For another project I have been re-reading Edmund Crispin's detective stories and reading a biography of Bruce Montgomery/Edmund Crispin by David Whittle, an enormously charming and talented as well as, in some ways, tragic figure. For those who might not know about him, let me explain that his real name was Bruce Montgomery and he used that to write music, both of the concrt and film variety. Among other scores, he was responsible for the music of the first few Carry On films as well as a couple of Doctor films.

As Edmund Crispin he wrote a far too short series of detective novels and short stories about Gervase Fen, Oxford Professor of English Language and Literature.

Anyone who reads his novels (and I can thoroughly recommend them for being clever, witty and often laugh-out-loud funny as well as highly literary) must realize that BM/EC was thoroughly conservative in his outlook. As it happens he was also a Conservative in his political support though not always in tune with the party. David Whittle points out that, unlike many of his friends, such as Kingsley Amis, Montgomery/Crispin never went through a left-wing phase.

Therefore, readers will not be surprised to hear that he was not particularly enamoured with Edward Heath, the bane of all conservative Conservatives. During the last couple of decades of his life he started a number of projects or, at least thought of them, but did not finish them. It was a very sad tale of decline but has to be off-set by the story of his earlier career, which was effervescently successful.

One of the projects (and how one wishes he had completed it) was a novel about two writers who live close to each other, cannot stand each other and are commissioned to write a detective novel together. Because some of the action takes place in a doctor's surgery, the title was going to be What Seems to be the Trouble? and it has the usual Montgomery/Crispin references to his friends
and there is also a savage attack on VAT and on Ted Heath, the Prime Minister for some of the time the book was being written (he is called a 'monomaniac mugwump').
A monomaniac mugwump? Absolutely brilliant. I wonder what in particular the monomania was. Somehow I cannot imagine Montgomery/Crispin to be in favour of Britain's entry into the Common Market.

Without comment:






At dawn of June 22, 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Soviet Union. No, not the invasion of Russia. They moved fast, largely because the Soviet armed forces were unprepared, what with the huge purges in 1938, the continuing movement of prisoners east-wards from the Baltic states and eastern Poland and the inexplicable trust Stalin put in Hitler, but they did not reach what we might call Russia for several weeks. By August they were attacking Leningrad and by late November they began the siege of Moscow. Stalin and his mates disappeared from Moscow in June. He did not make a public broadcast till July 3 when he addressed the people of the Soviet Union as "brothers and sisters". According to my mother, who was in Moscow at the time, that caused greater panic than anything else had done.

On June 22 the Germans invaded what was eastern Poland or western Ukraine, depending on your attitude, the territory that the USSR had grabbed in September 1939. They then rolled forward, causing enormous losses though Stalin contributed to that in various ways.

Nevertheless, the date did turn out to be the first real turning point of the war, the second and more important one being December 7, 1941. It was also a turning point in European history though that did not become obvious except to a few individuals like Evelyn Waugh until much later.

Next year will see a couple of important anniversaries: the centenary of the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik coup, which initiated the existence of possibly the most bloodthirsty political system in history, and the eightieth anniversary of the year that is generally seen as the symbol of Stalin's great purge: 1937. We should devote time to a remembrance and discussion of the victims of Communism.

Meanwhile, here and here are links to more pictures from Operation Barbarossa and its aftermath.


A couple of weeks ago I was reminded that I did not blog last year about the most important anniversary of all, in a year full of important anniversaries, and that is the publication of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps in the autumn of 1915. It was written by a convalescing Buchan, already a well known writer, in a couple of weeks, was serialized in Blackwood's Magazine in August and September and published as a book in October. As Robert McCrum writes here, only slightly condescendingly, it remains one of the best thrillers around. I do not agree, however, that the ghastly films and even ghastlier comedy parody, whose run in London came to an end a couple of months ago, show the book's enduring appeal. The fact, that none of these are really based on the book would indicate that it is the title and some mistaken idea of what it is about that has the enduring appeal.

The reason I remembered this omission was a coincidence of several events. I was yet again reading about Stalin but, more importantly, I went to an evening at the British Library where two panels discussed Eric Ambler and, more specifically, the three books by him that are being reprinted by the British Library in their Classic Thrillers series.  They are Passage of Arms, Light of Day and A Kind of Anger, all post-war books, as it happens. This is of some importance as Ambler changed his political opinions in the wake of the Nazi-Soviet Pact and as a result of learning a few things about the Soviet Union during the Second World War.


