Once banned from politics, Jews went on to help forge the Britain we know today

Six years after the first copies of the Jewish Chronicle rolled off the presses, Lionel de Rothschild was elected to the House of Commons.. Since then Jewish politicians have been instrumental in shaping Britain's political landscape


1865: Lionel Nathan Rothschild (1808 - 1879), banker and activist in the civil and political emancipation of Jews in Britain. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In the summer of 1847, six years after the first copies of the Jewish Chronicle rolled off the presses, Lionel de Rothschild was elected to the House of Commons.

It would, however, take more than a decade — and four more victories at the polls — before Rothschild was able to take his seat in Parliament. But his refusal to swear the Christian oath sparked a battle that eventually culminated in legislation sweeping away the barriers to Jews entering Parliament.

Rothschild was no lone warrior, but one of five Jews selected by the Liberal Party to stand in 1847. Nor, as the historian Geoffrey Alderman has argued, was he technically the first professing Jew to actually sit in Parliament.

That distinction, he believes, rests with Sir David Salomons who, elected in a by-election in 1851, simply opted to replace the words “on the true faith of a Christian” in the oath, took his seat and voted in three parliamentary divisions before being ejected.

For those illegal votes, Salomons, who was also the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London, found himself hauled before the courts and fined. Ultimately, Rothschild was to become the first Jewish MP to legally take his seat in June 1858, being joined by Salomons the following year.

Opposition to emancipation, another early Jewish MP, Sir John Simon, recalled in the JC in 1891 was “relentless, virulent and marked in some instances by bitter religious animosity”. Unsurprisingly, given the Conservatives’ hostility to the legislation, the first six Jewish MPs were all Liberals.

But not all Tories were unsympathetic. One lonely voice in favour of reform on the Conservative benches was the party’s leader in the House of Commons, Benjamin Disraeli.

Indeed, had the future prime minister’s father not become entangled in a row with the trustees of the Bevis Marks Synagogue over an unpaid fine — and consequently decided to have his young son baptised into the Church of England — Disraeli himself would not have been able to take his seat when he was first elected to Parliament in 1837.

Disenchantment with Disraeli’s arch-rival, Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, among a section of Jewish voters was reflected in the arrival of the first Jewish Tory MP, Saul Isaac, in the Commons in 1874.

However, their hostility to Jewish immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — exemplified by the 1905 Aliens Act — drove a wedge between the Tories and the new, now largely working-class, Jewish electorate.

The Liberals were still able to count on the loyalty of many Jewish voters: in Sir Herbert Samuel, who went on to become its leader in the early 1930s, the party produced the first professing Jewish Cabinet minister in 1909.

An ardent Zionist, Samuel served as the first High Commissioner for Palestine and, upon his return to domestic politics in 1929, played a leading role in the formation of the national government. Together with his fellow Liberal Sir Rufus Isaacs, Samuel was the most successful Jewish politician of the first half of the 20th century.

An accomplished barrister, Isaacs was the first Jewish Lord Chief Justice and later became Viceroy of India, Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Lords.

But the Liberals were ultimately eclipsed by the ascendancy of Labour, which, with its appeal to the working classes and staunch support for Zionism, came to be seen as the natural home of most Jews.

By 1929, Labour had six Jewish MPs. Among their number were the legendary Manny Shinwell and the first female Jewish MP, Dr Marion Phillips.

The tide of public anger about the Tory “guilty men” who had led Britain down the path of appeasement before the war — and the determination that there should be no return to the economic policies of the “Hungry Thirties” — swept Labour to a landslide victory in 1945, carrying a record 26 Jews onto the government benches.

Moreover, in the majority of seats where Jewish votes were most heavily concentrated, Labour emerged victorious.

While the Tories were by no means universally hostile to them, and the party retained a degree of support in the community, many Jews had particular reason to dislike the Conservatives.

The mix of snobbery and antisemitism which characterised some in the party’s upper echelons — one minister privately attributed the Tories’ loss of a 1926 by-election to the candidate being “a horrible Jew who could pay his own expenses” — occasionally burst forth into public view.

During a debate on the Spanish Civil War in 1938, for instance, Shinwell crossed the floor of the chamber and struck Tory MP Robert Tatton Bower across the face after he told him to “go back to Poland”.

The Tories’ foremost and most unapologetic antisemite, however, was the notorious Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay whose “Right Club” sought to “expose the activities of Organised Jewry”.

