In September 1825, a curly-haired youth by the name of Benjamin Disraeli took his first trip north of the River Trent. He stopped at York for one night and half a day. He described the experience in a letter to the publisher John Murray.
“I arrived at York in the midst of the Grand Musical Festival. It was late at night when I arrived, but the streets were crowded, and continued so for hours. I never witnessed a city in such an extreme bustle, and so delightfully gay. It was a perfect carnival.
“I postponed my journey from five in the morning to eleven, and by so doing got an hour for the Minster. York Minster baffles all conception. Westminster Abbey is a toy to it. I think it is impossible to conceive of what Gothic architecture is susceptible until you see York.
“I witnessed in York another splendid sight – the pouring in of all the nobility and gentry of the neighbouring counties. The four-in-hands of the Yorkshire squires, the splendid rivalry in liveries and outriders, and the immense quantity of gorgeous equipages formed a scene which you can only witness in the mighty and aristocratic county of York.”
As a young man, Disraeli had a habit of exaggerating. But on the splendour of Yorkshire, he found an unlikely ally.
Years later, Disraeli’s description of York Minster was published in a biography of John Murray. This biography was bought by Disraeli’s fierce rival, William Gladstone. When Gladstone read Disraeli’s breathless portrait of Yorkshire, he placed a small, but neatly formed tick in the margins – recording for posterity that when it came to York Minster at least, he was on Disraeli’s side.
Disraeli made one other important trip to Yorkshire. In 1844, he gave a speech in the manufacturing town of Bingley. By this point, his writing style had been watered down, and the speech he gave that night was one of the finest of his career.
“We are asked sometimes what we want,” Disraeli told his audience. “We want, in the first place, to impress on society that there is such a thing as duty. We do not do that in any spirit of conceit or arrogance. We do not pretend that we are any better than others, but that we are anxious to do our duty, and if so, we think that we have a right to call on others to do theirs.
“If that principle of duty has not been lost sight of for the last 50 years you would never have heard of the classes into which England is divided. We want to put an end to that political and social exclusiveness, which we believe to be the bane of this country. We don’t come out like a pack of pedants to tell you that we are prepared to remedy every grievance by the square and rule. It is not so much to the action of laws as to the influence of manners that we must look. But how are manners to influence men if they are divided into classes, if the population of a country becomes a body of sections, a group of hostile garrisons?”
Over time, these ideas about society grew in importance for the Conservative Party. In 1926, another Conservative leader gave a speech in Scarborough in which he repeated, word for word, the passage above by Disraeli.
As Stanley Baldwin explained, Disraeli in the 1840s had tried to invent a new kind of Conservatism. Baldwin called it “One Nation”. It didn’t really matter that Disraeli never used the phrase “One Nation”. It was enough that Disraeli’s speeches and writings had sent a signal and pointed the way for future Conservatives.
This brings us to the main point about Disraeli’s legacy. In our new book about Disraeli we make clear that many of the traditional reasons for admiring Disraeli – indeed, the whole basis for the myth which surrounds his memory – are a mistake. We are right to remember Disraeli, but not for the reasons many people celebrate him today.
For example, Disraeli was not a One Nation Conservative. In his novel, Sybil, Disraeli wrote emphatically of Two Nations – the Rich and the Poor – so different from each other that they couldn’t be reconciled. This point is proved by the plot: the marriage between the upper-class hero and working-class heroine only becomes possible once they have discovered that the heroine is an heiress after all.
Nor was Disraeli a Tory Democrat. He manoeuvred his party with immaculate skill into a position where it passed the Second Reform Act, but Disraeli mainly did this to rescue his own career. And when Disraeli became Prime Minister in the 1870s, he would often fall asleep when social legislation was discussed in Cabinet. Instead, Disraeli’s most powerful strength was the creative energy with which he transformed Victorian politics. The public were fascinated by his speeches in the Commons. As one letter to Disraeli explained: “I never listened to a speech of yours without thinking, this word, this sentence, will be remembered a hundred years hence.”
The result was that half a century before mass democracy, Disraeli made Parliament popular. By contrast, today we live in a fully-fledged democracy, and yet Parliament is as unpopular as it has ever been. Why is this the case? There are clues in Disraeli’s career.
By every standard of contemporary politics, Disraeli should have been a failure. He was steeped in debt and sunk in controversy; he cheated and lied repeatedly. Yet over time, he lifted himself above these indiscretions. He did so because he breathed life into politics. He never tired of using his imagination to say brilliant, witty, and memorable things.
As it was in the past, so it is in the present. In truth, it is boredom rather than cynicism that most accurately explains the present disillusionment with politics. We are strong in analysis, weak in imagination. Not lacking in strong feeling, but missing genuine eloquence and integrity that can persuade us by lifting our spirits.
To put it plainly: too often today, we are subjected to Parliamentary performances that border on banal. Time and again, politicians operate at the bottom of their abilities, churning out featureless, indeed often thoughtless, phrases. The result is that we are driven to accept, even applaud, the platitudinous exchange of abuse as the essence of politics.
Of course, we are not calling for countless clones of Disraeli. Not all can – or should – try to soar to the heights that he did. Imagination can show itself in many ways. What matters, and is missing today, is that politicians should show genuine independence of thought when they debate. They should stir themselves to find imaginative ways of making an argument, not simply repeat the lines to take.
This in the end was Disraeli’s great achievement. He may not have reformed the nature of British society. He may not have transformed our standing overseas. But he did make politics interesting and engaging – including for those with no vote. Just as he wrote about York Minster in the 1820s, so we can say about Disraeli today: as a politician, Disraeli baffles all conception; those in Westminster are but a toy beside him.
Douglas Hurd is a former Foreign Secretary. He has co-written Disraeli: or The Two Lives (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20) with York scholar Edward Young.