Edinburgh Book Festival: A New Look at Disraeli Review

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Edinburgh Book Festival
Douglas Hurd and Edward Young with Allan Little, Chair
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This was a totally fascinating and entertaining hour with Douglas Hurd and Edward Young, ably chaired by Allan Little.

Douglas Hurd started by saying how glad he was to be at the Edinburgh Book Festival as the flyleaf of a recent book said that, "Lord Hurd had died..."

Hurd told us that Disraeli had a always fascinated both Edward Young and himself as he was something of an enigma - born a Jew, with no real education and with many character defects he still managed to become the Prime Minister of Britain.

It was, he said, even more astonishing that in the Oxford Book of Quotations there are some eighty quotes from Disraeli and yet only fifty or so from Churchill. He said Disraeli was passionate about being witty and making his mark 'for the present' rather than after his death. So, Hurd said, there seemed to be plenty to investigate and research for the third book of the trilogy that Edward Young and Hurd had written together.

Edward Young reminded the audience of the saying that, "the problem with being old is that you have no energy, but when you are young you have no experience". However, he felt that Douglas Hurd totally disproved this for many reasons, one being that he must be the only man to have read all Disraeli's novels, other than Disraeli himself!

Young indicated that really Disraeli was not the originator of 'one nation conservatism' as he always contrived to circumvent problems; he illustrated this by reference to the novel "Sybil" where an aristocratic Tory meets a stranger in a graveyard and falls in love with her, but she is very poor and he thinks all is lost, however, everything is well in the end because Sybil turns out to actually be an heiress!

But for Disraeli, his one intention was to be famous and he needed to be remarkable; fame today, not posthumous fame is what he craved.

Young described Disraeli's dress in 1825 with perhaps a bottle green frock coat, britches of light brown, gloves and rings on his fingers - outside the gloves.

He was a dandy in his dress. With his shock of dark curly hair he was thought to be Moorish and would sometimes exclaim at a dinner party, "Allah is great", which always made an impact!

He loved to move in high society and greatly enjoyed dinner parties, however, as a writer he was really a failure. He needed something to give him a platform so he went into Parliament - or tried to do so but failed four times, eventually securing the seat for Maidstone. This allowed him some protection from arrest because he was being pursued for several outstanding debts.

In Parliament he made a poor maiden speech and was booed and jeered so much that he had to sit down uttering the famous phrase, "I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me."

Although sometimes disputed, this phrase was confirmed by Gladstone who agreed that he had heard Disraeli say it. Eventually Disraeli received some advice to the effect that to be a success in Parliament you need to be boring!

Disraeli adopted this and used to speak in the House of Commons wearing his top hat, which MPs used to do then, and hardly moving. Using this approach Disraeli attacked Robert Peel constantly over the repeal of the Corn Laws and this led to a split in the Conservative Party where he was the only person left capable on his side of forming a Government. Disraeli had never forgiven Peel for ignoring him when earlier selecting his Government and now Disraeli felt he had exacted his revenge.

When eventually Disraeli became leader, Young described the atmosphere of distrust that existed among his followers, which was partly because he was a Jew, but also because he had also shown himself to be unreliable. Added to which with the party then in Opposition he had a thankless task to discharge.

In 1867 the Electoral Reform Act was introduced giving more people the power to vote. Having engineered the defeat of the Liberal Reform Bill of 1866 the aim was to secure more votes for the party and so produce an overall majority for the Conservatives to form a Government.

Disraeli helped to ensure this victory with Lord Derby, but in fact it was really foreign affairs that interested him. In spite of the terrible defeats by the Zulus and the killings of British troops in Kabul somehow Disraeli managed to appear successful.

As Prime Minister in 1868 his actions such as buying Suez Canal shares which he made a great show of securing and making Queen Victoria the Empress of India caught the imagination. Incidentally this put Victoria on the same level as the Emperor of Russia - both being Emperors. He claimed that his success in dealing with the Queen was, "never to contradict, never deny and occasionally to forget".

He also went to the Congress of Berlin peace conference in 1878 where he claimed a success and spoke of "having brought back peace with honour". Fortunately he had Lord Salisbury with him to tell him where countries were on the map! To Disraeli this sort of thing was a tedious detail.

As he got old he regretted that success came too late and he had wanted to enjoy it earlier. With age came a sensitivity to the weather and he became ill. When the Queen asked to come and see him he said, "I think not, she will only ask me to take a message to Albert!".

He died on the 19th April 1881. Edward Young explained how this led to a new 'Disraeli boom' with the founding of the Primrose League which grew to some two million members. It was called this because the Queen thought that the primrose was Disraeli's favourite flower - in fact he admired all flowers, but the Queen thought otherwise. Even today we hear of Ed Miliband claiming Labour to be a 'one nation party' although this is balanced by John Prescott who asked, "who the hell is Disraeli?"

This was a scintillating hour with two brilliantly informed speakers and whose book, "A New Look at Disraeli" will be well worth reading.