The Baptized Jew Who Could Point a Way Forward for British Conservatism

October 2, 2023 | Georgia Gilholy
About the author:

In 2012, a former deputy prime minister was asked a question about the earl of Beaconsfield during a BBC interview, and replied, “Who the hell is Disraeli?” Georgia Gilholy argues that such ignorance of the novelist, proto-Zionist, and Tory politician Benjamin Disraeli (1874–1880), who served as prime minister in 1868 and again from 1874 to 1880, might be part of what is, in her mind, ailing today’s Conservative party. She makes the case for a recovery of his legacy:

Disraeli, the grandson of Italian Jewish immigrants, converted to Anglicanism as a teenager, following his father’s blazing row with the local synagogue. Disraeli’s championing of his unusual status as “the blank page between the Old Testament and the New” offers a glimpse into his eccentric yet productive acceptance of both his Britishness, aided by his adoption of Anglicanism, and his Jewish roots.

Disraeli had his fair share of blunders, but the policies he backed often made concrete and positive changes to everyday life for millions. [His] fondness for bridging the class divide, however opportunistic, did not translate into a leftist disdain for free enterprise or property rights.

By far Disraeli’s most radical domestic achievement was the Second Reform Act 1867, which roughly doubled the electorate in England and Wales from one to two million men. While the move was partly a cunning attempt to persuade voters against his arch-rival, [the Liberal politician William] Gladstone, it was a stroke of genius. [Disraeli thus] transformed conservatism into a popular tradition dedicated to the defense of the cultural values and economic interests of the working class. The right must stop being ashamed of where it came from. Disraeli certainly wasn’t.

Disraeli, [however], was dealing with a culture still steeped in the language of history and biblical morality. He did not need to start from square one . . . by having to deliberate about obvious facts—that marriage is a good thing, or that real-life communities make people happier and safer.

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