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 Benjamin Disraeli: Achievements as insubstantial as a ghost's footprint

There is something lubriciously intriguing about the biography of a Victorian statesman subtitled "The Two Lives". Given the current fashion among biographers for closet-rattling in search of hidden skeletons, one might imagine the two lives to be anatomised were a hypocritically virtuous public existence and a sybaritically scandalous private one — a portrait of Benjamin Disraeli in the style of The Picture of Dorian Gray. But, happily, Douglas Hurd and Edward Young are better men — and more original historians — than to be lured into shallow scandal-hunting. They pass over the question of Disraeli's close male friendships in two sensible pages. They are — quite properly — much more interested in a genuine mystery at the heart of the whole Disraeli story. How can a politician with so little by way of real personal achievement have come to assume such iconic status?

That Disraeli still bewitches cannot be in doubt. He is invoked by Ed Miliband as a critic of unfettered capitalism; he is fêted by Tories as the first compassionate conservative; he is the politician with the most numerous memorable utterances attributed to him in the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. He has even been deployed as a precedent from the past to explain the world-historical significance of the present Mayor of London.

But while Disraeli hovers over the political battlefield as an ancestral spirit, to be enlisted by first one protagonist and then another, his actual administrative and legislative achievements are as insubstantial as a ghost's footprint. He only ever won a single parliamentary majority in his career — in striking contrast to the formidable record of his rival Gladstone, who won four. While Disraeli's 1874-80 government brought forward significant social reforms — such as the Artisans' Dwellings and Public Health Acts — Disraeli had next to nothing to do with them and occasionally fell asleep while such domestic matters were discussed in Cabinet. There were plenty more opportunities for slumber when he joined the Lords as Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876.

He enjoyed a reputation as a great foreign policy stylist, even winning the admiration of the greatest practitioner of his day — Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor. At the Congress of Berlin in 1878, Bismarck said of him, approvingly but in the Prussian Junker style: "Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann." But stylist was really all he was. The real heavy lifting at Berlin was executed by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Salisbury, who knew it would be dangerous to have Disraeli dabble too much in the fiendishly complex Eastern Question. Salisbury commented acidly: "Lord Beaconsfield can't negotiate, he has never seen a map of Asia Minor." And while Salisbury left a clear legacy of substantial interventions in the field of foreign policy, Disraeli's own actions scarcely altered Europe's balance of power.

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