The enemy’s enemy: Disraeli and working class leadership

Issue: 137
Posted: 9 January 13

Ian Birchall

At the most recent Labour Party conference party leader Ed Miliband caused a certain amount of consternation by praising Benjamin Disraeli (Tory prime minister 1868 and 1874-80), and repeatedly using Disraeli’s most famous phrase “One Nation”.1 Just to make sure nobody had missed the point, he repeated the words 46 times.2

In invoking the Disraeli tradition Miliband was seeking to occupy territory that recent Tories have apparently abandoned. Margaret Thatcher preferred Friedrich Hayek and scorned “one nation” conservatism;3 John Major preferred Anthony Trollope.

In his early years David Cameron was widely compared to Disraeli4 and firmly identified himself with the Disraelian tradition of conservatism.5 But Disraeli was most relevant to Cameron in his early years as leader, when he was creating a new image and promoting vacuous rhetoric about the “Big Society”. The Disraeli tradition may seem less important now he faces a profound crisis and is under pressure from his party’s right.

But Tories in trouble tend to go back to Disraeli.6 This is not too surprising. Conservative theoreticians are quite thin on the ground, and there is not a wealth of choice of intellectual forbears. Perhaps Miliband hopes to forestall any such move by claiming “One Nation” for himself. Whatever his motives, it is testimony to the enduring memory of Disraeli—as well as to the poverty of thinking in today’s Labour Party.

But what exactly is Disraeli’s contribution to conservatism? Clearly he is a role model for ambitious young politicians. A second-generation immigrant, who attended neither a public school nor a university, he became a highly successful politician, twice prime minister. He was a master of parliamentary manoeuvre and manipulation. His biographer Robert Blake described him as “a politician of genius, a superb improviser, a parliamentarian of unrivalled skill”7—all qualities designed to make him a hero to Tories on the make. He wrote and spoke copiously, and left quotations to serve all purposes; even Thatcher quoted him on occasion.

But in the end the essence of Disraeli is summed up in a single phrase, the sound bite “one nation conservatism”. As is the case with so many famous “quotations” Disraeli did not in fact use the term—it is extrapolated from a famous passage in his 1845 novel Sybil.8

Here Stephen Morley encounters Egremont, the novel’s aristocratic hero, and declares that Queen Victoria reigns over two nations:

“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.


There follows a bit of cheap melodrama, featuring sunset and the evening hymn to the Virgin, designed to impress on the reader the importance of this passage, in case she had missed the fact that the novel had the alternative title of “The Two Nations”.9 Even this was not original; ten years earlier Alexis Tocqueville, whom Disraeli knew, had written of “two rival nations”, the rich and the poor.10 In fact this passage is much more problematic than is often assumed. But there is no doubt that it is widely known and represents a current of conservative thinking.

Sybil sold around 3,000 copies at a guinea and a half;11 since this would be several weeks’ wages for most working people, we can assume it was addressed exclusively to a readership of the rich and not the poor. But despite some tedious stretches and a number of obvious absurdities, it remains worth reading as a founding text of British conservatism for those who want to know the enemy better.12

Miliband is not the first on the left to have tried to appropriate Disraeli. Former Labour leader Michael Foot greatly admired Disraeli and wrote an essay on him entitled “The Good Tory”13—something of a provocation to those of us who think that the only good Tory is a dead Tory—in which he stressed Disraeli’s sympathies with the Chartists. This was wishful thinking of the worst order. Veteran Stalinist critic Arnold Kettle likewise commended Disraeli as “extraordinarily intelligent”, arguing that he supplied what Thomas Carlyle had called for, “articulate inquiry into the Condition of England Question”.14 Kettle clearly thought such “articulate inquiry” must come from outside, and, like Carlyle,15 seemed to have had no confidence in the ability of the working class to articulate its own problems.

Frederick Engels was a rather more astute judge. Writing to August Bebel in 1892, he observed: “The Tories, because they are asses, can be induced by some outstanding personality, like Disraeli, to strike out boldly from time to time, which the Liberals are incapable of doing. But when no outstanding personality is available they fall under the sway of asses, as is the case just now”.16 Engels recognised Disraeli’s ability and intelligence, but had no illusions as to which side he was on.

