Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Benjamin Disraeli: reaching the dizzy heights in politics

Benjamin Disraeli reached the supreme summit of his ambitions when he entered the House of Commons as Prime Minister in February 1868.

The politician who became affectionately known as ‘Dizzy’ had first entered Parliament in 1837. He was jeered and shouted down when, as MP for Maidstone, he made his maiden speech. He sat down in defeat, saying, “I sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.”

His prophecy came true.

Lord Melbourne, who had condescendingly explained to Disraeli in 1834 why the likes of him could never become Prime Minister, said in 1848 after hearing that Disraeli had become Leader of the Opposition, “By God! The fellow will do it yet.”

He was right. Unfortunately, Melbourne didn’t live long enough to see his words come true.

What might be called The Politician’s Progress had been an uphill battle.

Disraeli spent around three quarters of his political career in opposition, some of it between terms as Prime Minister. He would have needed preternatural amounts of ambition, endurance, patience, persistence and determination, not to mention patronage by prominent people and emotional support, to recover from all the disappointments, setbacks, opposition and criticism, overcome all his handicaps, stay the course and reach his goal.

Was it all worth it?
Only Disraeli himself could tell us whether the game was worth the candle; all we can do is speculate.

I have seen what happens to some people when they concentrate obsessively on getting something, often to the exclusion of everything else.

Some of them attract forces that stop them getting it.

Some end up with what seems like a fifth-rate travesty of what they really wanted. In other cases, everything backfires and they get the exact opposite of what they had hoped for, perhaps losing what they already had.

None of this was for Benjamin Disraeli: he got exactly what he wanted. He became very powerful politically and all the top people knew who he was. He moved in the highest circles in the land. Queen Victoria became his friend.

But did he feel that he had come home and made it at last, or did he suffer from what is now called imposter’s syndrome?

Did his triumph turn to dust and ashes and did his success do what he hoped it would do? Was it a case of too little, too late?

Was he up to dealing with the duties and responsibilities of his position?

There are many factors, metaphysical, psychological and physical, that prevent people from enjoying what they eventually achieve. The price for getting something may be the ability to cope with it.

The continual use of cynicism, hypocrisy, dissimulation, lack of scruples and manipulation that may be necessary to reach the goal may cause someone’s real self to become so atrophied that they lose the ability to enjoy it. They may become so addicted to living in the future that they are unable to enjoy the present.

Some people may not be able to meet the requirements of their new position or do justice to themselves and the occasion because of old age, ill health and being worn out by the effort it took to get there.

Disraeli was almost 64 years old when he first became Prime Minister. This is not a great age, but he was not a strong, healthy man. He was often ill, and he sometimes fell asleep at meetings. He left the details to others.

It is a personal tragedy for Disraeli that his parents and sister Sarah were all dead by the time he became Prime Minister. His triumph was marred because they did not live to see it. His supportive sister would have been very happy and proud to see him reach the top. Disraeli rarely mentioned his mother, which speaks for itself. His great triumph would have shown her that he was worth something after all.

These deaths remind me of Charlotte Brontë and how her siblings all died just as she was making a name for herself as an author.

Damning criticism of Disraeli
Benjamin Disraeli has been called an adventurer and a man without principles, without feeling, without regard to anything beyond his personal ambition, a man who would do anything to gain high office.

It has been said that Machiavellian subtlety, feelings of what is now called narcissistic entitlement, cynicism and extreme vengefulness are among the attributes that helped him to realise his political and social ambitions and turn his fantasies of power into reality.

His great enemy and rival William Gladstone said that Disraeli was all show and no substance.

A biographer called him one of the greatest liars in British history.

From a study first published in 1905:

 "That whole character is complete in its selfishness, the whole career is uniform in its dishonesty. Throughout his whole life, I do not find even on a single occasion, a generous emotion, one self sacrificing act, a moment of sincere conviction except that of the almighty perfection of himself. I find him uniform in all his dealings with his fellow man, and behind every word he utters I can only see the ever vigilant custodian of his own interest. There is, throughout the same selfishness, calm, patient, unhasting, unresting.

Such a man the myriads of this mighty Empire accept as chief ruler; for such a man, millions of pure hearts beat with genuine emotion; to such a man is given to sway, by his single will, your fortunes and mine, and even those of countless generations to come. Which shall a near posterity most wonder at, the audacity of the imposter, or the blindness of the dupe? The immensity of the worship or the pettiness of the idol?"

T. P. O'Connor in The Life of Lord Beaconsfield

This was published after Disraeli’s death, but the great stateman had to endure much criticism from an early age.

He said that his fictional works embody his feelings. He wrote this in his autobiographical novel Contarini Fleming in 1832:

With what horror, with what supreme, appalling astonishment, did I find myself for the first time in my life a subject of the most ruthless, the most malignant, and the most adroit ridicule. I was scarified. I was scalped. The criticism fell from my hand, a film floated over my vision; my knees trembled. I felt that sickness of heart that we experience in our first serious scrape. I was ridiculous, it was time to die.

Hypersensitivity to criticism is often associated with narcissism. It is also likely that self-made men and people who take an individual path in life feel things much more strongly than the collective-minded majority.

Disraeli developed an air of indifference, but he probably suffered greatly behind the mask. Even when it is justified, criticism can feel very hurtful to such a man.

Dizzy explains something of himself
Much of the inner workings of Benjamin Disraeli’s mind remain a mystery, at least in his later years. His early letters, notes and autobiographical novels provide some clues to his personality.

I wonder whether he ever regretted baring his soul and presenting himself as an unacknowledged young genius in the novels. This indiscretion, which at the time was just an attempt to attract attention and win renown for his writing, haunted him for the rest of his life.

He wrote this in a letter to his father in 1830:

“To govern men, you must either excel them in their accomplishments, or despise them."

Was he already thinking about how best to rule the world?

From Disraeli’s diary for 1833:

The world calls me conceited. The world is in error. I trace all the blunders of my life to sacrificing my own opinion to that of others. When I was considered very conceited indeed I was nervous and had self-confidence only by fits. I intend in future to act entirely from my own impulse. I have an unerring instinct — I can read characters at a glance; few men can deceive me.

My mind is a continental mind. It is a revolutionary mind. I am only truly great in action. If ever I am placed in a truly eminent position I shall prove this. I could rule the House of Commons, although there would be a great prejudice against me at first.“

His high opinion of himself may indeed make him seem conceited and perhaps out of touch with reality, but in that last sentence he was right on both counts.

A major factor here is that Disraeli did exactly what he said he would do. What is often called grandiosity in someone may actually be a premonition of their ultimate destiny and a realistic evaluation of their talents.

Benjamin Disraeli in 1878, three years before his death: