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God’s Choice

These Euro-Christian views appear to have colored his attitude to the so-called Eastern Question of 1876-1880. Jenkins calls it “the greatest setpiece drama of Victorian politics.” It was certainly one of the most dramatic battles between Gladstone and Disraeli. Dizzy was prime minister and Gladstone leader of the Liberal opposition when news arrived in 1876 that Turkish troops had massacred thousands of Orthodox Christian rebels against Ottoman rule in Bulgaria. The year before, there had been revolts against the Turks in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russia was busy stirring up its religious brethren against the Muslim empire, not out of love of national liberation, but because Orthodox vassals on the Mediterranean would allow Russia to control the sea lines between Europe and Asia. Better still, if the Ottoman Empire collapsed, Russia could take Constantinople.

What was Disraeli to do? Joining the other European powers in condemnation of Turkey might hasten the collapse of an ally needed by Britain to protect its routes to India. To do nothing would risk repeating the drift of the mid-1850s, which led to the Crimean War. Britain was not at all prepared to fight a war with Russia. And yet the Turks, rather like Iran in later years, were unsavory allies, and their ways of quelling rebellions decidedly unpleasant. Disraeli’s response was to play poker in that rather cold-blooded way that seems a specialty of English mandarin statesmen—Douglas Hurd comes to mind. He played down Turkish atrocities with a few clever but, in the circumstances, tactless quips. He doubted “that torture has been practised on a great scale among an Oriental people who seldom, I believe, resort to torture, but generally terminate their connection with culprits in a more expeditious manner.”4 He then bluffed, making the Rus-sians believe Britain wouldn’t hesi-tate to go to war if pushed. This was popularized by the Music Hall ditty: “We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do.” And the bluff worked. The Russians backed off, made a deal at the Congress of Berlin, and Bismarck made his famous remark: “Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann.”

As for Gladstone, he mounted his moral high horse and thundered away against the Turks with their “abominable and bestial lusts.” The Turk was guilty of such unspeakable crimes that “Hell itself might almost blush.” The liberation of Christian Serbs and Bulgarians was a just and honorable cause. And if that meant friendship with Russia, well, Gladstone, for one, was “ready as an individual to give [it] when the objects are just and right- eous….” This sounds like the proper moral response, especially compared to Disraeli’s heartless boredom with the plight of oppressed foreigners. “It was enough for [Disraeli] to hear talk of oppressed populations: instantly he scented some hypocrisy and felt oppressed himself.”5 This was written by André Maurois, one of Dizzy’s most sympathetic biographers.

But was Gladstone also wise? He was not exactly opposed to the British Empire, but felt squeamish about defending it. He hoped the Concert of Europe could sort out international problems, while he made fine moral speeches, rather like modern leaders who like to sound righteous while letting the United Nations hold the fort. As prime minister in charge of an empire, Gladstone found himself backing into wars he didn’t really wish to fight, which was, as Jenkins rightly says, a good recipe for getting the worst of all options. The way the mad, mystical “Chinese” Gordon was dispatched to the Sudan in 1884, and was then left in the lurch when he behaved madly, was a good example. One of Gladstone’s more prescient aperçus was that the US would one day take over from Britain as the greatest world power. And future US presidents would be faced with many of the same dilemmas.

2.

There was another dimension to the Eastern Question, which throws a peculiar light on the Gladstone-Dizzy rivalry. Gladstone thought Disraeli had a particular fondness for the Turks because he was a Jew. He told his wife, Catherine, that Dizzy “may be willing to risk his government for his Judaic feeling.”6 This sounds like a very odd accusation now, but it was not so at the time. Jews were on the whole more sympathetic to the Turks than to the Slavs, for the very good reason that Jews expected to fare better under the Turks than under the Slavs. It is also true that Disraeli had often indulged in Orientalist fantasies, from posing as a Moorish prince at the Alhambra to writing such fanciful novels as Tancred, in which it was proposed that the English throne should be moved to Delhi. But there is no evidence that Jewish romanticism had anything to do with Disraeli’s policy in the Balkans. As the author of an excellent new book on Disraeli says: “He was prime minister of England. The ‘race’ with which he had identified himself in politics as the destined carrier of the Semitic inheritance was the English.”7 The way he defended British interests in the Eastern Question was not so much opportunistic as entirely consistent with the task Disraeli had set for himself.