Disraeli was a highly class conscious Tory. Despite—or more likely because of—his origins he identified with the class interests of the aristocracy, and it was fitting that in his last years he was incorporated into this class that he admired so much. But Disraeli also believed that the British ruling class in general, and the Tory party in particular, was failing to face up to the realities of 19th century society, and by so doing was not only neglecting its social and moral obligations, but, more seriously, was putting its own continuing hegemony at risk.17

Thus he could be devastating about the role of the Tory party. As a character in Coningsby put it:

I observe indeed a party in the state whose role it is to consent to no change, until it is clamorously called for, and then instantly to yield; but those are concessionary, not Conservative principles. This party treats institutions as we do our pheasants, they preserve only to destroy them. But is there a statesman among these Conservatives who offers us a dogma for a guide, or defines any great political truth which we should aspire to establish? It seems to me a barren thing, this Conservatism, an unhappy cross-breed: the mule of politics that engenders nothing.18

And he recognised with an acuteness that retains all its relevance today that the Chartists were right to see no real difference between the main parties:

They had long ceased to distinguish between the two parties who then and now contend for power. And they were right. Between the noble lord who goes out and the right honourable gentleman who comes in, where is the distinctive principle? A shadowy difference may be simulated in opposition, to serve a cry and stimulate the hustings; but the mask is not even worn in Downing Street; and the conscientious conservative seeks in the pigeon-holes of a whig bureau for the measures against which for ten years he has been sanctioning by the speaking silence of an approving nod, a general wail of frenzied alarm.19

In particular Disraeli was concerned at the ignorance of the ruling class about the condition of the working class in Britain. As he put it in some unpublished notes:

Imperfect education of the “English Gentleman”—ignorance of the economical sciences—and their power of useful activity circumscribed by their obvious unacquaintance with the wants, feelings and difficulties of the working classes—an ignorance arising out of the exclusive habits of the upper classes. The whole moral and intellectual development of the upper classes must be advanced before the condition of the working classes can be essentially improved.20

He satirises the appalling smug ignorance of Lord Marney, who boasts that he has never seen a factory and does not want to see one.21 Egremont, the novel’s hero, adopts a false name in order to frequent working class circles and find out more about the conditions of the poor.

Disraeli claimed of Sybil that “there is not a trait in this work for which [the author] has not the authority of his own observation, or the authentic evidence which has been received by Royal Commissions and Parliamentary Committees”.22 In fact, there was nothing particularly new as far as factual material was concerned. Like Karl Marx, Disraeli spent a great deal of time studying the Blue Books (reports of parliamentary commissions set up to examine social conditions), and according to one scholar it was his “frequent practice to transcribe phrases, sentences and even short passages, with very little alteration from his sources”. (A less kind critic might have used the word plagiarism.) Some of his sources were rather dubious; thus he drew on the writings of William Dodd who had been hired by Lord Ashley to investigate industrial conditions; in fact it had been revealed that Dodd “had threatened to report adversely…on certain industrialists unless they paid him blackmail”.23 The description of Wodgate is based on Willenhall, but Disraeli deliberately exaggerated the filth and irreligion.24

Hence Sybil is not particularly valuable as a source of information about the working class; if we want that it would be better to go direct to the Blue Books. What is interesting in Disraeli’s novel is what he tells us about the attitude of an intelligent Tory to the working class.

Disraeli’s argument was that the aristocracy was the natural ally of the working class. As one of the young working class women in Sybil puts it: “If we can’t have our own man, I am all for the nobs against the middle class”.25 He saw it as the duty of the Conservative Party to espouse the cause of the common people and to seek to remedy the ills it suffered from.

As a result Disraeli is quite radical in his account of working class oppression. He tells us a good deal about wages and working conditions, about female and child labour, about the squalor and misery of working class housing. He clearly believes that change is necessary, although his solution—of levelling up—lacks plausibility; in Egremont’s words: “The future principle of English politics will not be a levelling principle; not a principle adverse to privileges, but favourable to their extension. It will seek to ensure equality, not by levelling the few but by elevating the many”.26 Any expropriation of the rich was thus ruled out.

Disraeli also recognises quite clearly that the oppression of the working class can lead to violence. Early in the book there are references to rick-burning, and later there is widespread rioting. Disraeli seems to have recognised well before Quintin Hogg that “if you do not give the people reform, they are going to give you revolution”.27 As he put it in a speech in 1848: “The palace is not safe when the cottage is not happy”.28 Disraeli was honest and intelligent enough to know that a ruling class must be able to understand the various forms of rebellion issuing from the oppressed classes. If it cannot understand how they occur, it will be impotent to deal with them. Unlike more timid politicians he was not afraid that explanation might be misinterpreted as justification.29

But that was as far as it went. What Disraeli could not admit into his picture was that the working class was capable of self-activity and self-organisation, that it could produce its own leaders. For to admit that would be to recognise that the working class was capable of developing into an alternative ruling class, thus making the aristocracy and its hangers-on quite unnecessary. As Carlyle summed it up: “If something be not done, something will do itself one day, and in a fashion that will please nobody”.30

