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wish to hear him. He knew how in a body of
men obliged to listen to talk, and most of it
tedious talk, about matters in themselves mostly
uninteresting, the desire for a little amusement
becomes almost a passion ; and he humoured
this desire so far as occasionally to err by
excess of banter and flippancy. Almost always
respectful to the House, he had a happy
knack of appearing to follow rather than to
lead, and when he made an official statement
it was with the air of one who was taking
them into his confidence. Much of this he

Lord Beaconsjfield 49

may have learned from observing Lord Palmer-
ston ; but the art came more naturally to that
statesman, who was an Englishman all through,
than to a man of Mr. Disraeli's origin, who
looked on Englishmen from outside, and never
felt himself, so to speak, responsible for their
habits or ideas.

As leader of his party in Opposition, he was
at once daring and cautious. He never feared
to give battle, even when he expected defeat,
if he deemed it necessary, with a view to the
future, that the judgment of his party should
have been pronounced in a formal way. On
the other hand, he was wary of committing him-
self to a policy of blind or obstinate resistance.
When he perceived that the time had come to
yield, he knew how to yield with a good grace,
so as both to support a character for reason-
ableness and to obtain valuable concessions as
the price of peace. If difficulties arose with
foreign countries he claimed full liberty of
criticising the conduct of the Ministry, but
ostentatiously abstained from obstructing or
thwarting their acts, declaring that England must
always present a united front to the foreigner,
whatever penalties she might afterwards visit
on those who had mismanaged her concerns.
As regards the inner discipline of his party,
he had enormous difficulties to surmount in the
jealousy which many Tories felt for him as a

50 Biographical Studies

new man, a man whom they could not under-
stand and only partially trusted.^ Conspiracies
were repeatedly formed against him ; malcontents
attacked him in the press, and sometimes even in
Parliament. These he seldom noticed, maintain-
ing a cool and self-confident demeanour which
disheartened the plotters, and discharging the
duties of his post with steady assiduity. He
was always on the look-out for young men of
promise, drew them towards him, encouraged
them to help him in parliamentary sharp-shoot-
ing, and fostered in every way the spirit of party.
The bad side of that spirit was seen when he
came into office, for then every post in the
public service was bestowed either by mere
favouritism or on party grounds ; and men who
had been loyal to him were rewarded by places
or titles to which they had no other claim.
But the unity and martial fervour of the Tory
party was raised to the highest point. Nor was
Disraeli himself personally unpopular with his
parliamentary opponents, even when he was most
hotly attacked on the platform and in the press.
To know Encrland and watch the shifting

' In the Life of Lord George Bentiuck (written shortly after Peel's
death), Disraeli, after dilating upon the loyalty which the Tory aristocracy
had displayed towards Peel, observes, "An aristocracy hesitates before it
yields its confidence, but it never does so grudgingly. ... In political
connections the social feeling mingles with the principle of honour which
governs gentlemen. . . . Such a following is usually cordial and faithful.
An aristocracy is rather apt to exaggerate the (jualities and magnify the
importance of a plebeian leader.""

Lord Beaconsfield 5 i

currents of its opinion is a very different matter
from knowing the House of Commons. Indeed,
the two kinds of knowledge are in a measure
incompatible. Men who enter Parliament soon
beo-in to forfjet that it is not, in the last resort,
Parliament that governs, but the people. Ab-
sorbed in the daily contests of their Chamber,
they over-estimate the importance of those con-
tests. They come to think that Parliament is
in fact what it is in theory, a microcosm of
the nation, and that opinion inside is sure to
reflect the opinion outside. When they are in a
minority they are depressed ; when they are in
a majority they fancy that all is well, forgetting
their masters out-of-doors. This tendency is
aggravated by the fact that the English Parlia-
ment meets in the capital, where the rich and
luxurious congregate and give their tone to
society. The House of Commons, though many
of its members belong to the middle class by
origin, belongs practically to the upper class by
sympathy, and is prone to believe that what it
hears every evening at dinners or receptions is
what the country is thinking. A member of the
House of Commons is, therefore, ill-placed for
feeling the pulse of the nation, and in order to
do so must know what is being said over the
country, and must frequently visit or communi-
cate with his constituents. If this difficulty is
experienced by an ordinary private member, it

