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

MARK GERSON
Show Hide image

It's unfashionable to call someone a "genius" – but William Empson was one

Father than denying the contradictoriness of being human, Empson revelled in it, as The Face of Buddha reveals.

William Empson was a genius. Describing anyone in this way is distinctly unfashionable nowadays, because it suggests a level of achievement to which most of humanity cannot aspire. There is nothing you can do to acquire genius. Either you have it or, like the rest of us, you don’t – a state of affairs that cannot be remedied. The very idea smacks of elitism, one of the worst sins in the contemporary moral lexicon. But if talk of genius has come close to being banned in polite society, it is hard to know how else to describe Empson’s astonishing originality of mind.

One of the most influential 20th-century literary critics and the author of two seminal books on language, he was extremely receptive to new thinking and at the same time combative in defending his views. He was a poet of the first rank, whose spare and often cryptic verse was immediately understood and admired by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Incomparably more thoughtful than anything produced by the dull atheist prophets of our own day, his book Milton’s God (1961), in which he compares the Christian God to a commandant at Belsen, must be one of the fiercest assaults on monotheism ever published. And as a socialist who revered the British monarchy, he had a political outlook that was refreshingly non-standard.

Empson’s originality was not confined to his writing. He led a highly adventurous life. Expelled from his research fellowship and his name deleted from the records of his Cambridge college in 1929 when one of the porters found condoms in his rooms, he lost any prospect of a position in British academic life. For a time, he considered becoming a journalist or a civil servant. Instead his tutor I A Richards encouraged him to apply for posts in east Asia, and in 1931 he took up a position at a teacher training college in Japan. For some years he taught in China – mostly from memory, owing to a lack of books, and sleeping on a blackboard when his university was forced to move to Kunming during the Japanese siege of Beijing. By the late Thirties he was well known in London literary circles (written when he was only 22, his best-known book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, was published in 1930 and a collection of poems appeared in 1934) but just scraping a living from reviewing and a small private income. During the Second World War he worked at the BBC alongside George Orwell and Louis MacNeice.

He returned to China in 1947 to teach in Beijing, living through the stormy years just before and after Mao came to power and leaving only when the regime’s ideological demands became intolerably repressive. He continued his academic career, first at Kenyon College in Ohio, briefly at Gresham College in London, and finally at the University of Sheffield, where he was appointed head of the English department in 1953 and remained until his retirement in 1972, but always disdained academic jargon, writing in a light, glancing, conversational style.

Inordinately fond of drink and famously bohemian in appearance (T S Eliot, who admired his mind and enjoyed his company, commented on Empson’s scruffiness), he lived in a state of eccentric disorder that the poet Robert Lowell described as having “a weird, sordid nobility”. He was actively bisexual, marrying the South African-born sculptor Hetta Crouse, equally ­free-spirited, and with whom he enjoyed an open relationship that was sometimes turbulent yet never without affection. His later years were less eventful, though rarely free from controversy. In 1979 he was knighted, and awarded an honorary fellowship by the college that half a century earlier had struck his name from the books. He died in 1984.

The publishing history of this book is as extraordinary as the work itself. “The real story of The Face of the Buddha,” the cultural historian Rupert Arrowsmith writes in his richly learned introduction, “began in the ancient Japanese city of Nara, where, in the spring of 1932, the beauty of a particular set of Japanese sculptures struck Empson with revelatory force.” He was “bowled over” by three statues, including the Kudara Kannon, a 7th-century piece in the Horyuji temple representing the Bodhisattva of Mercy, which fascinated him because the left and right profiles of the statue seemed to have asymmetrical expressions: “The puzzlement and good humour of the face are all on the left, also the maternity and the rueful but amiable smile. The right is the divinity; a birdlike innocence and wakefulness; unchanging in irony, unresting in good works; not interested in humanity, or for that matter in itself . . . a wonderfully subtle and tender work.” Gripped by what the art historian Partha Mitter describes as a “magnificent obsession”, Empson travelled far and wide in the years that followed, visiting south-east Asia, China, Ceylon, Burma and India and ending up in the Ajanta caves, the fountainhead of Mahayana Buddhist art. First begun in Japan in 1932, The Face of the Buddha was written and repeatedly revised during these wanderings.

Empson made no copy of the manuscript and in a succession of mishaps it was lost for nearly 60 years. The story of its disappearance is resonant of the boozy Fitzrovia portrayed in Anthony Powell’s novels. On leaving for his foreign travels in 1947, Empson gave the manuscript to John Davenport, a family friend and literary critic, for safekeeping. The hard-drinking Davenport mislaid it and in 1952 told Empson he had left it in a taxi. Davenport’s memory was befuddled. He had in fact given the text to the Tamil poet and editor M J T Tambimuttu, who must have shelved it among the piles of books that filled the rat-infested flat vividly described in the memoirs of Julian Maclaren-Ross. When Tambimuttu retur­ned to Ceylon in 1949 he passed on Empson’s manuscript to Richard March, a fellow editor of Poetry London, which ­Tambimuttu had founded. March died soon afterwards and his papers mouldered in obscurity until 2003, when they were acquired by the British Museum. Two years later an enterprising curator at the museum, Jamie Anderson, spotted the manuscript and informed the author’s descendants of its rediscovery. Now Oxford University Press has brought out this beautifully illustrated volume, which will be of intense interest not only to devotees of Empson but to anyone interested in culture and religion.

