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Disraeli: A Biography of the Victorian Era’s Political and Literary Giant (1994)




Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, KG, PC, FRS (21 December 1804 – 19 April 1881) was a British statesman of the Conservative Party who twice served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He played a central role in the creation of the modern Conservative Party, defining its policies and its broad outreach. Disraeli is remembered for his influential voice in world affairs, his political battles with the Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone, and his one-nation conservatism or “Tory democracy”. He made the Conservatives the party most identified with the glory and power of the British Empire. He is the only British prime minister to have been of Jewish birth and the first person from an ethnic minority background to hold one of the Great Offices of State. He was also a novelist, publishing works of fiction even as prime minister.

Disraeli was born in Bloomsbury, then a part of Middlesex. His father left Judaism after a dispute at his synagogue; young Benjamin became an Anglican at the age of 12.

After several unsuccessful attempts, Disraeli entered the House of Commons in 1837. In 1846, Prime Minister Robert Peel split the Conservatives over his proposal to repeal the Corn Laws, which involved ending the tariff on imported grain. As a result of his clashes with Peel in the House of Commons, Disraeli became a major Tory figure. When Lord Derby, the party leader, thrice formed governments in the 1850s and 1860s, Disraeli served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons.

Upon Derby’s retirement in 1868, Disraeli became prime minister briefly before losing that year’s general election. He returned to opposition until the general election of 1874, when he led the Tories as they won an outright majority

 Disraeli’s second term was dominated by the Eastern Question—the slow decay of the Ottoman Empire and the desire of other European powers, such as Russia, to gain at its expense. Disraeli arranged for the British to purchase a major interest in the Suez Canal Company (in Ottoman-controlled Egypt). In 1878, faced with Russian victories against the Ottomans, he worked at the Congress of Berlin to obtain peace in the Balkans at terms favourable to Britain and unfavourable to Russia, its longstanding enemy. This diplomatic victory established Disraeli as one of Europe’s leading statesmen.

World events thereafter moved against the Conservatives. The Second Anglo-Afghan War and the Anglo-Zulu War in South Africa undermined his public support. He angered British farmers by refusing to reinstitute the Corn Laws in response to poor harvests and cheap imported grain. With Gladstone conducting a massive speaking campaign, his Liberals bested the Conservatives at the 1880 general election. Disraeli died on 19 April 1881 at the age of 76. In his final months, he led the Conservatives in opposition. He had always maintained a close friendship with Queen Victoria, who in 1876 appointed him Earl of Beaconsfield. His last completed novel, Endymion, was published in 1881 shortly before his death, more than 50 years after his first.

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