Benjamin Disraeli

Conservative Party

Image credit: Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt oil on canvas 1881. © National Portrait Gallery, London licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Benjamin Disraeli

We have brought a peace, and we trust we have brought a peace with honour, and I trust that that will now be followed by the prosperity of the country.

Conservative Party

February 1868 - December 1868

27 Feb 1868 - 1 Dec 1868


February 1874 - April 1880


20 Feb 1874 - 21 Apr 1880

Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt oil on canvas, 1881

Image credit: Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield by Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt oil on canvas 1881. © National Portrait Gallery, London licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Key Facts

Tenure dates

27 Feb 1868 - 1 Dec 1868

20 Feb 1874 - 21 Apr 1880

Length of tenures

6 years, 339 days


Conservative Party


Mary Anne Evans, 1st Viscountess Beaconsfield


21 Dec 1804

Birth place

Bloomsbury, Middlesex, England


19 Apr 1881 (aged 76 years)

About Benjamin Disraeli

Charming, brilliant, witty, visionary, colourful, and unconventional, Benjamin Disraeli (nicknamed ‘Dizzy’) was one of the greatest characters of Victorian politics. He had a profound influence over conservative thinking, left a strong Parliamentary legacy, and, as a minister, passed some important legislation. However, Disraeli’s claim to Prime Ministerial greatness is much weaker, and very much in the eye of the beholder. He had some strong foreign policy successes, but his domestic reforms were largely driven by others.

Benjamin Disraeli was born into a Jewish family in 1804. In 1817, his father quarrelled with the Bevis Marks synagogue and had his children baptised into the Church of England (though Disraeli would remain proud of his Jewish heritage). This was a crucial event because Jews were excluded from Parliament by religion until 1858, but that would not be a problem for Disraeli.

He was educated at several small private schools, before beginning work with a firm of solicitors when he was 17. In 1824, he invested in South American mining concerns, and lost it all – leaving debts that he would only fully pay off decades later. Then, he tried to publish a newspaper, which failed, leaving him unable to cover the costs. Then, he anonymously published a novel, Vivian Grey, mocking some of his business partners, but his identity was exposed, leaving him even worse off. He suffered a breakdown and the next few years would be unproductive, though he published a more successful novel in 1831 (The Young Duke) and used it to fund a year and a half of travel around the Mediterranean and Middle East.

When he returned to England, Disraeli focused more on writing and began to dream of a political career. He ran three times for High Wycombe during the 1830s and lost each of them. At this point, Disraeli had decided that he needed to be associated with a political party for the first time, and he chose the Tories. In 1837, he finally won election to the House of Commons. After a disastrous maiden speech, he took the advice of a fellow MP to be ‘dull’ until he had learned more about the House.

The following year, Disraeli’s fellow Maidstone MP Wyndham Lewis died. Disraeli married his widow, Mary Anne, a year later. She had a guaranteed income and social status, proving a huge boost to Disraeli’s career.

In 1841, Disraeli was elected MP for Shrewsbury, and Robert Peel’s Conservatives won the election, but Disraeli’s hopes for high office were not met. He wrote three more novels during the 1840s, and it was in Sybil (or The Two Nations) that he somewhat articulated the idea of ‘One Nation’ Conservatism that would prove deeply influential on the Conservative Party. He also made his name in politics at this time, leading opposition to Robert Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws. The Conservative Party fractured and it would be nearly three decades before it won another majority.

Disraeli purchased a country house, and now became MP for the more rural Buckinghamshire constituency in 1847. He was now part of the party leadership, and when Lord Derby formed his three minority governments during the 1850s and 1860s, it would be Disraeli who led the House of Commons. Disraeli played an increasingly prominent role. He proved an effective parliamentary debater against Liberal star William Gladstone. Disraeli was also Chancellor in all three of Derby’s governments.

During these years, Disraeli did pass some successful legislation through the House of Commons, including the India Bill, which ended East India Company Rule, creating the formal colony, and the Reform Act of 1867, broadening the franchise.

In February 1868, Derby resigned, and Disraeli became Prime Minister, remarking ‘I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.’ But his jubilation was short lived, and the government achieved little, lasting less than 300 days before defeat in the November 1868 election.

Over the next six years, Disraeli was Leader of the Opposition. His wife, Mary Anne, died in 1872, leaving him disconsolate, and he would be unsuccessful in his efforts to marry again. While in opposition, he wrote more novels, and reformed the Conservative Party, to make it a more effective electoral force. He was rewarded in 1874, when the Conservatives won a majority for the first time since the 1840s.

Disraeli’s new government passed a number of social reforms, though these efforts had his support, they were largely the work of other Cabinet ministers. He struck up a deep friendship with Queen Victoria. She elevated him to the House of Lords as Lord Beaconsfield in 1876 and he made her Empress of India in 1877.

Much of Disraeli’s premiership was taken up with foreign affairs. In 1875, he achieved a sensational coup de theatre when he ordered the purchase of £4 million in Suez Canal shares, giving Britain a controlling interest in the Canal.

For the rest of Disraeli’s premiership, the main issue would be the general European response to the waning power of the Ottoman Empire in the Balkans, an issue that threatened to draw the great powers into a major war. Revolts broke out across the region. Then, a general Ottoman-Russian war started in 1877, with a Russian army advancing to threaten Constantinople.

In 1878, Disraeli, along with Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury, travelled to Berlin for a Congress aimed at resolving the situation. The result was a triumph, with a settlement created, Russia withdrawing from military gains, and Cyprus handed over to the British as a strategic base from which to guarantee the settlement. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was greatly charmed by Disraeli, remarking ‘Der alte Jude: das ist der Mann’.  In London, Disraeli was met with cheering crowds and declared ‘Peace with Honour’.

Berlin was Disraeli’s swansong. His government was severely embarrassed over the years that followed by botched conflicts in Afghanistan and Zululand, neither of which Disraeli had really wanted. His health was becoming much weaker, which perhaps affected his judgment. In 1880, he optimistically called an election a year early, only to be heavily defeated by Gladstone’s Liberals.

In 1881, Disraeli settled down to finish his last novel, Endymion. He died in April 1881.  

Key Insights

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