of the British Empire) and a forward foreign policy. In 1876 he passed legislation conferring on Queen Victoria a new title: Empress of India.
Disraeli led Britain into the Second Afghan War (1878-79) and into the Zulu War (1879), and he sought to lessen the power and influence of Russia.
He showed much skillful diplomacy in protecting Britain’s foreign interests. He stopped a war between Russia and Turkey by sending a British fleet to the Dardanelles. By such measures he checked Russian imperialism in Turkey and the Balkans.
In the 1878 Congress of Berlin, Disraeli successfully promoted a treaty that was most favorable to Britain. He persuaded Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor, to support his treaty and its clauses keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean Sea. His treaty, which restricted the power of Britain’s opponent, Russia, incidentally contributed to European peace at that time and was praised by Bismarck for doing so.
During his second administration, Britain became half-owner, with Egypt, of the Suez Canal (1875). This move gave Britain power over Egypt and, more importantly, over the Suez Canal, that vital but vulnerable component in the new shorter and quicker route between Britain and its colonies in Asia, East Africa and the Pacific Ocean.
Disraeli also passed legislation codifying and extending certain social reforms – for example, slum clearance and urban renewal, the Public Health Act of 1875, and more rights to workers to join trade unions and promote their interests. However, it should be noted that many of these measures had been originally initiated under the administration of Disraeli’s predecessor and great rival, the Liberal William Gladstone.