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.

In the years covered by this volume, Disraeli was distinguished by a failed journalistic past and, more important, by the size of his debts. In 1841, Disraeli had debts which the editors of the letters suggest were reaching nearly one million pounds in modern terms. He was one of two MPs for Maidstone after 1837, but his election delivered him into a cycle of re-financing bills with creditors that is hair-raising. This fact puts particular emphasis on his proposals of marriage, since his conversion out of Judaism into Christianity at the age of 12 made him ineligible as a match for his father Isaac D’Israeli’s wealthier coreligionists. (The surnames tell the story.) An answer to the problem, not entirely satisfactory, but it was a start, appeared in March 1838, with the death of Maidstone’s other MP, Wyndham Lewis. Disraeli was not inexperienced in love – or what he would call ‘love’ – and seems to have made plain his need for maternal attentions. He needed someone to help him out of his financial mess, as well as someone who understood the nature of his political ambition. He was not public school; he was not Oxbridge; his education was erratic. Mary Anne Lewis would do.

The Ontario team have not tried very hard to help us follow the correspondence during the ‘romance’, in that they print Mary Anne’s replies to Disraeli at the back of the volume, making the tensions, the situations, difficult to follow. All one can say is that in early 1839 the couple (though not yet married) were not having an easy time. Mary Anne was full of fears that she would be seen as Gertrude-like in the rapidity of her dealings with her dead husband’s fellow MP. Disraeli, keeping creditors at bay and looking for another constituency in the event of a general election, wanted money and love, in that order. We know it was in that order because he says so. Students of Disraeli, and of the historical difficulty of deciding what is peculiar about him, will have to attend now to the letter of 7 February 1839, where he speaks frankly of his priorities and yet casts himself as wronged in chilling ways: ‘But the time will come when you will sigh for any heart that could be fond; and despair of one that can be faithful. Then will be the penal hour of retribution – then you will think of me with remorse, admiration and despair – then you will recall to your memory the passionate heart that you have forfeited and the genius that you have betrayed.’

Disraeli’s early career, with its adventurism, its gaudy clothes, its playing to the radical gallery, is often compared to Byron’s. But isn’t the touch of sadism in Disraeli’s letter to his nervous widow, with its punitive use of the idea of genius, its deployment of candour as another strategy, entirely the opposite of Byron? Apart from the matter of his debts, Disraeli wants the money to get in with the disorganised semi-aristocratic opposition to the Whigs, like a Bright Young Thing bribing his way into the Chelsea Arts Club to get his picture in the Tatler. It was a very un-Byronic ambition. In terms of romantic identities, though, of imitations and of stylisations, the career of the young Disraeli stands to Byron’s in interesting ways. It’s not just the social snobbery in metropolitan London: these letters show Disraeli as rather dry about many of the party scenes he attends. And it isn’t just the political beliefs, or the playing with liberal and radical postures. Far more, the difference between them is the difference between words and bodies. Disraeli’s romanticism is a brief moment in a verbal contest, a gaudy, point scoring mockery against the serious-mindedness of Sir Robert Peel or, later, Gladstone. Byron’s is itinerant, physical, and (perhaps most distinctively) shuns the maternal and the doting for the anti-familial, for the generosity of pure sexual scandal.

Disraeli, hermaphroditically gliding between his exotic physiognomy and his deeply conservative and anti-physical inner self, gives romanticism a strange name: Young England. Byron, embracing the hilarity and misjudgments of the erotic life, leaves England behind. Disraeli is no less interesting than Byron, but something of the emptiness of his sexual pose is illustrated in the contrast with Byron. And, following from that – following, that is, from his reducing the entire project, including ‘love’, to the task of becoming a Tory reactionary – we learn of his curious power, his absence as presence. This volume of letters shows him to be a skilful entrepreneur of maternal affections: women, often married, usually older than him, rush to fill the vacuum that Disraeli’s half-self leaves open.

