What makes a great politician?
Douglas Hurd and Edward Young
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2013 £20
Friends will know of my mild obsession with post second world ward political biographies and autobiographies. They are a strange and mildly unsatisfying genre with few jewels on the shelves. It is difficult to write a life that is completely honest and that seems especially to be the case with politicians.
I have long been an admirer of Hurd who adds another volume to his list ( his memoirs are interesting but a little high handed about some events – but his biography of Peel is a great book).
Amazon offered me this volume at a reasonable price and it was a good read on holiday. Hurd turns his attention to the myths that have grown up around Disraeli – a politician who achieved fame for what he said, not for what he did.
You may have had the experience of meeting someone in public life and wondering how on earth they have managed to achieve so much. This is the underlying thesis in this book. For example, Disraeli has been credited with passing the Second Reform Act of 1867, giving the vote to the working man in the boroughs, because he believed in “Tory Democracy”. Not so, write the authors. He never used the phrase, nor did he think democracy was a good thing. It is often said that Disraeli was the author of Tory social reform, but this too turns out to be a myth. Social legislation was introduced on his watch as Prime Minister, but he took little interest, falling asleep in Cabinet when matters such as working-class housing were discussed.
The legend of Disraeli was created largely by the Conservative party, which needed a hero on whom to pin its ideas about making the party electable in a democracy. The process began with the Primrose League, a party organisation which was created in Disraeli’s memory after Queen Victoria sent a bunch of primroses to his funeral inscribed “his favourite flower” (the wording was ambivalent – some thought she was referring to Albert and not to Disraeli at all).
There is some understandable admiration for the man and his achievements.For Disraeli to have climbed to the top of the greasy pole was an extraordinary feat. The son of a wealthy Jewish man of letters, Disraeli was baptised aged 12 when his father broke with the synagogue. As a young man, Disraeli played the dandy, wearing outlandish clothes and dyed black curls, running up vast debts and claiming that the Jews were the master race.
The transition came in his forties. “I get duller every day,” sighed Disraeli. He ceased to write fiction. Instead, he poured his creativity into politics. This is not to say that he wanted to make the world a better place through reforming legislation, as Peel or Gladstone did. He was not a man of compassion. Disraeli, ever the social climber, filled his notebooks with lists of the famous people he had met.
The key to Disraeli’s politics was a genius with words. This is what he meant when he described himself as a man of imagination. Words, as the authors explain, are not the same as ideas. Disraeli possessed a stock of ideas, many of them preposterous, on matters such as neo-feudalism and religion. But he used them like silver, bringing them out on special occasions for display; not as a working political creed. Epigrams, wit and oratory were his weapons.
When Disraeli won his first (and only) general election in 1874 and became Prime Minister at the age of 69, his colleagues were dismayed to discover that he had absolutely nothing in the way of a plan. This was partly because he was old, tired and gouty. But there was something else too. For him, just being Prime Minister was enough. Power was an end in itself.
Part biography, part polemic, this is an engaging and enjoyable book. One of the questions they investigate is: what, if anything, can we learn today from Disraeli? Surprisingly, the answer is quite a lot. Disraeli brought qualities to politics which are conspicuously absent among Westminster’s dull clones of 2013: wit and, above all, extraordinary political courage. We need a bit more difference and risk and eccentricity to all aspects of our lives – and not least the Church!