December 19, 2009

The myth of Benjaman Disreali and "one nation" Conservatism

What are the origins of a one nation “ tradition in the Conservative party-t. The title is of course very vague and used a great deal by figures across the Conservative party political spectrum. However when used with some precision as a tradition of the (arguably the tradition of the ) leftwing of the Conservative party. It could broadly defined as a tradition in the Conservative party that emphasises the use of government to improve social welfare a general belief in compromise and harmony for it’s own sake in politics including and seeking to be overall closer to leftwing opposition than the average member of the Conservative party as a whole and perhaps a relative openness to other political parties and social outsiders . Even today a substantial number of Tory mp’s s identify somewhat with the nominature of this tradition and probably at least a considerable amount with the description.

This tradition is often traced back to Benjamin Disraeli the great late nineteenth century leader of the Conservative party who popularised the slogan ) and is often seen as the originator of a “one nation” tradition to the degree that the mere mention of his name in speeches was at least at one point seen as a sign of identification with the by the “leftwing” of the Conservative party. Disreali is a fascinating and often much misunderstood figure a socially dubious poet who managed to become one of the top powrs in the land, a Jew who was baptised in adolescent who became a Prime Minster in the nineteenth century -arguably a bigger cross over of social barriers than any 20th century prime minster). IN that sense he does represent an idea of “one nation”.

However it is difficult to see how the normal idea of one nation Conservatism as described above has much to do with him . Many of Disraeli’s issues as party leader were related to the call “church in danger” and the linked strong Tory support of Anglican establishment and traditional “constitutional” elements such as the purchasing of commissions in the army . Indeed his famous “Young England” in his youth owed more to that and a certain sentimentality for the middle ages than anything else. While many one nation Tories have been passionate about such issues ( for example Stanley Baldwin who is partly the subject of a future post) it’s hard to see it as specific to that tradition.

Disraeli’ was by the standards of his era highly partisan though it’s dubious whether either should be seen as being contradictory to the one nation tradition.
Three actual policies of Disraeli are often taken as signs of some one nation toy tradition. Firstly Disraeli’s government extended the franchise, secondly his stands on trade issues and thirdly his governments contribution to “social reform” particularly union reform.

All three are extremely dubious. On the franchise Disraeli’s ministry passed the Second Great Reform Act which extended it by an enormous amount the franchise- for example making it have a majority working class . It’s also dubious whether any “one nation” tradition in the twentieth and twenty first century Conservative party can really be identified with franchise extension-in an era where the franchise was no longer an issue. If anything the transfer of powers to non elected bodies such as the European court of justice has been more popular. And if one nation conservatism has been anything it’s not been populist. Even more to the point the evidence is Disreali had no particular desire to massively extended the franchise and was keen just to pass a bill (partly to give his government an achievement and partly to let the Tories write the terms of the redrawing of parliamentary boundaries) -and that the bill was much more radical in effect than intention- it enfranchised most of it’s voters on a technicality which was not realized at the time.

On protection Disraeli has been invoked as one national both as the opponent of “dogmatic” free marketers by bringing down Robert Peel and for his embrace of free trade. It’s hard to see how any particular position on trade reflects a “one nation” perspective. Disraeli’s position on trade was less inconsistent than he is sometimes portrayed. It could be said to be fairly free trade but with an emphasis on obeying election promises, and a desire to help agricultural interests. None of this could be said to have be particularly part of one nation Toryism.

Disraeli’s government contribution to social reform while real has been grossly exaggerated-it was considerably less extensive than Gladstone (and arguably less important than the reforms passed under Disraeli’s Bete noir Peel).- During these reforms Disraeli brought in a new emphasis on local option-that is if ratepayers didn’t want to do something they would not have to do so. The enormously important industrial relations act was a bi-partisan act with as much support among liberals as Conservatives- and the big divide in the Conservative party has never really been on union regulation.

So the argument for Disraeli being a “one nation” Tory is rather tenuous. There would be more grounds to see him a proto-Thatcherite though that would also be rather anachronistic. Disreali presided over and played a part in adding new cries to the Tory election appeal. The older tory cries of the “constitution” and “church in danger” .It was under Disraeli the Tories began attacking the liberals seriously for legislations that meddled with liberties and traditional rights-notably that of the drink trade- in a sense the rather modest beginning of a “small government” appeal. It was under Disraeli that the Tories began to push also nationalist themes such as the empire and the liberals as unpatriotic opponents of troops. As i said to call this the beginning of Thatcherism is anachronistic but it’s hard to see how if there is a distinctive one nation tradition opposed or moderating Thatcherism that it owes much to Disraeli-whatever his role in the use of it as a name.

This is not the only problem. As already mentioned it’s hard to see the divisions in the Conservative party before World War I as being of that nature (though Arthur Balfour did refer to protectionists as the “left” Of the party) I would place the origins of the “one nation” tradition as normally defined in the interwar era-and it is to this that we will now return.