Jewish without being Jewish; Christian and yet of the East, not the West; Conservative and yet not of the blood; a man, but with dark ringlets and foppish, half-formed male friends. These are the inversions, the gaps, that Disraeli exhibits and inhabits: a way of expressing the muddled, anti-serious reaction against the chore of governing the country as embodied by Peel and Gladstone. And yet this form of political camp, this endless negation of worthiness and moral book-balancing, gets to be the source of a philosophy of Conservative political practice.

Not that the refurbishment of the Tory gallery necessarily needs Disraeli, for all the two-nations advertising talk. Disraeli himself was famously untrustworthy (or, which is different, not trusted) within his own party. The third Marquis of Salisbury (then Viscount Cranbourne) found Disraeli’s game-playing during the Reform debates of 1866/67 to be repugnant. He sees Disraeli giving in to democratic demands, and for no reason other than the usual Disraelian ones: mirror, signal, manoeuvre. This takes Salisbury out of the political game for a while, but of course the absence that is always present won’t be dealt with so easily. By 1878, Disraeli and Salisbury had learnt some respect for each other over matters of international relations and diplomacy. The rediscovery of Salisbury as an intellectual Tory – a philosopher of politics – provides another example of the re-intellectualisation of Conservatism that recent years have witnessed. Once unknown, this long-serving prime minister replaces Disraelian situationist tactics with something like a fundamental position.

The admirable essays in Salisbury: The Man and his Policies help us to see what that was. This elegant, even intimate collection of thoughts throws light on public and private matters which no student of Tory hegemony will want to miss. Thanks especially to an essay by the nervous, fifty-cigarettes-a-day daughter Gwendolen, also her father’s biographer, entitled ‘Lord Salisbury in Private Life’, the political a priori of the refurbished Tory intellectual can be revealed. The third Marquis’s contribution to the politics of the future was a loathing for the mass of the human race, and especially for their political representatives.

This hatred of anything that resembled a democratic position – direct taxation was one example – has been noted before. But no careful reader of Blake and Cecil’s collection can fail to be struck by its heartfelt quality, in Salisbury’s mind and life, or fail to note its implications as a ‘rediscovery’ for the 20th century Tory mind. Salisbury loathed people. He loathed the drunken poor, he loathed any collaborative venture with anything resembling liberalism, he loathed poorly-constructed sentences, he loathed the permanent Low Church where most human lives were spent. Of course, as with Disraeli, there were shelters from the storms of repugnance. For Disraeli, it was the closed room, the wife-mother’s bosom, the place where he could do his aesthete’s thing against nature. For Salisbury, there was Hatfield House. Hatfield was home, Hatfield was friendly chaos, Hatfield was where the private man was revealed. Hatfield was where the Hobbesian world, the world of warfare between the possessing and the non-possessing classes, ended. But Salisbury, a sensitive, nervous, scientifically well-informed sceptic, had firmly decided on one thing. Democracy was the enemy of civilisation.

Thus, as elegantly described here by Robert Stewart, he could denounce Disraeli from the right over Reform questions, and recast Disraelian cynicism as collaborationist weakness. Any concession to the modish idea of democracy was disastrous in Salisbury’s eyes and many of these essays help us see the idea of ‘Tory democracy’ as either a straightforward trick (in its 19th-century version) or as a creation of 20th-century wartime propaganda, brought into existence around the time of Olivier’s film of Henry V. The core of the Tory intellectualism of Salisbury is democracy’s opposite: pessimistic, anti-urban, openly seeking class conflict in order to strengthen the hand of authority and the ancien régime. Salisbury was skilled in questions of international affairs, and in matters of Church politics, admirably discussed by A.N. Porter and E.D. Steele. Other essays give specialist accounts of the details of Salisbury’s ministries. The consistency of the life and thought, framed around the central idea of liberalism as a kind of self-deceiving chic, comes through in all of them.