As early as 1834 Disraeli wrote: “I deny that a people can govern itself. Self-government is a contradiction in terms. Whatever form a government assumes, power must be exercised by a minority of numbers”.31 Hence Egremont’s insistence to Sybil that the working class are incapable of developing their own leaders: “The people are not strong: the people never can be strong. Their attempts at self-vindication will end only in their suffering and confusion.” Hence their only hope is with the aristocracy: “They are the natural leaders of the people, Sybil; believe me they are the only ones”.32 True, Sybil responds by insisting, with some plausibility, that “the conquerors will never rescue the conquered”. But this is merely to reinforce her previous statement that she is without hope; there is no suggestion that the conquered might rescue themselves.33

Indeed, when she becomes involved in the Chartist agitation, Sybil is fairly rapidly disillusioned. She comes to suspect that “the world was a more complicated system than she had preconceived” (a classic conservative argument—the world is complex, so any attempt to change things will make them worse), and she is particularly shocked by the fact that there are disagreements among her own side: “The People she found was not that pure embodiment of unity of feeling, of interest, and of purpose, which she had pictured in her abstractions. The people had enemies among the people”.34 That such disagreements might be an inevitable consequence of working people thinking for themselves and trying to plan their own future does not seem to have crossed her innocent mind. All she can do is wait for salvation from an implausible dénouement.

Disraeli in some ways admired the Chartists. In a speech of 1839 he declared that “although we do not approve of the remedy suggested by the Chartists, it does not follow we should not attempt to cure the disease complained of”. He recognised that Chartism had a real social base and was not simply whipped up by the seditious, as some of his fellow MPs believed:

I cannot believe that a petition signed by considerably upwards of 1,000,000 of our fellow-citizens can have been brought about by those ordinary means which are always in existence, and which five, ten or 15 years ago were equally powerful in themselves without producing any equal results.

Yet while believing that the roots of the movement were in “an apprehension on the part of the public that their civil rights are invaded”, he remained quite unable to believe that the working class was capable of elaborating its own political programme:

I admit also on the other hand that this movement is not occasioned by any desire of political rights. Political rights have so much of an abstract character, their consequences act so slightly on the multitude, that I do not believe they could ever be the origin of any great popular movement.35

Disraeli did make a certain effort to understand Chartist ideas. While researching Sybil he obtained through his friend the Radical MP Thomas Duncombe the correspondence of Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor, which he perused.36 Just after completing Sybil he met, and tried to find a publisher for, Thomas Cooper, the Chartist poet who had just been released from jail. Disraeli was impressed by him as “a man of great talents, and extensive knowledge”, adding rather ambiguously: “In appearance, Morley to the life!”37

Unlike Carlyle, Disraeli was well aware that Chartism was an expression of powerful proletarian articulacy, with its orators, mass meetings and numerous publications. The description of the torch-lit meeting is quite sympathetic.38 Trade unionism is a rather different matter. The account of Dandy Mick’s initiation into a trade union is presented in terms of heavy parody and would not be out of place in the Daily Mail. It was true enough that trade union organisation in the early 19th century involved a certain amount of clandestinity and oath-swearing. But Disraeli omits to tell his readers the basic reason for this—that trade unions had been illegal organisations. In the absence of this information the rituals can only seem to be a mixture of the sinister and the ridiculous.39

Disraeli takes a relatively relaxed view of working class violence. He sees it as an inevitable product of poverty and oppression, and mocks the aristocratic landlord who insists that rick-burning “originated in purely accidental circumstances; at least nothing to do with wages”.40 Certainly he shows working class violence as alarming, but at the same time it is clear that the state has ample means to control the violence. Disraeli claims a familiarity with mass violence not based on any extensive experience. Thus he writes of “one of those violent undulations usual in mobs”,41 which seems to mean very little but presents Disraeli as a connoisseur of such scenes, which he undoubtedly was not.42

Of the individuals involved in the Chartist movement, the one most sympathetically presented is Walter Gerard, father of the saintly and virginal Sybil. (Sybil herself, though she describes herself as “one of the lower order”,43 is not employed, and aspires to be a nun.) He is shown as a cultured and thoughtful man, sincerely committed to the interests of working people, and as a popular and effective orator. The paradox is that he is not really a worker at all, but an overlooker and hence part of the management structure, in what is rather implausibly presented as a humane and well-managed factory.44

He earns two pounds a week—five times as much as we are told an agricultural labourer receives,45 and nearly seven times as much as my own mother’s starting wage almost 100 years later. As the dénouement shows, he is actually of aristocratic descent—he is a member of the labour aristocracy in more than one sense. He disagrees with Stephen Morley about physical force—Morley is shown as a advocate of moral force. We get the impression that while Disraeli deplores working class violence, he also feels there is something a bit unmanly about moral force Chartism.46 Gerard is provoked into violent resistance at the end of the novel and is promptly killed; his action reflects his courage and spirit of rebellion rather than his good sense.