When he started writing in the thirties he was a straightforward left-wing author who became according to his own account, a fellow traveller. Despite attempts by one member of one panel to argue that he changed his mind because of the show trials and the purges, the fact remains that he did not. He went on being a fellow traveller until Ribbentrop and Molotov signed that Pact.

Nevertheless, he did change his mind and that is to his credit. The panellists, mostly, did not think so, it being a sort of a given in literary circles that left-wing thriller and detective story writers are more knowledgeable and sophisticated than the more traditional, conservative or right-wing ones, a category into which they dump the egregious Sapper, the far better John Buchan and the man who is probably the best living spy thriller writer, though he stopped writing a while ago, Anthony Price, whose series that began with The Labyrinth Makers I should really blog about.
Because you can be sophisticated and knowledgeable only if you are left-wing. The suggestion that in the thirties and forties being left-wing if that meant being pro-Soviet and showing Soviet agents as really rather jolly chaps who were on our side and meant very well, as Eric Ambler did then, indicated a deliberate blocking out of information about that country, about certain crimes in the West and about stories that were coming out of Spain, is not well received.

I was particularly amused by the embarrassment with which Ambler's later anti-Communist sympathies were discussed. While he had been sophisticated and knowledgeable in the thirties, by the time of the late forties and fifties he was merely cynical. Well, that's what you get if you turn on the well-meaning Communist homeland and Uncle Joe in the Kremlin. You become cynical and write a book that revolves round the East European show trials and which is mentioned only with a deprecating smile.

In discussions like this there are two whipping boys: Ian Fleming and John Buchan. The first is mentioned with a smile. Honestly, nobody can take those Bond books seriously, let alone the films, but that is not Fleming's fault. Of course, secret service was never like that but whoever thought it was? During a more recent discussion about one of Eric Ambler's books I tried to counter the usual, "well, it's nothing like Bond, where we know he is going to triumph, blah-blah-blah" by suggesting that we should compare him to John le Carré whose heroes are also flawed and the plots murky. The discussion came to a dead end. In parenthesis, I may add that I have read several of the latter's books, liked two a great deal, several others considerably less and agree with the Ambler panellists that the later ones are pretentious and dull. But he is better known than Eric Ambler because he never really changed his politics (except, maybe, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)


Buchan is another kettle of fish. I suspect why so many right-minded and right-on literary critics look embarrassed when they mention him is that deep down they suspect that he is actually very good and his understanding of the world around him was quite accurate. His early Hannay books are about defeating and outwitting the Germans; Dickson McCunn, especially in Huntingtower, fights the Bolsheviks who were, pace all those sophisticated left-wingers, really nasty people, other novels deal with attempts by individuals and organizations to grab power regardless of the casualties. Well, well, how unsophisticated. I mean, that never happens.

Going back to the one whose centenary we ought to have celebrated last year, The Thirty-Nine Steps, it is undoubtedly one of the most exciting thrillers around. From the moment Hannay finds Scudder shivering with well-justified fear to the end when the Black Stone are arrested it keeps the reader on tenterhooks. So much so, that it takes a couple of re-reads to notice that at least one brilliant episode is completely ridiculous. (No, I am not going to tell you, which one. Find it for yourselves.)

Buchan kept up with political developments and gave his allegiance to decency and liberalism with a small l in politics. As an MP he was a Unionist but was even before the First World War in favour of free trade, women's suffrage, national insurance and, curiously, curtailing the power of the House of Lords. On the other hand, he opposed the Liberal Party's welfare reforms because they were based on class hatred, fostered by the likes of David Lloyd George.

His female characters, incidentally, are more than feisty: they are frequently equal to the men in courage and ability. The woman who becomes Hannay's wife, Mary, is his superior in the secret service on their first meeting in Mr Standfast. Other heroines play their parts in the novels. Richard Usborne disliked them in Clubland Heroes because they were all slim and boyish in looks and appallingly sporty and energetic. But then, Usborne did not like Buchan or his characters, preferring Sapper's upper class thugs to the motley crew of achievers who populate the former's novels. One of the things I dislike about that comedy show of The Thirty-Nine Steps is that Hannay is described as a gentleman adventurer. He is not a gentleman but a South African engineer, his skills coming in very useful, with some murky episodes in the past, who becomes a gentleman through his service, both military and intelligence, during the war.

