Pioneering Winning Strokes

“The Winning Stroke”, a satirical comment on the Conservative Party’s success in the 1874 General Election. The new Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, is depicted as an oarsman who believes that he has benefited from the then new “sliding seats”, a punning reference to his party winning a number of uncontested constituencies or “seats.”

24 October 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on a Coronation – but not of King Charles. 

While recent events may make this statement seem laughable, Britain’s Conservative Party (like its Royal Family) has, in the long-term at least, a great instinct for survival. It was founded in 1834 from the Tory Party, a loosely organised political faction and later a political party dating from perhaps 1679. Support for the free market and private ownership has generally been central to its beliefs though, historically at least, it advocated protectionism and social conservatism. Remarkably, this party of commitment to traditional values and ideas, often suspicious of change and innovation has, at least three times in its history, proved to be highly progressive and radical in its choice of leader.

Rishi Sunak, who will be the new Prime Minister; Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister 1979 – 1990; Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister 1868 and 1874 – 1880.

For the benefit of non-British readers, the Prime Minister is not chosen directly by the electorate, he or she is the leader of the governing UK party. The office came into existence because George I was not fluent in English when he came from Hanover in 1714 to take the Crown of Great Britain and Ireland. Thus, he could not effectively chair meetings of his ministers (unless proceeding took place in Latin) and so a prime minister had to be chosen to take the role.

Today, Conservative MPs have chosen Rishi Sunak as party leader meaning that the King will ask him to form a government. Not many years ago, this would have been unthinkable as Sunak, while born in Britain, is the son of African Hindu parents of Punjabi Indian descent. He took his oath as an MP in the House of Commons on the Bhagavad Gita and does not eat beef or drink alcohol (while this sends a clear signal that Britain is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society, sadly, such things do not end prejudice and bigotry on their own – as the election of Barack Obama so well illustrated). 

Margaret Thatcher was elected Leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 and was one of only two elected women running a country when she became Prime Minister in 1979. Famously, Thatcher was a woman but not a sister. For example, for most of the time she was Prime Minister, her husband Denis had to pay the tax on her investments and savings as, until 1990, a married man was responsible for the payment of tax on all his wife’s income and gains.

Benjamin Disraeli was born in London of Italian-Jewish parents. While there had been Jewish Members of Parliament since 1770, before 1858 MPs were required to take the oath of allegiance “on the true faith of a Christian”, necessitating at least nominal conversion. However, Disraeli had an Anglican upbringing in the Church of England after the age of twelve and this enabled him to become Britain’s first, and so far only, Jewish Prime Minister in 1868. In his own words, he said of this achievement, “I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.”

Of these three bold choices, I would suggest that the election of Disraeli was the most radical for its time. While, historically, Britain was less anti-Semitic than most of its European neighbours, in his affected manner and outrageous dandyish dress, Disraeli seemed to emphasise that he was not of the establishment, coming across more like a Faginesque Dickensian stereotype. Some even claim that he seemed to relish the anti-Semitic invective thrown at him by political enemies.

In his review of Christopher Hibbert’s 2004 biography of Disraeli in the Guardian (Disraeli: A Personal History), Simon Callow wrote:

The word exotic is scarcely adequate to describe the sheer strangeness of Benjamin Disraeli within the 19th-century British political establishment, or indeed within its social life.

However, Callow continued: 

It is very much to the credit of both that they were able to embrace a personage so antithetical to every norm they enforced.

As to his achievements, Disraeli largely created the modern British Conservative Party; famously charmed Queen Victoria; gained the Suez Canal for Britain; stifled Russian expansionism; fought a long battle against rival for Victorian political preeminence, William Gladstone; and won the begrudging admiration of Otto von Bismarck, who called him “der alte Jude.” 

“The Coming Struggle”, a cartoon from 1866. Disraeli and Gladstone are depicted as rowers in competing boats, with the radical MP John Bright in the background. Lord John Russell is with Gladstone as the Coxswain of the Government’s Liberal boat. The main issue being debated at the time was electoral reform.
“The Two Stroke Oars: Which looks like winning?” A cartoon from the 1880 General Election depicting Conservative leader Disraeli and Liberal leader Gladstone.
Returning to modern times, the Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, was pictured in June rowing with three-time Olympic champion Andy Triggs Hodge and young people from London Youth Rowing at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Sir Keir hopes to take the stroke seat at the next election. There is an obvious irony in the fact that currently the centre-right Conservatives are led by a man of colour while the centre-left UK parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, are led by Knighted white men.

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