52 Biographical Studies

is greater for a minister whose time is filled
by official duties, or for a leader of Opposition,
who has to be constantly thinking of his tactics
in the House. In Disraeli's case there was a
keenness of observation and discernment far
beyond the common. But he was under the dis-
advantages of not being really an Englishman,
and of having never lived among the people.^
The detachment I have already referred to tended
to weaken his power of judging popular sentiment,
and' appraising at their true value the various
tendencies that sway and divide a nation so
complex as the English. Early in life he had
formed theories about the relations of the differ-
ent classes of English society nobility, gentry,
capitalists, workmen, peasantry, and the middle
classes theories which were far from containing
the whole truth ; and he adhered to them even
when the changes of half a century had made them
less true. He had a great aversion, not to say con-
tempt, for Puritanism, and for the Dissenters among
whom it chiefiy holds its ground, and pleased himself
with the notion that the extension of the suffrage
which he carried in 1867 had destroyed their
political power. The Conservative victory at the
election of 1874 confirmed him in this belief, and
made him also think that the working classes
were ready to follow the lead of the rich. He

1 When he did set himself to examine the condition of the people, the
diagnosis, if not always correct, was always suggestive, e.g. the account of
the manufacturing districts given in Sybil, or the Two Nations.

Lord Beaconsheld 53

perceived that the Liberal ministry of 1868-74
had offended certain influential sections by appear-
ing too demiss or too unenterprising in foreign
affairs, and fancied that the bulk of the nation
would be dazzled by a warlike mien, and an
active, even aggressive, foreign policy. Such a
policy was congenial to his own ideas, and to
the society that surrounded him. It was ap-
plauded by some largely circulated newspapers
which had previously been unfriendly to the
Tory party. Thus he was more surprised than
any other man of similar experience to find the
nation sending up a larger majority against him
in 1880 than it had sent up for him in 1874.
This was the most striking instance of his mis-
calculation. But he had all through his career
an imperfect comprehension of the English
people. Individuals, or even an assembly, may
be understood by dint of close and long-continued
observation ; but to understand a whole nation,
one must also have sympathy, and this his circum-
stances, not less than his character, had denied him.
It was partly the same defect that prevented
him from mastering the general politics of Europe.
There is a sense in which no single man can
pretend to understand Europe. Bismarck him-
self did not. The problem is too vast, the facts
to be known too numerous, the undercurrents
too varying. One can speak only of more or
less. If Europe had been in his time what it

54 Biographical Studies

was a century before, Disraeli would have had
a far better chance of being fit to become what
it was probably his dearest wish to become its
guide and arbiter. He would have taken the
measure of the princes and ministers with whom
he had to deal, would have seen and adroitly
played on their weaknesses. His novels show-
how often he had revolved diplomatic situations
in his mind, and reflected on the way of handling
them. Foreign diplomatists are agreed that at
the Congress of Berlin he played his part to
admiration, spoke seldom, but spoke always to
the point and with dignity, had a perfect concep-
tion of what he meant to secure, and of the
means he must employ to secure it, never haggled
over details or betrayed any eagerness to win
support, never wavered in his demands, even when
they seemed . to lead straight to war. Dealing
with individuals, who represented material forces
which he had gauged, he was perfectly at home,
and deserved the praise he obtained from Bis-
marck, who, comparing him with other eminent
figures at the Congress, is reported to have said,
bluntly but heartily, " Der alte Jude. das ist der
Mann."^ But to know what the condition of
South-Eastern Europe really was, and understand
how best to settle its 'troubles, was a far more diffi-
cult task, and Disraeli possessed neither the know-
ledge nor the insight required. In the Europe

^ "The old Jew, that is the man."