Buchan lived up to his view of women in his life, marrying Susan Grosvernor, a remarkable person as well as a good writer. I prefer not to discuss their children, who were all super achievers, especially in the intellectual world.

This blog has already covered Buchan's attitude to Jews and Zionism. (The posting does not mention this article by Roger Kimball and it is worth reading.) He was not an anti-Semite though Scudder in The Thirty-Nine Steps is. This is seen as a form of lunacy both by Hannay and Sir Walter Bullivant, the chief of the secret service. In 1930 Buchan espoused Zionism and by 1934, early by anybody's standards, was criticizing the new regime in Germany because of its behaviour towards the Jews. At this time there was some sympathy towards Hitler even on the Left and when that expired, thanks to Willi Münzenberg's Little Brown Book and mock trials, the Jewish question remained dormant as the Comintern preferred not to dwell on it. It took a few individuals like Buchan to raise the issue in between writing excellent (mostly) thrillers and history books as well as conducting a remarkably successful political career and being active in the Church of Scotland. All this before he became the Governor General of Canada in which position he is considered to have been successful right up to the stroke which caused head injuries and his death.

His literary legacy remains. I defy anyone to start reading The Thirty-Nine Steps, one hundred years old last autumn and not be pulled into a wonderful and thrilling world. Then go on to the other ones.

I have just finished reading Joshua Rubenstein's The Last Days of Stalin, a book I can thoroughly recommend to all who are interested in post-war European history. By and large the theme is not one for this blog but, as one would expect, Sir Winston Churchill appears in it and plays a slight equivocal role.

Chapter 6 is entitled A Chance for Peace? and deals with the opportunity the West, led by President Eisenhower, might have taken to create a more lasting peace or generally come to better terms with the post-Stalin leadership. Professor Rubenstein is inclined to blame Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, feeling more on the side of such people as the President's aide, Emmet Hughes who felt frustrated by the "obvious" opportunity created by Stalin's death, the new leadership's desire to introduce reforms (to save their own skins rather than because they had any liberal ideas) and to ease up relations with the West.

In actual fact, that window of opportunity lasted exactly two months from April 16, 1953 when Eisenhower delivered his Chance For Peace speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors to June 17 when the two-day East Berlin uprising broke out to spread to other parts of East Germany and to be put down fairly brutally by the Soviet army and the East German police. After that, any idea of German reunification on any condition could be shelved. Within less than ten days Beria was arrested and the Soviet leadership appeared to sink into another internecine warfare.

Even the two months in question were not exactly propitious. There were riots in Plovdiv, Khaskovo and Pilsen, news of discontent in the other East European colonies and uprisings in the political camps of the Gulag. The amnesty brought in immediately after Stalin's death affected only criminals with the exception of the Doctors' Plot whose "members" were released and all accusations were quashed. The politicals started demanding that their cases should be reviewed as well and in a number of camps there were genuine uprisings, usually led by Ukrainians, Balts and Poles. At first the authorities were prepared to negotiate but as they were not prepared to offer anything except slightly better working conditions there were no agreements and the uprisings were put down with great ferocity. Officially this was unknown in the West but I find it difficult to believe that some rumous had not crept out to the various security services.

Nevertheless, the book conveys a feeling of frustration and lost opportunity after Eisenhower's speech without making it very clear what concrete suggestions he should have made, except for one: a summit meeting with, possibly, Georgy Malenkov who appeared to be the leader, though only temporarily.

Eisenhower made it clear that the Soviet union should come up with some concrete proposals first but, above all, he was not a great supporter of summits, believing with some justification that during the war time ones the West had given away too much to Stalin and refusing to recognize, despite his desire to lessen the tension, that the new leadership might be more accommodating.

This is where Churchill hove into view, advocating summits, discussing with the Soviet ambassador to London, Yakov Malik, the possibility of a secret meeting with Malenkov, and speaking forcefully on the need to balance the needs of European countries with "Russia's" (i.e. the USSR's) desire for security. In the process he managed to make the Kremlin suspicious, antagonized Chancellor Adenauer and some other West European leaders and seriously annoyed the Americans. He did get a good press from the British newspapers, though.

