“Circumstances are beyond the control of man,” Benjamin Disraeli wrote, and he should know. He will be linked forever with the idea of One Nation Toryism, even though Stanley Baldwin coined the phrase in 1924 as a political ploy to limit Labor’s appeal among the working classes. Baldwin adapted the phrase from Disraeli’s novel “Sybil,” in which the author empathizes that England was in reality two nations: “The Rich and the Poor.” In many respects, though, that is where Disraeli’s connection with One Nation Conservatism begins and ends. What a pity for those who want to coast-by on his dandy’s coat-tails.
One Nation Tories today want more state intervention and welfare redistribution, disguised as a “leveling up agenda . . . absolutely in that tradition.” Disraeli, ever the aristocratic arriviste, wanted social responsibilities to remain with the ancient and noble families of England. Sybil, remember, was written at the height of Disraeli’s “Young England” movement of the 1840s. Its aims, partly romantic but motivated by real concerns for the “condition of England,” was a return to the “merrie” times of feudal responsibilities and noblesse oblige.
Victorian England was not averse to the aiding state, and it became more so as the century progressed, as Herbert Spencer lamented of “reform liberalism” in his famous essay, “The New Toryism.” It was limited, though, and often took the form of permissive legislation: allowing government to intervene if necessary, but trusting that the threat of state action would compel social and economic malefactors to voluntarily mend their ways.
Contemporary Conservatives are constrained by no such compunction. Breitbart London notes that among the One Nation wishlist are “spending high amounts of public money on foreign aid, attaining ‘carbon New Zero’, and raising taxes on so-called ‘unearned’ income.” Such a welfare initiative would have made Dizzy dizzy.
What, though, would Disraeli do differently? First, as an imperialist with global aspirations, he would heartily approve of bilateral trade deals with the world, increasing UK trade and encouraging entrepreneurship and economic growth. The British Empire may no longer color the globe “red,” but Dizzy could hardly object if trade made Britain “great” once more.
As for his successor at Downing Street, Boris Johnson — with whom literary and “living large” exploits extend — Disraeli would have agreed with the Prime Minister’s “open invitation to millions of Hong Kongers” to emigrate to the UK. The Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1997, at the handover of the former colony, guaranteed it various civil and personal liberties Beijing has consistently broken. Disraeli doubtless would agree that Britain remains responsible to Hong Kongers for the deal it inked with China on their behalf. Besides, aren’t those thousands of demonstrators protesting in the streets for liberty and self-government ready-made Brexiteers?
Of BoJo’s other commitments, however, Dizzy would disparage the Johnson government’s agenda of implementing leftist policies under Conservative colors as “Tory men and Whig measures.”
“Johnson had never pretended to be a committed conservative,” Breitbart reckons in its One Nation Caucus update. “The prime minister is said to have always been on the ‘centre-left’ of the party, described as being ‘not shy about spending public money’” and being “liberal” on the issues of immigration and EU enlargement.
Instead, Disraeli would counsel Boris to lead the One Nation Conservatives toward Brexit, as indeed Tory MPs elected last December vowed to do. In a vein similar to the American progressive leader Herbert Croly, who sought to employ “Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends” — meaning using state intervention to increase individual well-being — the Prime Minister can best “level up” by providing the sort of entrepreneurial opportunity and free-market economic growth that Brexit promises.
Rather than disparage Disraeli’s good name with One Nation policies diametrically opposed to his vision of Toryism, a Brexit agenda that recognizes Britain’s inherent vitality and devotion to liberty is a far more fitting memorial, both to Dizzy and the present occupant of Downing Street.
Mr. MacLean, a freelancer based in Nova Scotia, writes the Brexit Diary for the New York Sun.