Salisbury looked out at a split world, the world of property and belief, and the anti-world of dispossession and atheism. Some of his historiographical concerns with the French Revolution of 1789, the American Civil War, and the Paris Commune of 1871, all of them forms of democratic nightmare, were shared by others. Indeed, a wide range of commentary, historical, political, even medico-psychological, had come to see these events as pathological in the way that Salisbury was to write of them. In French psychiatric writing, much of it deploying categories of social ‘degeneration’, the Commune of 1871 is the atavistic return of the barbarism of the first French Revolution. 1789, 1848, 1871: these are the psychotic episodes of French political life, a form of hereditary taint built into the French polity by its having given in to ‘revolution’ in 1789. Salisbury, who collected large amounts of materials on 1789 and 1871, has exactly these views in his mature political writings. He saw Abraham Lincoln as a shallow imperialist, employing vicious military tactics in the ‘democratic’ cause; General Sherman’s march through Georgia was a reversion ‘to the old ruthless desolation of barbaric hordes’. For Salisbury, the entire form of democracy – hustings, speeches, the call for a mandate – was a barbarism. If the future was democratic, then the Marquis (not unlike that other marquis, de Sade) saw the future as a bloodstained journey into the darkness of the past.

The details of Salisbury’s character, as given by Lady Gwendolen, match the scenes of Disraeli in his letters. Disraeli was not comfortable with nature, and especially not with horses; nor was Salisbury, who was eventually saved by the tricycle. Disraeli could see everything in a room, but nothing outside it. Salisbury could net even manage that. Certain that, on the grandest scale, civilisation was in permanent danger, and adept at the international level, Salisbury was in fact myopic. Bullied at Eton, he avoided the busy streets of life, was not healthy in early manhood, and was often exhausted by the amount of work he took on (being joint Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary) when in power. But we learn of other blindnesses.

Take his sons. If they came upon him unexpectedly, it seems that Salisbury could not recognise them unless they spoke to him. Take Cabinet colleagues – for example, W.H. Smith. At a breakfast party during his ministry of 1886-1892, Salisbury asked his host who it was sitting on the host’s left. The host must have found this an odd question, because the man was Salisbury’s deputy and long-term colleague, with whom he was then communicating daily, W.H. Smith. Salisbury excused himself by saying he had never seen Smith in profile, since in Cabinet they always sat opposite each other. No doubt he mistook his wife for a hat, and the liberal John Bright for the devil. While Disraeli practised a politics of spatial tension and betrayal as a form of funny joke, Salisbury saw nothing, but the end of all things.

There is an honesty, a courteous form of self-exposure, in both these volumes. While Disraeli’s part in the making of Tory democracy can be seen as a misconstructed fantasy, Salisbury now stands clearly within the ideological Toryism that was once thought to be an unnecessary admission of political weakness. Both long-serving and an intellectual, a journalist and a prime minister, Salisbury sets the terms for the politics of the Conservative future. Property must fight the un-propertied, and democracy, in England, be killed. Unless the landed held that line, the fields would be trampled, the churches looted, hierarchy flattened. Even the Disraelian game, of invoking radicalism in order to tame it, was heretical. Salisbury witnesses the transitional phase of English imperialism and the arrival of other powers: Germany, even ghastly America. Short-sighted and apocalyptic, he donates to the party he loves a pessimism matched only, in contemporary writing, by psychiatric authors who had lost all faith in the educative power of the Victorian asylum – such as Henry Maudsley.

The absolute hostility to democracy, and the view of the masses as sources of revenue for a state they must be prevented from understanding, let alone voting against, maybe past. But Salisbury has come back, once lost, now found, as Conservatism intellectualises in the atmosphere of a one-party state. Blind to the actuality of social crisis, but gripped by the historical and theoretical certainty of its imminence, Salisbury mutters from his potting-shed about the necessity of class war. The reader is left pondering this resurgence and the strange, black, ugly things that are to come.