Front Page Titles (by Subject) MR. DISRAELI AS A MEMBER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS. (1876.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays)
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MR. DISRAELI AS A MEMBER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS. (1876.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 7.
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MR. DISRAELI AS A MEMBER OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS.
Nothing could be more out of place or premature than to review as yet Mr. Disraeli’s career. That career is not yet ended. But some remarks may be made on him as a member of the House of Commons, in which he has sat for forty years, and where he obtained his political eminence and power. That part of his career is certainly over, for he has chosen to leave its peculiar scene.
During this long period Mr. Disraeli has filled four parts. First—that of a political free-lance or outsider. And it was in this that he first obtained fame. The best opportunity for such a man is, when parties are breaking up; when secret feelings are in many minds; when cautious men do not know what to say. The latter part of Sir Robert Peel’s Ministry was such a period. From the time when he became conspicuously and obviously a Free Trader, there was always a secret anger in the Conservative ranks which craved for an outlet, but which no “regular man” could express. This Mr. Disraeli spoke out. From the time of Mr. Milne’s sugar amendment, in 1844, till the completion of the disruption of the Tories, in 1846, Mr. Disraeli poured epigram upon epigram and innuendo on innuendo on the “organised hypocrisy” of his professed leader; and there is no doubt that Sir Robert Peel suffered exceedingly under the smart. He was, in every way, a most sensitive man, and he was especially sensitive in all that related to the House of Commons, which was the scene of his life, and to his position there. But now he was, for the first time in his life, exposed to a style of attack to which he had not the sort of power to reply, but which was for the moment the most effective style of any; and he was pained accordingly. No “free-lance,” perhaps, has ever achieved so much and so suddenly as Mr. Disraeli then did. Upon this part of his career an historical examiner would give him first-rate marks—much greater than he would give to any competitor.
The next, and far the longest, of Mr. Disraeli’s Parliamentary parts is that of Leader of Opposition. And in this he showed eminent mind—not equal to that of his free-lance period, but still very great. His powers of epigram and amusing nonsense gave infinite aid, year after year, to a party that was to be beaten. And, after his fashion, he showed a high magnanimity and conscience in not opposing or hampering the Ministry on great questions—say of foreign policy, when his so doing would hurt the country. But this praise must end here. On all minor Parliamentary questions, Mr. Disraeli has simply no conscience at all. He regards them as a game—as an old special pleader regarded litigation, to be played so as to show your skill, and so as to win, but without any regard to the consequences. Indeed, Mr. Disraeli, at bottom, believes that they have no consequence—that all is settled by questions of race, “Caucasian or Semitic,” and that it is simple pedantry in such things to be scrupulous. And still worse than this, which is an amusing defect after all, and excusable—(for there are many deeper issues and causes than are dreamed of in Parliamentary philosophy)—Mr. Disraeli often showed in Opposition a turn for nonsense, which was not amusing. He has many gifts, but he has not the gift of thinking out a subject, and when he tries to produce grave thought he only makes platitudes. And some of his “mare’s nests,” like his difficulty in the Franco-German War, arising out of our guarantee to the Saxon provinces of Prussia, have been almost incredible, and could only have been discovered by a mind which, with many elements of genius, has also an element of hare-brained recklessness. Drearier hearing, or drearier reading, than Mr. Disraeli’s Opposition harangues, when they were philosophical, can hardly anywhere be found. But still, though with these and other defects, he did lead the Tory Opposition through long melancholy years, when one did not know who else could have or who would have led it.
The next of Mr. Disraeli’s Parliamentary parts was that of Leader of a Ministry in a minority, where again he was first-rate. He showed sometimes—in 1852, in 1858, and in 1866—a nimbleness, a tact, and dexterity far surpassing, probably, anything that Parliament has ever seen of a similar kind. He “hit the House”—to use a phrase which Burke used of a like but very inferior person1 —he “hit the House between the wind and the water,” and cut with a light witticism knots insoluble by solemn argument. If, by a series of “selections,” nature had made a man so fit for this kind of work, it would have been a marvel. But Mr. Disraeli drifted into it, as if by chance, from quite another calling and another sphere.
Lastly, Mr. Disraeli has been lately, and was but yesterday, Leader of a Ministry in a majority. And here there was a wonderful contrast. So far from being first-rate, he was ninth-rate. He seemed to resemble those guerilla commanders who, having achieved great exploits with scanty and ill-trained troops, nevertheless are utterly at a loss and fail when they are placed at the head of a first-rate army. In 1867 he made a minority achieve wonderful things; but in 1876, when he had the best majority—the most numerous and obedient—since Mr. Pitt, he did nothing with it. So far from being able to pass great enactments, he could not even despatch ordinary business at decent hours. The gravest and sincerest of Tory members—men who hardly murmur at anything—have been heard to complain that it was hard that, after voting so well and doing so little, they should be kept up so very late. The Session just closed will be known in Parliamentary annals as one of the least effective or memorable on record, and yet one of the most fatiguing. And this collapse is no accident in Mr. Disraeli’s career, but a thing essentially characteristic of the man, and which might have been predicted by any one who had analysed the traits which he had shown before. If we may be pardoned the metaphor—though his chaff is exquisite, his wheat is poor stuff. The solid part of his mind—the part fit for regulating bills and clauses—is as inferior to that of an ordinary man of decent ability, as the light and imaginative part is superior. An incessant and almost avowed inaccuracy pervades him. And if you ask such a man to regulate the stupendous business of Parliament—to arrange, and if possible effect, the most complex agenda that ever was in the world—failure is inevitable. It is like entering a light hack for a ploughing match. In the last Parliamentary situation, Mr. Disraeli has scarcely seemed to be what he used to be, and this because that situation was the one for which he was the least suited, and the last in which he should have been placed. As so often happens, having obtained the ambition of his life—to be a Minister with power—he found he had only got where he ought not to be—he found that he could not wield the power.
And two things have been common to Mr. Disraeli all through these positions. In them all he has charmed the House, and has given debates in which he took part a kind of nice literary flavour which other debates had not, and which there is no one left to give to them. He was the best representative whom the “Republic of Letters” ever had in Parliament, for he made his way by talents—especially by a fascination of words—essentially literary. And on the other hand, though he charmed Parliament, he never did anything more. He had no influence with the country. Such a vast power over Englishmen as has been possessed by Lord Palmerston and by Mr. Gladstone was out of the way altogether. Between Mr. Disraeli and common Englishmen there was too broad a gulf—too great a difference. He was simply unintelligible to them. “Ten miles from London,” to use the old phrase, their is scarcely any real conception of him. His mode of regarding Parliamentary proceedings as a play and game, is incomprehensible to the simple and earnest English nature. Perhaps he has gained more than he has lost by the English not understanding him. At any rate, the fact remains that the special influence of this great gladiator never passed the walls of the amphitheatre: he has ruled the country by ruling Parliament, but has never had any influence in Parliament reverberating from the nation itself.
[1 ] Charles Townshend.