Queen Victoria's favorite prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli
(1803-81), seems at first glance impossibly far removed from our
experience. Novelist, wit, orator, arguably the founder of Britain's
modern Conservative Party, Disraeli was an exotic to his
contemporaries and remains an endless fascination to those who study
his life. There were none like him in his time, and not in our time
Still, there is good reason to revisit Disraeli's career. He grappled
with problems astonishingly similar to those facing the United States
today, and in some of the same places, notably the Balkans. Among his
legacies was a settlement that conferred peace for thirty years in
that tortured region without the posting of a single British soldier.
And Disraeli achieved that feat despite a highly popular agitation
for a humanitarian intervention that offended his skepticism about
moral crusades and that, in his view, would have seriously injured
the national interest. This success he owed in no small part to a
keenly held concept of that interest. He also possessed rare traits
of statesmanship: he knew what he wanted to do, and he persisted in
his purpose. To these qualities Disraeli joined a dramatic
imagination. His instructive and entertaining career holds relevant
lessons even for the dilemmas we face after September 11.
Disraeli's ascent to political power was highly improbable. In an age
of religious controversy, he was a converted Jew who described
himself to Queen Victoria as "the blank page between the Old and the
New Testament." To the burden of his origin he added fashionably bad
habits. Disraeli bedded many women and borrowed much money;
ultimately he was forced to find a respectable and wealthy lady of
good standing simply to escape the scandals. His Mary Anne turned out
to be not only his rescuer but the love of his life.
Then there was the Disraeli style. A man of medium height and a
rather large head surmounted by carefully curled black hair, he
dressed like a regency rake in his younger and middle years, sporting
highly colored waistcoats and gold chains. Disraeli early exhibited a
failing common to gifted men; he could never resist a witticism even
if it made him unnecessary enemies. He offended intellectuals by,
among other things, dismissing Darwin ("I am on the side of the
angels"), and opposing "scientific government." Disraeli thought a
large permanent bureaucracy would be dangerous and able men could be
just as easily recruited through the spoils system.
Disraeli also made enemies in high society. His first successful
novel, Vivian Grey, was a brilliant satire on the political and
social life around him. Its characters were thinly disguised; some
editions have "keys" at the back for the uninitiated, identifying the
real protagonists. It haunted Disraeli's relationships for years.
These were qualities that ordinarily took a man out of politics.
"Dizzy", as he was universally known, was often his own worst enemy.
"A Spirited Foreign Policy"
Despite all, Disraeli made it to the top of the "greasy pole" twice.
His first premiership in 1868 was brief but succeeded in passing a
landmark expansion of the voting franchise. The second, lasting from
1874 to 1880, came near the end of his life but also marked his
greatest achievement in foreign affairs.
Although his political program was primarily domestic, Disraeli saw a
"spirited foreign policy" as the international dimension of his
patriotism. He had entered public life in the 1830s and supported
Britain's balance-of-power habit: no continental power or group of
powers should become strong enough to threaten Britain or its
"permanent" interests. In his view, a superior navy and alliance with
at least one substantial land power could best safeguard these
interests; sentiment in foreign policy, whether for personal reasons
or past services, should be rigorously excluded.
Disraeli was not a professional student of foreign affairs and,
notoriously untutored by the facts, imagined many things. European
domestic politics, for example, appeared to him merely as a contest
between overbearing moneymen and desperate revolutionaries that could
be influenced best by Her Majesty's secret service. He thought Louis
Napoleon, an old social acquaintance, was a great statesman. Disraeli
believed that the aristocratic lords of the American South would win
the Civil War. These flirtations with fantasy, however, do not seem
to have affected his grasp of reality when it came his turn to
conduct the affairs of state.
Throughout a decade in opposition, Disraeli castigated Gladstone's
foreign policy for its cant and inactivity. He complained that
Britain had sat out the Franco-Prussian War, allowed Russia to
violate military restrictions on the Black Sea, and caved to the
Union's claims over the Confederate raider Alabama. Worse, Gladstone
had failed to keep up the navy while wasting millions on a useless
army. Sustained by two bottles of white brandy, Disraeli collected
these denunciations in a great three-hour speech on April 3, 1872,
which also contained this delicious depiction of the Gladstone
". . . their eminent chief alternated between a menace and a sigh. As
I sat opposite the Treasury Bench the Ministers reminded me of one of
those marine landscapes not very uncommon on the coasts of South
America. You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes!"