This is not to say Disraeli’s position in English society was straightforward. His grandfather was from the ghetto in Venice. Disraeli himself, although christened in the Anglican Church, had not climbed the regular ladder to social prominence, which John Gladstone’s fortune had made available to his sons. Not Eton and Oxford, but a few years at an obscure establishment run by Reverend Eli Cogan were the sum of his formal education. For the rest he was privately taught. He revered Byron’s poetry, Beau Brummell’s insolent dandyism, and Sir Walter Scott’s tales of chivalrous derring-do. He dreamed of marquesses and dukes. They seemed so powerful, so at ease, and so effortlessly stylish. Disraeli wanted to be accepted by them, respected by them, if possible even to join them. He began by writing literary fantasies about the English aristocracy, who were to be saved in an age of creeping industry and embourgeoisement by a genius of the purest, noblest race, that of the ancient Hebrews. His father Isaac remarked, after being presented with one of his son’s novels, entitled The Young Duke: “What does Ben know of Dukes?”8 As it turned out Ben spent his life knowing dukes and making his fantasy a reality.

The pillars of Disraeli’s idea of England were the monarchy, the Anglican Church, the landed aristocracy, the Empire, and the English race. His was a romantic, organic view of the national community, where, in the famous or notorious phrase from one of his novels, “all is race.” This cocktail of Germanic counter-Enlightenment idealism, Burkean conservatism, Walter Scottery, and blood-and-soil fantasy was of course radically opposed to nineteenth-century liberalism, with its notions of progress, rationalism, and Manchester School economics. And this suited the conservative dukes and squires perfectly.

But Disraeli’s most lasting achievement was not so much to save the squirearchy as to identify the Tory party as the national party by wrapping it up in all the romantic flimflam of organic nationhood, based on deference to a “natural” hierarchy. Disraeli, the outlandish outsider, had redefined England. Extending the vote to urban artisans and ratepayers, as Disraeli’s Reform Bill of 1867 did, was not inconsistent with this, or simply an act of opportunism—although the subsequent confusion among Gladstone’s Liberals was certainly a bonus. Disraeli believed that the common English people were natural Conservatives, so long as the Conservative elite offered to share some of its privileges. He was not proven wrong. He was also convinced that Jews, with their bias to “property and natural aristocracy,” were born Tories. Here he was speaking largely for himself.9

Disraeli’s ideas about racial community fell on fertile ground abroad, where his type of thinking, paradoxically so far as Dizzy was concerned, entered the mainstream of anti-Semitism. In his last speech at the Reichstag in 1941, Hitler said: “The British Jew Lord Disraeli once said that the racial problem was the key to world history. We National Socialists have grown up with that idea.”10 It was the ultimate act of chutzpah to blame the greatest twentieth-century crime on the nineteenth-century fantasies of Britain’s only Jewish prime minister. But, alas, Dizzy had set the trap himself.

Gladstone was not interested in racial community. But his idea of the nation was not egalitarian. Ruskin once made the mistake of suggesting that Gladstone thought one man was as good as another. Gladstone replied that he was, on the contrary, “a firm believer in the aristocratic principle—the rule of the best. I am an out-and-out inequalitarian.” But unlike Disraeli, Gladstone didn’t care for the showy, romantic side of aristocracy, just as he abhorred the showy side of imperialism. He liked rich men to be frugal and morally upright.

And he didn’t intentionally conflate aristocratic with national interests, as Disraeli tended to do. Gladstone made one of his barnstorming speeches on this topic in 1880:

We have great forces arrayed against us, and apparently we cannot make our appeal to the aristocracy, excepting that which must never be forgotten, the distinguished and enlightened minority of that body of able, energetic, patriotic and liberal-minded men, whose feelings are with those of the people, and who decorate and dignify their rank by their strong sympathy with the entire community. With that exception, I am sorry to say that we cannot reckon upon what is called the landed interest….

Gladstone was neither an egalitarian nor a radical democrat. Quite what he was is not so easy to pin down. He had moral passions, against the Turks, for Italian independence, against the “plutocracy” of London, for Irish Home Rule. He didn’t have a coherent ideology; he didn’t think like that. But his Evangelical instincts put him on the side of God and the liberal bourgeoisie, the provincial businessmen, the dissenting do-gooders, and European fighters for national independence—all those, in short, who believed in progress and reason. Disraeli did not believe men were moved by reason, but by history, myth, and blood. The difference between him and Gladstone, then, was not one between the believer and the cynic, the honest man and the opportunist, but between two clashing world views. Gladstone believed in reason passionately. Disraeli believed in unreason dispassionately.

Relations with the Queen brought out their differences to the most comic effect. It is well known that Queen Victoria adored Dizzy, and couldn’t abide Gladstone, who, she is alleged to have said, addressed her as though she were a public meeting. Disraeli was treated as a friend, the only man allowed to sit during an audience. Flowers, venison, and other tokens of royal affection were sent regularly to his country seat in Buckinghamshire. Gladstone was regarded as a nuisance, a dangerous radical, and a crashing bore, and she showed him minimal consideration. Perhaps he was a bit of a bore. Even his wife said so: “Oh, William dear, if you weren’t such a great man you would be a terrible bore.” Gladstone himself admitted as much, when he said his trouble with the Queen might have been due to the fact that he was “a man so eager upon things as not enough to remember always what is due to persons….”

