By Dominic Sandbrook
There were two big winners from this week’s Labour Party conference. One was Ed Miliband, whose set-piece speech, delivered fluently and without notes, passed off better than even his admirers could have imagined.
The other was a man who has been dead for more than a century, but still casts a shadow over British politics.
By any standards, Benjamin Disraeli, whose spirit the Labour leader invoked with such fervour, was an extraordinary figure.
He was Britain’s only Jewish Prime Minister and one of the founders of the modern Conservative Party. In his two spells in office in the 1860s and 1870s, he invaded Afghanistan and made Queen Victoria Empress of India.
He was a brilliant speaker, an accomplished novelist and a flamboyant showman. But not even someone with Disraeli’s gargantuan self-regard could have expected that one day he would dominate a socialist party conference.
According to his cheerleaders in the press, Mr Miliband’s resuscitation of Disraeli was a political masterstroke. Presenting himself as the heir to Disraeli’s One Nation Conservatism — by one count, he used the words ‘One Nation’ no fewer than 46 times — the Labour leader temporarily banished talk of Red Ed, the union barons’ friend.
All his talk of One Nation made him sound reasonable, moderate, even sensible. On the surface, he seemed to be claiming the middle ground for Labour, as Tony Blair famously did in the Nineties.
What really appealed to Mr Miliband about the One Nation slogan, though, is that it invites an implicit comparison with David Cameron’s Tories.
Disraeli’s vision, Mr Miliband told his supporters, was ‘a vision of a Britain where patriotism, loyalty, dedication to the common cause courses through the veins of all and nobody feels left out’. But modern Tories, he said, had a very different mantra: ‘One rule for those at the top, another rule for everybody else. Two nations, not one.’
Of course, that is precisely the kind of thing that Labour leaders always say. But Mr Miliband’s words should have set alarm bells ringing in No 10.
To many hard-working people, struggling through a second recession in just four years, the Coalition appears desperately out of touch. Many ordinary people bitterly remember George Osborne taxing their pasties and Andrew Mitchell calling police officers ‘plebs’.
When David Cameron takes to the stage in Birmingham next week, therefore, he has work to do. At the very least his supporters will expect him to reclaim Benjamin Disraeli’s legacy for the Tory Party.
Yet the great irony is that Disraeli makes a pretty dreadful model for a modern prime minister. And when Ed Miliband’s admirers at the Guardian have finished whipping themselves into a lather of hysterical admiration for the Victorian leader, they might care to remind themselves what Disraeli actually did.
In Mr Miliband’s vision, Disraeli was a dedicated servant of the national interest, devoted only to the well-being of the poor. But to anyone who knows anything about Victorian politics, the image of a frock-coated Mother Teresa is a laughable caricature.
At bottom, Benjamin Disraeli was interested only in Benjamin Disraeli. His entire political career was devoted to his own advancement; it is not for nothing that he famously boasted of having climbed ‘to the top of the greasy pole’.
As a young man in the 1830s, he tried to make his name as a novelist. But when money and fame were slow to materialise, he decided on politics instead.
Like so many of today’s professional politicians, Disraeli had distinctly mercenary motives. Although his father was a rich literary critic, young Benjamin had run up large debts because of his inordinate fondness for the high life. As an MP, however, the law would protect him from imprisonment for debt.
His principles, meanwhile, were as changeable as the winds.
Having initially pretended to be a radical, he then flirted with ultra-reactionary Toryism, opposing efforts to improve the lot of the downtrodden working classes and scorning attempts to reform the corrupt political system.
Indeed, it spoke volumes about Disraeli’s essentially destructive style that he made his name with a devastating attack on his own party leader, the dogged and serious Sir Robert Peel, who wanted to scrap the archaic Corn Laws which protected British farmers against foreign competition.
Peel and his fellow reformers believed that free trade would benefit ordinary British families, who were naturally delighted at the prospect of cheaper food. But in this crucial test of principle, Disraeli preferred to back the wealthy vested interests of the day.
It was entirely typical of his cynical style, though, that once the Corn Laws had bitten the dust, he made no effort to restore them. Throughout his career, he saw principle as subordinate to tactical self-interest.
Most infamously, he bitterly opposed the Liberals’ attempt to bring in parliamentary reform in 1866. At the time, most people were denied a political voice: the Liberals, however, wanted to extend the franchise to a further 200,000 middle-class voters. That was too much for Disraeli, whose contempt for the common man poured forth in a torrent of bile.
Such a Bill, he said fiercely, would open the polling booths to ‘a horde of selfish and obscure mediocrities, incapable of anything but mischief’.
The Bill failed, the Liberals fell from power and Disraeli became prime minister for the first time. So what did he do? He introduced a very similar measure himself, stealing the Liberals’ clothes and carrying off the credit for reform.
Not surprisingly, Disraeli’s flagrant hypocrisy outraged many of his own supporters. Even Nick Clegg’s broken tuition-fee pledge looks trifling by comparison.
It was, said the Tory grandee Lord Cranborne, a political betrayal with ‘no parallel in our parliamentary annals’. The government, he warned, was now ‘borrowing their ethics from the political adventurer’. Cranborne was not alone in his belief that, in essence, his leader was nothing more than a brilliantly opportunistic con artist.
Today, Disraeli’s admirers like to pretend that he had the interest of the common man at heart all along. But this is nonsense, for as Disraeli’s most recent biographer, the eminent Cambridge historian Jon Parry, shrewdly remarks, his image as a social reformer was invented only after he had died.
