The Sayings of Disraeli edited by Robert Blake, with a foreword by Alistair Lexden
Anyone who finds Boris Johnson frivolous, slippery, unprincipled and unprofessional is likely to take the same view of Benjamin Disraeli.
Simon Heffer has just demonstrated the truth of this dictum by writing pieces in successive issues of The Critic in which he inveighs first against Disraeli, “liar, charlatan, placeman, toady and cynic”, and then against Johnson, described as, among other things, “lazy, selfish in the extreme and capable of a breathtaking lack of professionalism”.
But for those of us who take a less Gladstonian view of politics, Disraeli is the most wonderful anti-prig in English history.
And he casts much light on the present leader of the Conservative Party. I don’t mean to suggest he explains Johnson. Disraeli didn’t explain himself. He remained a mystery, a one-off, an enigma.
But scattered through his speeches and books is a greater profusion of brilliant observations on life, love, politics, religion and various other aspects of the human condition than any other of our 55 Prime Ministers has left us.
Where to start appreciating the genius of Disraeli? The conventional answer has for half a century been that one should read Robert Blake’s biography, which runs to 766 pages of text, and so one should.
But because it is long, it cannot do justice to Disraeli’s epigrammatic quality. For that, it is best to turn to a later and slighter work, The Sayings of Disraeli, selected by Blake and first published in 1992.
This slim volume contains, for its reissue, a new, two-page foreword by Alistair Lexden, followed by Blake’s original four-page introduction, and then about 50 pages, each bearing about eight of Disraeli’s sayings, so around 400 in all.
The second edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations carries 130 quotations by Disraeli to 11 by Gladstone, 12 by Pitt the Elder, 16 by Canning, 26 by Wellington and 26 by Churchill, with no one else getting into double figures – Melbourne, surprisingly, manages only nine, Pitt the Younger eight, Lloyd George two and Salisbury one (“By office boys for office boys”, his remark about The Daily Mail).
As Blake remarks in his introduction,
“Churchill and Disraeli stand out in the long line of occupants of 10 Downing Street as the only two who could be described as professional authors.”
Johnson is the third Prime Minister to have earned his living by his pen. He is often compared, not very fruitfully, with Churchill, about whom he has written a book.
The more illuminating comparison is with Disraeli. There are differences, of course. Disraeli’s eventual triumph was in a different league to anything yet achieved by Johnson. As Lexden points out, Disraeli
“is the only British statesman to have inspired a posthumous cult. In the 30 years after his death, some two million votaries worshipped his name and re-read his words endlessly as members of over 2,000 branches of the Primrose League, whose symbol was believed (almost certainly wrongly) to have been his favourite flower.”
And Disraeli began as more of an outsider than Johnson, who as he himself has written was stuffed “to the gills with the finest education England can provide”, at Ashdown House Preparatory School, where he did Greek before breakfast, and as a scholar of Eton and of Balliol College, Oxford.
Every Prime Minister in the 19th century attended a famous school, usually Eton or Harrow, except for Disraeli, who went to Higham Hall School, Walthamstow.
Nor did he attend either Oxford or Cambridge, an omission which in that century he shares only with Wellington. But Wellington was born into the ruling class, while Disraeli (who lived from 1804-81 and served as Prime Minister in 1868 and from 1874-80) was born a Jew, at a time when Jews could not even become MPs, a restriction which remained in force until 1858.
Luckily for Disraeli, at the age of 12 he was baptised into the Church of England, after his father quarrelled with Bevis Marks Synagogue. But Disraeli proceeded, as a very young man, to make immense difficulties for himself, by speculating in South American mining shares and launching a newspaper to compete with The Times.
The shares collapsed, as did the newspaper, and for the rest of his life Disraeli was mired in debt. In great haste, he tried to recoup his fortunes by writing a novel in which he enraged his fellow investors by making fun of them.
This first of his 14 novels was ridiculed by the critics, was looked back on even by himself with embarrassment, and he proceeded to have a nervous breakdown.
