Time to think again

Michael Neve

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.

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