Australian Politicians May Learn from the Masters: Disraeli and Gladstone
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.
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