All in all, Disraeli’s early life was more scandalous than Johnson’s, and left him more distrusted. He was 32 when at the fifth attempt he got into the Commons, 63 by the time he “climbed to the top of the greasy pole”, as he described it, 69 when he came back in with a majority, and he served a total of a little under seven years as Prime Minister.
It took him so long to get to the top because in 1846 he led the rebellion by Tory backwoodsmen which destroyed the career of Sir Robert Peel, and almost destroyed the Conservative Party.
Opening the book under review at random, I came across this on page 40:
“Sir Robert Peel had a great deficiency; he was without imagination. Wanting imagination he lacked prescience… His judgement was faultless provided he had not to deal with the future.”
This same accusation can be made against many of the opponents of Brexit. They clung to fixed positions, and lacked the imagination to see how things might move in the near future.
Johnson possesses that imagination. He has too the impudence, or if one prefers the shamelessness, which was so marked a feature of Disraeli’s character.
Disraeli took risks which to sober, sensible, steady careerists looked like madness. “Success is the child of Audacity,” as he put it one of his early novels. And here is Disraeli in his diary in 1833, several years before he became an MP:
“My mind is a revolutionary mind. It is a continental mind. I am only great in action. If ever I am placed in a truly eminent position I can prove this.”
Of Johnson too it might be said that he has “a revolutionary mind”, and even more so of his adviser, Dominic Cummings. They delight in placing the bomb, or at least the banana skin, where some pompous member of the Establishment is about to tread.
Such actions enrage the pompous, but delight many voters. Johnson’s affinity with the wider public, so baffling to his critics, springs from a shared irreverence.
It is also an expression of gratitude for the entertainment he brings by flouting the morality which is one of the principal ways by which the pious section of the upper middle class seeks to keep the masses in order.
Disraeli’s last, unfinished novel, was about Falconet, a character based on Gladstone:
“Joseph Toplady Falconet was essentially a prig, and among prigs there is a freemasonry that never fails. All the prigs spoke of him as the coming man.”
What we now term political correctness used more often to be called priggishness, and Johnson, like Disraeli, is known to be against it.
Because Disraeli was not a moralist, he was able to be a realist. When the Turks were reported to be massacring Christians in the Balkans, Gladstone had a tremendous fit of moral indignation, but Disraeli remained calm
In 1878, he went to the Congress of Berlin to settle the trouble, was the celebrity of the conference, and got on well with Bismarck, who was of similarly unsentimental disposition.
He returned amid scenes of wild enthusiasm to London, where he informed a grateful nation that he had obtained “peace with honour”, and also the island of Cyprus.
A lot of the work to prepare for the conference, and make it a success, had been done by Lord Salisbury, who in 1867, infuriated by Disraeli’s unscrupulous tactics during the passing of of the Second Reform Bill, had resigned from the Cabinet and vowed never again to serve under that “adventurer” who was “without principles or honour”.
Yet after winning the election of 1874, Disraeli persuaded Salisbury to return to the Cabinet, and to work in close harness with him. Such magnanimity is essential if one is to pick the best team. It was seen when Johnson recruited Michael Gove.
Disraeli knew as he got nearer the top that he had to tone things down, dress in a more sober manner and strike a more serious tone:
“The British People being subject to fogs and possessing a powerful Middle Class require grave statesmen.”
But irony played constantly over his features. One suspects that just now, he would be a staunch supporter of the National Health Service, and would be fertile in expedients to show working-class former Labour voters that he, rather than Sir Keir Starmer, is the true defender of their interests and of national greatness.
It was a pleasure to be reminded, in this book, of the dialogue in Coningsby, one of Disraeli’s best novels, between two political fixers, Mr Tadpole and Mr Taper. Tadpole declares that “what the country requires is a sound Conservative government”.
“‘A sound Conservative government,’ said Taper musingly. ‘I understand: Tory men and Whig measures.'”
If one had to hazard a guess, that is the kind of Conservative government Johnson is going to provide.