Your RDA of Irony

The Prime Minister Primer

I. Party Labels and Libels

God, at least the English speaking one, must believe in a two-party system.  So, in the political Genesis of late 17th century, one party was a gang of curmudgeons who hated Catholics, distrusted kings and liked business.   They were known by their opponents as the Whigs, a Scottish term for bumpkin.  The other party was a pack  of squires who loved themselves–frequently to the point of syphilis, revered hunting, hangovers and the monarchy, and considered religion merely a matter of etiquette.  They were known by their rivals as the Tories, an Irish term for robber.  For some reason, both factions accepted these libels as their formal names.

Bumpkins or robbers:  it wasn’t much of a choice for the English voter but then there weren’t many English voters either.  The franchise–with its convoluted medieval property requirements–was largely limited to the candidates themselves and their male relatives.  In a contested borough, the candidate with the most dependable sons-in-law won.  Even after the first electoral reform bill of 1832 created a lower and more uniform property requirement–only one in six men was eligible to vote.

Nonetheless, with this somewhat enlarged franchise, the two political parties reconciled themselves to change–particularly their names.  Whig and Tory sounded too much like private clubs. The usually hidebound Tories took the initiative by test-marketing the name Conservative.  In 1834 Prime Minister Robert Peel started alluding to his Conservative philosophy, Conservative program, Conservative administration, etc.  But many Tories were not thrilled with the new name–or with Robert Peel for that matter.   It took about 25 years before the party was officially renamed the Conservatives.  Of course, in response to the ballyhooed “new and improved” Conservatives, the Whigs now chose a more coherent and preferably accurate name: the Liberals.  And so, throughout the 19th century, these two parties remained the either-or of British politics.

The British franchise was gradually expanding and by 1900 it encompassed most British males.  Of course, the workin’ man had nay fondness for the Tories, but he also felt little affinity with the middle-class Liberals.  Some labor unions decided to form a political party–and since British politics somehow can’t maintain more than two viable parties at a time, it wasn’t good news for the Liberals.

II. Who’s Who

My idea of casual conversation would include an allusion to Benjamin Disraeli. My acquaintance’s idea of a response was “Who?”  I hoped that I maintained a stoic mien but my eyebrows might have been doing the semaphores of  “How can you be so stupid?” The lady, a friend of a neighbor, is Gentile; so she would have been indifferent to the most interesting feature of Disraeli. I just provided her with a brief description of a “British prime minister of the 19th century and a man of extraordinary charm and wit.”

Now, I don’t want to seem like a pedantic bully  (even if I really am) but I think that a middle-aged college graduate should have heard of Benjamin Disraeli. He is not obscure. It is not as if I had belabored the poor woman with such prime ministerial ciphers as Henry Campbell-Bannerman or James Callahan. (And if I had mentioned Andrew Bonar Law, she might have slapped me.)

I realized that Americans’ criterion for historical significance is whether or not it was made into a movie. But Disraeli has been, and he has been portrayed by George Arliss, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and Ian McShane. Given Disraeli’s origins, Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller may feel entitled to play him! No, that woman should have heard of Disraeli.

In fact, I think that a number of British prime ministers merit at least a minimum of recognition.

Robert Walpole (1721-1741), a $2,000 question on Jeopardy but he was the first prime minister.

Lord North (1770-1782), the idiot during the American Revolution.

William Pitt the Younger (1783-1801, 1804-1806) if only because Pittsburgh was named for his father.

Earl Grey (1830-1834) because he had such great taste in tea. Yes, really.

Benjamin Disraeli (1868, 1874-1880): He needs no introduction.

William Gladstone (1868-1874, 1880-1885, 1886, 1892-1894): Disraeli’s rival. If Disraeli was Groucho, Gladstone was Margaret Dumont.

David Lloyd George (1916-1922) in case you were wondering who was standing next to Woodrow Wilson at Versailles.

Neville Chamberlain (1937-1940) who is now remembered as an insult and an accusation.

Winston Churchill (1940-45, 1951-1955), the man George Bush claimed to be–give or take the eloquence.

Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990): Disraeli’s politics with Gladstone’s charm.

Tony Blair (1997-2007) if only to prove that you were not completely oblivious.

Boris Johnson…oh maybe not.

  1. Michele says:

    Eugene, this post brings to mind a visit I made to your fair city some time in the 1970s that convinced me the British educational system is far superior to ours.

    I was working as a pr person for rock & roll musicians at the time, and a client, a British blues band that shall remain nameless for reasons that will soon become apparent, was playing at the Aragon. As we rode in the car from the airport to the city proper, the band manager and lead guitarist had an extremely well-informed conversation about Chicago politics through the ages. They also discussed the origins of some of the street names. I was stunned. And I was even more stunned a few hours later when I walked into the dressing room and noticed that the two of them were shooting dope.

  2. Pam Beddard says:

    There seems to be an unwritten rule that British rock stars must be super-brains, too. Queen guitarist, Brian May, holds a PhD in astronomy, Dare’s keyboardist has just fronted a truly excellent BBC series about physics; Blur bassist Alex James is a columnist for one of our best newspapers and the band’s drummer performed very credibly in our otherwise incredible General Election. IQ is of no use, of course, in helping to fathom who is the current UK Prime Minister but I’m disappointed that so few past holders of the office have made an impression on US consciousness. My 11-year-old recently found an online quiz which asked for the names of all US Presidents and scored almost 100% – missing out only the ones no-one noticed either side of the Pond, even when they were in office.

  3. Eugene Finerman says:


    I believe shooting up is a tradition among British musicians and entertainers. In Mike Leigh’s “Topsy Turvy”, an interesting and provocative film about the first production of “The Mikado”, much of the D’Oyly Carte Company was enjoying morphine. I imagine Holst was trippin’ while composing “The Planets”. Delius should have been mainlining penicillin but that is another–and more–venereal matter.


    I understand that Lord Palmerston is a recurring joke on “The Simpsons”. I can’t understand why; it is probably the show’s writers flaunting their Harvard educations.

    What other Prime Ministers deserve to penetrate the befogged American conscienceness? Perhaps I should have included Robert Walpole on the list.


  4. Rothgar says:

    I protest!

    While I have heard of Disreali it was not because of my College Education!! It never would have been.

    My College years were heavily laden with the works of Newton, Bernoulli, Euler, Lagrange, Allen, and others. I would have figured that someone as erudite as Sir Eugene would understand that not everyone has his scope of education. Further that an education lacking scope, such as mine, does not make it trivial by any matter. In fact, I doubt that most Liberally educated folks could survive my education.

    This assertions is supported by the fact that back when I got my BS I was part of the 12-20% who graduated in our fields of study. When I started at my fine University 5,000 to as many as 8,000 incoming students were routed into my college. At that time 1,000 students received degrees from this same college. Care to guess what it was?

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Dear Rothgar–alias TK,

      I didn’t learn about Disraeli in college, either. I must have gotten my tutorial from television. Maybe Disraeli was the subject of a book report on “Leave It to Beaver.”

      Now you ask me–and the entire readership– to guess your college curriculum. Let’s see. Newton could be in home economics or a suburb of Boston. Euler was on the Deutschmark, so whatever he did was not a war crime and happened before the 20th century. Bernoulli had something to do with gas pressure: so he may have invented the middle-aged Jew.

      But I do discern a common bond between Newton, Euler and Bernoulli that lets me make an educated guess as to your college major. You are in customer service, and you used all those names as pseudonyms to feign empathy with whomever was calling to complain.


      • Rothgar says:

        Cue the sound of Marbles.

        Your guess is truly bewildering. Try engineering. Customers, Ve don’t talk to customers.
        Your assignments of note to the notables I pointed out is up to your usual level.

        Glad to have been able to loft you a softball.

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