Upon becoming Prime Minister with a solid majority in 1874, Disraeli
set about to assert neglected British interests. He was already 71
years of age, prone to gout and bronchitis. Never inclined to
activist government, he left much of the cabinet's work to his
ministers and, Reagan-like, could sometimes be surprised to learn
what they had done. But foreign affairs was different. "After rates
and taxes and shipping bills, la haute politique is refreshing; worth
living for", he confided to a lady friend. He had mastered the
parliamentary platform and England; now he would take a grander
stage. But an obstacle stood before him: Disraeli's activism
contrasted oddly with his first Foreign Secretary, Lord Derby. Derby
had been Tory Party leader, a sometime rival but consistent friend of
Disraeli. But Derby was a determined "Little Englander" who saw in
most international issues snares for Britain best avoided. A singular
tension thus ran through the cabinet on foreign affairs. Eventually,
Disraeli's greatest foreign policy triumph would cost him both
Derby's friendship and political support.
The Prime Minister's primary target was the Dreikaiserbund. This
league of what the British called the "Northern Courts" (St.
Petersburg, Berlin and Vienna) supplanted a defeated France after
1871 as the major force in Europe. But the three Emperors were
themselves not entirely agreed on every issue. In May 1874, the
Russians suspected Bismarck of planning another strike against the
embittered French and protested. Disraeli got Derby to associate
Britain with the Russian move, all of which greatly irritated
Bismarck. The Prime Minister espied an opening to divide Germany and
Russia, but Derby was reluctant. "We have been lucky in our foreign
policy", he wrote, the implication being that such luck should not be
The Eastern Question and "Humanitarian Intervention"
Disraeli saw a fresh op-portunity to loosen the Dreikaiserbund when
in July 1875 the wild Ottoman Balkan province of Herzegovina
revolted, raising the Eastern Question to the center of European
diplomacy once more. This complex diplomatic, military and political
query arose from an indisputable fact: the Ottoman Empire, once
feared for its strength, was now feared for its weakness. A vast
Muslim military dictatorship that stretched from the Danube to the
Persian Gulf at its height and ruled many people, a quarter of whom
were not Muslim, the "Grand Turk" had threatened Vienna as late as
1683. More recently, however, the empire had become, as a czar once
put it, like a man suffering from a sickness.
Today we might call "the sick man" a "failing state", but in 1875 it
was a very large state not yet finally failed, and not lacking
diplomatic skill. The Ottomans played off the various Europeans
encroaching on their territory, all the while seeking reforms to
restore the empire's military strength. Constantinople became a
favorite destination for 19th century political reformers,
economists, financiers and military experts, few of whom made much
impact. Meanwhile, the Eastern Question expanded: Could the Ottomans
ever be reformed? How long would it take? If it could not be done, or
not done in time, then who would benefit from the Sick Man's terminal
Most British leaders, beginning with Lord Palmerston, greatly feared
the death of the Sick Man. To protect India the Sultan must be
upheld, even at the cost of war. A British fleet had ended Napoleon's
march toward Anatolia at Acre in 1799 and thirty years later another
such bombardment from the seas dissuaded the ambitious Egyptian ruler
Muhammed Ali's attack up the coast. In 1854, Britain and France made
war against Russia in the Crimea; though it halted the Russian
advance, the campaign had been otherwise a disaster, symbolized by
the charge of the Light Brigade down the wrong valley. "A just but
unnecessary war" had been Disraeli's verdict.
The new Balkan revolt and the Sultan's impending bankruptcy (Britons
held one third of the debt) inspired Disraeli on November 3, 1875 to
write Lady Bradford, one of his lady friends (alas, sighed a French
diplomat, they were all at that point grand-mÃ¨res!):