The book Bismarck, A Life, by Jonathon Steinberg, (OUP, 2011) is a great read.
The author catalogues the personal failings of his subject in detail. Professor Steinberg makes personal judgments that are ‘large’, but you can take them or leave them, because on every page there are usually two indented quotes from primary sources – which was the manner of Sir Lewis Namier – so that you can make up your own mind.
It is a most readable book – because the subject is just so bloody fascinating. Bismarck introduced universal male suffrage; unified the nation that is now Germany; and introduced the welfare state to Europe and the world. If you see that trifecta on another headstone, could you please let me know?
And Bismarck got fired by God’s own idiot – Kaiser Wilhelm – whose pedigree was unhappy.
In 1908, Lloyd George introduced to the House of Commons what came to be called the People’s Budget. He said that it was ‘the business of the state’ to look after the sick. The aristocracy was horrified. Was the little Welshman mad? Lloyd George and Churchill pushed this very radical measure through. And it was radical. It is said by some to be the start of the Welfare State in England. The English were in large part following the example of Bismarck.
The role of Germany, and Bismarck in particular, in the introduction of what we call the Welfare State is not generally known. In 1883 and 1889, Bismarck pushed through legislation for accident insurance for workers and then old age and disability insurance. For the first, the German government said it had put an end ‘to all those attempts to make health insurance a private matter …and asserts the role of the state’.
You can see there a source of the remarks of Lloyd George. Professor Steinberg there says that ‘Bismarck as a non-liberal could do what the liberal democracies found and still find hard: to see the state as the guarantor of justice for the poor.’
That is still anathema in the U S. This shows how tricky political labels are. Bismarck and Disraeli are put up as text-book ‘conservatives.’ Both introduced universal male suffrage – each such step was said to be ‘revolutionary.’
The longer I live, the more I think most political labels are useless – at best. The word ‘conservative’ now conveys at best a cloud – or chimera.
You can see in Bismarck some characteristics of a real political leader. He had his own style that made people recognise him – and allowed themselves to identify with them. He had real drive. And judgment – good sense. He was able to persuade others and win their support. He could and did offend a lot of people but he also looked to be inclusive. Head to head, he could lay on the charm. He had nerve. Above all, he had the moral courage to assess risk, take a decision and stand by it.
When did we see those traits on show here?
And Bismarck deserves a memorial for this remark on his opponents following the Speech from the Throne:
…these little fellows…practise their swimming on the stormy waves of phrases.
There you have our current political commentariat. In a dozen words.
Politics – labels – ‘conservatives’.