Although a fragment of his analysis appeared in the article “Buddhas with double faces”, published in the Listener in 1936 and reprinted in the present volume, it is only now that we can fully appreciate Empson’s insight into Buddhist art. His deep interest in Buddhism was clear throughout his life. From the indispensable edition of his Complete Poems (Allen Lane, 2000) edited and annotated by his biographer John Haffenden, we learn that, while working in the Far Eastern department of the BBC, Empson wrote the outline of a ballet, The Elephant and the Birds, based on a story from Buddhist scriptures about Gautama in his incarnation as an elephant. His enduring fascination with the Buddha is evident in “The Fire Sermon”, a personal translation of the Buddha’s celebrated speech on the need to turn away from sensuous passions, which Empson used as the epigraph in successive editions of the collected poems. (A different translation is cited in the notes accompanying Eliot’s Waste Land, the longest section of which is also titled “The Fire Sermon”.)

Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.

What Empson admired in Buddhist art was its ability to create an equilibrium from antagonistic human impulses. Writing here about Khmer art, he observes that cobras at Angkor are shown protecting the seated Buddha with their raised hoods. He goes on to speculate that the many-headed cobra is a metaphor for one of the Buddha’s canonical gestures – the raised hand with the palm forward, which means “do not fear”:

It has almost the same shape. To be sure, I have never had to do with a cobra, and perhaps after practical experience the paradox would seem an excessively monstrous one. But the high religions are devoted to contradictions of this sort . . . and the whole point of the snake is that the god has domesticated him as a protector.

It was this combination of opposite qual­ities that attracted Empson. “A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads comes from combining things that seem incompatible,” he writes, “especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper.” Art of this kind was not only beautiful, but also ethically valuable, because it was truer to human life. “The chief novelty of this Far Eastern Buddhist sculpture is the use of asymmetry to make the faces more human.”

Using 20th-century examples that illustrate such asymmetry, Empson elaborates in his Listener article:

It seems to be true that the marks of a person’s active experience tend to be stronger on the right, so that the left shows more of his inherent endowment or of the more passive experiences which have not involved the wilful use of facial muscles. All that is assumed here is that the muscles on the right generally respond more readily to the will and that the effects of old experiences pile up. The photograph of Mr Churchill will be enough to show that there is sometimes a contrast of this sort though it seems that in Baudelaire, who led a very different kind of life, the contrast was the other way round. In Mr Churchill the administrator is on the right, and on the left (by which of course I mean the left of the person or statue, which is on your right as you look) are the petulance, the romanticism, the gloomy moral strength and the range of imaginative power.

With such a prolific mind as Empson’s, it is risky to identify any ruling theme, but he returns repeatedly in his writings to the thought that the creativity of art and language comes from their irreducible open-endedness and susceptibility to conflicting interpretations. As he wrote in Seven Types of Ambiguity, “Good poetry is usually written from a background of conflict.” Rather than being an imperfection that must be overcome for the sake of clarity, ambiguity makes language inexhaustibly rich. In The Structure of Complex Words (1948) he showed how even the most straightforward-looking terms were “compacted with doctrines” that left their meaning equivocal. There was no ultimate simplicity concealed by the opacity of language. Thinking and speaking invoked deep structures of meaning which could be made more intelligible. But these structures could not be contained in any single body of ideas. Wittgenstein’s early ambition of reducing language to elem­entary propositions stating simple facts was impossible in principle. Inherently plural in meaning, words enabled different ways of seeing the world.

Empson’s message was not merely intellectual but, once again, ethical. “It may be,” he wrote in Complex Words, “that the human mind can recognise actually in­commensurable values, and that the chief human value is to stand up between them.” The image of the Buddha that he discovered in Nara embodied this incommensurability. Rather than trying to smooth out these clashing values into an oppressive ideal of perfection, as Christianity had done, the Buddhist image fused their conflicts into a paradoxical whole. Instead of erecting a hierarchy of better and worse attitudes in the manner of the “neo-Christians”, as Empson described the pious humanists of his day, the asymmetrical face of the Buddha showed how discordant emotions could be reconciled.

Whether Empson’s account of asymmetry can be anything like a universal theory is doubtful. In support of his theory he cited Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals to show that human emotions were expressed in similar ways in different cultures, and invoked speculation by contemporary psychologists on the contrasting functions of the right and left sides of the brain. But the scientific pretensions of Empson’s observations are less important than the spirit in which he made them. Entering into an initially alien form of art, he found a point of balance between values and emotions whose conflicts are humanly universal. Rather than denying the contradictoriness of the human mind and heart, he gloried in it.

It takes genius to grasp the ambiguities of art and language and to use them as Empson did. But if we can’t emulate his astonishing fertility of mind, we can learn from his insights. Both in his life and in his work he resisted the lure of harmony, which offers to mitigate conflicts of value at the price of simplifying and impoverishing the human world. Instead, Empson searched for value in the ambiguities of life. He found what he was looking for in the double faces of the Buddha described in this lost masterpiece.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

The Face of Buddha by William Epson, edited by Rupert Arrowsmith with a preface by Partha Mitter, is published by Oxford University Press (224pp, £30)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain