The Magazine

The Inventor of Modern Conservatism

From the February 7, 2005 issue: Disraeli and us.

Feb 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 20 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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HE WAS BORN IN 1804. He ran up debts as a young man that followed him deep into middle age. He wrote novels throughout his career; some made splashes, some were critical successes, some became famous--but none made big sales or big money until Lothair, which appeared when he was 65. He ran for Parliament and lost four times before he finally won in 1837. His maiden speech in the House of Commons was a famous fiasco. It was baroque and overblown--and (furthermore) Disraeli had brazenly offended an opposition clique earlier in the session; that was his real mistake. By the end of the speech he was all but drowned out by hoots, howls, and hisses. He finished with a celebrated promise, shouted at the top of his lungs so that people would hear: "Ay, sir, and though I sit down now, the time will come when you will hear me!"

In Parliament and the Tory party, he worked his passage by skill, nerve, and transcendent talent, facing down a fair (though not disabling) load of anti-Semitism along the way. When the Earl of Derby retired in 1868 and it was his turn at last to lead the party and become prime minister, some Tories grudged him his position. His first term as prime minister lasted only 11 months. The six years of his "great ministry" began in 1874, when he was 69 and starting to fail in health and strength. "Power came to him too late in life," his protégé T.E. Kebbel admits in his 1907 memoirs. Victoria created him Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876; he died in '81. Yet for all his tribulations, his career in the end was such a blowout triumph that "from the hour of his death," Lord Randolph Churchill (Winston's father) wrote, "every Tory, in and out of Parliament, high or low, rich or poor, had exclaimed, muttered or thought: 'Oh, if Lord Beaconsfield were alive!'" "Disraeli's life was a succession of surprises," the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911 reports, "but none so great as that he should be remembered after death more widely, lastingly, respectfully, affectionately, than any other statesman in the long reign of Queen Victoria."

You could summarize his career, Lord Randolph thought, in a single sentence: "Failure, failure, failure, partial success, renewed failure, ultimate and complete triumph." The one ineffably sad thing about his life was that his beloved, devoted wife died in 1872, two years before he embarked at last on his triumphant great ministry.

If Disraeli had never become prime minister he would be famous anyway, for dreaming up modern conservatism and (some argue) the two-party system itself in its modern form. If he had never entered Parliament he would still be famous, for helping mold England's social conscience--which England passed on to America and the West.

He would be famous in other ways too. Robert Blake writes of Disraeli's two best-known novels, Coningsby and Sybil, that "he would be remembered for these if he had written nothing else and never become a minister." Gertrude Himmelfarb calls him co-inventor of the "social problem" novel; Isaiah Berlin names him "inventor of the political novel." His novels can be slapdash, but at their best they have the witty crystalline prose, the penetration and grace of F. Scott Fitzgerald at his best--although Disraeli (like Fitzgerald) was too apt to coast without pedaling, seduced by his own brilliance. ("When I want to read a novel," he said, "I write one.")

And he would be remembered, had he never entered politics, as a wit and a phrase-maker. When the champagne appeared at a badly prepared banquet: "Thank God for something warm." In a speech at Oxford: "Is man an ape or an angel? I, my lord, I am on the side of the angels." A man should retire when he reaches "his anecdotage." In an 1878 letter: "It is not the beginning of the end; it is the end of the beginning." (There is this and other evidence that Churchill read him closely.)

But above all Disraeli would be remembered, practical politics aside, as a thinker who grappled in his own way with the hardest problems of all.

WHAT SORT OF MAN WAS HE? Sara Austen, friend of his youth, writes revealingly that Disraeli was "so actively kind." (Her emphasis.) He did not merely have good intentions; he was a good man. He might have been the most tactful Briton of the 19th century. When the queen published some slight notes (Leaves from the Journal of our life in the Highlands), he found occasion to begin a sentence: "We authors, Ma'am . . . "--which evidently made a big impression. He once told his wife, who had stayed up late to serve him his favorite dinner upon his return from the House, "Why, my Dear, you are more like a mistress than a wife!" She told the story to Kebbel, and "I could see," Kebbel writes, "that she took it as a very high compliment indeed." Naturally.