In 1966 Robert Blake wrote a very good biography of Disraeli in which he assessed the relation between Disraeli's politics and his literary writings, in particular his novel 'Sybil' published in 1845.
Other excellent accounts include books by T Jenkins and R Grinter.
This book by former Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Edward Young is a very useful companion to these books. It is, however, very different in that it is more of a psychological examination of Disraeli than a political biography. It can be described as the pathology of a myth.
There is very little that is new in the book. The authors have not revealed new documents or trawled through too many existing ones. Nevertheless, it is very well written, the prose is excellent, and the authors argue their case with anecdote, and judicious quotations. Only 320 pages, it can be read with ease in two sittings.
Disraeli was the son of a Jewish writer and scholar whose family had come to England from Venice in the middle of the 18th century. Disraeli did not go to university instead, after leaving school, he worked as a solicitor's clerk. He wrote many novels. At the fourth attempt he was elected as an MP for Maidstone (1837), having changed his allegiance from Whigs to the Tories. Peel refused him a place in his government because of Disreali's attack on him over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.
In 1852, 1858-9 and 1866-8 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Conservative governments of those years. Apart from his role in the important 1867 Reform Act, he achieved very little of importance. In 1868 he became Prime Minister for the first time. As he put it he was able to 'climb to the top of the greasy pole'. He was after all the leader of a party dominated by very wealthy landowners.
His famous speeeches while in opposition in the 1870's are often referred to as heralding Tory Democracy or New Conservatism. In his novel 'Sybil' he wrote that there were two separate nations in Britain-the rich and poor. His paternalistic approach to the conditions of the poor became known as 'one nation Toryism'.He hoped that social reform would lead to an alliance between the two nations which would strengthen the monarchy. He said:'the Palace is unsafe if the cottage is unhappy'.
Hurd and Young however make it clear, as has Jenkins, that in fact Disraeli was not a one-nation politician. A degree of mythology has developed around his memory. In reality, his views on social reform were vague and non-committal. He never, for example, produced a blueprint for social reform.
After his defeat, Gladstone crowed:'the downfall of Beaconsfield is like the vanishing of some vast magnificent castle in an Italian romance'. Arguably, his greatest achievement was to hold the Conservative party together. He made it, building on the work of Peel, a genuinely national party.
The book makes it clear that he was a first-rate parliamentarian. Blake writes he was 'an impresario, an actor manager'. The Queen much preferred him to Gladstone who bored her.
Disraeli was frequently in debt, he chased after other men's wives, was sexually ambiguous and very self-absorbed. He was vain, selfish and capricious and very, very ambitious. Nevertheless, Victorian England took to him. In fact they trusted him.
I can recommend this book for all those interested in politics and, in particular, the formation of the Conservative Party.
on 10 September 2013
Douglas Hurd tackles the question of how much of the myth of Disraeli is founded in reality. He and his co-writer have an easy style and clearly have done a lot of research, providing some new insights.
Hurd's side references to incidents in recent political history give an extra interest.
The writers' conclusions about the Disraeli myth may not come as a great surprise, but like him or loathe him, Disraeli remains a fascinating character.
This is an interesting and enjoyable political biography which, although wriiten by two senior Conservatives, does not seek to lionise Disraeli or to hide his often unattractive motivations and behaviours.
Self obessed, extremely ambitions,and often ammoral in his politics and personal life, Disraeli remains interesting for anyone with a sense of history or politics. The man who was delighted to have reached 'the top of the greasy pole' was as capable of great loyalty to those who served him well as he was of unprincipled actions desigined to further either his own or his country's prestige. He brilliantly managed Queen Victoria, turning her initial dislike and distrust of him into a close relationship in which she grew to consider him a friend - making the Queen Empress of India certainly helped but so do the flattery bestoed upon her by Disraeli which led the Queen to feel when in Disraeli's company that she was the cleverest woman in the world.
This is a well written and engaging book, which draws some intersting comparisons with modern politics and political figures, including Boris Johnson, and which penetrates some of the myths surrounding Disraeli's supposed beliefs in a one nation toryism.
