Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Charisma Question: Victorian Britain's Political Titans Reappraised

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Charisma Question: Victorian Britain's Political Titans Reappraised

Article excerpt

The Great Rivalry: Disraeli and Gladstone

Dick Leonard

IB Tauris, 240pp, [pounds sterling]22.50

Dick Leonard is a master of the brief life. Between 2006 and 2011 he published three volumes of short and vivid biographical sketches of Britain's prime ministers, covering the 270-odd years between Robert Walpole in the early 18th century and Tony Blair in the late 20th. As befits a former assistant editor of the Economist, Leonard has the good journalist's nose for a telling anecdote and a plain, unpompous style.

The prime-ministerial trilogy was deservedly successful. The biographical sketches were stylish, insightful, witty and fair-minded. The whole ensemble threw unexpected light on the evolution of high politics in Britain from the narrow oligarchy of the 18th century to the febrile populism of today. Though Leonard did not say so in so many words, the age of Blair, with its sofa government and sleazy courtiers, turned out to be surprisingly like the age of Walpole.

Now, Leonard has ventured into new territory. He has turned his hand to a double biography of the two greatest parliamentary rivals of the 19th century and perhaps of any century: Disraeli and Gladstone. The Great Rivalry is his crowning achievement. It is written with captivating panache, packed with well-chosen quotations, full of psychological insight and, at one and the same time, readable, entertaining and illuminating.

Quite apart from that, Leonard has been extraordinarily lucky in his timing. Disraeli once said that the Conservative prime minister Robert Peel had found the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes. Ed Miliband's audacious attempt to clothe the Labour Party in Disraeli's One Nation mantle is a 21st-century equivalent of this. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are thrashing about in search of respectable ancestors to legitimise their renunciation of the social liberal tradition espoused by most of their leading figures, from David Lloyd George to Charles Kennedy. So far as I know, none of today's Liberal Democrats has prayed Gladstone in aid but his ghost looms with quizzical menace in the background.

Leonard does not spend much time on Miliband's "one-nation" Labour or the Lib Dems' about-faces but he offers a new perspective on both. His Disraeli is superficially complex but at bottom straightforward. He was both a cynic and a romantic; a poseur and a charmer. Leonard quotes a nice passage from the memoirs of Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill's mother. After sitting next to Gladstone, she wrote, "I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli I thought I was the cleverest woman."

Queen Victoria fell for him with an enthusiasm bordering on the unconstitutional. But, as Leonard makes clear, there was much more to Disraeli than cynicism and charm. He had an intuitive grasp of the enduring realities of Britain's political sociology that no other political leader of the day could match. He steered the 1867 Reform Bill through the House of Commons, increasing the size of the electorate by around 80 per cent and ensuring that in boroughs in England and Wales a majority of the electorate would belong to the working class. The Times commented that Disraeli had discerned a Conservative voter in the working man as a sculptor discerns "the angel in the marble".

Working-class Toryism 150 years later still mystifies the more blinkered sections of the left but it is a fixture of our politics. The virtually unbroken Conservative ascendancy between the wars, the rapid Conservative revival after Labour's crushing victory in 1945 and the Conservative hegemony from Margaret Thatcher's victory in 1979 to Blair's in 1997 all testify to its vitality. Disraeli's angels have sustained Conservative leaders as various as Lord Salisbury, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath, as well as Thatcher and John Major. …

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