Top positive review
A brilliant biography: full of valuable insight and assessment
24 December 2018
I read Hibbert's biography first and thought it a good read. The biography by Hurd and Young is far better. Not just the bare facts of the life but the motives behind it and comparisons with the other greats of that time. The differences between Peel, Gladstone and Disraeli are precise and clear. The first two were double firsts at Oxford in Classics and Mathematics. Disraeli had little schooling: a few years in primary and less than three in a secondary. At 15 he went home to educate himself in his father's library. Thus he was never a classicist like Peel or Gladstone, or a mathematician. Yet he became Chancellor twice and performed well in the role. He had no languages except for execrable French. He was a jew and proud of it, baptised at 12 into the Anglican Communion which meant that he did qualify for the House of Commons, but only just: jews did not. That with these disadvantages, he ascended the greasy pole, is a phenomenal feat. His strength, say Hurd and Young, was imagination of the literary sort. He became the most important orator, arguably of all time, in the House of Commons. When he rose to speak, the chamber filled and remained astonished by his language, invective, wit and sarcasm for three or four hours at a time. His epigrams were the talk of the town. The Oxford book of Quotations lists 88 by Disraeli, 50 by Churchill and 22 by Gladstone. He 'raised the profile and reputation of Parliament as a theatre of imagination and rhetoric in the years before democracy and the mass media.' His novels were important aspects of this. They sold well, about a dozen, Endymion, the last, received an advance of £10,000 (about £1.2 million today) and made a profit, selling over 8,000 copies. Denied promotion by Peel, he responded by destroying his own party leader and Prime Minister (Peel) who was forced to resign. He became Prime Minister twice and managed Queen Victoria very well with flattery and skill. Like Pitt the Younger, he had little money and cared little for it; was bailed out by friends yet managed to buy a fine country house, Hughenden near High Wycombe.
He was a magical tactician in the Commons but 'Disraeli did not simply outwit his opponents. He also persuaded the vast majority of his supporters that this was actually the direction in which they wanted to go.' That is true leadership. 'The public were fascinated by his speeches'. ' He was like a conjuror on a platform, whose audience with open mouth awaited his next trick.' He had, according to his wife, 'the most wonderful moral courage.'
The authors lament the state of the Commons today. Oratory has descended to the banal and the boring. They are right. Rhetoric is still the most essential skill of leadership. Arguments need to be honed and perfected. But high emotion is also necessary. It is that, conviction as well as reasoning, that tips the balance in the listener.