Very enjoyable - and I learned a lot about Direaeli and his times
on 30 October 2013
I read this book off the back of a review by Matthew Parris in the Times earlier in the summer. I have to say I thought it was excellent. I've never read a biography which is so consistently amusing or insightful. It's beautifully written and actually very clever. What's subtle about it is that they don't really try to produce a door-stopper biography which goes over every tiny detail of Disraeli's life (frankly do we really need a book like that anyway?). Instead they paint this thrilling, penetrating and I thought fairly well-judged portrait of a man whose main achievement was to make politics interesting and entertaining. It's true that when you compare Disraeli to some of the other great Victorian PMs his record in office is pretty pathetic. But those amazing speeches he made are so brilliant and memorable and that's what made him great. It's incredible that he got as far as he did with the obstacles he faced. If I had a criticism of the book it was that I wished they spent longer talking about the novels. But that's a small point and it's definitely one of the best books I've read all year.
on 6 August 2013
Disraeli is a complicated figure fully brought to life in this excellent book. The inherent contradictions within his personality and his self-diagnosed hunger for the limelight make for a stimulating read which successfully lifts the curtain on the myth of Disraeli. Without a rose tinted view, it is an extremely effective portrayal of a man at the vanguard of political campaigning for his time and someone for whom politics was about who was up and who was down rather than ideology.
The book is full of fascinating titbits, such as the discovery of Gladstone's markings on a contemporary biography of Disraeli which enable the authors to very effectively sort fact from fiction and Disraeli from the mythical figure who hangs of British politics today. As an example there is an excellent account of his grasp, or lack thereof, of foreign policy. Also, time and again we are reminded that Disraeli's goal was never to unite the two halves of Britain to create the "one nation" of which he is so famous, indeed he never actually said the words, rather his project, or so it seems, was doing justice to his own intellect.
I've seen the book described as an evisceration, but if it is one it is gentle and not without a lot of affection for a man who made parliament popular and was a supreme orator. It also looks in fascinating detail at his successes with the Reform Act including the audacious expansion of the franchise at the last moment.
The book rattles along at a great clip and would be a great read for both a scholar of the period or someone more or less new to it. The last section draws some parallels with the Disraeli of the modern era, Boris Johnson, and effectively argues for the role of such figures in politics to encourage the public to take an interest. Highly recommended.
on 7 January 2014
Other than the fact that this is a political book written by Douglas Hurd and I liked his Peel and Choose Your Weapons Books, the thing that motivated me to buy this book was the fact that Disraeli's Primrose League at the height and of course posthumously, some 2 million members in 1910. This is some feat in view of the fact that the UK Population was 39,700,000 in 1907!
So I thought something must be the reason for this and when the book was published I was on vacation in Scotland so I thought that I would read it.
I accept the view that it seems that the book, starts with a bang and the author's descriptions explode onto the pages in the first few chapters, and hence it may seem that it is U-Shaped. The first chapter being quite interesting about the relationship between Disraeli and Gladstone (apparently the latter detested him), in itself. To quote,
"...[Gladstone's] ... memories of past conflicts must have crowded in ... Gladstone now found himself leading a nation in mourning for a man he had detested."
Oh dear oh dear a Blair and Brown forerunner!
The Chapter I liked best though, and to my mind the one most worth reading and considering against other sources (Douglas Hurd usefully refers to further reading at the back by chapter), is that on Christian and Jew (Chapter 2) , in that Christian intolerance of Jewish faith and culture was apparently so trenchant that Disraeli was baptised into the Christian faith. His parents " ... Thus opened the door for Disraeli's entry into political life that would otherwise have been barred by the law .." Isaac Disraeli, his father thus according to Douglas Hurd was known for his warmth, geniality and anxiety to avoid conflict, notwithstanding that his faith and culture preceded this step for centuries he was willing to assimilate his son into the Christian tradition (and to threaten to leave the Synagogue in order to do so). It is also the more surprising in a way because again according to the book his grandfather bequeathed the family £35000 (many millions today) that put them into the very highest echelons of Jewish London life at the time. However it removed the main impediment at the time |(apparently) to Disraeli's 'progress'.
Nevertheless, this selfless move by Isaac Disraeli which appears to be rather than divisive, inclusive, must have been foremost in Benjamin Disraeli's mind when he voted against his party to support Lord John Russell's Jewish Emancipation Bill and used inclusive religious jurisprudence / arguments to do so:
"...Where is you Christianity if you do not believe in their Judaism..."
"... I cannot for one, give a vote which is not in deference to one what I believe to be the true principles of religion ..."
This public spirited and extremely tolerant stance, though (according to Douglas Hurd), possibly viewed as heretical at the time by fellow Tory MP's, resulted in the first Jewish MP, Lionel De Rothschild shaking him by the hand on eventual entry to the Commons in or around 1858. It must have been set in his constitution by his father and parental background and I am attracted by the references to those influences by Douglas Hurd (who to be fair could have overlooked them completely and still written a good book).
And hence probably Disraeli can be said to have done more for Jewish emancipation than any politician of that period (effectively bring the Tory Party on board it would appear).
And therefore although he is deemed to be famous for the words 'One Nation' which do not appear to have been uttered by him, it is easy to see where the concept came from even apparently after his death with an inclusive mind set that he had. It is also easy to see why this former Dandy, was one of Queen Victorias favourite Prime Ministers.
