As 2019 winds to a close, let us remark on how our year of turmoil and drama has brought us to a neo-Disraelian moment. You may say that’s all too convenient a comment from a scribe who for years has been blogging under the rubric of the Disraeli-Macdonald Institute. But there you have it. It’s not the first time that the sun has, in quite this way, lit up the meadows of the United Kingdom.
Back in the 19th Century, the Kingdom also faced social, economic, and political ferment with a leader possessing an “idiosyncratic” skill-set, an insightful prescription for national greatness, and popular appeal. Benjamin Disraeli — whose birth his votaries celebrate this weekend — warmed the late Victorian period with just such a combination. Historian David Starkey reckons that, metaphorically, his time has come again.
“The best model for understanding and indeed working on the situation in which we find ourselves is Disraeli,” says the constitutional historian. He defines the Disraelian project as a composite of patriotism and paternalism. For Disraeli, the twin poles were the eminence of the British Empire, plus the inter-twined interests of the aristocracy (including the Crown) and the working classes.
Both allied against a cosmopolitan oligarchy: unrooted and unappreciative of the deep fabric of British history and tradition. Boris Johnson’s constituency is contemporary but no less framed upon Disraeli’s model. For the Prime Minister, his patriotism is framed by his advocacy for the UK’s independence from the European Union. Brexit means sovereignty, self-government, and self-determination.
Mr. Johnson’s paternalism, meanwhile, is the lynchpin for the Government’s spending agenda upon the National Health Service, the Armed Forces, vast education schemes, and the earthly environment. Disraeli and Johnson share more than a political platform. Both achieved early success as scribes and novelists. Both grasp, instinctively, the importance of Britain’s heritage in political discourse.
Both Disraeli and Bojo rose to power within the Conservative party. Gandees may have been skeptical of the bona-fides of both, but both were beloved by not only the ranks but also the files.
Nor has this bond across time gone unnoticed. Disraeli and Johnson “have a natural flair and love of publicity,” F.H. Buckley writes (the scrupulous scribe throws in President Trump, making a triumvirate). “Politics is grimly serious, as practiced by the left, and we naturally look for a respite from the politician who entertains us,” Mr. Buckley believes. Disraeli won the hearts of the people “with his colorful clothes, his novels and his wit.”
“That’s also,” Mr. Buckley adds, “how Johnson climbed to the top of the greasy pole.”
Disraeli-like, Mr. Johnson is forging links “in what were once the Labor heartlands of the Northern and Midland working classes,” Madsen Pirie muses. The new premier is appealing to “the basic patriotism they embrace.” Touching on Boris’s bravado, the venerable co-founder of the Adam Smith Institute characterizes the Prime Minister’s message one of “an independent and proud Britain that stands up to bullying and threats from overseas.”
Already there are signs of a dynamic, new Conservative ministry. Domestic spending will increase in health care, defense, and infrastructure, in anticipation of economies from ending EU membership. Foreign aid will undergo a “re-think,” since much government-to-government aid never reaches the intended recipients, the poor and needy.
The Queen’s Speech announced the government’s intention to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, set up a constitutional commission (the UK Supreme Court must be top of mind), and strike up a free trade deal with Brussels by the end of 2020 or set off on a “clean break” Brexit. Hints of Disraeli, again. “I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution,” proclaimed the young politician-to-be in the 1830s, “a Radical to remove all that is bad.”
Speaking before an Edinburgh audience in 1867 — Scotland wasn’t always adverse to Tories — Disraeli disparaged Liberals as a “combination of oligarchs and philosophers who practice on the sectarian prejudices of a portion of the people.” Conservatism, in contrast, is “formed of all classes, from the highest to the most homely.” Its purpose? To uphold Britain’s institutions that are “in theory, and ought to be in practice, an embodiment of the national requirements and the security of the national rights.”
Bravo Beaconsfield, I say, and all the more so that the Conservative party under Boris Johnson has staked its fortunes on the same ground, viewing its political adversaries with the same acumen. It’s downright Disraelian, indeed.