Lord Beaconsfield 5 5

of to-day, peoples count for more than the wills
of individual rulers : one must comprehend the
passions and sympathies of peoples if one is to
forecast the future. This he seldom cared to
do. He did not realise the part and the power
of moral forces. Down to the outbreak of the
American Civil War he maintained that the
question between the North and the South was
mainly a fiscal question between the Protectionist
interests of the one and the Free Trade interests
of the other. He always treated with contempt
the national movement in Italy. He made no
secret in the days before 1859 of his good-will
to Austria and of his liking for Louis Napoleon
a man inferior to him in ability and in courage,
but to whose character his own had some affinities.
In that elaborate study of Sir Robert Peel's char-
acter/ which is one of Disraeli's best literary per-
formances, he observes that Peel '' was destitute
of imagination, and wanting imagination he wanted
prescience." True it is that imagination is neces-
sary for prescience, but imagination is not enough
to give prescience. It may even be a snare.

Disraeli's imagination, his fondness for theories,
and disposition rather to cling to them than to
study and interpret facts, made him the victim
of his own preconceived ideas, as his indolence
deterred him from following the march of change
and noting how different things were in the

^ Tn the Life of Lord (ieori^r'. n.-ntiuck.

56 Biographical Studies

'seventies from what they had been in the
'thirties. Mr. Gladstone said to me in 1876,
" Disraeli's two leading ideas in foreign policy-
have always been the maintenance of the temporal
power of the Pope, and the maintenance of the
power of the Sultan." Unable to save the one, he
clung to the hope of saving the other. He was
possessed by the notion, seductive to a dreamy
mind, that all the disturbances of Europe arose
from the action of secret societies ; and when the
Eastern Question was in 1875 re-opened by the
insurrection in Herzegovina, followed by the
war of Servia against the Turks, he explained
the event in a famous speech by saying, " The
secret societies of Europe have declared war
against Turkey" the fact being that the societies
which in Russia were promoting the Servian war
were public societies, openly collecting subscrip-
tions, while those secret "social democratic"
societies of which we have since heard so much
were strongly opposed to the interference of
Russia, and those other secret societies in the
rest of Europe, wherein Poles and Italians have
played a leading part, were, if not hostile, at any
rate quite indifferent to the movement among the
Eastern Christians.

Against these errors there must be set several
cases in which he showed profound discernment.
In 1843 and 1844 he delivered, in debates on the
condition of Ireland, speeches which then con-

Lord Beaconsfield 5 7

stituted and long remained the most penetrating
and concise diagnosis of the troubles of that country
ever addressed to Parliament. Ireland has, he
said, a starving peasantry, an alien church, and an
absentee aristocracy, and he went on to add that
the function of statesmanship was to cure by peace-
ful and constitutional methods ills which in other
countries had usually induced, and been removed
by, revolution. During the American Civil War of
1861-65, Disraeli was the only leading statesman
on his own side of politics who did not embrace and
applaud the cause of the South. Whether this
arose from a caution that would not commit itself
where it recognised ignorance, or from a percep-
tion of the superior strength of the Northern
States (a perception which whoever visits the
South even to-day is astonished that so few
people in Europe should have had), it is not easy
to decide ; but whatever the cause, the fact is an
evidence of his prudence or sagacity all the more
weighty because Lord Palmerston, Lord Russell,
and Mr. Gladstone, as well as Lord Derby and
Sir Hugh Cairns, had each of them expressed
more or less sympathy with, or belief in, the
success of the Southern cause.

The most striking instance, however, of Dis-
raeli's insight was his perception that an exten-
sion of the suffrage would not necessarily injure,
and might end by strengthening, the Tory party.
The Act of 1867 ^vas described at the time as

58 Biographical Studies

"a leap in the dark." But Disraeli's eyes had
pierced the darkness. For half a century poli-
ticians had assumed that the masses of the people
were and would remain under the Liberal banner.
Even as late as 1872 it was thought on Liberal
platforms a good joke to say of some opinion that
it might do for Conservative working men, if there
were any. Disraeli had, long before 1867, seen
deeper, and though his youthful fancies that the
monarchy might be revived as an effective force,
and that "the peasantry" would follow with
mediaeval reverence the lead of the landed gentry,
proved illusory, he was right in discerning that
wealth and social influence would in parliamentary
elections count for more among the masses than
the traditions of constitutional Whiggism or the
dogmas of abstract Radicalism.

