On Disraeli: Some Random Thoughts on Conservatism and Leadership

(Originally posted at WritingUp on 2006-06-28.) The quote below is from The New Yorker’s review of several new books about Disraeli. I know nothing about the man, and my comments are really speculative:

“Trollope’s Daubeny [his Disraeli character] is certainly not a man of principle, but the novelist sees him as something more than an opportunist, and certainly not as a cynic. For him, it is the task of those who govern to recognize when the political ground has already shifted beneath their feet, and to ease the passing of the actual into the legal. As Disraeli declared after the Reform Bill was enacted, “In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, the traditions of the people, or in deference to abstract principles and arbitrary and general doctrines.” The line between Oakeshottian improvisation and outright opportunism is a fine and high one, but Disraeli walked it, and kept his balance.”

The writer of this article says that Disraeli’s actions in Victorian times are very distinct from conservatism now:

“The essence of his politics lay in keeping the forces of capitalism under the tight rein of traditional influences and government legislation, and in keeping the middle class out of power. Modern conservatism is a proudly bourgeois movement — internationalist (rather than cosmopolitan) in outlook, designed to benefit business by unleashing the free market, and claiming rhetorically, at least, to sustain the dominance of the middle classes.”

But the author also notes that Disraeli expanded suffrage for the working classes, and that even as he made England a welfare state, “he arranged (through a loan from his friends the Rothschilds) for England to buy a crucial stake in the Suez Canal, and he made Queen Victoria Empress, not merely overseer, of India” – more generally, he played the politics of Empire, which our author sees as pure nationalism.

The trick for a leader of a democratic, capitalist nation, though, is to restrain and find productive outlets for captialism and other populist forces. The responsible management of Empire is one outlet; if you can keep the rest of the world prominent in your citizens’ minds as they vote, they should not lapse into complete ignorance of everyone and everything besides their immediate welfare. I suspect that there is only a difference of means between Disraeli and modern conservatives: wealth creation is considered now to be better than attempts at social justice, for wealth creation is privately self-sustaining, at least in theory, and again, theoretically adjusts to people’s needs better. Both Disraeli and modern conservatives claim the mantle of tradition, and only oppose progress where progress is made for progress’ sake. The free market rhetoric of today’s conservatives is actually a way, in many cases, of saving the traditional from what would be government sponsored secularist watered-down hokum otherwise. Disraeli has no such problem in Victorian England as a PC government.

I don’t understand, further, the internationalist/cosmopolitan divide posited by the author. I suspect he means to say that England, by dealing with other great powers, was multilateralist. This is gibberish; England then had several foreign policy aims that were related not to its strength, but rather its weakness. England always knew Germany or France could be serious trouble, and tried to keep a balance of power on the continent. The US has no such problem now. The problem we face was outlined by Huntington. When the bipolar world of the Cold War gave away, what forces would take shape to try and challenge the order that remained?

But those are just preliminary comments of mine, subject to change. I want to read up more on Disraeli before making up my mind.

3 Comments

  1. Disreali is a fascinating character- you should read up on his great rival Gladstone as well who can be seen as ideologically the ancestor of Margerate Thatcher. Disreali was a novelist before he became a politician- he was a womaniser and a dandy. He dabbled with politics in the 1830s and couldn’t make up his mind between becoming a Tory or a radical. He became Tory leader because the party broke apart over the corn laws in the 1840s and he was basically the most skilled orator left on their side. Basically he was a Tory through a romantic attitude to the countryside and to the traditional aristocracy of England. He decided though in the 1850s that you couldn’t win an election and be protectionist so abandoned that- and in 1867 he brought down the Liberal government led by Gladstone, over Parliamentary reform. However once in power again he realised that he needed to bring in reform to stay in power- he didn’t have a majority and was a masterful manager of the commons- wrong footing Gladstone all the time by accepting radical ammendments whilst turning down Gladstone’s thus he was popular on the left for his radicalism and on the right becuase he stopped the hated Gladstone. He lost the election afterwards in 1868 to Gladstone- but the Tories returned in 1874. Disreali was more interested as PM in foreign policy than anything else- social policy he did a bit of but it wasn’t the welfare state. I’d say also that towards the end of his Premiership he was in the Lords and getting old and tired. He lost office in 1880 and died in 1881. That’s a quick summary hope it helps.

    By the way I have a post on Walter Benjamin up that you might like- about collecting things really. You should definitely get into 19th Century British history- it would be fascinating to hear your attitude not only on Gladstone and Disreali but also on the other two major figures of British life in the mid to late 19th Century, Peel and Salisbury, both leaders of the Tories. Anyway hope things are well

    By the way if you are looking for good books- I’m not so good on Disreali- but you should definitely read H.C.G. Matthew’s book on Gladstone- it is wonderful don’t bother with people like Roy Jenkins but go straight to Matthew. For Disreali- go for his novels- Sybill I think is one but there are others.

  2. Whatever you think of his views or methods, you have to admire Disraeli. He was a skilfull politician with the ability to adapt as circumstance dictates.

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