On May 11, 1953, during the first big foreign affairs debate after Stalin's death Churchill made a speech [scroll up] in which he tried to reconcile several ideas.
Russia has a right to feel assured that as far as human arrangements can run the terrible events of the Hitler invasion will never be repeated, and that Poland will remain a friendly Power and a buffer, though not, I trust, a puppet State.

I venture to read to the House again some words which I wrote exactly eight years ago, 29th April, 1945, in a telegram I sent to Mr. Stalin: " There is not much comfort"

I said, "in looking into a future where you and the countries you dominate, plus the Communist Parties in many other States, are all drawn up on one side, and those who rally to the English speaking nations and their associates or Dominions are on the other. It is quite obvious that their quarrel would tear the world to pieces, and that all of us leading men on either side who had anything to do with that would be shamed before history. Even embarking on a long period of suspicions, of abuse and counter-abuse, and of opposing policies would be a disaster hampering the great developments of world prosperity for the masses which are attainable only by our trinity. I hope there is no word or phrase in this outpouring of my heart to you which unwittingly gives offence. If so, let me know. But do not, I beg you, my friend Stalin, underrate the divergencies which are opening about matters which you may think are small to us but which are symbolic of the way the English-speaking democracies look at life." I feel exactly the same about it today.

I must make it plain that, in spite of all the uncertainties and confusion in which world affairs are plunged, I believe that a conference on the highest level should take place between the leading Powers without long delay. This conference should not be overhung by a ponderous or rigid agenda, or led into mazes and jungles of technical details, zealously contested by hoards of experts and officials drawn up in vast, cumbrous array. The conference should be confined to the smallest number of Powers and persons possible. It should meet with a measure of informality and a still greater measure of privacy and seclusion. It might well be that no hard-faced agreements would be reached, but there might be a general feeling among those gathered together that they might do something better than tear the human race, including themselves, into bits.
The first paragraph would indicate a wilful misreading of what was going on in Eastern Europe (not a puppet state, forsooth!) and what had been going on in Poland in 1939. The rest of it mostly wishful thinking, as was a suggestion earlier in the speech that if Germany was reunited Britain could guarantee peace on the Continent - not a particularly rational suggestion in 1953.

Chancellor Adenauer showed himself to be unhappy with what he saw as an attempt to sacrifice West Germany, a democracy, in order to have some kind of an agreement with the Soviet Union. The Kremlin leadership distrusted Churchill, thinking of him, rather ironically, as the man who wanted to strangle Bolshevism at birth rather than the man who was Stalin's ally and, some would say, dupe. Molotov, the Foreign Minister, absolutely rejected the idea of a "secret" meeting between Churchill and Malenkov. Furthermore, as Pofessor Rubenstein notes, the Kremlin had a shrews understanding of Churchill's and Britain's real standing in the world despite the marks of respect paid to him.

The White House and the State Department paid their respects but pointed out that it was not clear who would represent the USSR and, in any case, the low-level talks about Korea were still getting nowhere. What would a summit achieve?
In Congress, Senate Majority Leader William F. Knowland compared Churchill's speech to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler at Munich in 1938, a shocking objection given Churchill's ringing opposition ot Chamberlain's negotiations with the Nazis.
Shocking maybe but it does raise an interesting question: just what was it about Stalin that made Churchill, the great anti-appeaser into a full-blooded appeaser? He returned from Yalta with assurances for all who doubted in the Cabinet and in Parliament that if there was one man to be trusted on the international scene it was "Premier Stalin". He preferred to ignore the problem of people being handed over to the Communists, both Soviet and Yugoslav. And judging by the comment he made about Poland in 1953 he did not quite understand the situation in Eastern Europe despite the Fulton speech, which brilliantly defined the situation.

To be fair, there was more sense to Churchill's 1953 desire to come to terms with the post-Stalin Soviet leadership, even though his assumption that Malenkov will go on being the undisputed boss turned out to be wrong - the heirs of Stalin did exhibit various signs of wanting to negotiate over Korea as well as, possibly, Austria and Germany. They even started allowing the Russian wives of Western diplomats and military officials out of the Gulag and out of the country. But a summit or secret meetings? Could they really achieve anything?

