Disrael's Disciple? Just hours before she discovered that she had become the next tenant of No. 10 Downing Street, this stern daughter of the vicarage, the woman who warned Conservatives against becoming “the nasty party”, was addressing the Conservatives of Birmingham. So radically “One Nation” was May’s speech, both in tone and content, that the veteran Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, accused her of placing “several tanks on to what should be Labour’s lawn”.
IS IT A GOOD THING, or a bad thing, that politicians no longer write novels? Given Steven Joyce’s recent problems with Twitter, the politicians themselves would probably say it’s a very good thing indeed. If Mr Joyce could cause his party so much trouble with 140 characters, then just imagine how much damage he could do with 140 pages!
There was, however, one novelist who turned out to be a simply splendid politician. Long before the days of the Internet, television, radio, or even the rotary press, one Benjamin Disraeli used the novel form to talk about politics in a novel way.
It has long been said that if you want to tell the truth – write fiction. In his 1845 novel, Sybil, Disraeli constructed a conversation in which his truth-telling fictional characters inspired a whole new movement in conservative politics.
A young aristocrat by the name of Charles Egremont declares confidently that Great Britain is “the greatest nation that ever existed”, only to be set straight by a young working-class firebrand, Walter Gerard.
In reality, says Gerard, there are:
“‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.
‘You speak of –‘ said Egremont hesitatingly
‘The RICH and the POOR.’”
Benjamin Disraeli - The Founder of "One Nation" Conservatism.
It was Disraeli who first perceived the political impossibility of a Conservative Party dedicated to the maintenance of such glaring social divisions. By 1845 it was clear that the widening of the franchise, begun 13 years earlier with the passage of the Great Reform Act, was an irreversible process. Eventually all adult males (and, who knew, females too!) would have the vote. A party dedicated to the interests of the Egremonts exclusively could not hope to hold office. Disraeli understood that the future of conservatism in Great Britain could only be guaranteed if the Tory party first learned how to fashion – and then govern – a single nation.
Thus was born “One Nation Conservatism”.
One-hundred-and-seventy-one years after the publication of Sybil, Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, shows every sign of uplifting Disraeli’s fallen mantle and draping it fetchingly around her shoulders.
Just hours before she discovered that she had become the next tenant of No. 10 Downing Street, this stern daughter of the vicarage, the woman who warned Conservatives against becoming “the nasty party”, was addressing the Conservatives of Birmingham.
So radically “One Nation” was May’s speech, both in tone and content, that the veteran Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, accused her of placing “several tanks on to what should be Labour’s lawn”. Indeed, had the beleaguered Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, delivered such a speech it would have been received as further proof of his unelectability.
Here’s a sample: one Disraeli, himself, could have written:
“This is a different kind of Conservatism … It marks a break with the past. But it is in fact completely consistent with Conservative principles. Because we don’t just believe in markets, but in communities. We don’t just believe in individualism, but in society. We don’t hate the state, we value the role that only the state can play. We believe everybody – not just the privileged few – has a right to take ownership of what matters in their lives.”
In that single paragraph, Britain’s second female Prime Minister has turned on its head the “there’s no such thing as society” credo of its first. May’s Birmingham speech signals a new departure for the Conservative Party; and her direction of travel, in part an acknowledgement of the intense feelings that drove Brexit, threatens to outflank her Labour opponents – from the Left.
The fratricidally distracted Left may not have noticed it yet, but the Financial Times’ Janan Ganesh certainly has:
“She is not a reactionary. Nobody who sensed the perceived nastiness of her party as early as 2002, as she did, and challenged the police as often as she has, could be. But if Tory history pits the spirit of freedom against the claims of social order, the one periodically dominating the other before giving way, she might herald the latter’s resurgence … Free-marketeers, gird yourselves.”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 July 2016.