Namier used to complain that British historians were cursed with a fatal propensity to turn away from history’s hard structural analysis to write biographies. It may be so; and, perhaps ironically, the official history of Parliament which is to be Namier’s monument is founded upon multitudinous biographies of all known M.P.S. But British historians make uncommonly good biographers, and Robert Blake could argue that no one can write the history of the Tory Party in the nineteenth century without having to form a judgment about the legend of Dizzy. The fascination of this immensely readable book is to see what Blake, who is a don at Christ Church and leader of the conservative cause in the academic politics of Oxford, makes of the legend.
The legend on which British school-boys are brought up is as follows. Coming from an obscure family, Disraeli had to overcome racial prejudice and his own youthful extravagances which resulted in his maiden speech being howled down in the House of Commons. By supreme genius he rose to the top. True, he stabbed his leader in the back when Peel abandoned Protectionism. But Disraeli remolded the Tory Party by following the principle enunciated in his novels, that is to say, by allying the Tory aristocracy and squires with the working classes. When at length he got back to power, he put into effect social reforms which he had for long cherished. He was the first British statesman fully to understand Britain’s imperial mission and, when he died, the country was imperialist and had become the mediator in the Balkans and the great power in the Middle East. As the founder of modern Conservatism he had saved both the monarchy and the aristocracy from sterility and extinction.
VERY LITTLE OF THE LEGEND is left after Blake gets to work, but something infinitely more interesting emerges. Disraeli was a politician, a supreme master of the art of living and acting politics, if we define that term as the pursuit of power. What he believed, what he achieved, is almost totally irrelevant. He came in fact from a respectable Jewish family (his two younger brothers went to Winchester), his father being a well-known man of letters, and he was baptized at the age of thirteen. What he had to overcome were not social obstacles to his genius but his almost entire lack of prudence and practicality. He lost a small fortune speculating in stock; he started an asinine newspaper with a drunkard; he libeled and caricatured his acquaintances in his novels; he lived a raffish shady life in London, perpetually borrowing and never repaying loans, engaging in rapid affairs with various ladies whom he liked to mother him. So far from being a calculating lover, he was passionate and indiscreet: even when he married for money, he didn’t get as much as he had been led to believe. He was forever in scrapes, knew London night life, and was too well acquainted with …