Indeed, it is telling that like those other shameless mountebanks David Lloyd George and Tony Blair, Disraeli loved the glamour and intrigue of military adventures abroad.
During his longest spell in office in the late 1870s, British soldiers were plunged into battle against a bizarre variety of foes, from the Afghans to the Zulus.
As so often happens, the common soldiers paid a bloody price for the prime minister’s vanity. In Afghanistan, almost 10,000 young British men lost their lives merely to force the Afghans into accepting London’s control of their foreign affairs.
And in South Africa British troops went down to one of the most humiliating defeats in our history, with the Zulu warriors slaughtering more than a thousand of them in a devastating ambush at Isandlwana.
It was little wonder his critics thought Disraeli represented all that was worst about imperialism. But the truth was that, in the absence of any concrete policies or principles, he instinctively fell back on the basest jingoism.
In 1876, he even conferred on Queen Victoria the title of Empress of India, to the outrage of commentators who objected that such tawdry baubles were basically un-British.
It was pure Disraeli: eye-catching, vainglorious, utterly without shame and ultimately demeaning to all concerned. For Professor Parry, Disraeli’s fundamental quality was his ‘astonishing egotism’.
His letters were full of boasts that he was the man who had arranged affairs, that no one else was on hand to share the responsibility, or that no one else was competent.
Instead of surrounding himself with intellectual equals, like his great Liberal rival William Gladstone, he preferred to associate with ‘sympathetic women who could caress his ego’.
And his personal life, which was full of affairs, fell a long way short of Ed Miliband’s conspicuous uxoriousness. When Disraeli died in 1881, Gladstone nicely summed him up as ‘all show and no substance’. Even his novels, observed the great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, were basically fraudulent.
‘In whatever he has written,’ Trollope remarked, ‘he has affected something which has been intended to strike his readers as uncommon and therefore grand.’ In reality, however, ‘the glory has been the glory of pasteboard, and the wealth has been a wealth of tinsel. The wit has been the wit of hairdressers, and the enterprise has been the enterprise of mountebanks’.
Indeed, on closer inspection even Disraeli’s most celebrated legacy — the principle of One Nation Toryism — begins to evaporate. The phrase derives from his novel Sybil, published in 1845, in which a character warns that Britain is becoming ‘two nations . . . the rich and the poor’.
Yet at the very moment the book was published, Disraeli was fighting against the abolition of the Corn Laws — the one measure most likely to benefit ordinary people.
As Gladstone wisely remarked, his rival’s ideology was nothing more than ‘some vast magnificent castle in an Italian romance’ — a misleading fiction, a brazen fantasy that could not endure the cold winds of reality.
None of that, though, has ever stopped modern politicians from laying claim to the One Nation inheritance. And it is easy to see why they like it.
Talk of One Nation sounds patriotic, inclusive and moderate. In particular, it allows politicians to pretend they are speaking for the entire country against their divisive, malignant opponents.
There is barely a single party leader in the past half-century who has not invoked it at some stage. Tony Blair, for example, once claimed that ‘it is New Labour that now wears the One Nation mantle’. And even Margaret Thatcher once told her party conference that, under her leadership, the Tories would always ‘fly the flag of One Nation’.
The truth is, though, that the One Nation mantra is not just meaningless but positively misleading. It drowns difficult challenges and hard decisions in a bucket of warm treacle. Patriotic treacle, perhaps, but treacle all the same.
It is a myth that political leadership always means bringing people together and obscuring differences. Leadership is often about making tough decisions between different groups — teachers and parents, say, or doctors and patients, or North and South.
What united the most effective prime ministers of recent times, Labour’s Clement Attlee and the Tories’ Mrs Thatcher, was that neither was prepared to sit meekly in the middle of the road. They were happy to take decisions that alienated people.
In both cases, self-styled One Nation Tories queued up to complain that the premiers had divided the nation. But too often the One Nation slogan is merely an excuse for woolly, weedy, do-nothing politics.
As the Labour firebrand Michael Foot once sagely remarked, if you sit in the middle of the road long enough, eventually you will be run over.
So if I were David Cameron next week, I would not bother trying to reclaim Disraeli. Instead, I would proclaim my attachment to a far greater Victorian politician: the Liberal statesman William Gladstone.
Given that he is already in bed with the Lib Dems, Mr Cameron might shudder at the thought of invoking a Liberal hero.
But he would be in good company: no less a figure than Mrs Thatcher, after all, once told her conference that ‘if Mr Gladstone were alive today he would apply to join the Conservative Party’.
Although Gladstone and Disraeli are forever associated in the public imagination, they could hardly have been more different. Disraeli was funnier, more flamboyant and more dashing.
But on almost every count that actually matters, Gladstone was far superior. He was a more convinced reformer, a more imaginative chancellor and a dedicated public servant who genuinely cared about the plight of the poor.
He upheld the principles of free trade, banished corruption from the civil service and introduced universal education for Britain’s children. And although he campaigned passionately for oppressed peoples abroad, he shrank from foreign adven- tures and despised Disraeli’s jingoistic excesses.
Above all, Gladstone was a man of impeccable moral seriousness, a hard-working, high-minded man with the courage to address the thorny issues of the day who left Britain a richer, fairer and more virtuous society than he found it.
How we could do with someone of his intellectual and political stature today. Is there a Gladstone in the House?