Be more Disraeli

Labour need to drop the Gladstonian hectoring if they want to win

There is an old story — which might or might not be true, it doesn’t really matter – about a woman who met both Gladstone and Disraeli, the great statesmen of the Victorian age. “Gladstone made me feel that he was the cleverest person in the world,” she said afterwards. And Dizzy? “Ah,” she sighed. “He made me feel as if I were the cleverest person in the world.”

If the Labour party is really serious about winning a general election — or even recovering a few council seats here and there — then it needs to discover its inner Disraeli. 

A bust of Gladstone is looking down at me as I write this, and he’s terrifying. He’s only about ten inches tall, but that’s enough to radiate the full force of his high-minded moral disapproval. Oh, that hooked nose, that severe brow and those hawkish eyes. You can see exactly what Queen Victoria meant when she complained of him: “He speaks to me as if I were a public meeting”. 

Does that hectoring self-righteous tone sound familiar? That feeling that everything is terrible in this country, and it’s all our fault? It might have worked in the Victorian age, but it’s beginning to appear that it cuts no ice with the modern voter. 

Disraeli and Johnson share a gift for suggesting that everything is going to be all right

Disraeli’s approach to the Queen was quite different. He wrote her gossipy letters, he flirted, he made her Empress of India, and referred to her as his “Fairie Queen”. Delighted, she sent him bunches of primroses in return. 

The historian David Starkey once compared Boris Johnson to Disraeli, and never has the comparison seemed more apt. The prime minister went up to Hartlepool during the recent by-election campaign and radiated optimism, good cheer, and the message that life will get better. Just like the royal flattery of Disraeli, another slightly exotic outsider who greatly divided opinion, he laid it on with a trowel. 

Both men share a colourful and amusing way with words, no matter what the circumstances. Disraeli, asked on his death bed whether he’d like to see the Queen, declined, saying wearily: “She would only ask me to take a message to Albert.” He had Gladstone’s measure too, once complaining: “He is a sophisticated rhetorician who is inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity.”

Above all, both Disraeli and Johnson share a gift for suggesting that everything is going to be all right, whether addressing the Queen or the north of England. 

It is true that Gladstone formed more governments than Disraeli, but that was partly a result of longevity. The Liberal party leader formed his third ministry in 1886, by which time his rival had been dead for five years, and went on to form another government at the age of 82. 

And it’s true that Labour might be reluctant to embrace the values of a Victorian Conservative. And yet Disraeli was something of a social reformer. 

While leader of the House of Commons under Lord Derby, he pushed through the second reform act that extended the vote to members of the urban, male working class. 

The 1876 Education Act put a legal obligation on parents to make sure their children went to school. The Conspiracy & Protection of Property Act made peaceful picketing legal for the first time. The Artisans Dwellings Act gave local authorities to power to replace slums with adequate housing. 

There were acts to prevent river pollution, acts to improve conditions in factories, acts to give more power to employees and trade unions. This was a period of such social progress that Alexander Macdonald, a radical MP who had joined his father in the mines at the age of eight and later rose to become president of the Miners National Union, observed: “The Conservative party have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have done in fifty.” 

The historian Robert Blake, in his biography of Disraeli, even notes that Liberals used to criticise the Conservatives for their lavish public spending. 

Labour could start reinventing themselves by asking themselves why, if the Conservatives are so wicked, people vote for them in such large numbers. Then, if they are really serious about change they should think of the voters as Queen Victoria and follow this advice: be less Gladstone, and more Disraeli.

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