Here and there – Past Political Principles


In 1926, a series of eight lectures was given at King’s College, London on the political principles of notable prime ministers of the nineteenth century.  Learned people spoke of politicians from a different time.  The essays were edited by F Hearnshaw and published by Macmillan and Co under the title Prime Ministers of the Nineteenth Century.  The lectures make fascinating reading – not least at a time when it is not easy to detect principle in politics anywhere.

Before looking at some of the PMs, one commentator recalled that in Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith spoke of ‘that crafty and insidious animal vulgarly called a statesman or politician.’  Well, we all have a fair idea of what it takes to be a politician.  What is a statesman?

There are many politicians; there are few statesmen.  A statesman, I take it, is a man who performs some constructive work, who guides a country through a difficult crisis, who restores its prosperity and self-confidence after a period of disaster or distress, whose career marks an epoch in its history.

That seems fair enough, although the ‘epoch’ barrier may be too high.  But as the same speaker said, a person can hardly aspire to that status before serving an apprenticeship, generally a long one, in party politics.

In other words, he must be an insidious and crafty animal before he can become something greater and better.  He may have all the qualities of a great statesman, but he has little chance of showing them unless he also has the support which the party machine alone can give him, and which he must earn by party service.

The trouble is that a lot of decent people don’t want to be seen getting their hands dirty – they are reluctant to set foot in the swamp, and some get out of it too soon after they have sampled it.  These remarks also remind us that although we have electoral laws that deal with political parties, for the most part the parties run their affairs as they see fit.  The system of ‘party government which Great Britain has given to the world’ is in large part beyond the control of government.  How could it be otherwise?

The first of the PMs is George Canning.  He had a disability – his mother.  One future Whig PM ‘regarded the son of an actress as de facto incapacitated from being Prime Minister of England.’  His mother, it was said, raised a ‘brood of illegitimate children, but Canning’s uncle sent him to Eton and Oxford.

Canning was brilliant and vain, but he got on.  He went over the heads of the party and appealed to the people.  The Times demurred.  Mr Canning, it said, was ‘acting very improperly in rubbing shoulders with business men, and in exciting the clamours of the crowd.’  You must remember that democracy was a dirty word then, but Canning was seen ‘to be wielding the thunderbolts of an enormous popularity….He had not relied on or made use of the party machine as such.  He had smashed it, and that is not an easy thing to do then or now.’

Well we don’t to reflect on a recent U S example, but Disraeli ‘never saw Canning but once’ and never forgot ‘the melody of that voice….the tumult of that ethereal brow.’  Gladstone as a child literally sat at Canning’s feet and said ‘I was bred under the shadow of the great name of Canning.’  We don’t hear talk like that now.  Canning’s liberalism shaped English foreign policy until the end of the century.  Metternich said Canning was ‘a whole revolution in himself alone’ and Coleridge said that Canning ‘flashed such a light about the constitution that it was difficult to see the ruins of the fabric through it.’

His Grace the Duke of Wellington could not stoop to the swamp.  He was ‘suspicious, autocratic, sparing of thanks, possessed of a very long memory for offences, and a very short memory for services….the Duke had an intellectual contempt for his social equals, and a social contempt for his intellectual equals.’  He believed that ‘all reform is bad because all Reform ends up being Radical.’  In short, his Grace was a one man political landslide.  But it was in some part his intervention that allowed the great Reform Act to pass, and avert a possible civil war.  The English aristocracy would intervene to similar effect again in 1869 and 1911.

Sir Robert Peel is remembered as the man who gave England its police – Bobbies or Peelers – and the man who repealed the protectionist Corn Laws.  He had along political career, and an intense sense of duty – national duty, not party commitment.  He showed his sense of principal while in opposition.  He disclaimed ‘factious’ opposition, and as a Tory he claimed it was necessary to support a Whig government when it espoused Conservative principles.  He detested ‘anti-governmental principles’ for their own sake and he preferred the claims of public authority to those of political doctrine.  As a corollary, he refused to flirt with Radicals or try to outbid the Whigs and restate the Tory case in radical terms.

A man of principle indeed!  We could do with some Orange Peel, as he was of course known, around here.  As a result, one colleague described him as ‘an iceberg with a slight thaw on the surface’; another compared his smile to the gleam of the silver plate of a coffin lid.  He would be dismembered in the House of Commons by Disraeli.

Lord Palmerston was something of a ladies’ man and was welcomed by the English public as a jingoist.  Again, contemporary events are uncomfortable.  His lecture is becomingly droll.  We forget that ‘though history is about dead men, they were not always dead.’  One critic had described Palmerston in a way that made him look like ‘a cross between a successful bookmaker and Carmen.’  The lecturer then makes the point ‘that it is always easier to find a man’s principles at the beginning of his career than at the end, because in the later stages principles are so lamentably apt to become obscured by practice.’  We are warned of the danger of studying a person’s career from the wrong end – by staring at the end rather than the beginning.  And we are reminded of the perennial danger of hindsight with an anecdote from a novel of M. Maurois.  ‘Let us remember, we men of the Middle Ages, that tomorrow we start for the Hundred Years War.’

The lecturer has a great line on the statesman’s upbringing:

His formal education, conducted with becoming pomp at Harrow and Cambridge, was of the type that lends dignity to a man’s obituary without unduly modifying his attainments.

A later PM made a similar remark about the impact of Oxford on her career, and a few at Oxford haven’t forgotten it.  Palmerston spent a lot of time in the War Office, and he was known to conduct serious controversies with cheery gusto.  He once officially informed the Military Secretary that ‘the war will be carried on with as much courtesy as a State of Contest in its nature admits.’

The cornerstone of his foreign policy was national interest.  ‘We have no eternal allies and no permanent enemies.  Our interests are eternal, and those interests, it is our duty to follow.’  The Americans could learn from this man.  He wanted England to be ‘the champion of justice and right’ – provided that she – England – was the sole ruler of what that task might entail.

Here is an anecdote from another source.  In his late seventies, Palmerston, the ladies’ man, was cited a co-respondent in a divorce.  He was accused of adultery.  The aggrieved husband was Mr O’Kane.  Polite society had a new gag: ‘While the lady was certainly Kane, was Palmerston able?’

Lord John Russell was another survivor.  His portrait reveals an aesthete and man of enlightenment.  He could be very prosaic.  ‘My dear Melbourne, I am afraid you do not take exercise enough or eat and drink more than enough.  One of the two may do, but not both together.’  That’s not the kind of stuff to get men walking over hot coals for you.  His greatest achievement, more than thirty years before he became PM for the second time, was to pilot through the great Reform Act of 1832.  But for that legislation, the whole course of British history may have been very different.  His father, the ninth Duke of Bedford, once reproved him for ‘giving great offence to your followers in the House of Commons by not being courteous to them, by treating them superciliously, and de haut en bas, by not listening with sufficient patience to their solicitations or remonstrances.’  The lecturer says that by ‘study, by diligent attendance, and by frequent and fearless intervention in debate, he had made himself a House of Commons man of the best type.’  But doubtless parts of the swamp repelled him.

Now we come to the first of two undisputed titans.  The grandfather of the next PM in these lectures had migrated to England sixty years before he was born.  Benjamin Disraeli, the grandson of an Italian Jew, was the leader of the Tory Party, the Prime Minister of England, and he would become the closest confidant and adviser to the most powerful monarch in the entire world, and whom he, Disraeli, would anoint as the Empress of India.  It is a truly remarkable story.

It had not always been so smooth.  Disraeli had been a frightful dandy, and he had an acid tongue.  The queen had called him ‘detestable, unprincipled, reckless & not respectable.’  Her husband had dismissed him as ‘having not one single element of the gentleman in his composition.’  Well, Her Majesty and His Royal Highness may have had held strong views, but they were free to change their mind.  And Disraeli could ‘work’ the queen.  He said that with her, you had to ‘lay it on with a trowel’ – and he did so, ever so shamelessly; and he was always careful to heap honour and praise on the late Prince.  Her Majesty loved it, and she loathed poor Mr Gladstone.  She felt like he addressed her like he was addressing a public meeting.

And besides, having a PM with a background in finance might be useful.  In 1875, the bankruptcy of the Sultan of Turkey left the Khedive of Egypt wanting to sell his shares in the Suez Canal.  The French were in the market.  Disraeli was determined to get this stake in the Canal.  He could not get the money from Parliament as it was in recess.  He sent his private secretary to ask Baron Rothschild for a loan of 4,000,000 pounds.  Baron Rothschild asked two questions:  ‘When?’, and after eating a grape and spitting out a grape skin, ‘What is your security?’  (The crown jewels?)  The money was available next day to the British government at 2 ½ %, and a one-off fee of 100,000 pounds.  Disraeli wrote: ‘It is just settled: you have it Madam.’  The Queen was ‘in ecstasies,’ but she was keen to hear how her Prime Minister had got the ‘great sum.’