Bishop Hatton, leader of the riotous Hell-cats in the final section of the novel, is presented as the exact opposite, as the worst type of working class leadership. Yet he too is not a worker at all, having been described by one of the workers of Wodgate as “the governor here over all of us”.47 He is shown as being totally ignorant of the movement he is taking advantage of, not knowing even the five points of the Charter. He degenerates into crude parody when he declares himself an opponent of washing—”I was always against washing: it takes the marrow out of a man”.48

The problem is to explain how he wins support, how indeed he becomes followed more eagerly than the most intelligent and serious leaders. Again Disraeli is underlining his point that the working class is unable to select and recognise its own leaders, and thus constantly falls prey to agitators of the worst type. This is a frequent theme in the novels of the period. In Dickens’s nasty little anti trade union tract Hard Times, he presents the “agitator” Slackbridge:

Strange as it always is to consider any assembly in the act of submissively resigning itself to the dreariness of some complacent person, lord or commoner, whom three fourths of it could, by no human means, raise out of the slough of inanity to their own intellectual level, it was particularly strange, and it was even particularly affecting, to see this crowd of earnest faces, whose honesty in the main no competent observer free from bias could doubt, so agitated by such a leader.49

In other words, Dickens is telling us that he does not believe his own narrative, that the workers in the crowd were too intelligent to be taken in by such an agitator. Something similar is happening with Hatton. The decent and intelligent workers whom Disraeli has introduced us to are scarcely likely to be taken in by such an obvious charlatan.

But the depiction of violence has a clear ideological role. To show the working class as subject to excesses of irrational rage and violence is a very convenient myth. On the one hand it alarms the reader, convincing her of the gravity of the problem. Yet at the same time it confirms that the working class is not fit to rule; it does not have the intellectual or emotional capacity to do so. For Disraeli’s readers that was a profoundly consoling conclusion.

The most complex character is Stephen Morley. He is presented as a man of considerable culture, surrounded by books and immersed in political ideas. He too is not a worker, but a full-time journalist. He is also, it appears, some sort of socialist, although Disraeli does not use the word. In the run-up to the Two Nations speech, Morley tells us: “There is no community in England; there is aggregation, but aggregation under circumstances which make it rather a dissociating than an uniting principle”.50

“Community” is one of those words that mean so many things that they scarcely have any precise meaning at all. It is as difficult to be against community as it is to be for sin. But it seems clear that Morley is in fact some sort of Utopian socialist, probably a follower of Robert Owen.51 This is shown in the passage where he advocates the abolition of the family:

The domestic principle has fulfilled its purpose. The irresistible law of progress demands that another should be developed… Home is a barbarous idea; the method of a rude age; home is isolation; therefore anti-social. What we want is community.

To this the more common-sense Walter Gerard simply responds: “I like stretching my feet on my own hearth”.52 But it would doubtless surprise many “one nation” Tories to know that the roots of their philosophy are in a character who advocated abolition of the family.

As the novel develops we become more and more aware that Morley is a nasty piece of work. He is in love with Sybil, who rejects him. First, despite his attachment to moral force, he physically assaults Egremont; later he tries to seduce Sybil by threatening not to enable her father to escape arrest and imprisonment unless she will submit to him. In short, the “two nations” theme has a very tainted source, reflecting Disraeli’s own ambiguities about the possibility of social reconciliation.

It is always dangerous to attribute the views expressed by a character in a work of fiction to the author himself; Shakespeare would find himself lumbered with a very odd collection of opinions. But it is interesting to ask why Disraeli has made Morley the bearer of the idea of the Two Nations. In her conversations with Egremont, Sybil Gerard several times insists that the gulf between the two nations is “impassable”.53 A “one nation” Tory would have to reject this position. But the only character Disraeli can find to argue the possibility of overcoming the gulf is a social revolutionary who believes in a total transformation of the social order, thus leaving an unresolved paradox at the heart of the novel.54

Like any political novelist Disraeli had the problem of inserting what Irving Howe called “the hard and perhaps insoluble pellets of modern ideology”55 into the course of his story-telling, of achieving a balance between narrative and political advocacy. Disraeli had no compunction about using his narrative voice, and Sybil contains a number of long—and sometimes virtually unreadable—passages where Disraeli sets out his own view of English history. But the absolutely crucial Two Nations speech is put into the very ambiguous mouth of Stephen Morley.

