Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Ed Miliband, One Nation... and who's this Disraeli chap?

It's easier to think highly of people after they're dead. It's even easier to think highly of them if they died almost a century and a half ago and have a statue in Parliament Square. Early on in yesterday's conference speech, Ed Miliband name dropped Benjamin Disraeli and his 'One Nation' pitch to the Tory party of the 1870s. By the time he finished up an hour later the Labour leader had said "One Nation" another forty-five times. Of Disraeli, Miliband started out with "he was a Tory, but don't let that put you off", indeed there are plenty of reasons to dislike Disraeli aside from his party.

Given that Miliband's speech took aim at Britain's bankers it's ironic that Disraeli had both made and lost a fortune playing the markets with shares in mining companies. Given the high value Miliband afforded to tolerance it's ironic that Disraeli was such a reactionary figure when it came to the rights of Catholics, especially in Ireland. When Disraeli took the office of Prime Minister for the first of his two ministries, he famously announced that he had "climbed to the top of the greasy pole", and yet Disraeli was a politician who did more than most to grease the pole in the first place. He fell out with Sir Robert Peel when the Prime Minister overlooked him in forming a government in 1841, and in retribution Disraeli became an influential opponent of the Corn Law Repeal that Peel forced through the Tory government against the interests of the landed aristocracy and in favour of the working poor. What would today be known as an arch flip-flopper, Disraeli's great rival, William Gladstone, became consumed with an almost religious zeal to do away with the "Beaconsfieldism" (Disraeli was made Earl of Beaconsfield by Queen Victoria) by which Disraeli governed without any consistent principles. Away from home and Disraeli was something of a war monger, his close relationship with Queen Victoria was useful given his frequent unpopularity with politicians and public alike, and as such he was an imperialist by nature. He recommended that Victoria should make herself Empress of India, and took Britain into Afghanistan to expand her empire against the interests of Russia. Towards this same aim he was unmoved by Ottoman atrocities in the Balkans, and looked rather to the need for Ottoman allegiance against Tsar Alexander II.

During his time in office Disraeli did conduct reforms to the good of the working poor, permitting a degree of union action and legislating for improvements to public health and housing. In 1867 his Tory government beat the Liberals in the race to extend voting rights to almost a million workers and thereby harness the impetus of the Reform movement to Tory advantage. For the most part Disraeli was a very human politician, that is to say that he was self-preserving, opportunistic and frequently petty. He was not the pantomime villain that many of his contemporaries made of him, often with anti-semitic allusions to his Jewish background, but neither is there much reason beyond his notoriety to celebrate him a hundred and forty years on.

The nod that Disraeli got yesterday in Manchester makes me fear for the Labour Party conference of the year 2152, when delegates hear of the visionary David Cameron and his plan for a 'Big Society'. At lunch the conference delegates will unplug themselves from the conference and plug themselves into the restaurant table without having to leave their seats. Some of them will teleport home whilst others take the everyman option and climb into their hovercar. The politics won't have changed much, which is why the same lines will work just as well, and Cameron will bring with him nothing more than the approval of a stock character from history.

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