There is something lubriciously intriguing about the biography of a Victorian statesman subtitled “The Two Lives”. Given the current fashion among biographers for closet-rattling in search of hidden skeletons, one might imagine the two lives to be anatomised were a hypocritically virtuous public existence and a sybaritically scandalous private one — a portrait of Benjamin Disraeli in the style of The Picture of Dorian Gray. But, happily, Douglas Hurd and Edward Young are better men — and more original historians — than to be lured into shallow scandal-hunting. They pass over the question of Disraeli’s close male friendships in two sensible pages. They are — quite properly — much more interested in a genuine mystery at the heart of the whole Disraeli story. How can a politician with so little by way of real personal achievement have come to assume such iconic status?
That Disraeli still bewitches cannot be in doubt. He is invoked by Ed Miliband as a critic of unfettered capitalism; he is fêted by Tories as the first compassionate conservative; he is the politician with the most numerous memorable utterances attributed to him in the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. He has even been deployed as a precedent from the past to explain the world-historical significance of the present Mayor of London.
But while Disraeli hovers over the political battlefield as an ancestral spirit, to be enlisted by first one protagonist and then another, his actual administrative and legislative achievements are as insubstantial as a ghost’s footprint. He only ever won a single parliamentary majority in his career — in striking contrast to the formidable record of his rival Gladstone, who won four. While Disraeli’s 1874-80 government brought forward significant social reforms — such as the Artisans’ Dwellings and Public Health Acts — Disraeli had next to nothing to do with them and occasionally fell asleep while such domestic matters were discussed in Cabinet. There were plenty more opportunities for slumber when he joined the Lords as Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876.
He enjoyed a reputation as a great foreign policy stylist, even winning the admiration of the greatest practitioner of his day — Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Bismarck said of him, approvingly but in the Prussian Junker style: “Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann.” But stylist was really all he was. The real heavy lifting at Berlin was executed by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury, who knew it would be dangerous to have Disraeli dabble too much in the fiendishly complex Eastern Question. Salisbury commented acidly: “Lord Beaconsfield can’t negotiate, he has never seen a map of Asia Minor.” And while Salisbury left a clear legacy of substantial interventions in the field of foreign policy, Disraeli’s own actions scarcely altered Europe’s balance of power.
Hurd and Young are masterful in delineating the limited scale of Disraeli’s actual achievements — they do so with dry wit, an ear and eye for telling detail and an elegant, economical, prose style. Yet they are even better when it comes to explaining Disraeli’s one great real — and lasting — triumph, the second life of the subtitle.
Disraeli succeeded — and succeeds still — in his construction of a mythic life-for himself, his party and his nation. His gifts as a novelist were of invention and romance rather than plot or prose style. And his greatest romantic invention was himself — a British Moses found among the parliamentary bulrushes, his Jewishness a precious gift, his leadership a great adventure, his story to be remembered for all time.
Disraeli had a talent — more properly, a genius — for enchantment. He invested a Tory party of dullard squires and rural reactionaries with the magic of a great chivalric crusade for a gentler, nobler, more unified kingdom. He refashioned Britain’s Empire in such a way that a series of acts of commercial positioning became a civilising mission to rank with the greatest achievements of Greece and Rome. He cast a spell — or curse — on his opponents, so that in the eyes of the public the genuinely noble, idealistic and conscientious Gladstone became a stiff and sanctimonious prig.
While enchantments fade — and Disraeli’s constructs, like Klingsor’s castle, disappeared when the wizard no longer wove his magic — the memory of what Disraeli conjured up still captivates. He gave all who study and practise politics a vivid lesson in how to move men’s and women’s hearts, through dash, romance and — above all — courage.
He does not leave behind anything as prosaic as a coherent ideology. As Hurd and Young write, beautifully, of his ideas: “They were like a collection of silver, proudly displayed, constantly polished, often added to, but only occasionally used in the course of daily life.” But what he does bequeath to us all is a vision of politics as something nobler than the manufacture of manifesto pledges, reasoned amendments and dull compromises. It can be a crusade — with men and women of all kinds and classes putting aside narrow calculations of advantage in the interests of committing themselves to a struggle that history will remember as a fight for grace, nobility and virtue.