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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Benjamin Disraeli

(1804–81, earl of Beaconsfield 1876)
Author and Conservative politician, prime minister in 1868 and 1874–80. His Italian-Jewish grandfather (the name was then spelt D'Israeli) emigrated to England. His father, Isaac D'Israeli, quarrelled with the *Bevis Marks synagogue and decided to have his children baptized as Christians. Disraeli would otherwise not have had a political career, for *Jews could not sit in the House of Commons until legislation was introduced in 1858 by Disraeli himself and Lord *Derby.

His early career was a flashy mixture of financial speculation (disastrous, leaving him with heavy debts) and over-ambitious literary undertakings. But in 1837 he won a seat in parliament and in 1839 he secured himself a reliable income and a large house in London by marrying a wealthy widow, 12 years older than himself. It was a calculated match which developed into a happy marriage. His wife put it well when she said 'Dizzy married me for my money, but if he had the chance again he would marry me for love'.

His literary success preceded and prefigured his political achievements. His two best novels (Coningsby; or, The New Generation 1844, Sybil; or, The Two Nations 1845), expressed the ideas of a group of politicians who became known as 'Young England'. In these books Disraeli put forward a romantic view of Conservatism in which there was a natural alliance between the aristocracy and the people; the failure of modern society was that it had split into the 'two nations' (basically the rich and the poor) of the subtitle of Sybil.

His maiden speech in the House of Commons was howled down (both his manner and appearance were over-elaborate), but he shouted a final prophetic sentence – 'I will sit down now but the time will come when you will hear me'. Over the years he gradually asserted his authority; and when Peel split from the Conservative party over the *Corn Laws, taking with him its senior members, Disraeli emerged as the leader in the House of Commons with Lord *Derby as head of the party.

Disraeli was chancellor of the exchequer in each of Derby's three brief administrations, and succeeded him as prime minister for a few months in 1868. He lost the election that autumn to the Liberals, and his great rival *Gladstone came in for his first term. The two men disliked each other and for the first time the parties had clearly different identities – particularly on foreign policy where Disraeli was motivated by imperialist concerns and Gladstone more by moral issues.

Disraeli won the general election of 1874 and began, at the age of 70, the term of office on which his reputation rests. In foreign policy he effected a brilliant coup by buying a cheap half share in the *Suez Canal with money borrowed from the Rothschilds, against Foreign Office advice and before he could get parliamentary approval. His firm but controversial stand on the *Eastern Question (the occasion of the original *jingoism) led to the curtailment of Russia's ambitions against Turkey. In 1878 Disraeli accompanied his foreign secretary, Lord Salisbury, to the congress of Berlin where the final terms were agreed, returning in triumph with the claim that he had achieved 'peace with honour'. In home affairs he put through legislation improving housing and sanitation for the urban poor, in keeping with the concept of one-nation Conservatism.

His period as prime minister was marked by his close relationship with Queen *Victoria (a friendship between the country's leading widow and widower, for his wife had died in 1872). The queen fell willing victim to the charm which is so evident in all photographs of Disraeli and which he used without scruple; 'everyone likes flattery,' he told Matthew Arnold, 'and when it comes to royalty you should lay it on with a trowel'. Victoria made him an earl in 1876 so that he could lead the government with less strain from the House of Lords, and when he died in 1881 she travelled to Hughenden Manor to lay a wreath on his coffin. His wife and he had bought this house near High Wycombe in 1848, and it is kept today much as they lived in it.

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