IN 1868, after 30 years of wrestling the gnawing, inward urge to make an indelible mark on the world, Benjamin Disraeli finally — in his own words — “climbed to the top of the greasy pole” and became Prime Minister. But not for long. Within a year, he had lost a general election. The defeat left him disconsolate and depressed. It would be another four years before he resolved once again to secure the ultimate political prize.
As part of a speaking tour of north-west England to promote the Conservative Party as the truly national party of England, Disraeli came to Manchester on the evening of 2 April 1872. At the Free Trade Hall, and fortified by two bottles of white brandy, he addressed a crowd of thousands in his famous “One Nation” speech.
It lasted for more than three hours. After denouncing Gladstone’s Liberal Party as “a range of exhausted volcanoes”, Disraeli promised a future in which public health, sanitation, decent factory conditions for the urban masses, and food for the hungry would take priority over the vested interests and laissez-faire ideology that had defined the Industrial Revolution. The greatness of the country, and the dignity of the poor, demanded nothing less.
DESPITE the enthusiastic crowds, the speech had a mixed reception at the time, but it came to be seen as an exposition of Conservative social reform, and Disraeli’s words and epigrams contributed to the pervasive and enduring philosophy of One Nation Conservatism, with its ideal of a fairer and more classless society.
Tory and Labour MPs continue to invoke his name as a source of inspiration, 150 years later. Speaking in Manchester in 2012, the then Leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband, pointed to where the Free Trade Hall used to stand, and invited the gathering to remember Disraeli’s vision of Britain, “where dedication to the common cause courses through the veins of all and nobody feels left out”.
The plaudits are, to some extent, justified, but reflect the potency of the ideal rather than its progenitor. Disraeli was a Jew with a deep understanding of his own people and their legacy “of all that is spiritual in our nature”. He was also a communicant member of the Church of England, who viewed Christianity as a natural successor to Judaism, and was an upholder of its ethical teachings.
He recognised the plight of the poor and disenfranchised, and had read the reports of parliamentary commissions set up to examine the social conditions of the working classes. He had also seen, at first hand, the misery and squalor of the manufacturing towns.
In his influential novel Sybil, or The Two Nations, he describes a country in which wealthy industrialists and the mass of the population inhabit different planets, and “between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy”. The book stirred social consciences, and the phrase “two nations” established itself as a telling metaphor for the “hungry Forties” of early Victorian Britain.
AS A prolific and commercially successful writer, Disraeli gave voice to the despondent and brutalised multitudes. He spoke out against the police violence and harsh sentences inflicted on the Chartists, who were demanding radical political change, and backed the Ten Hour Bill to reduce the working day in factories.
Becoming Prime Minister for the second time in 1874, he fulfilled his promise of social improvement through a raft of measures successfully steered through Parliament. Some were advisory, and others were ignored, or only fitfully implemented over the course of several years.
By then, Disraeli was old, tired, and prone to increasing ill-health. He took a legitimate pride in the new laws, but his contribution to the drafting of legislation or debates in the Commons was negligible. Colleagues in the Cabinet noted his tendency to nod off in meetings when social reform shaped the agenda, and his utterances regarding the welfare of the underprivileged rarely exceeded polite concern.
His private notebooks and letters over the years are filled with recollections of the famous and wealthy people he had met and worked with, and contain lavish descriptions of the “dinners, diamonds, and flowers” that constituted the fashionable parties that he attended as a fêted celebrity. It was a great thing to be “the toast of the town”.
In contrast, poverty and the chronic diseases of the poor are rarely mentioned in his journals. It is also significant that he never actually used the term “One Nation”. Disraeli’s personal correspondence and, ironically, even Sybil itself reveal his anti-democratic convictions. He believed that “the fusion of manners, classes and peoples diminishes national and individual character,” and argued instead for a renewed aristocracy and monarchy, presiding over a nation at greater ease with itself.
QUITE apart from the personal ambition and egoism that lay behind his pursuit of power, it is conceivable that Disraeli believed that social reform really mattered — and not only to him and to the party he led. He sought to alleviate poverty, but was not moved by it; he did not, in Keats’s memorable phrase, “feel it on the pulse”. He was not for mass democracy, or a classless society, resolving instead to revive and improve the old way of doing things as a way of regaining momentum for the Conservatives.
Some critics and even close friends doubted Disraeli’s personal integrity, and questioned what, in the end, his fine words amounted to. After reading his final novel, Endymion, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Archibald Tait, was left with the disquieting impression that “the writer considers all political life as mere play and gambling.”
There is some truth in this observation. Politics was a great game for Disraeli; but, to his admirers, his contribution to the common good represented a landmark in the social history of the nation.
Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.