Benjamin Disraeli and the Spirit of England: T.A. Jenkins Reviews the Life and Legacy of Benjamin Disraeli, Statesman, Novelist and Man-about-Town, on the Bicentenary of His Birth

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'IMAGINATION GOVERNS mankind'. The force of this observation, made in 1833 in a diary kept by Benjamin Disraeli, who was born two hundred years ago this month, found no better illustration than in the course of his own political career, which involved an extraordinary triumph of imagination over adverse circumstances.

Disraeli was the son of a minor figure in London literary circles, and he did not have the advantage of a public school and university education, gaining much of his knowledge instead from intensive reading in his father's library. As a young man he acquired a modest reputation as a writer of society novels, beginning with Vivian Grey (1826) published when he was twenty-two, but he achieved greater notoriety through his flamboyant lifestyle, dressing as a 'dandy' in brightly coloured clothes with lace cuffs and buckled shoes. He was stigmatised, moreover, by the fact that he had been born a Jew (the family name was originally spelt D'Israeli) and only converted to Christianity at the age of twelve because his father thought it would help his social advancement.

Yet this man who appeared so foreign in his physical appearance and ways of thinking, and who was self-consciously an outsider, went on to become leader of the Conservative Party, which was identified with the interests of the aristocratic ruling elite. He served on two occasions as prime minister, and ended his life as the Earl of Beaconsfield and Queen Victoria's personal favourite. Equally remarkable, the myths generated by his career helped to inspire the imaginations of future generations of Conservatives.

Disraeli's character has puzzled historians as much as it did his contemporaries. Until recently, there was a tendency to accept the view of his critics at the time, that Disraeli was a cynical adventurer, a political charlatan, motivated by no consistent principle other than the fulfilment of his personal ambition. However, new insights have suggested a more sophisticated conclusion, that Disraeli did possess a clear set of ideas, derived from his interpretation of history, the insights this provided into England's (it was always England's) national character and destiny, and his belief in his own unique position in relation to them. While undoubtedly an opportunist in his methods, Disraeli's underlying sense of political purpose, and the rhetoric he used to promote his objectives, never changed.

One crucial influence on the development of the young Disraeli's thinking was the work of the German romantic philosophers, notably Kant and Goethe. From his position of relative obscurity, Disraeli became fascinated by the concept of the man of genius whose profound insight into the true meaning of things enabled him to shape the course of events. The impact of this idea is evident in one of Disraeli's occasional jottings, from 1842: Spirit of the Times. To know it and one' self the secret of success.

Disraeli's father inspired in his son feelings of reverence for England's historic ruling institutions, the crown, the territorial aristocracy and the established church, which he grew to believe embodied national values and were a vital source of social cohesion. Disraeli's politics were always instinctively Conservative (he often preferred the older label of 'Tory'), and though he flirted for a time with the romantic form of radicalism associated with Sir Francis Burdett, which was itself patriotic and monarchical in character, it was as a Tory romantic that he laid public claim to fill the role of the man of genius, which he had imagined for himself

In a pamphlet entitled Vindication of the English Constitution (1835), and a series of letters to The Times in 1836 using the pseudonym 'Runnymede', Disraeli presented an account of six hundred years of history to show how England's laws, liberties and institutions had reached their present state. The villains of his story were the Whig "oligarchy', who in the eighteenth century had tried to monopolise the government by enslaving the monarchy, whereas the Tories had shown themselves to be a truly 'national party', representing the views of 'nine-tenths of the people'. …