This article was first published in the Christmas 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine
Benjamin Disraeli, born into a Jewish family but brought up a Christian, was elected as a Tory MP in 1837. He was the architect of the 1867 Reform Act, which enfranchised urban male workers, and was prime minister twice (1868, 1874–80) during which time he promoted the empire and introduced social reforms at home. He also wrote several novels.
When did you first hear about Disraeli?
I knew he was an important figure from an early age because my family often discussed history. I also wrote an O-level history project about Disraeli and the 1874 election.
What kind of person was he?
A flamboyant, enormously engaging romantic with a way with words, who was also very good at the showmanship side of politics. He charmed Queen Victoria to an enormous degree, creating her the Empress of India, and I love his quote: “Everyone likes flattery, and when you come to royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.” There’s also a telling but probably apocryphal story of a lady who sat next to Disraeli and then Gladstone. She said that Disraeli made her feel “the cleverest woman in the world” while Gladstone knew that “he was the cleverest man in the world”.
What made Disraeli a hero?
He was a very effective prime minister and, in a way, created modern politics. He introduced the 1867 Reform Bill, which gave a million new voters the franchise. Once he’d done that he realised that you needed a message that was going to appeal to the electorate, and for him it was improving the condition of the people. His policies were also much more effective at a practical level than his great rival, Gladstone’s – who, incidentally, he was stunningly rude about, once accusing him of being “a shoplifter”.
What was his finest hour?
Probably the Congress of Berlin in 1878, which settled the peace of Europe until 1914 and dealt with the complexities of the Eastern Question (the failing Ottoman empire), and the relationship between Bismarck’s Germany and Russia. He described the result of the congress as “peace with honour”, a phrase later echoed by Neville Chamberlain, but in Disraeli’s case it was true. He also established a good relationship with Bismarck, who famously said of Disraeli: “That old Jew, he is the man!” It’s not very PC, but it’s still a remarkable comment from this tough German chancellor.
Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?
His early business dealings sailed very close to the wind. He also had an extravagant lifestyle and wasn’t good with money in his early years. Lastly, I believe he was wrong in opposing the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
No, sadly, and I’m not as flamboyant as him. Nor did I encounter the sort of political intolerance that he faced [as a convert from Judaism] when he started out in politics. Disraeli was a unique political force. However, like him, I think the essential job of a politician is to try to improve the standard of living of the electorate.
What do you think he would make of Brexit?
I think Disraeli would have been in favour of Brexit – he would have been astonished by us joining the European Union in the first place. He understood the national interest in terms of the nation state and wouldn’t have wanted to delegate powers to a higher authority. Gladstone, with his idea of European liberalism, would have been more likely to be pro-EU.
Would you like to follow in his footsteps as party leader?
I thought we were discussing history rather than the future [laughs], but looking in my crystal ball, no!
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset, was talking to York Membery
Listen again: Kenneth Clarke MP speaks up for Disraeli in Radio 4’s Great Lives bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0076lny