There's no end to it! The more I try to learn something the more I realise how miniscule my knowledge is. Take for example, Disraeli and Gladstone. Oh, go on, give them a try. How much do you know about either of them? Almost certainly more than me. Disraeli? Bit of a flash-Harry, Jewish chap in a frock coat. Gladstone? Bit of a dull, Anglo chap in a frock coat. Gladstone, I think, out-whiskered Disraeli! Mind you, I do know a bit about Lord Salisbury because I have actually read Andrew Roberts' biography. Proper chap, that Salisbury, and an all-out winner in the whiskers competition, too!
Anyway, now, because I have just read Dominic Sandbrook in The Mail, I simply have to read a good biography of both of them. I have a vague memory that the late Roy Jenkins wrote a much-praised biography of Gladstone but I am slightly wary because Jenkins, as a liberal politician himself, might be a touch too sympathetic. Anyway, if any of you lot 'out there' can recommend anything I would be pleased to know.
So what, I hear you ask, did Mr. Sandbrook have to say on the subject of these two mighty Victorian statesmen? Well, enough to convince me that Disraeli was the Tony Blair of his age:
At bottom, Benjamin Disraeli was interested only in Benjamin Disraeli. His entire political career was devoted to his own advancement; it is not for nothing that he famously boasted of having climbed ‘to the top of the greasy pole’.
As a young man in the 1830s, he tried to make his name as a novelist. But when money and fame were slow to materialise, he decided on politics instead.
Like so many of today’s professional politicians, Disraeli had distinctly mercenary motives. Although his father was a rich literary critic, young Benjamin had run up large debts because of his inordinate fondness for the high life. As an MP, however, the law would protect him from imprisonment for debt.
His principles, meanwhile, were as changeable as the winds.
I'm not suggesting that Mr. Blair is a financial wastrel but he certainly pursues the big bucks with a dedication that is almost frightening. Back to Disraeli:
Having initially pretended to be a radical, he then flirted with ultra-reactionary Toryism, opposing efforts to improve the lot of the downtrodden working classes and scorning attempts to reform the corrupt political system.
Indeed, it spoke volumes about Disraeli’s essentially destructive style that he made his name with a devastating attack on his own party leader, the dogged and serious Sir Robert Peel, who wanted to scrap the archaic Corn Laws which protected British farmers against foreign competition.
Peel and his fellow reformers believed that free trade would benefit ordinary British families, who were naturally delighted at the prospect of cheaper food. But in this crucial test of principle, Disraeli preferred to back the wealthy vested interests of the day.
It was entirely typical of his cynical style, though, that once the Corn Laws had bitten the dust, he made no effort to restore them. Throughout his career, he saw principle as subordinate to tactical self-interest.
Oh boy, do I have to learn more about this man! But what of Gladstone? According to Mr. Sandbrook:
Although Gladstone and Disraeli are forever associated in the public imagination, they could hardly have been more different. Disraeli was funnier, more flamboyant and more dashing.
But on almost every count that actually matters, Gladstone was far superior. He was a more convinced reformer, a more imaginative chancellor and a dedicated public servant who genuinely cared about the plight of the poor.
He upheld the principles of free trade, banished corruption from the civil service and introduced universal education for Britain’s children. And although he campaigned passionately for oppressed peoples abroad, he shrank from foreign adven- tures and despised Disraeli’s jingoistic excesses.
Above all, Gladstone was a man of impeccable moral seriousness, a hard-working, high-minded man with the courage to address the thorny issues of the day who left Britain a richer, fairer and more virtuous society than he found it.
Oh dear! And just when I thought I could return to my favourite pulp fiction for a bit of R&R after all that learning from Ferdinand Mount, it's 'bak to skool' time again!