But this is not the most common explanation for Gladstone’s difficulties with the Queen. Jenkins points out that Gladstone’s relations with her began perfectly well. He got on with Prince Albert, as one might expect. Both were high-minded, pious, rather humorless men who shared an interest in human progress. And getting on with the beloved Albert was a prerequisite to getting on with the Queen. Also, Gladstone, in those early days, was yet to discover the drug of mass politics, of working large crowds in great provincial halls. In the 1850s, “the People’s William” was yet to be born. As Jenkins says, Gladstone became more radical, even as the Queen became more conservative. But Jenkins also blames Disraeli for poisoning his rival’s royal relations by oily flattery of her and cutting asides about him. And he points out that Gladstone “was psychologically incapable of flattery with some people, most notably the Queen….”

Disraeli was the first to acknowledge the uses of flattery. Everyone likes to be flattered, he told Matthew Arnold, but with royalty you lay it on with a trowel. And so the Queen, after sending him a copy of her Scottish diaries, was welcomed into the mutual admiration society of “we authors, ma’am.” Even the ghost of Prince Albert was smothered in honey. “The Prince,” wrote Disraeli in thanks to the Queen for having sent him a collection of the late Prince’s speeches, “is the only person whom Mr. Disraeli has ever known who realized the Ideal…. There was in him an union of the manly grace and sublime simplicity, of chivalry with the intellectual splendour of the Attic Academe.”11 And so on and so forth. No wonder the Queen believed that Dizzy was the only man who truly understood the Prince. She also felt he—and her Scottish gamekeeper—understood her, as a woman.

Gladstone loved women no less, and perhaps more lustily, than Disraeli. But whereas Gladstone’s taste ran to pretty cocottes, Disraeli loved motherly dowagers and worldly-wise widows. Looks did not seem so important. His own wife, Mary Anne, to whom he was devoted, was older than he, and decidedly no oil painting. The French chargé d’affaires saw her at a party in London, looking like “a strange being trapped out like a kind of pagoda” and took her for “some aged rajah.”12 She wore a huge medallion on her chest with a portrait of Disraeli. Dizzy, then, was a great platonic seducer of the older woman. Gladstone probably was not.

But sexuality, though not to be dismissed as a factor, doesn’t give us the full explanation of Dizzy’s success and Gladstone’s failure with the Queen. One important reason must be that Disraeli reinvented the English monarchy, just as he reinvented the English nation. And Queen Victoria was the entirely willing centerpiece of his invention. Not that Gladstone hadn’t done his best, at a time of considerable republican agitation, to protect the throne. He did. He staved off attempts in Parliament to cut back her expense account and showed deep reverence for the royal institution at all times. But he wasn’t a romantic about it. Not being a romantic, he didn’t share Disraeli’s understanding of symbolism. He irritated the Queen by making the army commander-in-chief subordinate to Parliament, even though the army had been one of Prince Albert’s institutional toys. The Queen herself still took a deep interest in such matters as the cut of sailors’ beards. He further annoyed her by having her abolish, by Royal Warrant, the right to buy military commissions. This annoyed the old officer class. Gladstone was almost certainly right to do so, but Disraeli would have either left these matters alone, or enveloped his decisions in suitable puffs of flattery.

Instead of making his Queen feel diminished in her status, Disraeli made her Empress of India. Certainly, he loved all the pomp and ceremonial splendor, all the Oriental flummery and imperial frippery, as much as she did. She was a great romantic, too, with a love of Orientalist bric-a-brac, both in human and material form: rare jewels, Indian guardsmen, and so on. But the Empire, and especially the spectacle of Empire, was as vital an element in Disraeli’s vision of English nationhood as the Anglican Church. Incidentally, Jenkins makes the curious remark that Disraeli “would have been wise to have kept a decent silence on Anglican disputes.” Why? Not only was Disraeli an Anglican, but he took Church of England matters seriously. Isaiah Berlin was surely right to say that Disraeli “was not in the least bit cynical about religion in general, nor about Christianity in particular.”13 To him Church, race, Queen, and Empire were blended in one great mystical brew.

Like most reactionaries, especially in France, Disraeli believed that free-thinking was to blame for the French Revolution. Without institutional guidance, he argued, man would “find altars and idols in his own heart and his own imagination.”14 Coming from a man with such a vivid imagination himself, this sounds a bit rich. And Disraeli’s manipulation of national institutions often had a highly theatrical flavor. But not all political theater is bad. It all depends on how it’s used. The perniciousness of romantic nationalism has been demonstrated often enough. But it can also serve as a smokescreen for benign and even radical change. British Tories have long been clever at adapting to social changes by weaving an illusion of continuity, and by keeping the hierarchy porous enough to soak up new men (and at least one notable woman) on the make.