In estimating his statesmanship as a whole,
one must give due weight to the fact that it
impressed many publicists abroad. No English
minister had for a long time past so fascinated
observers in Germany and Austria. Supposing
that under the long reign of Liberalism English-
men had ceased to care for foreign politics, they
looked on him as the man who had given back to
Britain her old European position, and attributed
to him a breadth of design, a grasp and a fore-
sight such as men had revered in Lord Chatham,
greatest in the short list of ministers who have
raised the fame of England abroad. I remember

Lord Beaconsfield 59

seeing in a Conservative club, about 1880, a
large photograph of Lord Beaconsfield, wearing
the well-known look of mysterious fixity, under
which is inscribed the line of Homer : " He alone
is wise: the rest are fieeting shadows."^ It
was a happy idea to go for a motto to the
favourite poet of his rival, as it was an un-
happy chance to associate the wisdom ascribed
to Disraeli with his policy in the Turkish East
and in Afghanistan, a policy now universally ad-
mitted to have been unwise and unfortunate."
But whatever may be thought of the appropriate-
ness of the motto, the fact remains that this was
the belief he succeeded in inspiring. He did it
by virtue of those very gifts which sometimes
brought him into trouble his taste for large and
imposing theories, his power of clothing them in
vague and solemn language, his persistent faith in
them. He came, by long posing, to impose upon
himself and to believe in his own profundity.
Few people could judge whether his ideas of
imperial policy were sound and feasible ; but
every one saw that he had theories, and many
fell under the spell which a grandiose imagination
can exercise. It is chiefly this gift, coupled with

1 0'ii{j ireiri'vcrOat, Tol Si crKial diiTtrovcni' [Oif. x. 495). Uscil i)f Tirc^ias,
in tlie world of disembodied spirits.

- To defend Disraeli by arguing; that his policy had not a fair chance
because his colleagues did not allow him to carry it through is to admit
another error not less grave, for the path he took was one on which no
minister ought to have entered unless satistied that the Cabinet and the
country would let him follow it to the end.

6o Biographical Studies

his indomitable tenacity, which lifts him out of
the line of mere party leaders. If he failed to see
how much the English are sometimes moved by
compassion, he did see that it may be worth while
to play to their imagination.

We may now ask again the question asked at
first : How did a man, whatever his natural gifts,
who was weighted in his course by such disadvan-
tages as Disraeli's, by his Jewish origin, by the
escapades of his early career, by the want of con-
fidence which his habitual cynicism inspired, by the
visionary nature of so many of his views, how did
he, in a conservative and aristocratic country like
England, triumph over so many prejudices and
enmities, and raise himself to be the head of the
Conservative and aristocratic party, the trusted
counsellor of the Crown, the ruler, almost the
dictator, of a free people ?

However high be the estimate formed of
Disraeli's gifts, secondary causes must have been
at work to enable him to overcome the obstacles
that blocked his path. The ancients were not
wrong in ascribing to Fortune a great share in
human affairs. Now, among the secondary causes
of success, that "general minister and leader set
over worldly splendours," as Dante calls her,^
played no insignificant part. One of these causes
lay in the nature of the party to which he belonged.
The Tory party of the years between 1848 and

' Inf. vii. 77.

Lord Beaconsfield 6i

1865 contained a comparatively small number of
able men. When J. S. Mill once called it the
stupid party, it did not repudiate the name, but
pointed to its cohesion and its resolution as
showing how many things besides mere talent
go to make political greatness. A man of
shining gifts had within its ranks few com-
petitors ; and this was signally the case im-
mediately after Peel's defection. That statesman
had carried off with him the intellectual flower
of the Conservatives. Those who were left
behind to form the Protectionist Opposition in
the House of Commons were broad-acred squires,
of solid character but slender capacity. Through
this heavy atmosphere Mr. Disraeli rose like a
balloon. Being practically the only member of
his party in the Commons with either strategical
or debating power, he became indispensable, and
soon established a supremacy which years of
patient labour might not have given him in a
rivalry with the distinguished band who sur-
rounded Peel. During the twenty years that
followed the great Tory schism of 1846 no
man arose in the Tory ranks capable of dis-
puting his throne. The conspiracies hatched
against him might well have prospered could a
candidate for the leadership have been found
capable of crossing swords with the chieftain in
possession. Fortune, true to her nursling, suffered
none such to appear.