To a great extent one can understand that this was Churchill's attempt to restore the war-time situation when he did rush around the world, having secret meetings with Stalin, among others and the big three had several summits. Churchill was missing his and Britain's position at the top and was reluctant to acknowledge the reality of the situation. Sadly, others, the White House and Kremlin for instance, did acknowledge it.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that his comments about the need to acknowledge Russia's fears and longings for security were not that different from Germany's supposed needs in the thirties, needs that he had quite rightly dismissed at the time.

Nothing came of Churchill's suggestions. Molotov refused to agree to any meeting between Malenkov and Churchill, as did Eisenhower. The window of opportunity closed on June 17 with the uprising in East Berlin and at the end of June Churchill had a stroke, which was hidden from all though it put him out of action completely and much of his business was transacted in his name by his son in law, Christopher Soames and his secretary, Sir John Rupert "Jock" Colville. A "secret disability crisis" is one way of describing those events; I have also heard references to a coup, a very British coup. The idea of the summit, never very strong, was abandoned.


When the news came in March 2010 that one of the best loved, most admired but also most feared members of the House of Lords, Baroness Park of Monmouth, had died, there was a general mourning and not just in the House but also among the many people who had known, worked with or just sat and talked to Daphne Park over many years. These were people who had known her in the Service, naturally, and in the various sister Services (I recall meeting a Canadian former agent once who sent her all sorts of good wishes from the Mounties), people in various organizations to which she contributed whenever she could, people who had known her in Oxford and people who had met her and been overwhelmed by her knowledge, her history, personality and that impossible to define quality, charm. 

I blogged about her at the time of her death and her funeral. I tried to convey my affection and admiration for that great lady as well as the laughter that her stories generated (when it was not sheer terror).

The fact that she had been an important British agent (not a spy, if you please), rising to the position of Controller/Western Hemisphere before she retired from MI6 (SIS) was also fairly well known, as she had given interviews to a number of carefully chosen journalists and told tales to equally carefully chosen friends and acquaintances. According to Paddy Hayes, Daphne Park's biographer, some people, including her secretary and assistant of many years’ standing, regarded this with disapproval and there is some doubt as to whose idea all this publicity was. Daphne insisted that when some journalist let the cat out of the bag years after she had retired, senior SIS officers suggested that she should give those interviews; Paddy Hayes thinks it was her idea.

Whoever thought of it, the scheme was hugely successful: Baroness Park, the charming elderly lady with her firm and strongly expressed opinions, work in the House of Lords and her undeniable charm was the best possible advertisement for the Service, who could pretend in an oblique sort of way that a number of women had risen to the top or near it, a lie indirect, if ever there was one. Furthermore, Daphne never revealed more than she knew had been agreed on, as one can see from the various articles and interviews: they tend to repeat the same information, much of it reasonably well known with just the added savour of her personal experience, so far as she would talk about it. In private conversations or talks given to private organizations she tended to tell the most wonderful and exciting stories. I was privileged (as I said above) to be one of the recipients. She would swoop down on me when she felt like it in the corridors of the House of Lords where I had disconsolately collected some documents I had to read and write about, and announce that I would probably like a whisky. Of course, I did. Ensconced with a drink she would turn to me and say “I think you might be interested in my stay in Moscow (or Hanoi or DR Congo).” Off went her tales, all carefully shorn of any really secret information, but fascinating nevertheless.

The SIS (or MI6) are notoriously secretive about their history though some details do slip out. Paddy Hayes found it quite difficult to unearth really detailed information about Daphne Park’s career. He has instead, unfortunately in my opinion, decided to pad his text with speculations about how Daphne might have felt at certain moments and what she would have had to remember in a new job to prepare for the new environment. There is also a tendency for giving explanations of certain structures and activities by saying “in modern terms it means …”. This is a regrettable tendency in a number of history books that aim at the popular market. Surely even said popular market would produce readers who can cope with concepts without being told that “in modern terms that would be image management” or some such nonsense.