The only reason can be that Disraeli is much more concerned to point to the dangers implicit in the Two Nations than to offer any possible “one nation” solution. So Disraeli can wholeheartedly endorse the socialist critique of society—and Morley (as yet unnamed—perhaps because Disraeli sees there was a problem in reconciling the Two Nations speech with Morley’s later development) is allowed to chill his readers’ blood with the threats inherent in a class-divided society. But Disraeli cannot begin to attribute any legitimacy to Morley’s socialist solution, and so Morley is transformed from hero to villain.

The only working class characters who survive and come out of the story reasonably well are Dandy Mick Radley and Devilsdust. They enter enthusiastically into the rioting, but then abandon their ideals in order to become capitalists, and Disraeli predicts that their descendants will eventually be incorporated into the aristocracy. This, of course, reflects a typical meritocratic myth—that the most talented members of the working class can rise out of it. Of course, Disraeli’s belief in the hereditary principle is compatible with this. Devilsdust is the child of a single mother; his father is unknown. So it is always possible that he originated from a drop of aristocratic sperm.

Disraeli is less sure of himself when dealing with the women characters. Apart from Sybil herself, who is implausibly pure and profoundly serious in her ideas, the other female characters are shown as rather frivolous and light-minded. Barbara Taylor’s Eve and the New Jerusalem shows that there were some very articulate working class feminist socialists around in this period.56 Disraeli in fact met one of these women, Anna Wheeler, but his recorded comments show that he failed to take her seriously: “not so pleasant, something between Jeremy Bentham and Meg Merrilies, very clever, but awfully revolutionary”.57

The dénouement is one of the least satisfactory parts of the novel. (For those who have not yet read the book I should add “spoiler alert” at this point.) It seems Disraeli has grown tired of his political purpose and has decided to resolve the novel in purely personal terms. As the lefty lecturer in David Lodge’s Nice Work points out: “All the Victorian novelist could offer as a solution to the problems of industrial capitalism were: a legacy, a marriage, emigration or death”.58

All four solutions, in one form or another, are used in Sybil. Egremont, elevated to the House of Lords by his elder brother’s death, seems to feel that his parliamentary duties are no longer necessary. Sybil discovers her noble ancestry, enabling her to bridge the impassable gulf and marry Egremont, forsaking the poor who had depended on her charitable gifts. Egremont and his bride go for a year-long honeymoon in Italy.59

For Disraeli it is ignorance and misunderstanding which lie at the root of social conflict.60 Sybil herself, becoming disillusioned with the factionalism of the Chartist leaders, inclines to this view:

She would ascribe rather the want of sympathy that unquestionably exists between wealth and work in England, to mutual ignorance between the classes which possess these two great elements of national prosperity; and though the source of that ignorance was to be sought in antecedent circumstances of violence and oppression, the consequences perhaps had outlived the causes, as customs survive opinions.61

Here Disraeli was undoubtedly wrong. A century and a half on, the ruling class employs thousands of sociologists to poll the opinions of the working class and examine their lifestyles and consumption patterns; while the poor have television screens on which they can inspect the most intimate details of the lives of the rich and celebrated. Yet class struggle continues.

Disraeli took Chartism and the rise of the working class very seriously. But because of his belief that the working class could not produce its own leadership, he seems to have been largely indifferent to the development of socialism on an international scale. The Young England group, in which Disraeli was a leading figure, did have some links with continental socialists; Disraeli’s associate George Smythe was a friend of the French socialist Louis Blanc.62

Disraeli himself dined with Louis Blanc in Paris in 1846, but his recorded comments merely noted that Blanc was small in stature with a “boyish face” and was “agreeable and unaffected”; he seems to have been utterly uninterested in Blanc’s ideas.63 When the 1848 Revolution took place in France, Blanc was one of the two first socialists ever to enter a national government. Disraeli merely noted that “Smythe has gone off to Paris to see his friend Louis Blanc, and some other successful blackguards”.64

Disraeli was initially deeply alarmed by events in France, though he seems to have had little idea about the causes and motivations of the events. On 29 February 1848 he wrote: “The catastrophe of Paris is so vast, so sudden, so inexplicable, so astounding, that I have not yet recovered from the intelligence of yesterday afternoon”.65

But by 13 March he was reassured:

Lionel Rothschild has just returned from Paris, and in much better spirits. He says the Communists have no power whatr [sic], and the only real trouble are the unemployed workmen, but that there are remarkable opportunities at present to occupy them.66

He was particularly concerned, however, with the threat of nationalisation, writing on 10 May:

They will also confiscate the Great Northern Railroad for certain, the workmen having announced yesterday that they will have 1 france [sic] a day increase of wages and half the profit of the line—and if they don’t give up to the workmen, the state will seize all.67

On the advice of the Rothschilds, Disraeli had invested heavily in the French railways, and this clearly preoccupied him more than the ferment of ideas issuing from the Parisian workers.

Disraeli went on writing novels, on and off, for the rest of his life. But he never returned to any extensive treatment of the working class, preferring to portray social groups he was more familiar with. In Lothair (1870) there are references to Fenians and French republican secret societies, but nothing specifically proletarian.68 In his last completed novel, Endymion (1880), there is an intriguing glimpse of a character called Enoch Craggs (once again an overlooker!) who advocates “CO-OPERATION”, and insists that workmen “make the capital … and if they make the capital, is it not strange that they should not be able to contrive some means to keep the capital?”69 But Craggs does not reappear and the theme is not followed up. It is as though Disraeli is aware that the working class is posing some unanswered questions.

That there were such questions is confirmed by a rather strange three-hour meeting that Disraeli had just a few weeks before his death with the eccentric “Marxist” Henry Hyndman. Hyndman bizarrely announced that he was considering doing entry work in the Conservative Party. Disraeli said he did not wish to discourage him, but very realistically reminded Hyndman that if he attempted to advocate “collective control and ownership” in the Conservative Party, he would come up against “a phalanx of the great families who would thwart you at every turn: they and their women”. We have only Hyndman’s account of the meeting, and it is impossible to say whether Disraeli’s remarks reflected mere politeness, or whether he was genuinely interested in the emergent socialist movement.70

Hence the Tory appropriation of Disraeli, inasmuch as it is anything more than superficial rhetoric, is not as simple as it seems. Sybil is a complex and contradictory text; its great merit is that it shows a powerful and class-conscious awareness of the fact that society is profoundly and dangerously divided—that there are indeed two nations. From there to one-nation conservatism is quite a jump—Disraeli had a shrewd grasp of the problem, but little idea of the solution. As a review in the Spectator noted, “philosophical young England can only imagine two models of amalgamating the two nations—killing off the poor, or making them rich”.71

The Young England group was scorned by Marx as embodying “feudal socialism”.72 Robert Blake, from a very different standpoint, came to a similar judgment, seeing it as “the reaction of a defeated class to a sense of its own defeat—a sort of nostalgic escape from the disagreeable present to the agreeable but imaginary past”.73 John Manners, one of Disraeli’s close associates, summed up the group’s vision of an organic utopia in the lines:

Each knew his place—king, peasant, peer, or priest—

The greater owned connexion with the least;

From rank to rank the generous feeling ran

And linked society as man to man.74

This appalling doggerel carried the equally appalling message: “We’re all in it together.”

Disraeli was not a Tory Utopian but a practical politician—and a careerist, if the two are not the same thing. He had no idea how to reconcile the two nations, so he moved on to other things. As Nigel Harris has pointed out, he redefined the argument so that it became a question of uniting two wings of the ruling class, the landowners and the industrialists: “The two nations became one by characteristic verbal sleight of hand, for the two nations had been rich and poor, but they became land and the millocracy”.75

It would be unnecessarily harsh to argue that Disraeli’s sympathy with working class suffering was entirely insincere. But he did not let it get out of hand. Thus in 1850 he spoke and voted against a bill proposing inspection of coal mines because of his connections with the mine owner Lord Londonderry.76

Disraeli played a key role in the passing of the 1867 Reform Bill, which substantially extended the franchise, and went much further than Disraeli’s own original intentions, because of the need to respond to extra-parliamentary agitation.77 Though he may have deplored it,78 Disraeli could doubtless see that further expansion of the franchise was now inevitable. If he maintained an interest in the working class, it was certainly not because he thought it should play an active role in shaping society, but because he realised that the Tory party would need working class supporters. As he wrote to the members of a workingmen’s club: “None are so interested in maintaining the institutions of the country as the working classes. The rich and powerful will not find much difficulty under any circumstances in maintaining their rights, but the privileges of the people can only be defended and secured by popular institutions”.79 If his government introduced legislation that gave certain rights to trade unions, it was doubtless because he recognised that any government would have to come to some sort of accommodation with the emerging labour movement; as he boasted, the new laws would “gain and retain for the Conservatives the lasting affection of the working classes”.80

There was a strong element of pragmatism in Disraeli’s politics; his attitude to public ownership was far removed from that of modern Tories. If Thatcher privatised British Telecom, it was Disraeli who nationalised it in the first place.81