62 Biographical Studies

Another favouring influence not understood
outside England was to be found in the character
of the party he led. In his day the Tories, being
the party of the property-holders, and having not
to advance but to stand still, not to propose
changes but to resist them, having bonds of
interest as well as of sentiment to draw them
close together, possessed a cohesion, a loyalty
to their chiefs, a tenacious corporate spirit, far
exceeding what was to be found among their
adversaries, who were usually divided into a
moderate or Whig and an advanced or Radical
section. He who established himself as the Tory
leader was presently followed by the rank and file
with a devotion, an unquestioning submission and
confidence, which placed his character and doctrines
under the segis of the party, and enforced loyalty
upon parliamentary malcontents. This corporate
spirit was of infinite value to Disraeli. The
historical past of the great Tory party, its associa-
tions, the social consideration which it enjoys, all
went to ennoble his position and efface the remem-
brance of the less creditable parts of his career.
And in the later days of his reign, when no one
disputed his supremacy, every Tory was, as a
matter of course, his advocate and admirer, and
resented assaults on him as insults to the party.
When a man excites hatred by his words or deeds,
attacks on his character are an inevitable relief to
overcharged feelings. Technically regarded, they

Lord Beaconsfield 63

are not good politics. Misrepresentation some-
times succeeds ; vituperation seldom. Let a man
be personally untrustworthy or dangerous, still, it
is only his own words that damage him, at least in
England and America. Even his own words, how-
ever discrediting, even his acts, however culpable,
may, if they belong to a past unfamiliar to the voter
of to-day, tell little, perhaps too little, on the voter's
mind when they are brought up against him. The
average citizen has a short memory, and thinks
that the dead may be allowed to bury their dead.

Let it be further noted that Disraeli's career
coincided with a significant change in English
politics, a change partly in the temper of the nation,
partly in the balance of voting power. For thirty
years after the Reform Act of 1832, not only had
the middle classes constituted the majority of
the electors, but the social influence of the great
Whig families and the intellectual influence of
the economic school of Cobden had been potent
factors. These forces were, in the later part of
Disraeli's life, tending to decline. The working-
class vote was vastly increased in 1867. The
old Whig light gradually paled, and many of the
Whig magnates, obeying class sympathies rather
than party traditions, drifted slowly into Toryism.
A generation arose which had not seen the Free
Trade struggle, or had forgotten the Free Trade
arguments, and which was attracted by ideals other
than those which Cobden had preached. The

64 Biographical Studies

grievances which had made men reformers had
been largely removed. The battle of liberty and
nationality in Continental Europe had been in
the main won, and Englishmen had lost the
enthusiasm for freedom which had fired them in
the days when the memory of their own struggle
against the Crown and the oligarchy was still
fresh. With none of these changes had Disraeli's
personal action much to do, but they all enured
to the benefit of his party, they all swelled the
tide which bore him into office in 1874.

Finally, he had the great advantage of living
long. Many a statesman has died at fifty,
and passed from the world's memory, who might
have become a figure in history with twenty years
more of life. Had Disraeli's career closed in
1854, he would have been remembered as a
parliamentary gladiator, who had produced a few
incisive speeches, a crude Budget, and some
brilliant social and political sketches. The
stronger parts of his character might have re-
mained unknown. True it is that a man must
have greatness in order to stand the test of long
life. Some are found out, like Louis Napoleon.
Some lose their balance and therewith their
influence, like Lord Brougham. Some cease to
grow or learn, and if a statesman is not better
at sixty than he was at thirty, he is worse.
Some jog heavily on, like Metternich, or stiffen
into arbitrary doctrinaires, like Guizot. Disraeli

Lord Beaconslield 65

did not merely stand the test, he gained im-
mensely by it. He gained by rising into a
position where his strength could show itself.
He gained also by so impressing his individuality
upon people as to make them accept it as an
ultimate fact, till at length they came, not so much
to blame him for what he did in accord with his
established reputation, as rather to relish and

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 4 of 29)