Books interview: the life and career of Benjamin Disraeli

Douglas Hurd has co-authored a new book about the life and career of Benjamin Disraeli. Here, he tells Matt Elton what the Victorian prime minister really believed, and how Disraeli's approach could help improve British politics in the 21st century

Benjamin Disraeli, former prime minister of Great Britain. "The thing he succeeded in doing was making politics interesting," says Douglas Hurd. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

This article first appeared in the August 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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What first attracted you to writing about Benjamin Disraeli?

When I was writing about Robert Peel a few years ago, one thing that struck me about his life is how relentless Disraeli was in attacking him, and eventually destroying his political career. So that led me on to ponder: here you had two talented men, with quite different talents, and one of them was hunting the other. How did that happen, why was that so, what does that really say about Disraeli?

What do you most admire about him?

I think the thing that he succeeded in doing was making politics interesting – exciting, even. He was excited by politics himself, and managed to find, in his books and speeches, ways of putting across – particularly to young people – that excitement. The kinds of people that he was really interested in involving in politics were elderly ladies and good-looking young men – not because he was gay, but because those people swam into his orbit.

What do you think Disraeli’s views on class were?

He didn’t, I think, use the word ‘class’ very much. It was in the back of his mind, but he certainly thought of Britain as basically divided between the rich and the poor: the rich were educated and had all the advantages, and the poor were miserable. He’s often thought of as being a ‘one-nation Tory’, but that’s just not exact. He never used the phrase ‘one nation’ himself, and actually believed in two nations, with the difference between the two, the rich and the poor, being so great that it couldn’t really be overcome. It was one of the facts of life. Of course, the rich had to behave decently – that was part of their vocation, as it were – but he certainly didn’t agree with the fusing of classes. That’s one of the myths about Disraeli.

Do you think that his association with democracy is another myth?

Again, it’s inexact. He certainly did not believe in democratic rule, and he did not believe that the people were always right.

He did think that they were important, though. The House of Commons was his battlefield, where he was really very good. Outside, he wasn’t particularly brilliant at making big speeches, but he used the House as a means of promoting his own ideas and what he pretended to believe in.

It’s interesting that you say “pretended to believe”. This was a man, after all, torn about which party to join

Yes, he actually wrote a little book called Who Is He? entirely about himself, [which was] completely self-centred. He was a radical by nature: he didn’t believe in pompous people, and he was always ‘pricking balloons’. But he came to the conclusion, having looked at and flirted with all the alternatives, that the Tory party had a pedigree, a history, that suited him, and so he set about remaking it. He smashed the party through his attack on Peel, and then the rest of his life was spent rebuilding it and putting himself at the top.

Which of Disraeli’s performances in the House of Commons do you rate the highest?

I think the nights that he spent attacking Peel in the House of Commons are probably the best examples of parliamentary oratory that we’ve got. I don’t think anybody, before or after, was better at this particular style. He very rarely raised his voice – he talked in quite an even way – but every now and again, right at the end of a speech, he opened up his batteries and really let go.

He was a good-looking man, but he had a sallow face, and he specialised in keeping it straight, and not laughing at his own jokes, although some of them were very funny.

It was a different, more entertaining style of oratory – it was calculated to amuse as well as to persuade.

Is there any legislation for which he’s thought of particularly positively?

One of the causes that he took up, because it was obviously going to be important, was the question of who had the vote. He passed the Second Reform Bill, in 1867, really by a series of conjuring tricks. This greatly increased the number of people who had the vote. So to that extent he did enable a move towards democracy, although he didn’t actually believe in going the whole way. He didn’t believe that women should have the vote, and he didn’t believe that ‘down and out’ people had the right to the vote because he didn’t think they were qualified to use it.

What was his major achievement?

There were a number of things. He increased the number of people who could vote, which you could say was a big step forward. He got the idea of empire – although I don’t think he really believed in it. He built that up so that the next generation of people was the generation that read a lot of Kipling and really believed in the British empire. They were led into that by Disraeli, and by some of the things that he said.

He did some practical things, too, which weren’t really solely his own: his junior ministers, his home secretaries and so on, did a lot of the legislation. But it was good stuff: helping people to buy their houses, cleaning up the rivers, cleaning up all the filth that went with the industrial revolution. But, again, he went to sleep when these things were discussed in cabinet. I mean, he wasn’t really interested, but nevertheless he did do some things that were worthwhile.

How does today’s politics compare?

It’s not so much that people are suspicious of politics, or hate politicians, it’s just that they’re bored stiff by most of it. So we need a Disraeli – someone who will get through to people, but in a different way. They’ve got to be entertained, they’ve got to be amused, as well as educated in the realities of politics. We have to catch people’s imagination and, in a way, I think successive governments have failed to do that.

We mention, in the book, the ‘Boris phenomenon’. Here’s a chap who has been re-elected as mayor of London, and who has the gift of entertaining people. You may think that he entertains people too much –he certainly laughs at his own jokes, which Disraeli did not do. But he is providing entertainment as well as education, and that’s a good thing. If people, particularly young people, are going to be interested in politics, they’ve got to have something to latch on to.

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Douglas Hurd first entered parliament in 1974 as Conservative MP for the Mid-Oxfordshire constituency and went on to serve under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major in a series of cabinet roles, including minister for Europe and home secretary. He is the author of Disraeli: Or, The Two Lives (W&N)