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Australian Politicians May Learn from the Masters: Disraeli and Gladstone

January 25, 2011
Richard Aldous in his book on Disraeli and Gladstone brings alive the gladiatorial contest between the two party leaders that defined British politics from 1852 to 1881, in some ways defined it to this day.


They are a model for political leadership. Get this book to Canberra.

The two took on great public policy questions, engaged and did not retreat. Defending income tax when he presented his first budget in 1853 William Gladstone described it as a “colossal engine of finance”, an instrument of “effective reform of our commercial and fiscal system.” Disraeli sought to redefine his party by sponsoring the broadening of the franchise declaring, “I have always looked on the interests of the labouring classes as essentially the most conservative interests of the country.”

They entered contests over foreign policy and imperialism, over Ireland, over protection – and did so in titanic speeches that pulverised their opponents, speeches of sometimes four hours duration in the gas-lit chamber of the House of Commons where, in summer, the stench of sewage would waft inside from the Thames.

Disraeli knew as opposition leader it was sometimes advisable to do nothing. As leader of the opposition in 1868 he went into torpor, even wrote a novel, Lothair. He once said: “Generally speaking, when the country goes mad, which it does every now and then, I think it best, that one should wait till everything has been said and frequently in one direction, and then the country, tired of hearing the same thing over and over again begins to reflect, and opinion changes as quickly as it was formed.”

At his home in Walses Gladstone would spend afternoons chopping down trees or going on 20 mile walks. As party leader he took four months off to go to Italy. He devoted himself to writing a paper on a single Greek word.

Both knew when it was time for convulsive exertion: steering legislation through hours of debate even to 4am; making speaking tours through the provinces; constructing eloquent orations of tightly bound argument and devastating summation; and engaging in epic feats of letter writing.

One of Disraeli’s speeches in parliament was described as “wild genius” and he was a master of the epigram. One Tory remarked, however, that “Dizzy’s speeches [are] brilliant enough” but that he would never “frame a great opposition” because he failed to “…convince. He is a critic, and a capital one of a bad government, but not the counter-theorist who by dint of fact and perseverance can gain his end.”

In other words, Disraeli was not Gladstone.

Think about those phrases. A speech of “wild genius.” A “counter-theorist who by dint of fact and perseverance can gain his end.” And ask why we can’t have leadership like that in this era.

Incidentally, Disraeli led his party from 1849 to 1876; Gladstone his from 1866 to 1875 and 1880 to 1894. These were long term leaderships, not terminated overnight because of a downturn in a few polls.

Their parties kept them even when their reputations slumped. They were given time to rebuild and come back. In good times and bad, their speeches outside the parliament filled halls and newspaper columns. The sight of Disraeli in his carriage in the streets of London had crowds chanting “Dizzy, Dizzy!” Gladstone, moving among the ship works of Glasgow, was acclaimed by disenfranchised industrial workers who called him “The People’s William.”

Think whether this may serve to inspire – and rebuke – all of us in the Australian political class.

My review can be reached by clicking here:


  1. January 25, 2011 2:03 pm

    I think that most of us agree. The time of the great orator has passed with the 30 second media grab designed to appease focus groups. Dead pan speeches and carefully worded policy announcements designed to emphasise the good whilst drawing attention away from the fine print in the legislation leaves the political landscape brain dead and breathless in the wake of mediocrity. The squandering of political opportunities is only surpassed by the blunders of half baked policy poorly implement and never analysed beyond its short term electoral term. It is not so much that we have achieved consensus politics in an era of professional politics, but it is the flattening out potentially great political decisions by a overbearing bureaucracy to shuffles the cards, sharpens the pens for the express purpose of sanitizing it in the great filing cabinet located beyond the labyrinthine corridor at the end of an answering service. Whatever, happened to the Jack Lang’s, the Hawke’s and Keating’s who could stand toe to toe and bash out a point of view with conviction and demonstrated leadership without needed to read their scripted purpose of the autocue in a stilted and unconvincing manner. What is it about today’s leadership? Are they lost in the machine of their own fear because clinging to power by their fingernails is more important than charting a course with guts and conviction? Maybe the problem is that today’s politicians lack that one vital agreement that defines the greats, a vision that will drive the state and the nation. A vision that will inspire and rally the people to causes that define a great nation. What are the three most important words that will rally this nation and define its future? They are “Green, Sustainable, Infrastructure”! What do we get instead, “Climate Change, Consumer Pain and more taxes and charges”? The intelligent innovative solutions that will bring hope and rally the nation have been lost in the morass of state and federal bureaucracies and the opportunities that all advanced economies have enjoyed for the last 100 years have been squandered on cheap electoral opportunism and poor long term policy planning and management. What is significant to note is that governments today have an ever shorter time frame to get their electoral agenda onto the map because it takes at least half the term to clear the decks and another half to move the Weberian monolith to action. If you are lucky to win another term with a good majority and a weak opposition, you might just get a few projects rolled out and loose office before anyone discovers the mistakes and ineptitude in their execution. No wonder or PM and the NSW Premier look simply over whelmed and stressed. There is one thing that can be said for your NSW leader though, at least she is good to look at with the TV on mute.

  2. Nicholas permalink
    January 25, 2011 8:13 pm

    Dear Mr. Carr

    I enjoy reading your blog as your are obviously intelligent and erudite and as such cover interesting topics in a well written manner (I also fear I am guilty of seeking out bloggers on the internet whose politics I agree with rather then those who may challenge me). As I also have a keen interest in British politics (especially that of the late 18th century and the 19th century) I am particularly fascinated in your articles on the topics of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and Disraeli and Gladstone. Although I have read biographies of Disraeli I had not heard of the Lion and the Unicorn and am thankful for your bringing it to my attention. Any further articles on figures such as Disraeli and British politics would be appreciated.


    • Bob Carr permalink
      January 25, 2011 9:29 pm

      I’m rediscovering this area and I should have more to write soon as I’ve ordered secondhand books on the subject, so stimulated was I by this book. Imagine hearing their orations !

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