Charismatic charlatan

Benjamin Disraeli could change his mind without turning a hair

Sacred Cows

Benjamin Disraeli was a liar, charlatan, placeman, toady and cynic. As such he created a template for some in the political class of contemporary Britain, which in turn has helped create the awesome levels of disdain the public has for its politicians.

Sadly, those familiar with his name today associate him with something else — so-called “one nation” conservatism, which as outlined in his prolix and breathless novels Sybil and Coningsby, he envisaged as a form of egregious paternalism; and which some politicians, little understanding its origins or what passes for its philosophy, use as a metaphor for not putting anyone in the electorate’s nose out of joint.

Of course, neither this country nor any other can ever be governed without disobliging somebody; but Disraeli coined the idea within half a century of the French Revolution, when people in the class to which he aspired lived in fear of a social earthquake. That is not how things are today, and the phrase has become largely meaningless.

Disraeli had ideas above his means long before entering parliament. He began with hardly any money, and then lost a small fortune in a business venture in the 1820s. It plunged him into debt from which he would not extricate himself until the late 1840s. To shore himself up he wrote novels.

The first, Vivian Grey (1827), was like porn for the middle classes — overflowing with oleaginous descriptions of life among the aristocratic and upper classes with whom he liked to ingratiate himself. This, and his other early novels, were distinguished by a hackneyed writing style, shallowness of thought, and an almost magnetic attachment to cliché.

His amateurish approach to fiction mirrored his amateurish approach to politics. Initially he thought he was a Tory because he hated Whigs, and so stood as a Radical in both the 1832 elections; he lost. He befriended some Tories and wrote propaganda for them, which helped him court popularity. He managed to win a seat at Maidstone in 1837 but still had to churn out hackwritten novels to make money; but his life took a turn for the better in 1839 when he married — it was universally assumed for money, including by his bride — a well-to-do widow 12 years his senior.

From the start his political career was marked by serious misjudgments. In his maiden speech he savaged Daniel O’Connell, Ireland’s leading statesman, and was howled down by O’Connell’s supporters. For months after this he kept his head down, but decided the best political strategy was to advocate common cause between his beloved aristocracy, which he had romanticised so much in his novels that he had come to blur the distinction between reality and fantasy, and the benighted working class of early Victorian England, which he romanticised even more. The common cause was against the new middle class, from which Disraeli himself had come — hypocrisy was but one of his minor faults — and which he failed to see would provide the great economic engine that over the next few decades would transform Britain.

These matters came to a head in the great battle to repeal the Corn Laws. Disraeli had supported Peel from the start of his administration in 1841, but when Peel (assisted in this direction by Gladstone, then a Tory and serving under him as president of the Board of Trade) decided that tariffs applied to imported cereals had to go, Disraeli revolted. It is important to understand why, because it demonstrates key facets of his character.

The tariffs began after the Napoleonic wars to secure the incomes of the Tory landed interest. By stopping cheaper imported cereals, the price of British ones was kept artificially high.

Disraeli supported this price-fixing ostensibly because it fulfilled his fantasy about perpetuating a rich aristocracy whose wealth could employ, or look after, a forelock-tugging poor in the finest feudal fashion. The last thing the hypocrite in Disraeli wanted was for those further down the food chain than him to enjoy the fruits of social mobility, but to know, and to stay in, their place.

Disraeli never apologised for his blinkered, ignorant and potentially lethal view of the Corn Laws

but disraeli had another interest in opposing repeal. Still, despite his marriage, short of the funds needed to live in the station to which he aspired, he had sought a rich patron; and that was the Bentinck family, relations of the Duke of Portland.

Had Disraeli possessed the capacity to think for himself on the matter (he never exhibited it), and recognised the iniquity of stuffing the pockets of Tory peers and landed gentry at the expense of the poor, he could only have supported Peel at the expense of losing his own financial lifeline. So it was never an option.

Repealing the Corn Laws was not about abandoning one ideology in order to adopt another; if it had been then Disraeli might have been forgiven for taking the view he did. The reason Gladstone urged Peel to fight for repeal in the teeth of the Tory interest was that, as the potato blight took hold in Ireland, millions of Irish might starve unless the price of bread fell; and the easiest way to cut the price of bread was to allow cheap imports of cereals. Peel succeeded, but the Tory party soon dispatched him. Disraeli rejoiced in his defeat, which amply reflects his moral foundations.

Disraeli never apologised for his blinkered, ignorant and potentially lethal view of the Corn Laws; but it is notable that none of the Tory administrations he served in over the next 35 years, including the two he led, ever tried to bring them back. The extent of his error — an error, never forget, that was not the product of sincerely-held principles but of unthinking self-interest — was not demonstrated purely by the survival of those Irish people who chose not to emigrate to America and Australia.

It was also proved by the 27 years of non-stop growth that followed the repeal he so adamantly opposed. For once it became clear that free trade in foodstuffs was expanding prosperity, the Whig/Liberal administration of Lord John Russell that succeeded Peel’s encouraged free trade across the board.

Perhaps it is a measure of Disraeli’s supposed brilliance as a politician that he could fight earnestly for causes that he felt were essential and then change his mind without turning a hair. The leading example of this was the battle over reform in the 1860s. The administration of Lord Russell (as he had by then become) tried to extend the franchise, but was defeated in the Commons, where Gladstone led the government forces. Having joined with some Liberal reactionaries to defeat the measure, the Tories, led by Disraeli in the Commons, quickly realised as rioting swept Britain that the country could become ungovernable. So Disraeli ended up changing his own mind about reform and urging the prime minister, Lord Derby, to accept a measure of reform that went some way beyond what the Liberals had been proposing, and which Disraeli had been instrumental in defeating. The ruse paid off, in that the wave of public unrest was stilled; but Disraeli led his party to defeat the following year.

He became prime minister for the second time in 1874 and, according to the memoir of Richard Cross, his gifted home secretary, Disraeli met his cabinet for the first time and asked them for ideas about what the new government should do; he was short of his own.

He greatly enjoyed ingratiating himself with Queen Victoria and any other royal personage he encountered — as he told Matthew Arnold, the only way to deal with royalty was to flatter them, and when doing that to “lay it on with a trowel”. Edward VII’s archive at Windsor contains letters Beaconsfield (as Disraeli had become) wrote him from the Congress of Berlin; their oiliness is nauseating. The Congress is often described as Disraeli’s crowning triumph; its settlement helped cause the Great War 36 years later.

Those Tories of inadequate critical faculty who read Sybil and Coningsby 180 years later, and think the romantic idea of quasi-feudal conservatism they advocate is some sort of blueprint for contemporary politics, delude themselves as much about potential policy as they do about questions of literary merit. For them, Disraeli, unquestioned, is on a pedestal. It is time he was knocked off.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover