Disraeli vs Gladstone

This book review was published by Tribune 20 September 2013

The Great Rivalry. Gladstone and Disraeli. By Dick Leonard. IB Tauris £22.50

Disraeli: or The Two Lives  by Douglas Hurd and Weidenfeld and Nicolson £20


It was Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Jenny Churchill, who put it well: ‘When I sit beside  Mr Gladstone at a dinner. I feel he is the cleverest man in England. When I sit beside Mr Disraeli, I feel I am the cleverest woman in England.’  Politics is about flattery and fixity of purpose, telling voters what they want to hear and telling voters what they need to know. Getting the  balance between what voters want to hear and what they need to be told is the art of successful leadership.

Gladstone and Disraeli were supreme practitioners of the political game. The people’s William and Dizzy, represent the two playscripts of Parliamentary life. The first sent to Eton and Oxford. He was bought a seat by his father who made his fortune out of his slave plantations. Gladstone dutifully opposed measures to outlaw slave trading just as he praised the breakaway slave states of the American south.

Disraeli had to be an MP because if ever he lost his parliamentary immunity he would be sent to a debtor’s prison. Gladstone liked cruising through Soho talking to prostitutes and whipping himself as punishment if ever he dropped his trousers. Disraeli openly used his prestige to bed women. Luckily there was no Mail on Sunday around and MPs in the nineteenth century did not go crawling to the police to get their colleagues investigated.

As Dick Leonard, himself a former Labour MP, with a real feel of how parliament works, notes, the real big beast of 19th century politics was Robert Peel. He invented free trade, modern policing, as well as the  Conservative Party which both Gladstone and Disraeli originally belonged.

In an article promoting  his new biography of Disraeli, Douglas Hurd, a fine chronicler of big figures in British politics, compared Dizzy to Boris Johnson. For chutzpah, a compulsive desire for money, and extra marital conquests the comparison is just. But as an Eton classicist who became president of the Oxford Union, Boris follows in Gladstone’s footsteps more than those of Dizzy. Hurd’s comparison has a barbed edge. Disraeli led the Conservative Party for 28 years in opposition and has little to his credit as prime minister save agreeing to proclaim the inane Queen Victoria Empress of India, a title of such empty bombast that one is embarrassed to think that a Commons which two centuries before had voted to execute the king now voted for such nonsense.

Gladstone created much of the modern Whitehall state – centralized, drawn from Oxbridge, rigid in its know-all sense of superiority. He enthroned religiosity in politics writing a dreary book called Vaticanism, a rabid attack on Catholics in 1874, and like most of today’s Liberal-Democrats was insufferably self-righteous. Gladstone was a roundhead, Dizzy a cavalier. He provided what today we would call a ‘narrative’ with his Young England and One Nation novels and forged an alliance between aristocrats and elements of the working class which provided the Tories with a voter base for a century.

In the 1870s, Gladstone whipped up a climate of fury against the Ottoman Empire as he described their atrocities in the Balkans in gruesome detail.  He wanted Britain to “punish” Turkey. But the cynical, old, Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, said No to war. Today it is Cameron and his little Liberal poodle, Nick Clegg, who are so keen to drop bombs in majority Muslim countries as the Tory Party of Disraeli has morphed into something weird that lacks coherence, purpose, and political philosophy

There is much to be learnt from both books but the thought arises. We get new biographies of Tory and Liberal leaders every few years. Reading new interpretations of history is good training for current politics. And biography is the easiest way into history. So why are there so few biographies of Labour PMs? Francis Beckett’s excellent Atlee biography is the last I can recall. The left spends all its time pulling down its past leaders and trashing those who reach high office. Until Labour learns to be proud of its past it will not easily shape its future.


Denis MacShane is Britain’s former minister of Europe.


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