Saturday, August 19, 2017

Benjamin Disraeli: getting started in politics

Disraeli: a Personal History by Christopher Hibbert is just one of the many available biographies of Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister and Earl of Beaconsfield. It is the only one that I have read in full. 

I read it because I hoped to find more examples of unseen influences at work in Disraeli’s life. I finished it feeling slightly disappointed as I did not find many examples of what I was looking for.

I also felt a little disillusioned; the great statesman felt drawn to Westminster not by a vocation or calling, not by principles, ideology or any sense of public service but by self-interest, inordinate ambition and vanity. The desire for fame and the need to make his presence felt at the highest levels of society were Disraeli’s main reasons for entering politics. He decided that a political career was the best route for getting where he wanted to go. 

The immunity of Members of Parliament from being arrested for debt had something to do with it too.

With information from the book and some that I found online, I have enough relevant and inspiring material for another article or two about this fascinating man.

Paving the way for the great destiny to come
Benjamin Disraeli’s father Isaac (D’Israeli) had all of his children baptised into the Church of England, although he himself never abandoned Judaism. Benjamin was 12 years old when Isaac took this unusual step, which was fortunate for him as otherwise he would never have been able to have a political career.

Predictions of the great destiny to come
I was amused to learn that Disraeli played Parliament games with his siblings as a boy. He was Prime Minister and the others were the Opposition.

In Disraeli’s autobiographical novel Contarini Fleming - A Psychological Romance, which was published in 1834 before he was even a Member of Parliament, Contarini’s father makes a prophecy that his son will become Prime Minister of some great state. 

When Disraeli was around 30 years old, Lord Melbourne, who wanted to help him advance in life and who had considered making him his private secretary, asked Disraeli what he wanted to be.  “I want to be Prime Minister”, came the astonishing and presumptuous reply.

Lord Melbourne, an aristocrat who was twice Prime Minister himself, told Disraeli that there was no chance of that in their lifetimes. He said that the requirements for the position included being in the prime of life and fame, old blood, high rank, great fortune and great ability. It was also essential to have been to the right school and university. This probably hit Disraeli where it hurt most as he had none of these attributes, which he valued greatly.

Disraeli’s race and flamboyant, Byronic appearance were liabilities too.

Melbourne told him that he would probably do well in politics at the lower levels, but he must forget the foolish notion of becoming Prime Minister.

Disraeli was not discouraged. Perhaps he sensed the great future ahead of him, or perhaps it was a case of:

Who so best him round, with dismal stories
Do but themselves confound - his strength the more is.

I remember telling people on a few occasions what I was going to do, only to have them play the ‘concerned citizen’ and ‘who do you think you are’ games and, just as Lord Melbourne did, tell me that I would never do it because I couldn’t meet the requirements; I was setting myself up for a big disappointment; I would only hurt myself by aiming too high. 

I admit that my plans were very ambitious for someone like me and my chances were almost non-existent, but I eventually did what I said I was going to do. Maybe I sensed the path before me and saw what was to come.

If someone is on the wrong road, the sooner they get off it the better; if they are on the right road, they should let nothing and no one deter them from going ahead.

The worst possible combination of fears
A key element in Benjamin Disraeli’s character was the horror of mediocrity. A mundane life was not worth living; it was a fate worse than death. 

Fear of having to live as an ordinary person was bad enough; it was even worse when coupled with the fear that he had not got the necessary abilities to realise the fame and fortune of his dreams. The rich, famous and great were the only people worth knowing but to get into those circles he would have to become one of them, which was very difficult for an outsider from the middle classes who was full of self-doubt after the failure of several enterprises.

He said:

I am one of those to whom moderate reputation can give no pleasure and who, in all probability, am incapable of achieving a great one.

Contarini Fleming, the main character in Disraeli’s autobiographical novel Contarini Fleming - A Psychological Romance, says that the cold, dull world knows nothing about the agony of doubt and despair that is the doom of youthful genius. Contarini goes on to say:

“To sigh for fame in obscurity is like sighing in a dungeon for light...But, to feel the strong necessity of fame, and to be conscious that without intellectual excellence life must be insupportable – to feel all of this with no simultaneous faith in your power – these are moments of despondency for which no immortality can compensate.

Perhaps his novel writing helped Disraeli to fill the gap and relieve the tension between limitless aspiration and restricted reality.

Having quite a good life but seeing it as nothing compared to what is possible and being desperate to escape to something far better without having the means to do so reminds me of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel, who hated her life above the shop but had no obvious attributes that would lift her out of it.

I think that people in this situation are in danger of selling their souls.

Getting on the right path at last
Disraeli made several false starts in his frantic search for Napoleonic status. Despite his father’s dream of seeing his son as a lawyer, Disraeli abandoned his legal studies and mundane life as a solicitor’s clerk in favour of some ‘get rich quick’ schemes.

He failed as a financier and businessman: his investment and publishing initiatives came to nothing; they were major disasters that left him with huge debts. He thought of setting up as a country gentleman, but that too came to nothing.

His novel writing, which was not a disaster and which brought in some useful spending money, had not set the world on fire nor done what he hoped it would do. He had been exposed as a fraud: at first the novels were published anonymously and promoted as being written by a man of fashion, a member of the high society that they described, then the author was exposed as being an outsider, an upstart, a parvenu, a nobody.

All these failures made Disraeli very depressed and ill; he lost all confidence in himself and was overwhelmed with disappointment and despair. This period in his life lasted for four years.

We know that he played at Prime Minister when he was a small boy. 

The conversation with Lord Melbourne took place after his recovery, when he was on the road to a political career.

What happened in between these events? When did he make the firm decision to enter politics?

Disraeli had learned that there was not enough scope for his ambition in being a lawyer, scholar or writer. He was ineligible and unsuitable for many of the professions chosen by ambitious young men, professions such as the Church and the military.

His attention had moved to the world of action. After the failures of various money-making enterprises, what else remained but the world of politics?

It sometimes happens that people who have been lost and floundering have a moment of illumination and see something that looks like a way out of their difficulties and the answer to all of their problems. Others investigate possibilities and slowly arrive at a decision.

This extract from Vivian Grey, which was written and published in 1826 when Disraeli was 21 years old, suggests to me that Disraeli had the flash of inspiration:

And now everything was solved! The inexplicable longings of his soul, which had so often perplexed him, were at length explained. The want, the indefinable want, which he had so constantly experienced, was at last supplied; the grand object on which to bring the powers of his mind to bear and work was at last provided. He paced his chamber in an agitated spirit, and panted for the Senate.

Vivian Grey, who like many of Disraeli’s heroes was based on Disraeli himself, does not know what to do with his life. He reads a lot of history and finally realises that his future lies in politics. A political career is only way to obtain the kind of fame he craves.

I have experienced this flash of inspiration myself. It gave me something to focus on and to live for; it made me think, “Of course! That’s what I will do. What a relief, my future is settled at last.”

Getting in at last
After several unsuccessful attempts, Benjamin Disraeli entered the House of Commons in 1837 as Member of Parliament for Maidstone. 

So it took him 11 years from inspiration to manifestation.

I did it in five years.

At this point, it may seem that all our problems have come to an end, but they have only just started.


Benjamin Disraeli wrote and said much that is worth repeating: