Holborn at Heart

Jonathan Parry

  • Disraeli: A Brief Life by Paul Smith
    Cambridge, 246 pp, £25.00, September 1996, ISBN 0 521 38150 9

Fifty or sixty years ago, there were many people for whom Gladstone still mattered. This can hardly be said today. He has become more and more marginal to our preoccupations, partly because those preoccupations have changed, and partly because historical work on him has made him appear more remote: more churchy, more Victorian than the Victorians. This marginalisation has been much less noticeable in the case of Disraeli, who in death has proved even more flexible than in life. Despite his superficially enigmatic and exotic air, he seems much the happier of the two to be reclothed in the fashions of the day.

Disraeli remains accessible to us, not so much because he is the more modern figure as because he is the more Post-Modern, adept at the art of self-invention and reinvention. He was a better political actor than most of his rivals in Parliament because, while they thought they were in a glorified gentleman’s club or a glorified philanthropic meeting, he realised that they were on a stage. And he realised this because, whereas they had spent their teens and twenties being squeezed into the social and intellectual strait-jackets imposed by the public schools, the clerical universities, the law courts and the country-house shoot, he had spent his as an obsessive student of the burgeoning media. He was fascinated by the celebrities of the 1820s; moreover, he was aware of how much their heady eminence owed to projection and artifice, and desperately desired to compete with them. How Byron lived! But a real genius could write even more heartfelt poetry, and have an even more ardent army of young lady (and gentleman) worshippers. How inspired were Canning’s speeches; but how much more inspiration could be generated by someone with greater insight into the clash of social forces and greater skill in managing the newspapers! How Napoleon had dominated! But his principal significance was to show what a man of determination and vision could make of a lowly upbringing.

The great merit of Paul Smith’s new brief study of Disraeli is that he interprets his subject as an artist who moulded both his identity and that of his political milieu until he could create a congenial political style. The first half of the book is an enjoyable and highly intelligent discussion of the process by which Disraeli reconciled ‘the diverse aspects of his personality and inheritance with each other and with the society in which he had to operate in an emotionally harmonious, intellectually satisfying, and aesthetically pleasing synthesis’.

Inevitably, Smith’s Disraeli is in large part familiar to us. We already know how, as a youth, Disraeli, like so many ardent Romantics of his generation, conceived the ambition to assert his individuality before a large public and to dominate those who might otherwise dominate him. He wanted ‘power over the powerful’. Given the tenacity with which he continued to pursue this dream, we can see him – though Smith does not quite say so – as a maladjusted adolescent fantasist with an unrequited craving for his mother’s affection. Though the son of a respected and prosperous member of the metropolitan literary world, with entrées to many salons, he saw himself, from the beginning, as a lone genius, misunderstood by an exclusive and complacent establishment. This was a fairly common attitude among aspiring literary men of his generation, who were convinced of their own superior talents but whose prospects depended on the patronage of vacuous and frivolous ladies of leisure. By his late twenties, Disraeli had written several engaging and ephemeral novels, but had not progressed far towards being the universal hero. So he deserted literature for politics. Bulwer Lytton, who made the same move, explained that politics offered a much greater chance of an existence independent of, indeed superior to, titled patrons. Disraeli, proud and masterful, developed a real craving to turn the tables on the pompous grandees of the beau monde.

Smith’s main contribution to understanding Disraeli is his subtle and telling reassessment of his relationship with Judaism. Disraeli became fully aware of a Jewish identity only in the 1830s, and thereafter used it as a much-needed additional proof of his distinctiveness. This was valuable when he was fighting for recognition, and a convenient explanation of why it was delayed so long. And it was particularly useful after the extraordinary events of 1846 had made him suddenly a major figure in the Conservative Party, but one who was completely dependent, personally and politically, on a landed interest about which he harboured decidedly ambivalent feelings. Disraeli’s reaction to this awkward situation was to assert with flamboyant pride his own terms of hire. He said and wrote repeatedly that the Jews were the greatest world race, in which there dwelt particularly the capacity for visionary leadership. Only by accepting the guidance of a man of genius could the crisis-ridden English aristocracy be saved. The English landed classes should not cavil at leadership by a representative of a race which venerated property and religion as the bulwarks of a civilised and prosperous society. Only an artist-politician of genius could re-create a coherent national character on the basis of eternal values. ‘I see no art in our condition. The people of this country have ceased to be a nation.’ Just as Disraeli had had the insight to reinvent himself as a coherent entity, so he would make Britain an organic whole.

As Smith remarks, Disraeli made infrequent use of his Jewish persona after 1852, and there is little evidence that it remained the mainspring of his actions. It was, rather, a way of asserting his right to power in England, which could be seen as a modern Israel, the most powerful and talented contemporary nation. So England became valuable in two senses: it was the place that he, the wandering outsider, could claim as home, and, because it was global top dog, it gave him the chance to live out the Napoleonic dream, ‘to sway the race that sways the world’.

Smith’s is a psychological portrait of a man coming to be at peace with himself, and is painted with an insight born of many years’ reflection. He is clearly fascinated by Disraeli – joining a long list of people, the first and most intensely fascinated of whom was Disraeli himself. As a result, in the second half of the book, which summarises Disraeli’s political career after 1846, he has not quite succeeded in departing from the almost universal assumption that we should view Disraeli as the exotic, idiosyncratic politician he claimed to be. But if we strip away the veneer of enigma created by all those epigrams, silences, conspiracies and castles in the air, many of his political manoeuvres look much more conventional and derivative. It was a case of Venice, Constantinople or Jerusalem on the surface, but Holborn beneath. The latter chapters of the book are less coherent and inventive than the first, and too tentative in assessing Disraeli’s place in British politics, because they do not expose him fully enough as an imitator of the dominant political motifs of Victorian Britain.

In the decade after he entered Parliament in 1837, Disraeli’s political language was dominated by hostility to dominant party connections, because they threatened to repress the scope for the individual of genius. Superficially original, this was a highly conventional viewpoint, particularly associated with those of a Romantic or Radical bent. It allowed him to abuse the Whigs as oligarchical, but this again was a standard jibe, no more profound or accurate than the Whigs’ own claim to represent ‘the people’. In the 1840s, Disraeli, having picked up some basic German philosophy secondhand from its propagandists, was equally fashionable in urging the importance of building bridges between classes and so reducing social tension and refashioning an organic political community. And, running these positions together, it was predictable that he would not submit to Peel’s apparently authoritarian, mechanistic, materialistic style of Conservatism. The dictatorial rule of a man who believed that the adjustment of tariff levels was enough to recreate national harmony and well-being was insupportable to a proud Romantic artist-politician.

But Peel’s politics were insupportable to many others as well. The Whig-Tory coalition which brought down Peel in 1846 disagreed on many issues, but shared the belief that politics was a form of theatre, not just an accounting exercise. The Whig tradition understood the value of visible, imaginative, symbolic and sometimes flamboyant popular leadership; so, too, did the genre of Liberal Toryism which descended from Canning to Palmerston. Disraeli respected both men and (perhaps to a lesser extent) the Whig leader, Russell. He joined the insurrection against Peel in 1846, hoping that it would lead to a cross-party coalition of high-profile leaders critical of Peelite drabness and pettiness. This was a typical miscalculation; the new political division turned instead on the Free Trade issue, and this put the Conservatives at a disadvantage from which they could not escape for many years. It was necessary to adjust to the electorate’s preference for Free Trade and low taxes, and Conservative financial policy came to adopt this line. But – as Smith says – this does not mean that Disraeli became a Peelite. He continued to believe that fiscal politics was small beer, not least because it bored him and affronted his sense of destiny. He needed to find an issue that would excite and unite. The problem was that Palmerston and, second to him, Russell were better placed to do this, and better at doing it. The Conservatives were sidelined for twenty years.

After 1866, once Palmerston and Russell had left the stage, Disraeli borrowed their tunes, taking up the three themes which they had used in the hope of generating a sense of inclusion and national purpose and so maintaining a broad coalition of support: the Constitution, social issues and foreign policy. Historians have discussed these three aspects of Disraelian policy ad nauseam, but too often with a po-faced rationality that Disraeli would have found comical. Smith occasionally questions that rationality, but not enough to supply an alternative analytical framework. Disraeli’s politics are perhaps best seen as a series of rhetorical gambits, all going off at half-cock. The use of the Parliamentary reform card in 1867 was a coup in that it prevented opponents from repeating the trick of 1832 and damning the Conservatives as constitutionally exclusive. But the 1867 Reform Act sought a party benefit, not from proselytising among a policy-responsive working class, but by a reclassification of fixed interest groups within different constituency boundaries. It assumed a hierarchical political society dominated by traditional opinion-formers, and most Conservatives continued to feel that Liberals were better at mobilising urban working-men. So, after 1867, they stayed on the defensive over franchise extension, which remained a Liberal cry. Similarly, the social reform policy did not bring the Party the anticipated benefits. We should not see it in terms of the achievement (or non-achievement) of set social goals. Rather, it was designed to cast Liberals in an unattractive light, as inflexibly inhumane advocates of Peelite laissez-faire. This was a plausible strategy, but foundered on the fact that Russellites and assiduous Northern radical backbenchers were anxious for the Liberals to escape this image, and so neither party established a distinctive profile in the field.

In foreign policy, Disraeli could hardly miss the open goal which Gladstone, by abandoning Palmerstonianism, had left for him. The re-emergence of the Eastern Question was also a stroke of luck since, for the first time since 1860, the British Navy could hope to influence the major European crisis of the day. But, given these advantages, Disraeli did not play very skilfully, because he departed from the Palmerstonian coaching manual. Disraeli’s power fetish left him remarkably unmoved by nationalist insurrections against grand empires, and critical of a squeamish approach to official brutality; travelling in Albania in 1830, he expressed his ‘delight [at] being made much of by a man who was daily decapitating half the province’. Disdainful also of Christian cant, and anxious about British financial interests in Asia, he was immune to public criticism of the Turkish atrocities of 1875-6 against Balkan Christians. The upshot was that it was much easier for his opponents to portray his foreign policy as Continental, authoritarian, amoral and profit-driven than it had been in Palmerston’s case. Indeed, Gladstone had some success in floating an alternative definition of national identity, in which Britain’s role was to protect the liberties of the pious and weak.

The fact is that Disraeli was neither an original nor an adept political strategist. Even the conscious raising of the monarchy’s profile began as Gladstone’s idea in the early 1870s. It was not Disraeli but Peel and Gladstone who were at odds with major themes of Victorian politics, and they suffered for it. If Disraeli is interesting, it is because in large part he remained stuck in the grooves of his youth. He was untouched by the earnest Mid-Victorian idea that policy details were important and virtuous: can there ever have been a major Commons politician who sponsored so few Bills? To the end of his life, politics meant for him mainly plotting, manoeuvring and patronage distribution between members of a small, privileged social circle, whose position was sustained by the general respect for hierarchy and property. Wilfrid Blunt understood the immense sardonic pleasure which he got from gatecrashing and manipulating this circle: ‘there is nothing funnier in history than the way in which he cajoled our square-toed aristocratic Party’ and persuaded ‘our fine ladies after his death to worship their old world-weary Hebrew beguiler under the innocent form of a primrose’. As Endymion, his last and perhaps most revealing novel, suggests, he could see that the political grip of this privileged world was loosening but had no notion of how aroused public opinion was henceforth to be governed; he concluded that, notwithstanding the conspiracies of revolutionary secret societies, the river of national life would just flow along uncontrollably but entertainingly. Leaving aside the characteristic conspiracy theories and the satisfaction at the unending social comedy, these were views with which any Mid-Victorian Liberal sage would have agreed.

It becomes more and more difficult to believe that Disraeli had any real insight into mass politics and the Conservatives’ role in them. The Party developed of its own accord, as property and suburbia organised themselves against their nightmarish visions of radical demagogues and insurgent inner-city cesspits. As they developed a professional organisation, Conservatives, like Liberals, badly needed figureheads with whom different types of voter could identify, and these figureheads took on a life of their own when projected through the mass media of the 1870s and 1880s. A new Disraeli and Gladstone were invented. Neither bore much relation to reality, but both, competing for commemoration on ashtrays and dishcloths, entered the national affections. Disraeli was the longer-lived of the two icons because the emptiness but inclusiveness of his rhetoric made him ideal for the Conservative Party, almost irrespective of the image which it wished to present at any one time. In death he became at last a universal hero and a greater figure in 20th-century British consciousness than Byron, Canning or even, arguably, Napoleon. Accidentally, some adolescent fantasies do come true.