This article was first published in the August 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Benjamin Disraeli dominated mid-Victorian politics alongside his Liberal opponent William Gladstone. Born into a Jewish family, but brought up a Christian, he was elected as a Tory MP in 1837. He was the architect of the Reform Act of 1867, which enfranchised the urban male working class, and was prime minister twice (1868, 1874–80) during which time he promoted the empire and introduced social reforms at home. He wrote numerous novels, including Sybil, or the Two Nations.
When did you first hear about Benjamin Disraeli?
At school – indeed, he was one of the reasons I joined the Conservative party. I think I was immediately attracted by his colourful character and the fact that he was one of the country’s most distinguished political leaders – a man who combined brilliant political skills with reforming instincts and a larger-than-life persona.
What kind of person was Disraeli?
In some ways, a bit of a rascal. He got himself bankrupt early in his adult life – after indulging in unwise newspaper speculation – and remained short of money all his life. He married for money but then fell in love with his wife, and had a very happy marriage.
He was something of a dandy and a leader of fashion – and you can’t say that about many political leaders. He was also a successful novelist. Politically, he started out allying himself with the most reactionary elements of the old Tory party, but he wound up as the radical leader of a modern Conservative party which ‘One Nation Tories’ – a direct reference to Sybil, or the Two Nations – like me base our views upon.
What made Disraeli a hero?
He’s my ideal of a centre-right politician – a conservative with a strong social conscience. Part of his political skill was creating an extraordinary alliance between the landowners on one hand and the urban working class of the cities on the other.
It’s also sometimes forgotten the amount of anti-Semitism Disraeli had to conquer to make it “to the top of the greasy pole”, as he put it. But he won over his detractors with a combination of charm and intellect, and in the case of Victoria, with a lot of flattery. That said, I’m not sure today’s Conservative party is recognisably Disraeli’s party.
What was his finest hour?
I think it has to be at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, when he played such a pivotal role in settling the ‘eastern question’ following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78. As Bismarck recognised, Disraeli completely dominated the event, which settled Europe’s boundaries and ensured the continent remained largely peaceful for the next 30 years.
The 1867 Reform Bill he pushed through, which saw him steal the Liberals’ clothes, was also something of a triumph. He’d opposed the earlier reform bill put forward by Gladstone, but after defeating it, then took up a more radical bill. It was a typically sly and subtle Disraeli way of using the Conservative party to introduce a radical reform despite his basic Conservative instincts. A few years later [in 1874], he swept to power, proving that the Conservatives could win the popular franchise.
Is there anything you don’t admire about Disraeli?
I don’t think I’d have liked him much when he was a dandy. He also had a tendency for going back on what he’d done. He was a disastrous chancellor of the exchequer because he knew absolutely nothing about economic policy.
Can you see any parallels between Disraeli’s life and your own?
Not really, other than the fact that we both come from what I’d call the progressive wing of the Conservative party, became obsessed by politics at an early age, and have enjoyed long political careers.
If you could meet Disraeli what would you ask him?
Disraeli was fascinated by European politics and I’d have been interested in discussing that with him. I’d also like to have asked him about the challenges of leading a political party then – I imagine it was every bit as demanding as it is today.
Ken Clarke was elected to parliament in 1970 and served in the cabinets of both Margaret Thatcher and John Major