Not another book about Disraeli

Posted by Helen Tuesday, April 01, 2014 ,

Well yes, another book about Disraeli and this one actually addresses the question as to why there are so many of them around. How does the mythology of Dizzy agree with the reality of Disraeli the politician and how did the former manage to take such a hold of the Conservative politicians (and others, including most recently, the leader of the Labour Party) and of historians of the period, including someone so very non-Conservative as Dick Leonard? (I note that the Conservative History Journal blog has mentioned Disraeli twenty times, which is a nice round number and does not take into account the various articles that have been published in the Journal itself over the years.)

This is an undoubtedly clever and witty book, what with that sub-title echoed in the chapter headings such as Christian and Jew, Doer or Dreamer?, Men and Women, Friends and Foes and others that appear to be oxymorons: Tory Democracy and Progressive Conservative. It goes through the biography in a tight fashion but manages to get most of the details in, even to dispel a few myths, some started by the great man himself some by others. But the real theme of the book  remains that curious dichotomy between the reality of a politician who had very few principles though a number of romantic ideals and the astonishing image of the man who is seen as the progenitor of just about every Conservative political idea one can name.

Did Disraeli ever talk of One Nation Conservatism? Certainly not. He did not even support it. He wrote about the Two Nations but he did not actually object to it; he merely thought that there could be an ideal society in England in which the "two nations" could live in harmony and vaguely envisaged some form of a feudal structure that would create such a society.

Did he believe in protectionism as his followers in the great fight of the 1840s against Sir Robert Peel and the repeal of the Corn Laws did? Most certainly not and, to be fair, nor did he ever say so. When he became Prime Minister in the midst of a deep agricultural depression he refused to bring back any protectionist measures, realizing all too well how disastrous that would be for the party in electoral terms. His main complaint about Peel was that he had betrayed the party in the sense of changing his policies (free trade was not the first one) without consulting the members. This was a novel idea in British politics and, to a great extent, we can date the importance of well organized parties, as something to admire and something to deprecate from Disraeli. Curiously enough, though the authors mention this, they do not make too much of it when summing up Dizzy's achievements.

The historian John Charmley, has described Disraeli as the presiding genius of political spin doctors and the very existence of the mythology long after the immediate posthumous effect, the Primrose League(postings here and here) had disappeared from sight, would indicate the correctness of that analysis.

This book comes to a not dissimilar conclusion:

This in the end was Disraeli's great achievement. He may not have reformed the nature of British society. He may not have transformed our standing overseas. But he did make politics interesting and engaging, including for those with no vote. As one contemporary observed, 'I never listened to a speech of yours without thinking, this word, this sentence, will be remembered a hundred years hence.' This was indeed the true magnetism of Disraeli. It is the reason why successive generations of politicians are drawn to him. if we look in his career for solid achievement we shall be disappointed. But if we want something to raise our game, Disraeli is the man.
Sadly, that last sentence demonstrates that even this well-written book, despite the many semi-slangy and often coy expressions, falls a long way short of Disraeli's own ability to communicate, while politicians of the day may refer to the great man but remain dull and pedestrian in their very references, let alone other speeches.

Douglas Hurd and Edward Young: Disraeli or The Two Lives

2013, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London


  1. Thank goodness this post refers to the Hurd-Young volume; I was afraid that another one would be appearing on the bookshelves.

    As to your final observation, I noted the same after reading through the two-volume collection of Disraeli speeches.

  2. Benjamin Disraeli had happy memories of 'the pleasure of being made ​​much of by a man who is daily Decapitating half the country' when he was the guest of Ali Pasha in Albania as a young man in the 1830s. Very, very funny and very remark Unpleasant indeed. He made ​​sure Russia got Bessarabia in 1878 as a punishment for rebelling against the Sublime Porte but he had good reasons to want to preserve the Ottoman Empire. Since it came to an end we have had the modern Middle East. Paul Wood

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