This book is well worth the read and I would say that careful reading will show that it can grab the attention throughout the chapters and not just at the beginning and end. I will however only give it 4 Stars because it could have been slightly better structured over all.
on 9 December 2013
Disraeli: or, The Two Lives isn't just a biography, it's a pop-up book. The legendary politician and author rises from the pages, made more vivid with every insight, anecdote and observation. Douglas Hurd and Edward Young's latest work is wonderfully replete their subject's eccentricities: his habit of entering a room and asserting 'Allah is great'; his penchant for carrying two different canes - one during the daytime, one at night; his resplendent wardrobe of green waistcoats, purple pantaloons and bottle blue frock coats. Each of these details makes him more vibrant, and more real.
But to get caught up in the sparkle and the splendour of the characterisation is to ignore the profound point made by the authors: that politicians' posthumous popularity is often misplaced. For as they build up his character, Hurd and Young simultaneously demolish his mythology, showing that he wasn't quite the die-hard reformer, Tory saviour or champion of the poor that history - and so many of today's politicians - would have us think. He was, instead, a very clever, charming, eloquent, dandyish maverick, and when he spoke, he took people with him. The esteem with which he is held today says as much about us as it does him: that when we look for heroes, we often, magpie-like, swoop first to what glistens.
Hurd and Young's Tardis of a book is crammed with detail, yet it weighs in at just 266 pages - quite a feat for a political biography. As Tory historian Lord Lexden puts it, 'it is without a dull sentence' - again, an enormous feat for this genre. In the way that Dizzy made politics popular, Hurd and Young make the political biography accessible and entertaining - to the extent that I would recommend this book to any reader, even those without an interest in politics or history. I could not say the same for a single other political biography.
on 9 December 2013
You'd think you can't go wrong writing a biography about the obscure Jewish second class novelist who managed to get to lead the Conservative Party (a party still run by landed aristocrats in the fifties for heaven's sake) in the heyday of the Victorian empire when the world map was pink. The subject has a rattlingly good life story, with its own in-built narrative from bankruptcy to a country pile, and an endless supply of bons mots and wit unparalleled in future politicians, almost endlessly available in his speeches, his copious letters and his many novels. This book indeed does not go wrong.
It is as much fun as any thriller and it can be easily read in a few days. As Boris Johnson (the only modern politician the authors feel compares with Dizzy) wrote, this book can be `snorted in one session'. I would unhesitatingly recommend it to almost anyone I know. In contrast books by Roy Jenkins, another late twentieth century Great Politician who also took to writing political biographies after he left the political scene, are also insightful and excellent reading, but some of his are very, very long and best for the truly committed.
The authors bravely criticise Disraeli's writing style - and they have every right to. They assume the reader is an ignorant genius. Hugely complex background events (such as, for example, government-busting grants to Irish Universities) are summed up in a crystal clear readable sentence or paragraph.
The authors have an over-arching theme - namely that Disraeli really was the unprincipled charlatan his critics saw him as, but he was also the ultimate practitioner of the art of politics in the mould of many contemporary politicians. The reason why his climbing of his greasy pole was so particularly slippery was because he got there with endless greasy political volte faces as he had no abiding principles or beliefs. Not only Gladstone and the Radical John Bright, but senior Tories who worked with him, found Disraeli devoid of belief and principle. Significantly, the authors argue, he was not the great `one nation' politician he is now seen as - he may have said there are `two nations', but he never called for `One Nation'. If he believed in anything at all (outside rights for Jewish people where Disraeli exceptionally backed this one unpopular and principled cause), they argue it was for some mythical waffly return to a pastoral England run by aristocrats.
Spewing from every double page, is the knowledge that Douglas Hurd is not only the doyen of foreign secretaries in a long political career that stretches from his `big jobs' under Heath continuing right through to Major in the nineties, but like Disraeli, Douglas Hurd also managed to knock out thrillers while a serving senior politician. As the ultimate elder statesman, Douglas Hurd can give us the big picture perspective. More than simply an overview of Disraeli's life, this book discusses his effect on the Conservative Party, the `Primrose League' and similar links to modern Tory mythology, and our contemporary politics where sound bites and `lines' from political machine spin doctors have replaced intelligent political debate.
