What Disraeli would do

Disraeli: Or, The Two Lives, by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£20, 320 pages

Politicians have always loved writing biographies of fellow politicians. Think of Roy Jenkins’ life of Gladstone, which provides the best analysis, along the way, of the 19th-century Irish question. In our own day William Hague has written cogently about Pitt and also given us an excellent, fair-minded biography of William Wilberforce. One notes that Boris Johnson will write a biography of Churchill (as did Roy Jenkins). Come to think of it, Churchill himself devoted his prodigious energies to writing political history, including a biography of his father. There is evidently something irresistible about judging the political actions of a bygone age with all the superior wisdom that hindsight brings – especially if you are going through something of the same sort yourself. Unlike the voters, the biographer is always right.

Given the obvious attraction of the genre, there is at this point a fundamental choice to be made. Will the writer make his (or her) judgments free of explicit references to the present day? Or will he remind the reader throughout the text of the special insights with which his political career has endowed him? It could be said that the admirable Jenkins provided examples of both courses. Gladstone (1995) was comparatively straightforward historically, whereas Churchill (2001), by contrast, began to give the reader the impression that Jenkins had actually been a member of Churchill’s cabinet.

Douglas Hurd, a former foreign secretary and home secretary, and author of a highly regarded life of Sir Robert Peel, belongs firmly to the second category. His latest work in collaboration with Edward Young, who has held political positions including speech writer to David Cameron, is Disraeli: Or, The Two Lives. Here you will find references to the prime minister, meaning the present one, and to “the last Labour government”, meaning the one that ended in 2010. The latter occurs in a footnote to Disraeli’s speech comparing the Whigs to swine “guzzling and grunting in a bed of mire”. Hurd adds that one phrase seems applicable to the previous government: “in the course of five years they have involved us in a series of ignoble wars ... and have even contrived to increase the amount of the public debt”.

There is a personal anecdote about the public silences of Ted Heath, from the period when Hurd was working for him in the 1970s. The irony of Disraeli being brought down by the area of policy that had secured his reputation is compared to Eden’s famous diplomatic skills failing him at Suez, and Gordon Brown being “unhorsed” by the economy once in 10 Downing Street. All this can be enjoyable or irritating depending on your point of view. But it does at times give an air of journalistic enterprise to a book that is otherwise conscientiously researched and splendidly readable.

Disraeli is after all the best political subject in the world, providing for political biography the attraction of Queen Elizabeth I to Tudor historians. As Hurd puts it in his introduction, “One question remains, much discussed but never fully answered: how was it that Disraeli, a bankrupt Jewish school dropout and trashy novelist, came to exert such a hold on the Victorian Conservative Party, a hold which has stretched through to the present day?” He then proceeds to give the answer in a narrative that may be complex at times but is always engrossing. (One might disagree with the adjective “trashy” for Disraeli’s novels: I would defend Tancred and indeed Coningsby for the sheer pleasure they give, the zest, but perhaps that’s Hurd’s point – as a novelist himself, he may equate pleasure with trash ... )

For one thing, the other characters are so rich: not only Gladstone but Daniel O’Connell, the Irish Liberator, is prominent among them. Incidentally, Disraeli’s attitude to Ireland casts an interesting light on 19th-century attitudes to what would now be called racism. Disraeli was certainly the victim of anti-Semitism (despite his Christian baptism as a boy): overcoming this was one of his many triumphs. At the same time, his own remarks about the Irish do not make comfortable reading today. Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, for example, is compared to “a hod of mortar and a potatoe”. While the Jews and their religion were in Disraeli’s estimation superior because they were more ancient, he regarded Irish Catholicism as murky and suspicious: “a dangerous threat to be contained”.

The main thesis of Hurd and Young is that it was Disraeli’s courage that made him a success. The authors conclude with a denunciation of today’s politicians for lack of this same courage; although Boris Johnson is commended for having done today what Disraeli did in the 19th century, “namely raise the level of interest in politics up several pegs”. This conclusion, following the frequent modern references, makes it clear that the authors have in fact aimed at writing not an enduring masterwork such as Robert Blake’s Disraeli (1966), but a truly political biography in the strict sense of the words. And they succeed triumphantly.

Lady Antonia Fraser’s latest book is ‘Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832’ (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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