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Benjamin Disraeli – Conservative leader and Prime Minister

Mark Rathbone assesses the degree of success achieved by one of the great Victorian Prime Ministers.

Before judging the success or otherwise of historical figures, it is essential first to establish by what criteria one is going to assess their careers. For a British Prime Minister, there are essentially three questions which need to be answered. Did he lead his party to electoral success or defeat? Did his policies promote economic prosperity for the country? And to what extent did he achieve the aims which he set out for himself and his party? This last criterion can often be the most difficult as it involves making a judgement about what the subject’s aims really were; but in Benjamin Disraeli’s case this is fairly straightforward as he declared his aims for the Conservative Party very clearly in two well-publicised speeches in 1872.

‘The Greasy Pole’

Looking first at the issue of electoral success, Disraeli described politics as being about getting to the ‘top of the greasy pole’, a reflection of the long struggle he had had to reach the top of his party. The young Disraeli suffered, in a party still largely dominated by the landed aristocracy, from the disadvantage of his relatively humble birth. The ingrained anti-Semitism of Victorian Britain made his Jewish ancestry a further barrier to advancement, accentuated by his ‘foreign’ appearance and his dandified style of dress. He was also widely regarded as untrustworthy and opportunistic: Lord Salisbury, who served in his cabinet and was his eventual successor, described him as ‘an adventurer … without principles or honesty’. Hence, although the split in the Conservative Party over the Corn Laws in 1846 thrust Disraeli to the higher echelons of the party, he was prevented from becoming overall leader until the Earl of Derby’s retirement in 1868.

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