By Simon Basketter
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Disraeli: the ‘One Nation’ Tory that Ed Miliband learned to love

This article is over 11 years, 8 months old
Labour leader Ed Miliband took up the mantle of "One Nation" Conservatism in his speech to the Labour Party conference last week.
Issue 2324
Benjamin Disraeli
Benjamin Disraeli

Labour leader Ed Miliband took up the mantle of “One Nation” Conservatism in his speech to the Labour Party conference last week.

This amounted to promising to be rhetorically tough on bankers and really tough on foreigners. But it is worth looking at the Tory whose ideas he wants to adopt.

Benjamin Disraeli was the key leader of the Tories in the Victorian age. He initially wanted to tap into opposition to the horrors of capitalism in order to defend the rights of the aristocracy against the industrialists.

He was part of the Young England movement that the revolutionaries Karl Marx and Frederick Engels denounced in the Communist Manifesto. Disraeli promised to defeat the “Chartists and socialists” and “Jesuits and infidels”.

Chartism was a huge working class movement that put fear in the heart of the 19th century British establishment. The Chartists’ petition of 1839 demanded reform and democracy.

It was three miles long and had 1,280,000 signatures—50 percent more people than had voted in the election of 1837. When it was discussed in parliament Disraeli sat through the debate eating oranges and said nothing.

He wrote a novel about the Chartists in 1845—“Sybil, or the Two Nations”. It is a superficially sympathetic account of the rise of the Chartists but it’s a rotten book.


The theme of the novel is the distinction between “moral force” Chartism and “physical force” Chartism. Moral force Chartism is the view of the perfect heroine Sybil, while physical force Chartism is treated with utter contempt.

In the novel, this dispute between the two wings of the movement is so bitter that it cannot be solved by ordinary working people. So the solution comes from outside—from the brilliant and sensitive Tory MP Charles Egremont.

Sybil quickly becomes disillusioned with her violent supporters—who include her father. Ed Miliband must be attracted to the idea of someone on the right wing of the movement disowning a more radical parent.

Sybil’s journey to righteousness comes after she reads a speech by Egremont—presumably one made without notes. He conveniently arrives in the midst of some physical force chaos to make off with Sybil and make a lady of her.

What starts as polemic ends as potboiler romance—the book, that is, not the proposal for the next Labour coalition with the Lib Dems.

Disraeli later changed tack and talked little of One Nation as he fought to build up the Tory party. He heaved the party into line with the demands of the new industrial capitalists.

The Tories drove through murderous imperial expansion across the globe. And they used this to build up support in the cities rather than the countryside.


The chief weapon in the Tories’ hands was their promotion of support for imperialism. But they were prepared to offer reforms to get people onside.

A Tory administration passed the 1867 Reform Act extending the voting franchise, after an illegal mass workers’ protest in Hyde Park.

As chancellor, Disraeli wanted a milder version of electoral reform than William Gladstone, his Liberal opponent, had failed to get through parliament a year earlier.

The purpose was to do over the Liberals and get at the head of demands for reform. But most importantly he aimed to stop demands for change rather than bring change.

In his speech proposing the bill Disraeli said, “Do not confuse popular rights with democratic rights. We do not live—and I trust it never will be the fate of this country to live—under a democracy.” His overt purpose was to “extinguish the opposition”.

A better Miliband described Disraeli’s strategy in his book Capitalist Democracy in Britain. Ralph Miliband, Ed’s father, wrote, “The point was to keep power in safe hands while proclaiming that it had passed into the hands of the people.”

Disraeli made his party the favourite of the bosses, did nothing for the poor and didn’t win that many elections. Just what Labour needs.


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