Hurd, Douglas and Edward Young. 2013. Disraeli: or, The Two Lives. Phoenix. 372 pgs.
As an American Republican, I admit that I don’t understand the Tory Party.
It isn’t just their nostalgia for the aristocracy (so strange to U.S. sensibilities), or their fascination with dress and deportment, or their British weakness for a pint. It’s that I actually have no idea what the Tories stand for—or what distinguishes them from Labour, once they’re in office.
While I’ve been confused about the Tories for a long time, I only realised the extent of this confusion while reading Hurd and Young’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli. I’d been expecting to admire Disraeli as a great conservative hero, so I was disappointed to learn (on page five) that his legendary status has little to do with conservative philosophy and everything to do with his snazzy character.
The authors daub Disraeli with vibrant colours, arguing that he ignited British politics with his tolerance, creativity, wit, and bravery—and that these qualities, rather than any political convictions, explain the myths people tell about him. Disraeli knew ‘that imagination and courage are the indispensable components of political greatness for an individual or a nation’, and such sentiments are his ‘true legacy’.
Readers are obviously meant to like Lord Beaconsfield, this extraordinary person who clambered from debts and novel-writing to become Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister.
But the more I learned about Disraeli, the less I liked him. As a young man, he ensconced himself in debts, dressed like a dandy (he once wore a ‘bottle green frock coat’ to an election), and dallied with three married ladies: Sara Austen, the wife of a lawyer-friend; Clara Bolton, his doctor’s spouse; and Henrietta Sykes, his most passionate (but, again, undeniably married) mistress. At last, Disraeli settled down with Mary Anne Lewis, whom he invited in a letter to ‘sympathise with all my projects and feelings, console me in moments of despair, share my hour of triumph and work with me for our honour and happiness’—a unique marriage proposal, to say the least.
Meanwhile, Disraeli had determined to climb the greasy pole—but not because he loved his country. ‘Fame,’ he wrote, ‘although not posthumous fame, is necessary to my felicity.’ Tasked with choosing his political allegiance, he stated, ‘As for Parties, I am for myself’, and scribbled a pamphlet titled, What is He? He finally selected the Tory Party because they rejected the Whigs’ paternalistic style of governance and admired Britain’s character and institutions. But overall, Disraeli had few political convictions. His career was one long search for personal and national prestige.
The young man embarked on politics with characteristic flare. After four defeats, he earned a Parliamentary seat in 1837 and tried to ally himself with Sir Robert Peel, the Party leader. When the PM rebuffed these attempts, Disraeli consoled himself (as he later admitted) with ‘establishing a reputation by attacking Peel.’ This meant opposing the repeal of the Corn Laws, a tariff on corn imports. And Disraeli’s opposition was devastatingly clever. He flattened Peel in speech after speech, declaiming, ‘His life has been one re-appropriation clause. He is a burglar of others’ intellect.’ Peel couldn’t survive such wit. A month after the Repeal Bill passed, a coalition of Protectionists, Whigs, and Radicals defeated the Tories, and the PM resigned. Disraeli had sliced the Tory Party in two, carving out room for his own political manoeuvring.
And manoeuvre he did. He allied himself with Lord Derby and was thrice appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer in Derby’s minority governments (1852, 1858, and 1860). But better things lay ahead. Disraeli crushed Gladstone’s Reform Bill before passing his own in 1867, thus expanding the electorate from 1.3 to 2.5 million. Then, in 1868, the Tories beat Gladstone in the national elections, and Disraeli became the new PM. He served a second time in 1874, passing reforms which earned the Tories a reputation for pitying the poor. But Disraeli’s motives were pragmatic, not moral. He’d always considered politics a ‘game’, and he knew that beating Gladstone meant beating him to radicalism. Disraeli did good for selfish reasons.
Overall, I’m not sure what to make of Lord Beaconsfield. His career finished less propitiously than it began, with mismanaged conflicts in Afghanistan and South Africa, a £3 million deficit in 1879-80, and another loss to Gladstone in 1880. But the authors praise him to the end. ‘The purpose of this book,’ they state, ‘has been to strip away the posthumous glamour and to bring alive the true genius of Disraeli…[a man] driven by a relentless thirst for excitement and a taste for extravagant ideas.’ They conclude by lamenting that modern politics lacks ‘genuine eloquence and integrity’. Looking to Disraeli may help us ‘raise our game’.
Disraeli might teach us eloquence, but I’m not sure about integrity. He dropped Protectionism as soon as it stopped being politically convenient, and his interest in the poor began only when he realised he could write a more compelling Reform Bill than Gladstone. His notions of conservatism were foggy because he wasn’t interested in conservatism; he was interested in power. I closed the book with a feeling of unease. Are the best politicians inevitably gamblers and game-players?
I’ve written elsewhere that politics is essentially good. But that’s only true when politics serves good ends. And I’m not sure that today’s Tory government—which rivalled the COVID-tyranny of New York and California—does serve distinctly good or conservative ends. I'm not sure that today's Tory party has any more principles than Disraeli did. Perhaps one of my Tory friends will write in to correct me. I hope somebody does. I’d like to admire Disraeli, and I’d like to admire the Tory Party.
But right now, I’m ready to go home and vote DeSantis 2024.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, Cornelius Jabez Hughes