The charisma question: Disraeli and Gladstone reappraised

Dick Leonard's double biography of Disraeli and Gladstone has come at the perfect time: they cast light on our current leaders and the misunderstood charisma gap between them.

An 1880s Vanity Fair illustration of Gladstone and MPs in Parliament. Credit: Michael Nicholson/Corbis
 
The Great Rivalry: Disraeli and Gladstone
Dick Leonard
IB Tauris, 240pp, £22.50
 
Dick Leonard is a master of the brief life. Between 2006 and 2011 he published three volumes of short and vivid biographical sketches of Britain’s prime ministers, covering the 270-odd years between Robert Walpole in the early 18th century and Tony Blair in the late 20th. As befits a former assistant editor of the Economist, Leonard has the good journalist’s nose for a telling anecdote and a plain, unpompous style.
 
The prime-ministerial trilogy was deservedly successful. The biographical sketches were stylish, insightful, witty and fairminded. The whole ensemble threw unexpected light on the evolution of high politics in Britain from the narrow oligarchy of the 18th century to the febrile populism of today. Though Leonard did not say so in so many words, the age of Blair, with its sofa government and sleazy courtiers, turned out to be surprisingly like the age of Walpole.
 
Now, Leonard has ventured into new territory. He has turned his hand to a double biography of the two greatest parliamentary rivals of the 19th century and perhaps of any century: Disraeli and Gladstone. The Great Rivalry is his crowning achievement. It is written with captivating panache, packed with well-chosen quotations, full of psychological insight and, at one and the same time, readable, entertaining and illuminating.
 
Quite apart from that, Leonard has been extraordinarily lucky in his timing. Disraeli once said that the Conservative prime minister Robert Peel had found the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes. Ed Miliband’s audacious attempt to clothe the Labour Party in Disraeli’s One Nation mantle is a 21st-century equivalent of this. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are thrashing about in search of respectable ancestors to legitimise their renunciation of the social liberal tradition espoused by most of their leading figures, from David Lloyd George to Charles Kennedy. So far as I know, none of today’s Liberal Democrats has prayed Gladstone in aid but his ghost looms with quizzical menace in the background.
 
Leonard does not spend much time on Miliband’s “one-nation” Labour or the Lib Dems’ about-faces but he offers a new perspective on both. His Disraeli is superficially complex but at bottom straightforward. He was both a cynic and a romantic; a poseur and a charmer. Leonard quotes a nice passage from the memoirs of Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s mother. After sitting next to Gladstone, she wrote, “I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli I thought I was the cleverest woman.”
 
Queen Victoria fell for him with an enthusiasm bordering on the unconstitutional. But, as Leonard makes clear, there was much more to Disraeli than cynicism and charm. He had an intuitive grasp of the enduring realities of Britain’s political sociology that no other political leader of the day could match. He steered the 1867 Reform Bill through the House of Commons, increasing the size of the electorate by around 80 per cent and ensuring that in boroughs in England and Wales a majority of the electorate would belong to the working class. The Times commented that Disraeli had discerned a Conservative voter in the working man as a sculptor discerns “the angel in the marble”.
 
Working-class Toryism 150 years later still mystifies the more blinkered sections of the left but it is a fixture of our politics. The virtually unbroken Conservative ascendancy between the wars, the rapid Conservative revival after Labour’s crushing victory in 1945 and the Conservative hegemony from Margaret Thatcher’s victory in 1979 to Blair’s in 1997 all testify to its vitality. Disraeli’s angels have sustained Conservative leaders as various as Lord Salisbury, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, as well as Thatcher and John Major. But in the 1860s, as apprehensive political and intellectual elites contemplated the enormous gulf between the property-owning few and the non-propertyowning many, it needed an exceptional combination of imagination and courage to gamble on the future behaviour of angels still hidden in their marble cladding.
 
The iconic liberal, John Stuart Mill, declared publicly that the working classes were “habitual liars”; Thomas Carlyle thought the guiding principle of the post-1867 order would be equality – “any man equal to any other, Quashee Nigger to Socrates or Shakespeare, Judas Iscariot to Jesus Christ”. John Bright, the radical tribune of the people, wished to enfranchise “intelligent and honest working men”, but not those trapped in “poverty and dependence”.
 
In making what the prime minister Lord Derby called a “leap in the dark”, he and Disraeli were defying the conventional wisdom of the time. They had to face down hysterical opposition from the High Tory Lord Cranborne (the future Lord Salisbury) and defeat a wrecking amendment moved by a disgruntled and petulant Gladstone. In the bright light of hindsight, it is easy to see that the leap was bound to succeed but this was far from obvious in 1867.
 
What Disraeli thought, we shall never know. What we do know is that long before the 1867 Reform Bill was on the political agenda he had dreamed wistfully of an alliance between the aristocracy and “the people” against the soulless, money-grubbing bourgeoisie. In his early years as an MP he became the leader and guru of a tiny group of aristocratic young Tory MPs who called themselves “Young England” and saw themselves as the natural leaders of the labouring poor exploited by rapacious capitalists.
 
