Disraeli and One Nation Conservatism

The Labour leader Ed Miliband mentioned ‘One Nation’ 44 times in his conference speech on Tuesday. The term ‘One Nation’, as many commentators have pointed out, is indelibly associated with the 19th century Conservative leader and prime minister Benjamin Disraeli (1803-81). This blog explains the origins of ‘One Nation’ in the 19th century, its relevance to Disraeli’s career, and its political legacy.

The term ‘One Nation’ comes from Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil; or the two nations. After the young aristocrat Charles Egremont complacently observes that Britain is the ‘greatest nation that ever existed’, Walter Gerard, a working-class radical, tells him that there are in fact

‘ “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.”’

Disraeli never actually used the phrase ‘One Nation’, but it was certainly implied. His belief was that political leadership should aim to overcome the social divisions between classes to make the country ‘One Nation’.

Disraeli was one of a number of novelists and social critics to address the ‘condition of England’ question, the poverty and squalid living conditions of the urban working classes, in the 1840s. A Conservative backbencher at this time, Disraeli used his novels to sketch out a social critique of laissez-faire philosophy. The selfish individualism propagated by Liberal manufacturers and Whig aristocrats influenced by Utilitarianism denied the organic, social ties that existed between people, classes and communities. Disraeli was a paternalist who stressed the social obligations of the nobility to the poor. In his view, social measures to improve the lot of the poor would be the best way of safeguarding traditional institutions such as the Church, the monarchy and the House of Lords. ‘The palace is not safe when the cottage is not happy’, he once wrote.

With his ‘Young England’ group of young aristocratic followers, Disraeli looked towards an alliance between a paternalistic nobility and the working classes against the selfish Liberal middle classes in the 1840s. As a political project this was a non-starter, but it was not without some successes. For example, the votes of paternalist Tory MPs, including Disraeli, were crucial in passing the 10 hour day for factory workers in 1847. The measure was popular with workers, but many Liberal MPs had opposed the measure as unjustifiable state interference.

Despite the success of his novels, Disraeli only came to political prominence in 1846 when the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel split his party by repealing the corn laws. Disraeli made his name with a series of witty attacks on Peel for betraying his party. By 1849 Disraeli was the undisputed leader of the Conservative party in the Commons, although Lord Derby remained in overall charge. Disraeli served as chancellor of the exchequer in Conservative minority governments in 1852, 1858-9, and 1866-8 and was prime minister in 1868 and 1874-80.

How far the ideas of Disraeli’s novels informed his political career continues to be debated. Disraeli was in government for a relatively short period due to the dominance of the Liberal party. However, in the 1870s his government passed a number of measures relating to working-class housing, sanitary improvements, education and other social issues. Whether Disraeli could claim much credit for them is debatable, as he was never a man for detailed policy making and most of the measures were due to the efforts of individual ministers. Furthermore, most of these social reforms were low-key, limited and permissive rather than compulsory.

However, the social reforms of the 1870s were of considerable political importance. As a mass electorate was developing, these social reforms and the 10 hour day allowed Conservatives to highlight their record of supporting social measures to improve the lot of the working classes. After his death in 1881, the party developed a Disraeli personality cult.  Local branches of the Primrose League (named after his favourite flower) were established to attract the working classes, including women, with particular emphasis placed on Disraeli’s support for social reform and empire. The Disraelian legacy has been invoked by Stanley Baldwin, Conservative prime minister in the 1920s and 1930s, by the One Nation group of Conservative MPs founded in 1950, and by political leaders of both parties since.

Further reading:

R. Blake, Disraeli (1966).

J. Parry, ‘Disraeli, Benjamin’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessible from www.oxforddnb.com.

M. Pugh, The Tories and the people, 1880-1935 (1985) – on the Primrose League.

P. Smith, Disraelian Conservatism and Social Reform (1967).

J. Vincent, ‘Was Disraeli a failure?’, History Today, 13 (1981), 5-8.

R. Walsha, ‘The One Nation Group and One Nation Conservatism, 1950-2002’, Contemporary British History, 17 (2003), 69-120.

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2 Responses to Disraeli and One Nation Conservatism

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