He remains one of the great outsiders and rogues in British politics: a man who lived down his earlier reputation as a radical to bring his biting sarcasm to the service of the Tories, always able to command an appreciative audience, albeit one with greater relish for his wit than respect for his political judgment. So much for John Vincent, the brilliant author of The Formation of the Liberal Party who became the populist professor of the Thatcherite tabloid press. Whatever else he has lost in the process, it is not his ironic sense of humour, and in appraising one of Disraeli’s early bellelettrist fables, Vincent is nicely deadpan in quoting Jupiter’s comment on Apollo’s career as an editor: ‘for my part I should only be too happy to extinguish the Sun and every other newspaper were it only in my power.’
This is such a splendidly satisfying book because it uses the format of the Past Masters series to bring out the mythopeic quality of Disraeli’s achievement, thus deftly using his literary works to illuminate the mental hinterland of his politics while referring expertly to the politics as a deflationary corrective to literary licence. It is rightly a study of the writer Benjamin Disraeli rather than the statesman, the Earl of Beaconsfield. He had a distinctively literary sensibility: this was the medium in which his imagination reached out. His oratory was really spoken prose; it had the smell of ink and midnight oil. His effects were created through tireless artifice and ruthless plagiarism. The often-quoted slogan with which he embellished his public health policy – Sanitas, sanitatum, omnia sanitas – was, Vincent informs us, ‘stolen, magpie-like, from an obscure French grammarian of the 17th century’. Disraeli’s political vision, moreover, remained bookish, setting out grand themes with a wealth of allusions to literature, to philosophy, to history and to pseudo-history, especially the last. Compare his legislative creativity or his executive capacity to that of Gladstone and Disraeli’s calibre hardly comes into the reckoning. If Pitt famously was to Addington what London was to Paddington, Beaconsfield seems about right for the prophet of the party of suburban England.
The demythologising of Disraeli’s career has been achieved over the last quarter-century with little thanks to his ostensible political opponents. Michael Foot and his dog Dizzy can stand as a tableau testifying to the magnanimity (or credulity) with which the old magic is perpetuated among political romantics of all persuasions. No, what scotched the Disraelian legend as serious history was the standard biography by Robert Blake in 1966. Lord Blake possesses unimpeachable credentials as the eminent chronicler of the evolution of the Conservative Party. But he maintains also irreproachable standards as an academic historian, and these made his Disraeli disconcerting reading for the more impressionable members of Blake’s own party. He may have been expected to act as the keeper of the bones of the saint. Instead, he revealed where the bodies were buried.
Iconoclasm of this sort was unanswerable. It was worse than de-Stalinisation; Humpty Dumpty himself was better capable of being stuck together again. With friends like Lord Blake, what need had Disraeli for enemies? This dehumptification, moreover, was but the final nail in a historiographical coffin which had already been fashioned, with exquisite workmanship, right down to the fine silver handles, by Professor Paul Smith (as he now is), the leading authority on Disraelian social policy. For if there was one claim which animated the great man’s warmhearted admirers it was that he was not only an author who had spied ‘two nations – THE RICH AND THE POOR’, but a statesman who had done something about it. When Smith’s researches revealed how empty the cupboard of social reform really was under Disraeli’s premiership, the game seemed to be up.
There was, in fact, only one potential claim which could have restored the image of the patron saint of Tory democracy to anything like its original splendour. Suppose modern research could, after all, substantiate Disraeli’s professions about educating his party into an acceptance of household suffrage in 1867 – what a magnificent tribute that would constitute to his prescience in statecraft! Alas, Mr Maurice Cowling, than whom no Tory historian is higher or drier, emerged from the murky recesses of Peterhouse with a vast manuscript, securely girdled with impeccable scholarship and a black bow-tie. It demonstrated that the Second Reform Act, though passed by a Conservative government under Disraeli’s leadership in the House of Commons, was the creature of circumstance, contrivance and contingency. Its impact in democratising the British constitution was the last thing Disraeli wanted, and he was only saved from humiliation by his faculty for persuading others that the last thing he had said was what he had wanted all along. Dr Barry Smith, moreover, nailed this case down with a taut professionalism and an Antipodean lack of reverence which made any notion of unnailing it look distinctly fanciful.
And so on. This is not the place for a full stock-check of the rich harvest of historical research which has, year by year, reshaped our understanding of Mid-Victorian politics. The idle imbiber, intent on tasting rather than quaffing, can now turn to Vincent for an inimitably evocative appraisal of these bin-ends of scholarship, in which some of the finest bottles were laid down by himself, bringing back golden memories of such vintage years as 1966 and 1967, as well as the rather patchy 1974. His distinctive offerings – which were thought presumptuous at first and are still occasionally cheeky – are well-made and fully rounded, with a highly satisfactory after-taste.