That neo-feudal message ran through his two great political novels, Coningsby and Sybil: or The Two Nations. The dream of an alliance between the working class and the propertied elite was a central element in his statecraft throughout his career. As Leonard points out, it has surfaced again and again in Conservative rhetoric and to some extent in Conservative practice. But the “One Nation” that Disraeli dreamed of was a Tory nation; he sought to defend the existing structure of property and status against the buffetings of social change. “One-nation” Labour in general and Miliband in particular are not his ideological or emotional descendants.
 
The same is true of Disraeli’s vision of foreign and imperial affairs. For Disraeli, as for Bismarck, international politics was about power; appeals to morality were sentimental hot air. At the Congress of Berlin that redrew the map of the Balkans following the Russo- Turkish war of 1877-78, Disraeli and Bismarck established a strong rapport. When the congress was over, Bismarck brushed aside compliments on his chairmanship with the famous phrase “the old Jew, that is the man” (Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann). A by-product of the congress was that Cyprus became a British colony, a land-grab with no conceivable moral justification. Earlier, Disraeli had acquired control of the Suez Canal for Britain and succumbed to Queen Victoria’s insistence that she should become empress of India. The hallmark of his foreign and imperial policy was a tough-minded, even cynical realpolitik, wrapped in the romantic tinsel of Young England and his own early novels. There isn’t much realpolitik or romantic tinsel about Miliband, though there was a lot of both in Blair’s incorrigible propensity for interventions in distant parts of the globe.
 
For Gladstone, realpolitik and tinsel were equally abhorrent. They added up to what he called “Beaconsfieldism”. (For his last five years as prime minister, Disraeli was Earl of Beaconsfield.) Gladstone was prepared to intervene in distant continents in defence of British interests, but he did not believe that the unprecedented power of the British empire gave it special privileges; for him, European nations great and small were morally equal. Quite apart from that, the flashy, gimcrack style of Disraeli’s realpolitik stuck in his gullet. Gladstone had started in politics as an insider – though not by birth. He was an Etonian, a graduate of Christ Church, Oxford, and began his parliamentary career as member for a pocket borough controlled by the Duke of Newcastle. He was a junior minister at 25 and a cabinet minister at 33.
 
As he aged, however, he switched from the inside to the outside track of politics. He became the “People’s William” and declared that “all the world over” he “would back the masses against the classes”. Like Lincoln, he appealed to the better angels of the crowds that flocked to hear him at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall or at the whistle-stop meetings he addressed from his campaign trains. During the celebrated Midlothian campaign of 1879, he addressed a total of 86,930 people. But he was no demagogue. He sought to educate, to persuade, to uplift, not just to enthuse. He thought Beaconsfieldism was wicked and said so in no uncertain terms. For him, its wickedness was at least as much a matter of style as of content. It devalued the currency of political debate and appealed to the worst in human nature.
 
Leonard’s treatment of the great rivalry is scrupulously fair but I can’t help feeling that he is more comfortable with Disraeli than Gladstone. One reason is that – like virtually all 20th- and 21st-century writers – he finds it hard to empathise with Gladstone’s profound religious faith. The astonishingly voluminous Gladstone diaries – an unrivalled source for his inner life and also for his political activities, his reading and his sexual temptations – were a record intended for the Almighty. Colin Matthew, who edited most of the diary, wrote that it described Gladstone’s “strivings to harness his will and his passions to the service of God”. It is hard to think of any modern politician of whom that could be said. In the most important area of Gladstone’s life, he was closer to the age of Cromwell and Milton than to ours.
 
A second reason why Leonard finds it difficult to empathise with Gladstone has to do with the role of charismatic leadership in politics. Gladstone was the first notable charismatic political leader in British history. (Lloyd George and Thatcher were the next.) Indeed, Max Weber, who invented the notion of charismatic authority, saw Gladstone as its prime exemplar.
 
Disraeli was not charismatic in the Weberian sense. He was more fun to be with than Gladstone, perhaps because he didn’t take himself so seriously. But, by definition, charismatic leaders do take themselves seriously. They think of themselves as the vehicles and instruments of a higher cause: Gladstone’s statement after receiving the Queen’s commission to form his first government that his “mission” was “to pacify Ireland” is a good example. There is something wild, uncontrolled and untethered about charismatic leadership, and this disconcerts rational moderates such as Leonard and me.
 
That said, Leonard throws a powerful shaft of light on Gladstone’s astonishing political and administrative creativity. Herein lies the most remarkable difference between him and Disraeli. Disraeli was a brilliant opportunist but he was reactive, not initiatory. That was true of his philippics against Peel’s repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, and it was equally true of his Byzantine manoeuvres during the struggles that preceded the Reform Act of 1867. Gladstone, on the other hand, did more than any other single person to cleanse the British state of nepotism and corruption and to foster the growth of a distinct and confident public realm.
 
The Ballot Act, which helped to break the political power of Irish landlords; the disestablishment of the Anglican Church of Ireland; the abolition of the purchase of commissions in the army; the Corrupt Practices Act, which struck the first serious blow against vote-buying in elections and, most of all, the creation of a professional civil service, recruited on merit, all took place under his governments. The task for the present generation, battered by 30 years of market fundamentalism that has trashed the very notion of an autonomous public realm, is to reinvent Gladstone.
 
