Time to think again
- Benjamin Disraeli: Letters 1838-1841 edited by M.G Wiebe, J.B. Conacher, John Matthews and M.S. Millar
Toronto, 458 pp, £40.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 8020 5736 5
- Salisbury: The Man and his Policies edited by Lord Blake and Hugh Cecil
Macmillan, 298 pp, £29.50, May 1987, ISBN 0 333 36876 2
It used to be argued that a feature of Conservative political philosophy was its fundamental irrelevance to the main task of acquiring – or re-acquiring – power. The heady idealism that characterised a great deal of 18th and 19th-century political thought, in Britain and Europe, was itself an index of the distance between such thought (and such thinkers) and the centres of political control. In the gap between thought and action, those anxious to achieve authority spent their lives theorising: Conservatives, with their sense of natural aristocracy, need not devote time to the empty business of imagining what power might be like, or ought to be like. In Britain especially, it was simply a question of getting on with the practical job, the job as determined by political economy, or something conceived of as ‘common sense’. Philosophy, political philosophy, was the product of alienation, of exclusion. At the centre, where nature could take its course, the forlorn seeker after complex thought was absent. Of course there was Coleridge, but he was incomprehensible. The rest was just the written evidence for the fact of endless liberal dissatisfaction. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, write On Liberty.
Lulled perhaps by the inertia that accompanies apparently endless electoral success, this strategic anti-intellectualism shows signs of no longer being an obligatory Conservative posture. The current administration is even rumoured to court the intelligentsia, by which it means some parts of the University of Oxford, and whole groups of para-intellectualists, thinking and tanking away, at Channel 4, in publishing houses, in public relations, at the Sunday Times, have been spawned by modern conservatism. There are even discussions of what Conservative political philosophy is, or might be: the name Cowling, once annexed to a good-natured, growling eccentric in Peterhouse, is now the serious surname on the lips of all attentive readers of the Sunday Telegraph. Time to think again. Time to look at the ‘theories’ of Benjamin Disraeli, and time, especially, to discover the deeply intellectualist conservatism of the third Marquis of Salisbury, whose record as the most electorally successful Conservative prime minister seems likely to be snatched by Mrs Thatcher.
The invocation, usually at Party Conferences, of something called ‘Disraelian Conservatism’ continues, despite this revived intellectualism, to be a real historical puzzle. Disraeli, the international situationist avant la lettre, the enigma who was the arch-seducer, the believer only in there being no beliefs, Disraeli is still taken as the founder of the political philosophy that now bears his name. The amount of projection played onto the shadowy screen that is called ‘Disraeli’ by loyal Tories in Winchester and Watford, Bristol and Bolton remains one of the few genuinely intriguing features of the modern British political vocabulary.
A politician who could deploy verbal advantage as a form of life, whose grasp on the non-linguistic world was virtually non-existent, whose grip on things outside the Parliamentary scene was fantastic and novelettish, has been turned into a cliché about two nations. It is an outstanding example of political myth-making that still repays examination. His letters, edited with great skill from Kingston, Ontario, will be some years in the completion, and this volume, covering 1838-1841, will not be the most exciting. But Disraeli’s weirdness, his ability to be at all the parties, to make an impression in the House simply by saying the opposite of what had just been said, comes over in remarkable ways.
Vol. 10 No. 8 · 21 April 1988
SIR: Michael Neve (LRB, 3 March) is right to draw the attention of modern Conservatives to the poverty of Disraeli’s political philosophy, and their much greater intellectual debt to the third Marquis of Salisbury. He is mistaken, however, in saying: ‘For Salisbury, the entire form of democracy hustings, speeches, the call for a mandate – was a barbarism.’ On the contrary, the elaboration of the notion of the mandate at the end of the 19th century in fact owes much to its adoption by Salisbury, who saw that it could become a powerful weapon in a conservative armoury. Certainly Salisbury had fought bitterly against extensions of the franchise in 1867 and 1884, and against the secret ballot in 1872, and was deeply pessimistic about their consequences. Above all, he feared the manipulation of ‘the masses’ by radical agitators. But he was also a realist, and came to recognise that ‘democracy’ was a weapon that could be wielded by conservatives quite as well as by radicals. Indeed, in the last three decades of the 19th century, conservatives wielded it rather better. The failure of Gladstone’s appeal to the electorate in 1886, after the defeat of his first Home Rule Bill, and again in 1895 after the Lords’ rejection of his second, demonstrated to Salisbury and other thinking Unionists that in some respects ‘the masses’, under their conservative description as ‘the nation’, were a conservative force.
Socially Salisbury may have ‘loathed people’: but his articles in the Quarterly Review show that, in politics, his real loathing was reserved for those politicians who, he believed, were planning to subvert property, the Church and aristocratic government. He deplored the deficiencies of the British constitution which left traditional institutions at the mercy of the legislative whim of the House of Commons, and offered no safeguards against fundamental change. It was his realisation that the electorate might be called into play to redress the executive power of the legislature and the executive which fuelled his interest in mandate theory. As early as 1872 he had objected to Gladstone’s Ballot Act on the ground that it had not been submitted to ‘the nation’ at the previous general election. Such arguments had little force before 1886, but in that year a specific and radical measure, Home Rule, was laid before the people for their approval, and was rejected. ‘Democracy’ had saved the Union, and thereafter Unionists argued that fundamental change should not be carried without a mandate. It is no argument to say that Salisbury played this ‘democratic’ card cynically. The adoption of political theory by politicians, whether of the left or the right, has always been directed to their own political interests. What is significant in Salisbury’s is his recognition that the new democratic electorate was not inevitably an instrument of change, but could also be relied upon to defend many of the old institutions which he believed to be under threat: the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Established Church, as well as the union with Ireland.
The notion of ‘mandate’ which Michael Neve perhaps had in mind, and which Salisbury would indeed have regarded as ‘barbarism’, was an idea quite foreign to British politics in Salisbury’s lifetime. This notion, which I have called elsewhere the ‘prescriptive’ mandate, was advanced by a few ‘wild men’ like Henry Labouchére, and asserted that the electorate could instruct the legislature to pass certain specific measures. By contrast, the notion of mandate which in fact occupied politicians in the late 19th century was a ‘permissive’ mandate: the idea that politicians were obliged to put measures involving fundamental change to the electorate for their approval. Salisbury wholeheartedly endorsed this latter notion, believing that many of the radical changes which he feared most deeply would be refused such a mandate.