In 1992, Robert Blake, the distinguished historian and biographer, compiled The Sayings of Disraeli, a slim volume containing the famous Tory leader’s timeless observations on life and politics. At the request of the publishers, Alistair Lexden has supplied a preface for a new edition of this book. In it, he attempts to explain why Disraeli is still remembered so vividly so long after his death.
Many people have written about Benjamin Disraeli, but none so brilliantly as Robert Blake, the doyen of Conservative historians. His Disraeli, published in 1966, is one of the greatest of all political biographies. It stands today unchallenged as the finest scholarly, and yet intensely readable, portrayal of an exotic genius who in his lifetime liked to shroud himself in mystery.
More than twenty-five years after the appearance of his magnum opus, Robert Blake gathered together his collection of sayings, which distil the essence of the extraordinary figure who puzzled and amazed his contemporaries. He delighted in irony. ‘Always stick to irony’, he said, ‘there you are safe’. He added to it a wit that anticipated Oscar Wilde. The combination glitters in his series of political novels, a genre that he invented.
Devotees will have their favourites among the thirteen novels he published with long gaps between 1826 and 1880 (when he was 75); mine are Coningsby (1844) and Lothair (1870), the book which, coming two years after his first government, made him the only prime ministerial novelist in British history.
The problems that vexed his heroes are with us still in essence. Only the form has changed. Conservatives are still wondering what they should conserve. In portraying, as he does in Coningsby, the conflict between political compromise and political principle, Disraeli portrays the eternal dilemma of politics.
He exerts a perennial fascination.He was wholly unpredictable. In his drawing room hung portraits of Lord Byron and Queen Victoria, a most unlikely duo. He was entirely free from the moral censoriousness which creates such a barrier between our world and that of the Victorians. It is impossible to imagine his great adversary, Gladstone, leading a political party in any age other than his own. Dizzy would have clambered to the top of the greasy pole if he had lived today,sustained by his eternal optimism.
Leading a minority government in the Commons in 1867, he secured his greatest parliamentary triumph, which gave many working men the right to vote, by brilliant manoeuvres which won him the temporary support of first one opposition group, and then another. Tories charged with passing Brexit could—indeed should-- have learned much from him.
He is the only British statesman ever to have inspired a posthumous cult. In the thirty years after his death, some two million votaries worshipped his name and re-read his words endlessly as members of over 2,000 branches of the Primrose League, whose symbol was believed (almost certainly wrongly) to have been his favourite flower.
On the strength of a few, quite modest measures of social reform passed towards the end of his career, he was hailed in the twentieth century as a pioneer of the welfare state, emerging ultimately as the mascot of Mrs Thatcher’s ‘wet’ Tory opponents who accused her of abandoning his commitment to One Nation, a phrase he never used (Stanley Baldwin coined it in 1924). Others claimed him too. Michael Foot’s admiration led him to call a favourite dog Dizzy.
Late in life, Disraeli was asked how he imagined the hero of his first novel, Vivian Grey, had died. ‘They say he still lives’, the great man replied. He too acquired immortality.