It was thus symbolic that while no Jewish Tory MPs were elected between 1945 and 1955, a solitary independent Jewish Conservative, Daniel Lipson, remained in Parliament. A former mayor of Cheltenham, Lipson had narrowly won a by-election in 1937 after local Tories refused to endorse him as a candidate and was re-elected in 1945.

Despite its wafer-thin majority, when Labour returned to government again in 1964, the number of Jewish MPs in its ranks had swollen to 34 and would peak at 38 two years later when Harold Wilson won a more comfortable victory.

The Attlee government had backtracked on its commitment to Zionism soon after coming to office, but Wilson proved unwavering in his support for Israel. “I don’t think Harold … [had] any doctrinal beliefs at all,” the left-wing Zionist MP Ian Mikardo later remarked. “Except for one, which I find utterly incomprehensible, which is his devotion to the cause of Israel.”

That devotion was particularly evident when, as opposition leader in 1973, Wilson assailed Edward Heath’s government for imposing an arms embargo on both Israel and its attackers during the Yom Kippur war.

Leading Labour politicians of the 1960s and 1970s such as Richard Crossman, Ted Short and Barbara Castle all shared Wilson’s strongly pro-Israel stance, as did many others in the parliamentary party.

A number of Jews — including Joel Barnett, Edmund Dell, John Diamond, Harold Lever, and John and Sam Silkin —served in the Wilson-Callaghan governments.

Moreover, from the backbenches, Jewish Labour MPs such as Leo Abse — who led the effort to decriminalise homosexuality — and Sidney Silverman — who fought relentlessly to abolish the death penalty — were at the forefront of driving through the liberal social reforms that were to be Wilson’s lasting legacy.

Below the surface, however, a shift was under way. As they joined the ranks of the middle classes after the war, Jews moved out of the inner cities to the Tory-voting suburbs and old political allegiances began to loosen.

The emergence of a new generation of Jewish Tory politicians — chief among them Sir Keith Joseph — symbolised this shift. First elected to Parliament in 1956, Joseph rose rapidly through the ministerial ranks and in the 1970s played a pivotal role in the intellectual and political development of what became known as “Thatcherism”.

The MP for Finchley since 1959, Margaret Thatcher had long had a warm relationship with her Jewish constituents and was a steadfast supporter and admirer of Israel.

Thatcher’s close relationship with then-Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits epitomised her deep respect for Jewish values and what she termed the “Jewish approach to life” along with the symmetries she detected between them and her own religious and political beliefs.

Such was this affinity that in 1988 the Sunday Telegraph admiringly declared that “Judaism has become the new creed of Thatcherite Britain”.

The number of Jewish Tory MPs rose rapidly on Mrs Thatcher’s watch.

By the 1980s, as the anti-Zionist hard-left jostled for control of the Labour Party, it outstripped the number of Jewish MPs on the opposition benches.

While Joseph, the only Jew to sit in a Tory Cabinet until Mrs Thatcher came to power, remained the long-serving Prime Minister’s staunchest political ally, by early 1986 nearly one-quarter of her Cabinet colleagues were Jewish.

Alongside ministers such as Nigel Lawson, David Young, Malcolm Rifkind and Leon Brittan, Mrs Thatcher also had a number of Jewish advisers in Number 10 including David Wolfson, Stephen Sherbourne and Oliver Letwin.

She paid no heed to the occasional antisemitic grumble from the Tory old guard: there were, Harold Macmillan, sniffily remarked, “more Estonians in the Cabinet than Etonians”. Instead, she later suggested of the number of Jewish aides and ministers in her government: “I just wanted a cabinet of clever, energetic people, and frequently that turned out to be the same thing.”

A decade after her departure from office, one of the rising stars of the Thatcher Cabinet, Michael Howard, became the first professing Jew to lead the Tory party.

In 2010, a familial battle saw Ed Miliband narrowly defeat his brother, David, to win the Labour leadership.

The period since Labour’s loss of office over a decade ago has snapped many of the bonds between the party and Britain’s Jews. Ironically, the initial damage was done under Miliband, the party’s first Jewish leader, whose perceived anti-Israel stance contributed to the sharp decline in the Jewish vote for Labour in 2015.

Moreover, Miliband’s indulgence of the hard-left and botched changes to the party’s rules laid the organisational and intellectual foundations for Jeremy Corbyn — whom nearly 90 per cent of Jews came to view as antisemitic — to become Labour leader.

For the party of Shinwell, Mikardo and Wilson, Corbyn’s legacy — with which Labour continues to wrestle — was to prove morally and politically disastrous.

Robert Philpot is the author of

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