Daphne Park’s life story from her childhood in Tanganyika through her education in England, service in the SOE during the war (together with all the problems she had because of her stubbornness) and subsequent career in SIS where she seems to have served in some of the most difficult and interesting places, is of such interest that even a dull writer cannot make it otherwise and Paddy Hayes is far from being a dull writer. The book bowls along despite the clichés and the padding. Nevertheless, with the difficulty of information gathering and reliance on personal memories, often internally censored, unanswered questions abound. Did Daphne go down to Odessa and Sevastopol to find out whether the Soviets were planning to intervene in the Suez crisis? She said yes and a number of historians have repeated that, her closest colleague of the time says no. Did she run agents in Hanoi and if so, how on earth did she manage it? No evidence seems available. What on earth was she doing in Ulan Bator? Was Marine Captain Douglas de Witt Bazata really the great love of her life? Hayes asserts this several times but produces no evidence, not even gossip. To what extent was she personally involved in the civil war that erupted in the Congo after independence and in the gruesome arrest and murder of Patrice Lumumba? Some of the answers to the last one could have been discovered through the American Freedom of Information Act but Hayes decided not to go down that path. The story he recounts is not substantially different from the one I read in my childhood in Soviet and East European newspapers.

Daphne was also involved in the negotiations with Rhodesia’s Ian Smith after UDI that led to the establishment of Zimbabwe. I am not sure she did not regret her role in it though it had grown out of her friendship with a number of East African leaders, as she fought ferociously in the House of Lords to help Zimbabwean dissidents, oppositionists to Robert Mugabe’s bloody rule and refugees.




Queen of Spies is the first biography of Baroness Park but one hopes not the last. It goes a little way beyond her retirement from SIS, telling the not altogether successful tale of her time as Principal of Somerville College and the more successful time as a Governor of the BBC. Then there is a rapid gallop through her various other achievements in the post-SIS years but not nearly enough about her time as Conservative peer with strong opinions in the House of Lords, which she loved, where she worked very hard,  and where she was much loved by colleagues and staff alike. The book would have become of unwieldy length if all this had been added in detail but let us hope that one day someone will continue Paddy Hayes’s excellent work and build on the foundation he has laid. 

Paddy Hayes:                          Queen of Spies
Daphne Park, Britain’s Cold War Spy Master

Duckworth Overlook              2015



[This is based on a review that will appear in the next issue of the Salisbury Review.]

One of the funniest episodes of the peculiar time in which Ed Miliband was leader of the Labour Party was when he stated on a visit to Israel that he could be Britain's first Jewish Prime Minister. There was a world-wide response (in which a number of my non-British friends participated), which consisted largely of the question: what about Disraeli? What, indeed?

A number of Mr Miliband's supporters tried to pooh-pooh Disraeli's claims to being the first (and, so far, the only) Jewish Prime Minister of Britain by pointing out that he had been baptized at the age of 12 and was, in fact, a practising Anglican later in life. That is so but then Ed Miliband is a practising socialist atheist and it is highly unlikely that he has ever participated in Jewish religious ceremonies unless he thought he could get some kind of a political advantage from such participation. In that respect that would be no different from him participating in, as it were, Sikh religious ceremonies, or Hindu or Muslim.

So, it is down to race and ethnicity, according to which Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield was most definitely Jewish. Indeed, as he rose in the political sphere, he became the target of numerous attacks that now we would call anti-Semitic though the expression itself was first used after his death. Some of those attacks came from Liberal politicians, journalists and historians, including Mr Gladstone himself.

Did Disraeli perceive himself as a Jew? Was he at all interested in the Jewish question? Was his policies influenced by his race as many of the accusations proclaimed? David Cesarani asks these questions in the latest biography of Disraeli. (Alas, he died at the very early age of 58 and did not see the book's publication.)

The book is part of a series published by Yale University Press, Jewish Lives, and the author begins by asking "Does Benjamin Disraeli deserve a place in a series of books called Jewish Lives?" He comes to the conclusion that he does for various reasons not just because he was born a Jew and rose higher than any other in British politics. His analysis follows Disraeli's life and looks at his books, novels and his biography of Lord George Bentinck, his colleague in the destruction of Sir Robert Peel and, let us be honest, the Tory Party.

Cesarani looks at Disraeli's family, his early life, his cavalier attitude to other people's money and the distrust felt for him by many in British politics and society. The distrust, he concludes, had more to do with Disraeli's rackety life, his debts and his various affairs. He was seen as foreign and exotic but, thinks Professor Cesarani, his Jewishness was largely subsumed in that. The first attack on him as a Jew came from Daniel O'Connell during the Taunton by-election of 1835. The attack wounded but many commentators felt that O'Connell had overstepped the marks of decency.

