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 certain notorious lechers to inspire confidence in London political circles. Few successful politicians have much time for women: politics, like gambling, is a substitute for sex. Disraeli preferred women to men at the club—and nothing is more unpopular in England. No wonder his own supporters distrusted him as much as the Peelites and Liberals.
They were perfectly right to accuse him of lack of principle. In his youth he had flirted with the Whigs and Radicals before pinning his hopes of advancement on the Tories. He neither understood the economics of Protectionism nor bothered to adhere to it as a policy when Peel was defeated. He did not know what line to take over the Crimean War. When he had the chance of introducing a Budget, it was laughable, and the contrast between his efforts and Gladstone’s great Finance Acts was painful. It had never been his intention to enfranchise the urban working class, and the alliance between them and the aristocracy was a nebulous dream spun out of words: the real reason why he passed the 1867 Reform Act was his determination to govern even in a minority government and frustrate his opponents. In so doing he had to compromise the principle, i.e., the representation of interests as opposed to heads, on which he had introduced the Bill. When finally in 1874 he obtained power, the formidable list of reforming measures—public health, workers’ houses, factory and trade union acts, and agricultural holdings—with which his name is associated were all the initiative of his Home Secretary, Richard Cross; Disraeli took little interest in them. The more one reads about the Treaty of Berlin and Disraeli’s Middle East policy, the less one can make of it. He really had no idea what to do when at last he became Prime Minister.
What, then, is the point of his career? He is first important as a phenomenon. He became the model of all sorts of young men of different classes and aspirations who hoped to rise and get to the top of what Disraeli called “the greasy pole.” His family might be respectable and he might be baptized, but the fact remained that he was a Jew. He never denied his race, wrote a good deal of romantic nonsense about it, and went out of his way to speak against Jewish disabilities when prudent people advised him that there was no need for him to stick his neck out. The British upper classes, indeed all classes, liked Jews no better than did their counterparts in other European countries. But the fact that virulent anti-Semitism did not break out in Britain was due more to Disraeli’s success than to high-minded liberalism. When Hilaire Belloc made anti-Semitic speeches in the House of Commons before the First World War, he put an end to his political pretensions. “You and I,” said Disraeli when introduced to a young Jew, “belong to a race which can do everything but fail”; and after his own success there were few careers barred to Jews. He even broke down a number of social barriers.
THEN THERE WAS his effrontery which rose to sublime heights. He piled extravagance upon extravagance. His clothes, his conversation—in his younger days he “talked like a racehorse approaching the winning post”—his epigrams (brilliance in wit is not a recommendation in British political life), his shameless financial shiftlessness, everything in his manner conspired to shock and affront those whom he wanted to impress. Not even his political allies knew whether to take him seriously. “Could I only satisfy myself that Disraeli believed all he said,” wrote Lord John Manners, “I should be more happy. His historical views are quite mine, but does he believe them?” Did he believe them? Did he believe anything? No one was ever certain. The Tories did not like him. They treated him as a clever young man whom they had hired to manage their affairs in the House of Commons. The Tory Whips intrigued against him and kept him out of their exclusive political clubs. His leader, the fourteenth Earl of Derby, never invited him to his country house until eighteen months after Disraeli had been Chancellor of the Exchequer. The fifteenth Earl opposed his policies behind his back even when he was Disraeli’s Foreign Secretary. But what could these intriguers do against the creator of Taper and Tadpole? Disraeli knew all the black arts of politics. He worked very hard at all the arts, mastering the procedure of the House and the techniques of Opposition, while the aristocrats devoted themselves to their racehorses. Eventually he became leader of the party and in 1874 Prime Minister. By then he was worn out and a shadow of his audacious self in youth. But long after his death he remained the paragon for young men who had no money, no connections, and no beliefs except belief in their own destiny.