But for the theorist of the Two Nations the question of the nation was ever more important; it was the nation that could reconcile opposing interests.82 Hence in his later years Disraeli’s continuing insistence on the importance of the nation and in particular on the role of the Empire. In a celebrated speech at Crystal Palace in 1872 he insisted that the working classes are “proud of belonging to an imperial country, and are resolved to maintain, if they can, their empire”.83

This preoccupation with nation drew Disraeli towards a fascination with race.84 Heredity and breeding are central themes in Sybil. As one of my students pointed out, even Sybil’s dog Harold is described as having an “air of proud high-bred gentleness”.85 And despite his stress on Englishness, Disraeli never quite forgot his Jewish roots, so that he also stressed the historical role of Judaism, notably in that strange and semi-mystical novel Tancred. It is as though he thought he could belong to two master races at the same time.86

Disraeli was an acute social observer—far more acute in his day than any of our contemporary Tories. But because he denied the working class’s capacity to organise itself and to develop its own leadership, he ended up with a range of contradictory and often reactionary positions. The rhetoric of “one nation” does not lead to any coherent practical policies. Whether deployed by Tories or by Labour, it offers no solutions for our present ills.


1: Version of a paper given to the London Socialist Historians Group conference, “Making the Tories History”, on 26 February 2011.

2: For the full text of the speech see Miliband, 2012.

3: “I am not sure what is meant by those who say that the party should return to something called ‘One Nation Conservatism’. As far as I can tell by their views on European federalism, such people’s creed would be better described as ‘No Nation Conservatism’”-Thatcher, 1996.

4: Oborne, 2010.

5: Cook, 2009.

6: A point I recall Nigel Harris making to the Executive of the International Socialists many years ago.

7: Blake, 1969, p477.

8: Disraeli, 1980. All page references to this edition given in the text. One may, of course, wonder how many present-day Tories have actually read Sybil, just as one may wonder how many of those who applauded Michael Gove’s speech at the 2010 Tory conference on reforming the English literature syllabus had actually read Dryden.

9: Disraeli, 1980, p96.

10: From Tocqueville’s Memoir on Pauperism (1835), cited in Himmelfarb, 2006, p80.

11: Blake, 1969, p192.

12: For comrades who don’t have the time there is quite a useful abbreviated version at

13: Foot, 1980, pp42-76.

14: Kettle, 1982, p172.

15: For Carlyle the working class were “these wild, inarticulate souls, struggling there, with inarticulate uproar, like dumb creatures in pain, unable to speak what is in them!”-Carlyle, 1840, p6. Given the flood of oratory and journalism produced by the Chartist movement, one can only conclude that Carlyle was very stupid and very ignorant.

16: Engels, letter of 5 July 1892, in Marx and Engels, 1975-2005, volume 49, p459.

17: Disraeli recognised a wide gap between the frivolity, self-indulgence and ignorance of the actual 19th century British aristocracy, and the historical role he envisaged for that class. There is perhaps a parallel with the way that Georg Lukács distinguished between the empirical consciousness of particular workers and the potential consciousness which can be historically imputed to the proletariat. See Lukács, 1971, p51.

18: Disraeli, 1844, volume I, pp309-310.

19: Disraeli, 1980, p331.

20: Cited Braun, 1981, p86.

21: Disraeli, 1980, p161.

22: Disraeli, 1980, p24.

23: Fido, 1977, p270.

24: Disraeli, 1980, p202ff; Flint, 1987, pp98-99.

25: Disraeli, 1980, p452.

26: Disraeli, 1980, p354.

27: Hogg, 1943.

28: Blake, 1969, p556.

29: Compare the rather less intelligent and more vote-oriented John Major: “Society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less”-Major, 1993.

30: Carlyle, 1840, p1. P J Keating argues that this is a common feature of all the novelists of working class life in this period: “It was his [the industrial worker’s] suffering to which novelists drew attention, but his potential power that was their true concern. The possibility that the workers might have ideas of their own about the uses to which this power could be put was discountenanced by the novelists”-Keating, 1971, pp223-224.

31: The Spirit of Whiggism, cited Edwards, 1937, p115.

32: Disraeli, 1980, p334.

33: Disraeli, 1980, p354.

34: Disraeli, 1980, p349.

35: Speech in Parliament, 12 July 1839; cited in Edwards, 1937, pp189-190.

36: Disraeli, 1877, pxiii.

37: Disraeli, 1989, pp168, 170.

38: Disraeli, 1980, p265.

39: Disraeli, 1980, pp267-271.

40: Disraeli, 1980, p143.

41: Disraeli, 1980, p485.