Irish home rule, the great cause of Gladstone’s final decade in politics, and in some ways the greatest cause of his life, belongs to a much sadder category. It was his greatest failure. A bleak Tory nationalist vision of the British state defeated his generous and pluralistic quasi-federalism. The end result was the bloodstained secession of the 26 counties of southern Ireland. Now we face essentially the same question in a different guise. Does the UK become a federal state, or does it break up? It would be nice to think that we shall do better than our great-grandparents did.
 
David Marquand is an author and a former principal of Mansfield College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How to make a saint

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Europe’s last Blairite: Can Manuel Valls win the French presidency?

He first made a name for himself protesting against halal supermarkets. Now, he could be the man to take down François Hollande.

The election of François Hollande as the president of France in 2012 coincided with the high-water mark of Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party. That year, Labour posted its best local election results in 17 years, gaining 823 councillors and winning control of 32 councils in a performance that has not yet been surpassed or equalled.

Gazing across the Channel, the Milibandites were given hope. Hollande showed that a wonkish career politician could triumph over a charismatic centre-right incumbent.

The UK’s shattered Blairites looked to a different star rising in French politics: Manuel Valls. At the time of Hollande’s victory, Valls was the mayor of Évry, a small suburb of Paris, where he made a name for himself by campaigning against halal supermarkets.

His father, Xavier, was a Spanish painter and his mother, Luisangela, was Swiss-Italian. They met and married in Paris, and Valls was born in Barcelona while the couple were on holiday.

In 2009 Valls urged the Parti Socialiste (PS) to drop the adjective “socialist” from its name, and he ran for the presidential nomination two years later on what he described as a Blairiste platform. This included scrapping the 35-hour working week, which hardly applies outside of big business and the public sector but carries symbolic weight for the French left. Valls’s programme found few supporters and he came fifth in a field of six, with just 6 per cent of the vote.

Yet this was enough to earn him the post of interior minister under Hollande. While Valls’s boss quickly fell from favour – within six months Hollande’s approval ratings had dropped to 36 per cent, thanks to a budget that combined tax rises with deep spending cuts – his own popularity soared.

He may have run as an heir to Blair but his popularity in France benefited from a series of remarks that were closer in tone to Ukip’s Nigel Farage. When he said that most Romany gypsies should be sent “back to the borders”, he was condemned by both his activists and Amnesty International. Yet it also boosted his approval ratings.

One of the facets of French politics that reliably confuse outsiders is how anti-Islamic sentiment is common across the left-right divide. Direct comparisons with the ideological terrain of Westminster politics are often unhelpful. For instance, Valls supported the attempt to ban the burkini, saying in August, “Marianne [the French symbol] has a naked breast because she is feeding the people! She is not veiled, because she is free! That is the republic!”

By the spring of 2014, he was still frequently topping the charts – at least in terms of personal appeal. A survey for French Elle found that 20 per cent of women would like to have “a torrid affair” with the lantern-jawed minister, something that pleased his second wife, Anne Gravoin, who pronounced herself “delighted” with the poll. (She married Valls in 2010. He also has four children by his first wife, Nathalie Soulié.)

Yet it was a chilly time for the French left, which was sharply repudiated in municipal elections, losing 155 towns. Hollande sacked his incumbent prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and appointed Valls in his place. He hoped, perhaps, that some of Valls’s popularity would rub off on to him.

And perhaps Valls, a student of “Third Way” politics, hoped that he could emulate the success of Bill Clinton, who turned sharply to the right following Democratic losses in the US 1994 midterm elections and won a great victory in 1996. Under Valls’s premiership, Hollande’s administration swung right, implementing tough policies on law and order and pursuing supply-side reforms in an attempt to revive the French economy. Neither the economic recovery, nor the great victory, emerged.

With the date of the next presidential election set for 2017, Hollande was in trouble. His approval ratings were terrible and he faced a challenge from his former minister Arnaud Montebourg, who resigned from the government over its rightward turn in 2014.

Then, on 27 November, Prime Minister Valls suggested in an interview that he would challenge the incumbent president in the PS primary. After this, Hollande knew that his chances of victory were almost non-existent.

On 1 December, Hollande became the first incumbent French president ever to announce that he would not run for a second term, leaving Valls free to announce his bid. He duly stood down as prime minister on 5 December.

Under the French system, unless a single candidate can secure more than half of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, the top two candidates face a run-off. The current polls rate Marine Le Pen of the Front National as the favourite to win the first round, but she is expected to lose the second.

Few expect a PS candidate to make the run-off. So Hollande’s decision to drop out of his party’s primary turns that contest into an internal struggle for dominance rather than a choice of potential leader for France. The deeper question is: who will rebuild the party from the wreckage?

So although Valls has the highest international profile of the left’s candidates, no one should rule out a repeat of his crushing defeat in 2011.

He once hoped to strike a Blairite bargain with the left: victory in exchange for heresy. Because of the wasting effect of his years in Hollande’s government, however, he now offers only heresy. It would not be a surprise if the Socialists preferred the purity of Arnaud Montebourg. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump