7 October 2012

Disraeli reminds me of who?

In the Daily Mail on 6 October, the historian Dominic Sandbrook set out to explain how inappropriate it was for Ed Miliband in his Labour Party Conference speech to attempt to annex Disraeli and his ‘One nation’. The Mail subeditors, rarely inclined to terseness, headlined the piece Red Ed’s One Nation hero was a vacuous, egotistical hypocrite who sent British soldiers to die needlessly in foreign wars. (Remind you of anyone?). This was presumably intended to point the reader in the direction of Tony Blair. However Sandbrook had a different target, offering a scathing rejection of Disraeli the man and of ‘One Nation’ and obviously admiring his rival, Gladstone:
… the One Nation slogan is merely an excuse for woolly, weedy, do-nothing politics. As the Labour firebrand Michael Foot once sagely remarked, if you sit in the middle of the road long enough, eventually you will be run over. So if I were David Cameron next week, I would not bother trying to reclaim Disraeli. Instead, I would proclaim my attachment to a far greater Victorian politician: the Liberal statesman William Gladstone. Given that he is already in bed with the Lib Dems, Mr Cameron might shudder at the thought of invoking a Liberal hero. But he would be in good company: no less a figure than Mrs Thatcher, after all, once told her conference that ‘if Mr Gladstone were alive today he would apply to join the Conservative Party’. Although Gladstone and Disraeli are forever associated in the public imagination, they could hardly have been more different. Disraeli was funnier, more flamboyant and more dashing. But on almost every count that actually matters, Gladstone was far superior. He was a more convinced reformer, a more imaginative chancellor and a dedicated public servant who genuinely cared about the plight of the poor.
On the way to this conclusion Disraeli’s shortcomings were made clear:
He was a brilliant speaker, an accomplished novelist and a flamboyant showman.  
At bottom, Benjamin Disraeli was interested only in Benjamin Disraeli. His entire political career was devoted to his own advancement; it is not for nothing that he famously boasted of having climbed ‘to the top of the greasy pole’.  
As a young man in the 1830s, he tried to make his name as a novelist. But when money and fame were slow to materialise, he decided on politics instead.  
It was entirely typical of his cynical style, though, that once the Corn Laws had bitten the dust, he made no effort to restore them. Throughout his career, he saw principle as subordinate to tactical self-interest.  
Indeed, it is telling that like those other shameless mountebanks David Lloyd George and Tony Blair, Disraeli loved the glamour and intrigue of military adventures abroad.  
It was little wonder his critics thought Disraeli represented all that was worst about imperialism. But the truth was that, in the absence of any concrete policies or principles, he instinctively fell back on the basest jingoism. In 1876, he even conferred on Queen Victoria the title of Empress of India, to the outrage of commentators who objected that such tawdry baubles were basically un-British. It was pure Disraeli: eye-catching, vainglorious, utterly without shame and ultimately demeaning to all concerned. For Professor Parry [Disraeli’s most recent biographer, the eminent Cambridge historian Jon Parry], Disraeli’s fundamental quality was his ‘astonishing egotism’.  
And his personal life, which was full of affairs, fell a long way short of Ed Miliband’s conspicuous uxoriousness. When Disraeli died in 1881, Gladstone nicely summed him up as ‘all show and no substance’.
The politician this description brought into my mind certainly wasn’t Ed Miliband, or David Cameron, or Tony Blair. I'm afraid it was Boris Johnson!

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