Disraeli: Or, The Two Lives, by Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013
Edmund Burke: the first conservative by Jesse Norman Basic Books, 2013
“The Left are natural dreamers, and so they have a ready supply of heroes,” write Douglas Hurd and Edward Young in their biography of Benjamin Disraeli.
I don’t have political heroes: the whole concept seems a bit naff to me.
But of the political heroes I don’t have, these two come top of the list. In my early 20s, in a dusty second-hand book store upstairs in Auckland’s Elliott Street, I found an old 19th Century poster etching of Disraeli. Had it on my bedroom wall for years, when flatmates had Whitney Houston, Morrissey, or Michael Jackson posters.
I’d read essays on the guy, he sounded interesting. And witty.
Burke, I discovered in a first year politics paper – Auckland University’s great ‘Law, Property and Individualism’ course on political philosophy from Plato through to Mill.
Andrew Sharp is still the best university lecturer I ever had, on any subject, I think. Lucid and clear, with an engaging informal approach – he never wasted a word in his lectures, yet he still usually explained things three times, at least for his stage one class.
I’d heard of Burke, but knew nothing about him apart from a few quotes (the one about society being a contract a contract by the living with both the dead and those yet to be born, and the one about a member of Parliament owing electors his judgement not his obedience).
On about the third tutorial, essay topics were being assigned and the tutor – a great teacher who sadly is no longer with us – told me “Do Burke, Rob. You’d love him.”
And she was right.
This was the mid-1980s and politics in New Zealand was awash with ideological debate…actually, that’s not quite correct. The Labour Party, in government, was awash with ideological debate. ideological and factional debate (the two are often hard to distinguish from each other), that is.
By the end of the decade the Labour Party was the only party with clubs on campus – but there were three of them*.
The conservative side of politics was somewhat confused. National had gone down this weird route under Sir Robert Muldoon and was still trying to recover. Roger Douglas had implemented many of the policies National’s more ideologically inclined – never a very large group – had long wanted to carry out. The rest of National, meanwhile, was spitting with rage and pain, as Rogernomics went through the farming sector and the country’s protected industries like a runaway bulldozer through a Crown Lynn surplus china goods shop.
It was a difficult time. And if you were trying to get a ‘fix’ on your own political outlook, as I was, it was tricky. I clearly wasn’t a socialist of any kind. There was the emotionally attractive but intellectual double-blind alley of simplistic and unrealistic nostalgia offered by Sir Robert Muldoon’s dwindling followers and the larger and louder New Labour backers of Jim Anderton.
The need for many of the Rogernomic reforms was clear. What was also clear was the collateral damage they were causing.
Burke’s wariness about simplistic, theoretically driven reforms imposed on a society without due respect and attention to that society’s traditions and values made a lot of sense – intellectually and emotionally. Together with Disraeli’s wit and often wispy rhetoric, they make an appealing package for conservatives, even today.
Disraeli and Burke are conservatives – subtle and profound ones. Both were in fact outsiders of the society in which they found themselves: Burke was Irish, and even though he was Protestant Irish it lent him a certain distance (his mother was catholic).
Disraeli was a novelist, a dandy, with a suspiciously raffish background and a Jewish heritage, who somehow got the Conservative Party of the 19th Century, populated with lords and landowners, squires and soldiers, clergymen and churchgoers, to accept him as leader.
It is the sheer, preposterous unlikeliness of Disraeli which makes up a big part of his appeal. He defies almost every stereotype with which we associate the words ‘conservative’ and ‘Victorian’.
He was, to quote Ian Gilmour, a former Conservative MP and editor of the Spectator, one of ‘the few Tory leaders who has been able to bring warmth to Conservatives and to add to its basic common sense a degree of romance, generosity and excitement.’
And they were both, of course, writers. Burke was not a particularly successful politician, although he did attain moderate ministerial rank: Disraeli was a spectacularly successful politician – in the end. He suffered decades of failure, and he was to muse, when he finally got the prime ministership, that he had got it too late.
But he was also, as Hurd and Young show in their biography, ‘always a novelist even when writing no novels at all’.
“Time and again Disraeli uses imagination to make politics interesting. His most powerful strength was the creative energy with which he transformed Victorian politics. The public were fascinated by his speeches in the Commons. As Lord Curzon later put it: ‘the jewelled phrase, the exquisite epigram, the stinging sneer. He was like a conjurer on a platform whose audience with open mouth awaited the next trick.'”
That, rather than winning elections or running governments, is his real legacy and achievement, although he was pretty good at those more prosaic things too. Someone called it ‘the politics of drains’ – Disraeli’s governments, particularly his 1874-80 one, did quite a lot of this. (The other two were short-lived affairs).
Most of all, he was able to make an imaginative, empathetic leap and realise the rising middle classes, and in particularly a sizable chunk of the increasingly unrestful working classes, would happily vote conservative.
No one else seems to have thought so at the time. There was a fear of what ‘the mob’ would do if they were given any sort of power.
But he taught his party, and his lesson for conservatives remains.
There was, for example, a public argument between with Lord Cranborne, then a newspaper editor but later, when he inherited his family title of Lord Salisbury, to himself lead the Conservatives – about extending the right to vote beyond the aristocracy and landowners to other people.
Disraeli was prepared to extend the right to vote to more working class men (votes for women was, at the time, only advocated by the real radicals) than was the Liberal Party of the time. Although supposedly the more ‘progressive’ the Liberals were worried about whether those voters were quite up to it.
