An 1880s Vanity Fair illustration of Gladstone and MPs in Parliament. Credit: Michael Nicholson/Corbis
The Great Rivalry: Disraeli and Gladstone
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