Integration for Jews preceded tragedies

The experiences of Rothschild and Disraeli could have changed Britain, but history records a series of missed opportunities for others


In 1847, Lionel de Rothschild was the first practising Jew to be elected to the House of Commons, as a Liberal.

The Commons initially refused to admit him, and when Lord John Russell, the free-thinking Liberal Prime Minister, introduced legislation to change the parliamentary oath to make this possible, it was rejected by the reactionary House of Lords.

Rothschild was not able to take his seat until a “deal” in 1858 which allowed each House of Parliament to decide on its oath.

A decade later Gladstone proposed that Rothschild be made a peer, but Queen Victoria objected strongly. It would be unseemly, she replied, to ennoble a man whose vast wealth was based on “a species of gambling” rather than legitimate trade.

It was another 17 years before the first practising Jew was able take a seat in the Lords, when Victoria reluctantly agreed to raise Lionel de Rothschild’s son Nathan to the peerage and the Lords changed its oath.

Ironically, by then the Rothschilds were moving politically right-wards in response to Gladstone’s radicalism and the family was soon keenly supporting Lord Salisbury’s Conservatives — part of the rise of a unified wealth and “landed” elite, irrespective of race, which made the Conservatives so successful and dominant a political party throughout the 20th century.

Mrs Thatcher made it almost a convention that the Chief Rabbi should be appointed to the House of Lords alongside the bishops of the Church of England.

There is only passing reference to these events in David Cannadine’s stunning history of 19th century Britain. Cannadine is a brilliant historian — his book is a must-read for all who want to understand why we are where we are as a country — so it is interesting to speculate why this is so.

I think it is because, in the sweep of history, the formal legal removal of “Jewish disabilities” — to use the language of the day — appears insignificant alongside the broad advance of racial and religious tolerance and integration, in respect of Jews, demonstrated to such an extraordinary degree by the career of Benjamin Disraeli, leader of the Conservative Party in one or other House of Parliament from 1852 until his death in 1881 — three decades which include almost the entire Rothschild controversy.

Disraeli’s father, Isaac d’Israeli, was a fairly wealthy Sephardi Jew who followed a literary career. Benjamin was born into the Jewish faith but — alongside his father, following a religious controversy too complex to relate — converted to the Church of England at the age of 12. The younger Disraeli had virtually no discernible religious sentiments, but he conformed to the Established Church and that was enough, with suitable financing from friends and admirers, for this amazingly extrovert, articulate and imaginative literary-politician to secure election to the House of Commons for an English county constituency and to ascend the “greasy pole” of politics (as he put it) to become leader of the aristocratic Conservative Party and twice Prime Minister (in 1868 and between 1874 and 1880).

More, he became Queen Victoria’s favourite politician. As a mark of her especial favour she conferred on him one of the highest ranks of the peerage a decade before Rothschild secured a lower one — and so Benjamin Disraeli was reincarnated as the Earl of Beaconsfield. Victoria was distraught at Disraeli’s death in 1881, sent flowers to his funeral and visited his grave.

The story of the acceptance and integration of Jews could be told in respect of other faiths and races in 19th century Britain. But the great tragedy of the century is that the race and religion of which it cannot be told are the ones which, numerically and geographically, mattered most to Britain — the Irish and Ireland’s Catholics.

The 19th century begins with William Pitt’s resignation because he cannot persuade King George III to allow Catholics to sit in Parliament after the parliamentary union of Britain and Ireland in 1800 in the midst of the desperate Napoleonic Wars.

The battle for “Catholic Emancipation” took 30 more years to succeed. And the century ends with the heroic failure of Gladstone to enact Irish Home Rule — a settlement roughly equivalent to the status of Scotland within today’s United Kingdom.

Disraeli and Salisbury’s Tories opposed Irish Home Rule virulently, deploying straightforwardly racist rhetoric and bitter electoral campaigning to mobilise the Protestant working class of northern England and Scotland against the “insurgent” Irish Catholics.

Gladstone, by now elderly and fading, proved unable to carry the measure although he introduced it twice.

It is a tragic story. Virtually no one today, whatever their politics, can look back on the failure of Irish Home Rule in the 1880s and the 1890s as anything other than a disaster. Virtually all of Ireland’s divisions of the 20th century can be traced back to the failure of Irish Home Rule, such are the long effects of political decisions.

Cannadine charts, in painful detail, the constantly embittering and divisive effect of Irish issues — and the inability to reconcile English liberalism to Irish exigencies — throughout the century. Government after government, from Pitt to Gladstone, falls on Irish policy — essentially, in each case, because a Prime Minister who, after long experience, proposes a measure of Irish reform has it rejected by English Tories backed by the English Establishment in the House of Lords, the Established Church and the Monarchy.

Queen Victoria, tellingly, is as opposed to Irish Home Rule as George III had been to Catholic Emancipation.

By contrast, Queen Elizabeth II has proved a model constitutional monarch in her handling of Northern Ireland.

Britain’s 19th century Irish tragedy has alarming similarities to the problem of reconciling Britain and Europe in the past 50 years. Government after government has fallen on European policy because of a similar inability of prime ministers, pro-European either from conviction (Blair and Macmillan) or experience (Cameron and Thatcher) to forge a viable policy acceptable to conservative England.

But there is one big difference — 19th century Ireland was in a state of semi-permanent violence and terrorism. Britain and the European mainland are at peace.

Let us hope that the deepening divisions over Europe remain that way — peaceful. This is a case where it would be a very bad idea for history to repeat itself — unlike the story of Disraeli and the emancipation of England’s Jews.

‘Victorious Century: The United Kingdom 1800-1906’ by David Cannadine is published by Allen Lane, at £30.

Lord Adonis is a Labour peer and former government minister. He is chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission

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