Shouldn’t they just be content to be guided by the wiser and better beings, (of whom the Liberal Party of the day, naturally, considered themselves the prime examples)?
Disraeli cut through all that cant and hypocrisy, all that snobbery masquerading as concern.
As I’ve written in the National Business Review recently , (paywalled) it was something emulated by successful conservative leaders around the world – including in New Zealand.
After having his policy attacked by Cranborne., Disraeli commented that the ‘article was written by a very clever man who has made a very great mistake’ and going on to explain that conservatism did not oppose all change:
‘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 and traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.’
That returns us to the comment about the Left being ‘natural dreamers’. This takes many forms, and it is particularly pertinent in New Zealand at the moment, with our Labour Party talking about ‘dreams’ in almost every pronouncement.
One of my own, personal, rules of politics is whenever any politician, of any stripe, starts talking about “dreams” what you are about to hear is usually undiluted bilgewater.
George Orwell put it differently – in a prosperous country, he once said, radical politics is usually a form of make-believe. I’ll return to this one another day – it opens up a whole area to explore about the nature of ideology and left-wing politics and the type of mindset which is attracted to both.
Disraeli, the authors of this latest biography conclude, ‘did not simply outwit his opponents. He also persuaded the vast majority of his supporters that this was actually a direction in which they wanted to go’.
They quote Walter Bagehot’s deliciously apt metaphor that Disraeli guided the Conservative Party as the mahout guides the elephant, light in strength but knowing all the party’s habits and ways.
In New Zealand? The lessons are there for conservatives here, but they are not about copying or aping what British counterparts have done. The key part of Disraeli’s approach (and, even more so, Burke’s, and I will come to this below) is about ‘the manners, the customs the laws and traditions of a people’.
New Zealanders are not Brits. We have our own manners, customs, laws and traditions. Along with an emerging sense of our own history as something distinct and something our own, and these are becoming stronger and more confident by the year.
I plan…and here I use the word ‘plan’ somewhat loosely.. to write more on this.
There have been several books on Disraeli – the ‘authoritative’ one is by Robert Blake. It is thorough, reasonably but not excessively adulatory, and just a little bit dull. Hurd and Young capture Disraeli’s essence – or his importance, anyway – in a much shorter and more readable book. They are sceptical, occasionally with some astringency, about Disraeli’s more shameless exploits (and there were more than a few of those, one of which – the elevating of imperialism to an explicit, crowd-pleasing political policy, produced a lot of long-term harm).
So I’m not starry-eyed about him. Admirable and fascinating in many ways, there was a streak of frivolity which occasionally tipped into something darker.
As for the second book under review: Burke’s approach was summarised best in his line that
‘Circumstance (which with some gentlemen passes for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.’
He follows from Aristotle’s emphasis on human beings as social and political animals, but stresses that the important part of this is the institutions and customs a society evolves for itself over time. These institutions, customs and norms ‘become a repository of shared knowledge and inherited wisdom.’
His rejection of abstract reasoning can – and often is – reduced to caricature, sometimes by Burke himself. A querulous query to the Sheriffs of Bristol, a bunch of lads who sound like a barrel of laughs, is cited as the essence of anti-intellectualism:
‘What is the use of discussion a man’s abstract right to food or medicine? The question is upon the method of procuring and administering them…I shall always advise to call in the of the farmer and the physician, rather than the professor of metaphysics.’
Burke does not, in fact, dismiss philosophy or metaphysics quite as comprehensively and certainly not as unthinkingly as that quote suggests: instead one of his great themes is that ‘universal principles themselves are never sufficient in themselves to guide practical deliberation’.
Burke was not trying to create a philosophical system, but, Norman argues, he has
‘a rich and distinctive world view of his own….Each[social order] is sui generis, a largely incremental and historically continuing human achievement…Any practical or theoretical reflection on such a human artifact – and this applies to any institution, large or small, peoples and nations as much as words or ideas – must therefore begin with history and experience.
‘Far from choking off individual energy and aspiration…it makes social and economic advancement possible. It is a colossal collective achievement which must be treated with respect by all would-be reformers.’
Amongst these institutions is the market, which at the time Burke was writing was becoming more studied, most famously by Adam Smith. Smith once commented that ‘Burke is the only man I ever knew who thinks on economic subjects exactly as I do, without any previous communications having passed between us.’
Burke did not actually write much on economic matters, or at least did not have much published, but some works assembled after his death and labeled Thoughts and Detail on Scarcity cover the area and Norman points out, rightly I think, that neither Burke nor Smith was really what we would call a full-blown free trader: that Burke ‘sees markets and other institutions as operating within, drawing from and contributing to a broader moral community.’
Markets need to be respected because they reflect people’s myriad individual choices. They are not the product of some idealogue scribbling out a theoretical construct of society – their strength is they evolved out of humans doing what comes naturally.
They work best when the signals they send about people’s preferences is subject to as little interference as possible. But they also are just one custom and tradition. They need to work within the customs and mores of that broader community – – in New Zealand’s case, within our ideas and assumptions about ourselves, about what makes us distinctive as a people. This is, I think, – becoming more important in how our own politics is framed.
That, though, touches on my paid work, and for now it is the weekend. More on that, in another forum.
For now, I’d recommend both these books for anyone of a conservative frame of mind – and anyone who wants to understand some of the more important and subtle, but less understood, currents of the conservative tradition.
* I am going by memory here. No doubt someone will be able to dig out the records or minutes from some tedious and lengthy meetings of trainee 20 year old polticians which show there were only two. Or five. Good luck to you, whoever you are.