Tory accommodation can only stretch so far, however. There was little chance that Disraeli’s England of landowning dukes could take a constructive view of the demand for Irish independence. So he ignored it, pretending that with sufficient oppression the problem would go away. Gladstone never managed to solve the Irish problem either, but his passion to do so was entirely honorable. He saw in the 1880s what is still plain to see on British streets today, namely, as Jenkins puts it, “that Irish violence and English reaction to it was corrupting the whole polity.” No liberal state could afford to have a large disaffected community within its borders.

First, on the Nixon-goes-to-China principle, Gladstone tried to interest the Tories in finding a solution, which the Liberals would back. The Tories were not interested. The next step was to win the general elections and form a Liberal Home Rule government. The elections in 1886 were won. But to pass a Home Rule Bill through Westminster, Gladstone had to hold together a tricky alliance of Catholic Irish nationalists, led by Charles Stewart Parnell, and English Nonconformists. This was complicated by Parnell’s messy love life: a child with another man’s wife and a notorious divorce case. Gladstone was not too bothered: life is life, politics are politics. But it was too much for some of his more pious Liberal allies, who became divided on the Irish question. Under a great deal of pressure, Gladstone dissociated himself from Parnell, and the chance of a deal over Irish Home Rule was effectively killed.

The result was not at all what Gladstone wanted. The Whig grandees, who would now be called Tory “wets,” were leaving the Liberal Party, which became more radical, and eventually marginal, as a result. Gladstone was elected to be prime minister for the last time in 1892. He spent much of his time resting at Biarritz, however, and was really too old for the job. Aged eighty-three, almost blind, he wrote in his diary: “Frankly from the condition (now) of my senses, I am no longer fit for public life: yet bidden to walk in it.” God, if it was indeed He who still did the bidding, was a hard taskmaster. Two years later, Gladstone resigned. His farewell meeting with the Queen cannot have been very amusing:

I had an audience of the Queen, for 30 or 35 minutes today: doubtless my last in an official capacity. She had much difficulty in finding topics for an adequate prolongation: but fog and rain and [her] coming journey to Italy all did their duty and helped.

On the biggest issue of his career, Irish Home Rule, Gladstone had done his best and failed. His record as a parliamentary reformer, on the other hand, was very respectable. The 1884 Franchise Bill expanded the right to vote beyond the towns, allowing farmers as well as miners to choose their representatives in Parliament. But Gladstone’s legacy has been important in another way too. Without a moral, passionately liberal opposition, English conservatism would be intolerable. It is not true, as some people say, that all Tories are stupid or lacking in conscience. But they do need to be prodded, checked, shamed, or simply voted out to change Britain for the better. Disraeli’s Reform Bill was a case in point. If Gladstone and Russell hadn’t tried to introduce reform in 1866, Disraeli would never have tried to steal their thunder.

It is often said that the British have no interest in abstract ideas. This is an exaggeration. But it’s true that the British left, on the whole, has not been strong on philosophical coherence. What it has often had is religious idealism, tinged with bitterness about living in a class-ridden society under semi-permanent Conservative rule. The British left is rather like Gladstone himself: decent, drawn by great moral causes, but also a little humorless and given to fits of self-righteousness. Its idealism is a vital antidote to Tory complacency and jingoism. But it can also be puritanical and interfering. Gladstone’s personality, rhetoric, and sheer staying power, perhaps more than his ideas, made him into a liberal hero. He was energetic, passionate, incoherent, ruthless, decent, and demagogic, all at once. We will soon find out which of these characteristics will prevail, as we stand on the threshold of a neo-Gladstonian age.

  1. 4

    Maurois, Disraeli, p. 306.

  2. 5

    Maurois, Disraeli, p. 306.

  3. 6

    Paul Smith, Disraeli: A Brief Life (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 189.

  4. 7

    Smith, Disraeli, p. 189.

  5. 8

    Cecil Roth, Benjamin Disraeli: Earl of Beaconsfield (Philosophical Library, 1952), p. 31.

  6. 9

    Roth, Benjamin Disraeli, p. 74.

  7. 10

    Nicolaus Sombart, Die deutschen Männer und ihre Feinde (Munich: Carl Hanser, 1991), p. 284.

  8. 11

    Strachey, Queen Victoria, p. 168.

  9. 12

    Smith, Disraeli, p. 156.

  10. 13

    Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas (Viking, 1980), p. 263.

  11. 14

    Smith, Disraeli, p. 134.

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