42: Orwell pulls a similar trick in Burmese Days: “Next day the town was quieter than a cathedral city on Monday morning. It is usually the case after a riot”-Orwell, 1935, p283. On exactly how many riots was Orwell’s assertion based?

43: Disraeli, 1980, p234.

44: In many factories it was common practice for overlookers to use gross brutality in disciplining child labour. See the testimonies at There is, of course, no suggestion that anything of the sort occurred at the mill where Gerard worked, but presumably if he was employed as an overlooker, it was in order to discipline labour.

45: Disraeli, 1980, pp153, 143.

46: I would therefore not go along with Paul Foot’s view that: “The central theme of the novel is the distinction between ‘moral force’ Chartism, espoused by the unblemished heroine, Sybil, and ‘physical force’ Chartism, described with obvious distaste”-Foot, 2005, p103.
A similar position is argued by Basketter, 2012.

47: Disraeli, 1980, p207.

48: Disraeli, 1980, p467.

49: Dickens, 1987, pp141-142.

50: Disraeli, 1980, p194.

51: For Owenite advocacy of the abolition of the family, see Taylor, 1983, pp32-48.

52: Disraeli, 1980, p238.

53: Disraeli, 1980, p337.

54: Several critics have noted that there is a problem with Morley. Gertrude Himmelfarb reminds us that “it is Stephen Morley, the Chartist radical, speaking, not Disraeli, the Tory radical” (Himmelfarb, 2006, p81), and Thom Braun considers that “Morley is generally portrayed by Disraeli with a certain amount of irony, if not sarcasm”, which might mean that the whole question of the two nations is a “mere point of rhetoric in terms of the world of the novel” (Braun 1981, pp107, 110). But they do not explore the political implications of this.

55: Howe, 1992, p20.

56: Taylor, 1983, pp57-82.

57: Taylor, 1983, p61. Meg Merrilies was a gypsy described in a poem by Keats.

58: Lodge, 1988, p52.

59: A couple of years later revolution would spread across northern Italy; a republic was declared in Venice in 1848 and an emergent working class began to make its presence felt. See Ginsborg, 1979.

60: Compare Marx’s mockery of Lamartine, who in 1848 argued that the Second Republic would get rid of the “terrible misunderstanding” between classes-Marx, The Class Struggles in France, in Marx & Engels 1975-2005, volume 10, p58.

61: Disraeli, 1980, p350.

62: Millar, 2006, pp231, 234.

63: Disraeli, 1989, p212.

64: Disraeli 1993, p18.

65: Disraeli 1993, p13. Emphasis added.

66: Disraeli 1993, p19.

67: Disraeli, 1993, p26.

68: Disraeli, 1877.

69: Disraeli, 1881.

70: Hyndman, 1911, pp237-245.

71: Spectator, 17 May 1845, cited Braun, 1981, p89.

72: Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx and Engels, 1975-2005, volume 6, pp507-508.

73: Blake, 1969, p171.

74: Schwarz, 1979, p82.

75: Harris, 1968, p113.

76: Blake, 1969, p296.

77: For a detailed account of Disraeli’s role in this period, see Foot, 2005, pp151-158; also Blake, 1969, pp456-67.

78: As he said on 18 March 1867: “We do not live-and I trust it will never be the fate of this country to live-under a democracy”-cited in Foot 2005, p152.

79: Cited in Briggs, 1970, p294.

80: Blake, 1969, p555.

81: Under Disraeli’s government in 1868 “the first measure of nationalisation was carried when the government passed a bill empowering the Post Office to buy up all the telegraph companies”-Blake, 1969, p495.

82: Robert Blake rather bizarrely claims that Disraeli “simply did not understand nationalism”. As he makes clear, Disraeli understood the nationalism of oppressor nations only too well; it was the nationalism of the oppressed for which he had no sympathy. He even caused great offence to what he referred to as “the Scotch” by refusing to use the term “British” and always preferring “English”-Blake, 1969, pp405, 481.

83: Blake, 1969, p. 523.

84: As Nigel Harris points out, for some conservatives leadership is linked directly to blood and biology since the “magical powers of leaders” are “transmitted through the blood”-Harris 1972, p8.

85: Disraeli, 1980, p244.

86: See, for example, the claim by Sidonia in Coningsby: “The fact is you cannot destroy a pure race of the Caucasian organisation… No penal laws, no physical tortures, can effect that a superior race should be absorbed in an inferior, or be destroyed by it. The mixed persecuting races disappear; the pure persecuted race remains. And at this moment, in spite of centuries, of tens of centuries, of degradation, the Jewish mind exercises a vast influence on the affairs of Europe”-Disraeli, 1844, volume 2, pp200-201.


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