This enjoyable read gives the reader anecdotes and insights about Disraeli, Toryism and modern politics. Other books (Sarah Bradford) are more forthcoming about the details of his intriguing love life (questions such as `Was he gay? If yes, did he do anything about it? How did it `work' having affairs in the late nineteenth century?' are dealt with unsalaciously in one brief chapter). As an A Level reader, Robert Blake's work half a century ago is difficult to beat as it many times the length (though perhaps Roy Jenkins's excellent Gladstone biography has justifiably replaced the classic Gladstone text books). Boris Johnson is praised in the book as the only modern day politician who is able to even give the impression of thinking for themselves rather than bleating the party line twaddle that so puts most people off contemporary politics. Johnson (embracing the idea of Boris as the modern Disraeli) feels the book is harsh on Disraeli who he feels had positive achievements over and above his ability with words and the craft of politics.
These are quibbles. The book is more than history. It uses Disraeli's life, and perceptions and mythologies of Disraeli, to give the reader interesting coherent ideas of our modern political 'game'. Similarly, readers of this book may also enjoy `Choose Your Weapons: The British Foreign Secretary - Two Centuries of Arguments, Success and Failure' (again by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young). Again, their overview is what makes it a great book. Finding the appropriate relationship with continental Europe is not a new British `problem' that erupted when Nigel Farage and UKIP soared out of the Atlantic like some volcano; it is a question that has dogged British foreign policy since Castlereagh and Canning fought a duel at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
on 25 August 2013
Throughout the ages politicians have claimed posthumous support from long-dead statesmen. But there is one dead man whose support is most often claimed. For a hundred years or so British Conservative politicians (with a few notable exceptions) have assured us that, were he alive, Disraeli would agree with them. It's getting worse. Now, even Ed Miliband, the leader of the Labour Party, is telling us that Disraeli would be on his side. Most of these admirers of Disraeli, not surprisingly, have only the vaguest notion of what he stood for. But they all know that he was desperately in favour of something called "One Nation" and of "Tory Democracy".
And how wrong they are.
If Hurd and Young have done nothing else with this book they have, surely, laid to rest the preposterous theory that Disraeli was keen on democracy and wanted to create one nation. But they have, actually, achieved more. This is an immensely readable (and not very long) book. It makes no claim to have unearthed much in the way of new material. But it succeeds in doing what it sets out to do. It tells us of the two Disraelis: the real one and the myth.
Modern politicians don't just latch onto "One Nation" and "Tory Democracy" (expressions never used by him) when they talk of Disraeli. Many of them also claim that he was a tremendous example to our present rulers in his determination to get power at any cost, to sacrifice principle to the ballot box. Why they should have got hold of that idea is something of a mystery. As Hurd and Young point out, Disraeli's performance in elections (he only won one) was disastrous. He was leader of the opposition for longer, far longer, than any 20th century leader of a major party. If he championed the modern theory (particularly favoured by youngish Conservatives), that it is more important to be in power than to have principles, his career suggests he was a dreadful failure. He was hardly ever in power. True, he changed his opinions quite happily. He did his bit to destroy Peel (a greater statesman than he ever was) over the repeal of the Corn Laws and then refused to bring them back. He changed from being a protectionist to (almost) a free marketeer. Maybe that was done for electoral advantage, though the reality is probably that he was never really a protectionist in the first place.
What about the second Reform Act? Was that not a supreme example of a politician adopting a policy which he hated in order to get power? No. Once the 1832 Act had been passed there was no real point of principle left. Democracy, of a kind, had been introduced. It was there to stay. Enlarging the electorate to include more of the middle classes was not the radical step we were all told it was by our history masters. Yes, Disraeli handled it extraordinarily well, but he wasn't turning his back on his principles. In fact, he was convinced it would help in his overriding objective of bolstering the aristocracy.
It really is important for modern politicians to read this book, if only to stop them from constantly spouting nonsense about Disraeli.
Is there anything wrong with the book? Of course there is. I found the repetition a little irritating (the same anecdotes being needlessly repeated). And the rather romantic theory that we no longer have any great politicians in the mould of Disraeli was annoying. It was very short-sighted, for instance, of the authors to assume that Thatcher (just one example) will not be considered a remarkable stateswoman by future historians. Of course, Hurd and Young are right when they say that modern politicians don't go in for the sort of outlandish clothing Disraeli wore in his younger days. And it is also true that they are more reluctant than he was to say outrageous things. But they live in a different age, as Hurd must understand. He, after all, was almost a caricature of the modern grey politician. Everything he ever said when he was in the House of Commons was measured against the BBC's likely reaction to it. That is not to criticise him (in the way he criticises most of his colleagues for the same "fault"), it is simply to acknowledge that we have moved on. We can be pretty confident that Disraeli himself would have toned things down if he had had to cope with the average BBC's correspondent's view that all politicians should be dull.
But those slight reservations don't stop me from insisting that you should all read this excellent book.
on 27 September 2013
This book is a first-rate analysis of Disraeli's character and politics. It lacks detail, but that makes it all the more readable.