This new style of disembarrassing oneself of too many political principles was the greatest of Disraeli’s gifts to the Tory party. Had the party stuck to its old principles of Church and Queen, Protectionism, and government by the squirearchy, it would have become, like other European right-of-center parties, stranded like a whale on the beach of the past. Disraeli substituted phrases for principles and gave Conservatism a flexibility that enabled it to come to terms with manhood suffrage and social reform, while Gladstonian liberalism became so hide-bound by its principles of retrenchment in public expenditure or Home Rule for the whole of Ireland that it found compromise on detail impossible. The Tory tactics during the twenty-eight years from the fall of Peel to Disraeli’s first administration were partly forced on them at a time when the two-party system was weak and the House of Commons made and unmade ministries. Measures counted for little and when Palmerston finally acquired ascendancy, Disraeli found himself in opposition to the best conservative that the Whigs had produced since Melbourne. But Disraeli’s style consisted simply in riddling his opponents’ arguments with ridicule and sarcasm. An Opposition does not have to produce an alternative program to be effective. Disraeli proposed nothing: he exposed the folly of the government in whatever it attempted to do.
This is not such a sterile mode of politics as might be supposed. If you can convey to the public your skepticism of every improvement or measure proposed by your opponents, you may in the end discredit them. Since every measure is always an imperfect attempt to impose upon the complexity of political life a pattern in harmony with certain principles, and since change is bound to upset vested interests and alienate often even those whom the change is supposed to benefit, cynicism and skepticism can convey an agreeable impression of being unwilling to be a busybody, a know-all, and a self-righteous prig. It was as if Disraeli abandoned Burke as the political philosopher most welcome to Tories and looked forward to Michael Oakeshott. The effect of his style upon Gladstone is well known. Monckton Milnes wrote in 1867 after breakfasting with Gladstone that he seemed “quite awed with the diabolical cleverness of Dizzy who, he says, is gradually driving all ideas of political honour out of the House and accustoming it to the most revolting Cynicism.” It was this style of opposition that Lord Randolph Churchill was later to employ in the final assault upon Gladstone.
DISRAELI APPEALED to the other Victorians—if one may extend the phrase beyond the somewhat restricted meaning given to it by Steven Marcus. The intelligentsia hated him; Anglicans doubted the sincerity of his support for the Church; the God-fearing, earnest, provincial middle classes were horrified by him; but when it became clear what Gladstonian reform meant, not only the upper classes but people in every stratum of society came to prefer the skeptical approach to political problems. Blake devotes too little space to the growth of party organization, though it may well be that the recent researches of James Cornford and John Vincent, which he does not quote, appeared after his book went to the printers. Something a great deal more significant than Disraeli’s personality was at work during the third quarter of the century, which ensured working-class support for Conservatism when the franchise was extended, and also certain territorial strongholds such as Lancashire. Disraeli seems to have had little hand in party organization: he looked to patronage as the main means of gathering support and influence in the towns and countries. Nor for that matter, at the other end of the spectrum, does Blake make much of Disraeli’s political novels, which for him remain agreeable extravaganzas. There is more to them than that; and perhaps Disraeli’s most outstanding contribution to the politics of his time was his fantastical imagination combined with unquenchable courage. He was not a man of solid worth and the judgments on him which his opponents passed were largely true. But, then, solid worth was certainly not at a discount in mid-Victorian England: Disraeli’s gifts were. He ran counter to almost all the prejudices of his age and the fact that one so un-Victorian became Prime Minister must always be astonishing.
Disraeli is heavily documented, and Blake has done a masterly job in adding to the acres of Monneypenny and Buckle’s vast commemorative volumes and at the same time in consolidating the estate into a large one-volume park. It is a relief to have an estimate which is not blinded by Disraeli’s own romanticism. The only thing which doesn’t come across is Disraeli’s oratory. There isn’t the space to print the great passages of invective and ridicule, the inexhaustible supply of cutting similes, as when he describes the Government Front Bench as a row of exhausted volcanoes. In a sense Blake is right, for Disraeli’s rhetoric obscures the vacuity of his politics. But in another sense the omission is a blemish because the rhetoric was Disraeli. His political friends as well as his foes knew that it was an extravaganza and a mask hiding triviality. Without the rhetoric it is hard to understand how he imposed himself on his party, on Parliament, and ultimately on the country. Perhaps the rhetoric contains a lesson for the earnest, sound, and competent Mr. Heath, whose qualities so far seem to have made little impression upon the Wilson government in spite of the opportunities he is given.
April 6, 1967