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

SIPA PRESS/REX
Show Hide image

"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge