Disraeli’s Dilemma, or Why the Conservative Party Must Learn The Lessons of Yesterday if it is to Win Today

Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, was a remarkable politician of the 19th century. Beginning his parliamentary career in 1837 as MP for Maidstone, he rose to prominence clashing with Sir Robert Peel over the repeal of the Corn Laws, after which he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons, before becoming the leader of the Conservative Party in 1868. He served as Prime Minister – the only man of Jewish birth ever to do so – briefly in 1868, and again in 1874. He oversaw the British acquisition of major stakes in the Suez Canal Company, which paved the way for the eventual British protectorate of Egypt, and he negotiated favourable terms at the Congress of Berlin, to obtain a diplomatic victory over Russia, which established him as one of Europe’s leading statesmen.

Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, was one won not on the international stage, but within his own party.

Disraeli is widely credited with the origination of the “One-nation Tory”, a political philosophy which has been appealed to by both David Cameron and Theresa May (though both have been criticised for failing to live up to it).

Having risen to power after the Reform Act 1867, which gave the male working class the vote, Disraeli realised that, if his party were to have any chance of victory, it needed to sway the working classes to vote Tory. One-nation Conservatism was the perfect approach – by pledging to improve the lot of the common folk while maintaining the party’s position as a national party rather than some class interest, he sailed to victory in the 1874 election with a majority of 108, the first Conservative majority government in over 30 years. The Liberals, who appeared weak and selfish by comparison, lost 145 seats.

One-nation Conservatism hinged on one very old concept, that of noblesse oblige, the feudal notion that the aristocracy had an obligation to be honourable and generous; for Disraeli, this meant a paternalistic government which believed that inequality was not something to be feared, as long as there was a minimum standard beyond which no-one may fall. It meant reforming workers’ rights, making both sides of industry equal before the law, giving workers the right to strike without fear of arrest for conspiracy, and making breach of contract a civil offence rather than a criminal offence. The post-war Conservatives of the ‘50s and ‘60s drew their inspiration from this – rather than stripping away Labour’s welfare reforms and mixed economy, the one-nation Tories chose to concentrate that welfare on those in need, and worked to encourage people to help themselves, rather than fostering a dependency on the state.

I believe that this ideology must be revived, fully and unreservedly, if the Conservatives are going to successfully counter the not-inconsiderable gains made by Jeremy Corbyn, and the ideology which he represents, in the recent election. So does Disraeli – though he is not here to tell us that himself, he made that very same observation. While Disraeli adopted one-nation conservatism for both ethical and electoral reasons, he often justified his views pragmatically by arguing that, should the ruling class become indifferent to the suffering of the people, society would become unstable and social revolution would become a possibility.

It would seem to me that the New Right has forgotten this important lesson, as this is what we are seeing today. Since 2010, Conservative and Conservative-led governments have pursued a programme of austerity, cutting public services and weakening social security in the name of ‘balancing the books’. For the better part of a decade, the Conservatives have overseen a startling rise in inequality in our country – regardless of their intentions, (for I do not and cannot believe that anyone could wish for such a situation,) this has been the consequence.

So is it any surprise that many people who do not wish to live in such a society – the young and the disenfranchised who are largely on the receiving end of those cuts and policy changes – are willing to go to extremes to see a different sort of society come into being, even if that means voting for Jeremy Corbyn?

Just as Disraeli warned, the ruling class of Conservatives have become indifferent to the suffering of the people, suffering that they have actively inflicted upon them. The consequence is that, rather than a strong and stable government running the country in the national interest, as Disraeli no doubt would have wanted, we have instead a coalition of chaos managed by a Conservative Prime Minister widely believed to be little more than a placeholder. I sincerely hope, for the sake of democracy in our country, that the Conservative party can remedy this grave error.

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