Benjamin Disraeli, engraving from L'Illustrazione Italiana, No 18, May 1, 1881 (Photo credit: DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA / Contributor)

Who the hell is Disraeli?

Wisdom on recovering from Conservative failure

Artillery Row

Most Westminster pundits will tell you that the Conservative Party is set to lose the next general election. The New Conservatives, a group of 25 predominantly Red Wall Tory MPs, has recently been launched, with the aim of clawing back some chance of keeping Sir Keir in Kentish Town. One of their members, Danny Kruger MP, even has a forthcoming book which aims to flesh out their message. Coming so soon after the energised but incoherent atmosphere of the National Conservatism UK conference, it is once again clear that the party has been unable to rediscover its identity.

Our current crop of politicos would do well to remember one of the most powerful and practical examples of a Tory who brought a divided and disarrayed movement back from its mid-19th century brink: Benjamin Disraeli.

In pursuing progress, we have instead narrow parochialism

Ignorance of even the weightiest parts of our past is nothing new in Britain. Former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott once retorted: “Who the hell is Disraeli?” whilst being quizzed by the BBC on his legacy in 2012. Two-thirds of 16 to 24-year-olds cannot name the year in which the First World War ended, and 12 per cent believe that Waterloo was a battle of the same war. Just one-fifth of 18 to 24-year-olds have a “positive” view of Winston Churchill.

There is a connection between such ignorance and the decline of political history. As the quality of education has dramatically declined, partly down to the destruction of the grammar system from the 1960s, our sense of the world has been successively downgraded. In pursuing progress, we have instead become guilty of the most narrow parochialism.

Only by familiarising ourselves with the dynamic traditions Disraeli himself championed can we begin to shape today’s space for change.

Disraeli, the grandson of Italian Jewish immigrants, converted to Anglicanism as a teenager, following his father’s blazing row with the local synagogue. Disraeli’s championing of his unusual status as “the blank page between the Old Testament and the New” offers a glimpse into his eccentric yet productive acceptance of both his Britishness, aided by his adoption of Anglicanism, and his Jewish roots. Like any human being, Disraeli is an example to observe, not accept uncritically.

Disraeli was not always the visionary of Tory mythology, of course. He was undoubtedly an ambitious social climber who admitted to craving money and fame. He was a more able delegator than he was a legislator, often nodding off in cabinet meetings where detailed proposals were discussed. Yet these caveats ought not to diminish the value of Disraeli’s approach.

Through the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act 1875, and the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, Disraeli pushed through historic social and economic reforms that set the groundwork for workers to organise and demand improvements to their dire conditions. This is why lazy comparisons between Disraeli and Boris Johnson, who also shared his predecessor’s knack for writing and reinvention, are so frustrating. Disraeli had his fair share of blunders, but the policies he backed often made concrete and positive changes to everyday life for millions.

As the late former Chancellor Nigel Lawson once explained for the Centre for Policy Studies: “Disraeli may have used the Corn Laws and protection to secure the leadership of the Conservative party, but in practice, he was operating in precisely the same world of non-intervention in industry, adherence to the gold standard (and thus to stable money) and free trade as was Gladstone.” Clearly, old Dizzy’s fondness for bridging the class divide, however opportunistic, did not translate into a leftist disdain for free enterprise or property rights.

Disraeli strengthened the unlikely bond between aristocracy and proletariat

By far Disraeli’s most radical domestic achievement was the Second Reform Act 1867 which roughly doubled the electorate in England and Wales from one to two million men. Whilst the move was partly a cunning attempt to persuade voters against his arch-rival Gladstone, it was a stroke of genius. The policy strengthened the unlikely bond between Britain’s aristocracy and the proletariat by curbing the influence of the liberal middle classes, who were often happy to accept the lower classes as collateral in their pursuit of capital. Our current government has no such concern. In fact, importing low-skilled immigration to outcompete Britain’s working classes has become a deliberate policy. It regularly wheels out the likes of Lee Anderson to make demeaning comments about immigrants, whilst failing to implement any useful policies.

Is it any wonder that top Tories themselves have long been keen to accept the progressive premise that their party occupies the “nasty” or elitist side of the argument? This has sidelined the potential of Disraeli’s legacy to disarm the canard that Conservatism is not a popular tradition. Unlike our own era’s tax-dodging oligarchs, the landed upper classes of days gone by were (with some exceptions) taught that their privilege entailed social responsibility. They shared a love of faith, flag and family with their working-class compatriots. Amongst our elites, these sentiments have been in steep decline since the horrors of the First World War.

From the FBPE-ish centre-left to the libertarian right, “One Nation” philosophy has instead become a byword for cosmopolitan liberalism. It is a retreat for Conservative MPs who remain Tories, not for fear of economic or moral progressivism, but to ensure its advance no matter which party has a majority. It is hence no surprise that Boris Johnson’s tenure imploded in a catastrophe that revealed his intentions were everything but a dedication to the noblesse oblige.

Not only has our current administration been incompetent, but it has also spearheaded policies that fly in the face of the common good: refusing to tackle the long-term economic pressures, criminalising forms of peaceful protest, further liberalising divorce and abortion laws, encouraging mass immigration and even funding bodies that oppose a solution to it — not to mention frittering away billions on Chinese-style lockdown policies whilst its officials held boozy parties.

Lee Anderson has little to offer the discourse other than boomer bait

In his first address to the Conservative Party’s annual conference after entering Number 10 in 1957, Harold Macmillan cited Disraeli’s famous command: “We must be conservative to conserve all that is good and radical to uproot all that is bad.” Perhaps we would do well to start with uprooting our amnesia where the latter’s premiership is concerned. He transformed conservatism into a popular tradition dedicated to the defence of the cultural values and economic interests of the working class. The Right must stop being ashamed of where it came from. Disraeli certainly wasn’t.

I am sure many of the “New Conservative” parliamentarians are well-intentioned; I myself have had positive interactions with several of them. Much like the Tories themselves, though, they are a disparate bunch.

Mr Kruger’s new book seeks — consciously or unconsciously — to imitate the DIsraelian spirit, but it ultimately falls flat. He even admits that he voted for Coronavirus restrictions, which he now regrets. Lee Anderson, the sole Cabinet member signed on to this protest caucus, is a microcosm of Tory failure. He has little to offer the discourse other than boomer bait.

Disraeli was certainly a slippery fellow, but he knew how to get things done. Moreover, he was dealing with a culture still steeped in the language of history and biblical morality. He did not need to start from square one like Kruger’s book, by having to deliberate about obvious facts — that marriage is a good thing, or that real-life communities make people happier and safer.

It is almost impossible to seek political change on moral issues which have already been turned on their head by successive governments. Neither can we believe that any political party is willing to reset our economy when they continue to flog off essential parts of it to the highest bidder.

Disraeli resurrected Toryism at another time when it found itself on life support. Perhaps the best thing to do to honour his legacy now, would be to let it die.

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