Disraeli was not a systematic political thinker. Unlike his great – and greatly underestimated – successor Salisbury, he did not set his ideas into the conventional utilitarian perspective of the age. ‘Utility, Power, Pain, Pleasure, Happiness, Self-interest, are all phrases to which any man may annex any meaning he pleases,’ he wrote in 1835. His identification of the implicit danger of tautology in the utilitarian account of human motivation was shrewd and pithy. ‘To say that when a man acts, he acts from self-interest, is only to announce, that when a man does act, he acts.’ Disraeli found this sort of rationalism a poor guide to politics, preferring to navigate not by dead reckoning but through shafts of intuition which were sometimes spot-on – and sometimes right off the map. When he tried to sum up what he stood for, he employed an empty, airy rhetoric, with a fine ring to it and a diffusely elastic import. ‘I am neither Whig nor Tory,’ he said in 1832. ‘My politics are described by one word, and that word is England.’ Four years later, even more sure that he was not one of nature’s Whigs, he was inventing his own arguments against them, turning the Whig interpretation of history against its begetters. ‘The Tory party is the national party,’ he claimed: ‘it is the really democratic party of England.’ He meant, of course, that it was truly the party of the people, not that it ought to stoop to a strategy of vote-grubbing among a wide electorate. The great hierarchical institutions of England were what held everything together.
Disraeli came from a Jewish family and was baptised a Christian. ‘I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the New,’ he is supposed to have said. In two fascinating chapters Vincent seeks to unravel the meaning of Judaism for Disraeli. He held in 1870 that ‘race implies difference, difference implies superiority, and superiority leads to predominance.’ This was buttressed by an appeal to pseudo-science, for a change, instead of pseudo-history; but Disraeli hardly needed theories of this sort to sustain a conviction which he sensed in his bones. The Semitic race as a whole was superior, including Arabs, who were ‘only Jews on horseback’. Among the master race itself the Jews were the absolute masters. They had not only purity of blood but a cultural claim to hegemony. The flavour of his philo-semitism is nicely conveyed in Tancred (1847). ‘Is it a miracle that Jehovah should guard his people? And can he guard them better than by endowing them with facilities superior to those among whom they dwell?’ Was is not, therefore, ‘ordained that the inspired Hebrew mind should mould and govern the world?’
This dusty novel deserves to remain a favourite in the Finchley public library, but it must have been a bit of a puzzle for Victorian members of a Church which was still aptly called the Conservative Party at prayer. Luckily Disraeli had an ace up his sleeve with which to take, or at least perform, a more ecumenical trick. ‘For myself, I look upon the Church as the only Jewish institution that remains,’ he reassured his flock. He could produce a wonderful line of reasoning in support.
If it were not for the Church, I don’t see why the Jews should be known. The Church was founded by Jews, and has been faithful to its origin. It secures their history and their literature being known to all Xdom. Every day the Church publicly reads its history, and keeps alive the memory of its public characters; and has diffused its poetry throughout the world. The Jews owe everything to the Church, and are fools to oppose it.
When one sets Disraeli’s views alongside Gladstone’s speculations about the Homeric roots of the Christian revelation, it may suggest that Victorian politics was dominated by two men well matched in their imaginative approach to theology. Before concluding that Disraeli was simply off his chump, we should perhaps consider the extent to which his power stemmed from an ability to project his highly-coloured personal fantasies as popular myth. For it is the same mind-set which we see at work in conjuring a revived Toryism out of the potential doom which the Party faced in this period. If Disraeli did not want the sort of democracy that everyone was suddenly talking about in the 1860s, he made sure that the Conservative Party did not die in the last ditch in resisting it. Moreover, having engineered a settlement which clawed some crucial party advantage back from the major concession on household suffrage, Disraeli gave the Tories a decent cover story to cloak their naked opportunism. It is beside the point that his account departed from mundane standards of historical veracity. His coup was to greet the advent of mass politics in Britain with a brazen claim that, as a national party, the Conservatives had nothing to fear – not even the people.
In the face of working-class demands, Disraeli had a general stance of appeasement but little by way of specific measures. Beer and sandwiches at Number Ten was not quite his style but would capture the spirit of his policy. His government passed trade-union legislation which would, he claimed, ‘gain and retain for the Conservatives the lasting affection of the working classes’. While it was being discussed, however, the Prime Minister dozed off – the first time he had fallen asleep in Cabinet, and a sign, perhaps, of both advancing age and receding interest in these petty matters. He did manage to find time to complete his final novel Endymion before leaving office, and secured the largest advance that had ever been paid for a work of fiction. He gleefully pocketed not a penny less than ten thousand pounds – an archer who could still successfully pull his bow, in literature if no longer in politics.
Old and ill, the Earl of Beaconsfield left Downing Street for the last time in 1880, and the next year he was dead. But his luck held beyond the grave. As Vincent says: ‘Disraeli happened to die at a time when Conservatives badly needed a a hero.’ His stock rose quickly, aided by the activities of Lord Randolph Churchill in linking the old leader’s name with the new catchphrase of Tory Democracy, posthumously fathered upon him. In time, Disraeli’s own telling phrase, indicating the existence of ‘two nations’, was to be given the more positive gloss of apostrophising the aspiration for ‘one nation’. It served everyone right in the end that the stolid, unimaginative, Anglican, landed Conservative Party discovered in the volatile fantasies of this Jewish parvenu their abiding political myth and their best substitute for political thought.