These were the days of great debates with Gladstone and others about affairs in Europe and elsewhere.  They really were titans the like of which we have not seen.  Disraeli was instrumental in settling the affairs of Europe – and Bismarck greatly admired him at the Congress of Berlin.  ‘Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann.’

Not long after this, the French nation would be convulsed by controversy over the fate of a Jewish officer named Dreyfus, and it is more than a little difficult to imagine the third generation of a migrant Jewish family becoming Prime Minister of any country in Europe at that time.

As a baptised Jew, Disraeli had a mature view of religion.  He saw his religion as a fusion of two faiths and had a definition of the Church that appeals to me immensely – ‘a sacred corporation for the promotion and maintenance in Europe of certain Asian principles’.  I wonder how that went down in drawing rooms in Bath.

The lecturer drily observes that Disraeli ‘escaped the permanent infantile paralysis which is often the consequence of a public school curriculum.’  (These lectures were given in 1926 – it looks like the Great War had shattered faith in the English education system.)  He once said that ‘we put our money on the wrong horse’.  As the lecturer, the editor, says ‘he perhaps did not sufficiently realise that in the Balkans all horses are wrong horses.  The pitiful victims of atrocities lack nothing but opportunity in order themselves to become atrocious.  That is a truth which the painful experiences of the last half century have taught us.’  Too many have not learned that truth about the Middle East even after the painful experiences of the last half century.’

Disraeli also comes down to us as the Tory who effectively brought democracy to England with the ‘leap in the dark’ of the reform laws in 1869.  The Tories were becoming Conservatives.

Gladstone was different in so many ways.  The Whigs were becoming Liberals.  All this was before the Labor Party was thought of.  Gladstone was a man of the most formidable intellect, integrity and industry.  He had one very English trait.  The Spectator said of him: ‘Mr Gladstone has done less to lay down any systematised course of action than almost any man of his political standing.’  As the lecture says, ‘He was essentially an empiric, docile to the teachings of experience.’  That is precisely the instinct of the common law – don’t look at questions in the abstract; wait until the issue arises on the evidence.

He started off opposing reform in 1832 and defended slavery, but conscience and intellect led him to radical change, and, as the lecture said, ‘his courage forced him to accept the teachings of his conscience, at whatever cost to himself.’  There is the key to the man.  This intensely religious man came to the view that the enforcement of a State religion was not right in a modern state.  He advocated the removal of Jewish disabilities.  ‘I am deeply convinced that all systems, whether religious or political, which rest on a principle of absolutism, must of necessity be feeble and ineffective.’  That I think is a liberal way of thought.  But he repudiated laissez-faire and he would not ‘hesitate to apply the full powers of the State to ameliorate social anomalies.’  How does that square with our Liberals?  Or his wish to nationalise the railways?  He was never a Little Englander, and he learned to appeal straight to the people, saying that he preferred liberty to authority.

On foreign policy, he challenged he challenged Turkish rule ‘not on the ground of national interest, but in the name of justice to the oppressed.’  The lecturer said: ‘There cannot be much doubt that, but for Gladstone, the England of the seventies would have accepted the Turkish atrocities in Bulgaria as placidly as we have accepted those in Armenia.’

The last of these PMs, the Marquess of Salisbury, is the model of a true and decent Conservative politician – and statesman.  Unusually in English politics, Salisbury was an intellectual.  He survived the brutality of Eton, but he never lost his horror of the mob.  ‘First-rate men will not canvass mobs; and mobs will not elect first-rate men.’  That is archetypal Victorian snobbery – until you look at people like Farage, Hanson, and Trump, and the people who vote for them.

Salisbury had the attitudes of the by-gone squire.  He distrusted book learning and experts.  He was another matter-of-fact man.  ‘I would not be too much impressed by what the soldiers tell you about the strategic importance of these places.  It is their way.  If they were allowed full scope, they would insist on the importance of garrisoning the Moon in order to protect us from Mars.’  The stain comes from the Conservative contribution to the Irish tragedy, and their fixated opposition to change by Home Rule.

So, there is the twentieth century looking back to the nineteenth.  The urbane style of the lectures is something we miss; indeed, we just about miss all style now in this kind of discussion.  The story of the emergence of the parties known as Conservatives and Liberals may tell us a lot at a time when those parties no longer stand for much at all.  There was a focus on character and leadership that we don’t feel now.  The competition for the top job is there throughout, as is the disdain of theory or ideology, but the job of climbing the greasy pole does not seem to have annihilated statesmanship as much then as it does now.  Why that may be so is a proper subject of inquiry.  You can almost hear the rush of the cascade of clichés.  In truth, you can almost see them on your television as we speak.

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