It was not till later in Disraeli's career that the various slurs became stronger, culminating in the ferocious attacks during the whole of the crisis of 1876 - 78 from which he emerged as the man who had won a great victory for Britain without firing a single shot or endangering a single life. That he is emerged as such for most people and, certainly, for the Conservative Party but not for all. Gladstone continued to fulminate; other Liberal writers pronounced that Disraeli's policy was not in Britain's interest but in the interest of the vaguely describe international Jewish conspiracy who naturally sided with the Turk.

In fact, Disraeli's policy, be that the purchase of the Khedive's shares in the Suez canal (on a loan from the Rothschilds, which was seen as particularly sinister, but no one else would have been able to come up with the money and the interest they received was no higher than usual) or the tortuous effort to prevent Russia from acquiring too much influence in the Balkans, let alone get to the Straits and Constantinople, was motivated by his desire to protect and aggrandize the British Empire. He could not understand why other people, for instance Gladstone, could not see this. How could the Liberal leader not realize that Russia was not in the slightest interested in the welfare of the Christians in the Ottoman Balkans but wanted to use them to push forward to the Straits and Constantinople? (One cannot help recognizing certain themes in the debates about Russia that have continued to be argued over ferociously to the present day.)

When it came to Jewish affairs Disraeli tended to drag his feet. He rarely intervened for Jews in other countries and was little more than a lukewarm fighter for their political rights in this one. He did support, more or less, Lionel de Rothschild in his struggle to be allowed to take his oath in the House of Commons without using the words "as a Christian" but the Rothschilds considered him unreliable despite their eventual close friendship and their support after Mary-Anne's death.

When one looks at Disraeli's writings a somewhat puzzling picture emerges on the subject of his attitude to Jews and Judaism. He was, in some ways, fascinated by it all but without showing the slightest interest in the history or politics. The early novels do not even refer to Jews. Later Jewish characters appeared, usually elderly wise men who "understood" the reality of the world in a way nobody else did. Sometimes there were plot lines that involved ideas of a Jewish revival in the East but these never came to anything.

If one were to try to summarize Disraeli's rather convoluted and, let us be frank, mushy attitude to the Jewish Question, one would have to list these points. Jews ought to have the same rights as Christians because it is clear that, Christianity starting as a Jewish sect, the two were inseparable and it is wrong to try to do so. This rather conveniently by-passed the liberal argument for Jewish emancipation, as that was based on questions of equality and individual rights, concepts Disraeli loathed.

He came up with the wildest theories about Semitic, Germanic and Anglo races but was convinced and repeated this at every possible opportunity that the world is divided according to some racial theory and this gave the Jews and the Anglos a great advantage. This was a particularly unfortunate as many of those who attacked him used his own so-called theories against him. Indeed, both Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the creator of modern racial theory, and Hitler quoted Disraeli to support their own sayings. When one adds to that Disraeli's propensity to explain that there is a cabal behind all world events, run largely by Jews, one can see that his influence was oddly harmful to Jews in the twentieth century.


David Cesarani comes close to saying that it was largely Disraeli's fault that the modern lethal anti-Semitism was born and grew with such rapidity at the end of the nineteenth century. That is, surely, somewhat unfair. The likelihood is that it would have existed and battened on other historic events without Disraeli's melodramatic novels and peculiar biography of his friend. The tracing of Disraeli's attitude to Jews and other people's attitude to him as a Jew is, on the other hand, an important part of the story both Disraeli's and that of modern British politics.

Certainly Benjamin Disraeli deserves to be in this series of biographies as long as nobody thinks that this is all that matters about him. Cesarani's book ends on a rather tragic note with Disraeli losing his grip on politics and dying while under constant anti-Semitic attacks. But by this time he was seen as the creator of the modern Conservative Party and a statesman of world-wide fame. A year after his death he was honoured beyond any other Prime Minister through Primrose Day and, subsequently, the Primrose League. He remains the one against whom party leaders, mostly but not exclusively Conservative, measure themselves. He is also the one about whom biographies pour out every year. This is a fine contribution to the genre, fascinating, knowledgeable and lightly written, but there will be many more.

David Cesarani:                    Disraeli
                                              The Novel Politician

2016                                     Yale University Press

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