A series of posts about the never-ending story of progressive Conservative change, which contrasts with the events of this week’s Labour Party conference.
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There is a fashion for saying that Disraeli was never a One Nation Tory at all. That he never used the phrase (he wrote in Sybil of “two nations, the rich and the poor”); that his conception of politics was fundamentally aristocratic, not democratic; that his real aim in steering the 1867 Reform Act through the Commons to “dish the Whigs” – not to enfranchise more people.
A claim can be true while missing the main point. So it is here. Yes, Disraeli’s approach to politics was formed in his youth, but that’s true of nearly all of us. His two great speeches of 1872 show a man adjusting to a new politics that he himself had helped to bring about: the dawning of the age of mass democracy. But although times were changing, his vision remained consistent. He wanted to “elevate the condition the people” – as he had done since his youth as a radical.
Disraeli was then the best part of 70. He had served as Prime Minister only briefly. Most of his political life had been spent in opposition. But when he declared in the first of those speeches that “the first consideration of a minister should be the health of the people”, he was beginning to map out an election-winning mass appeal. Two years later, the Conservatives won their first election victory since the days of Peel. And Disraeli became Prime Minister again for a first full term – and the last time.
By then, he was afflicted by asthma, bronchitis and gout. Much of the reforming work of his ministry was undertaken by Richard Cross, the Home Secretary. But it was a formidable body of legislation: the Factory Act, Artisans Dwelling Act, Public Health Act and Pure Food & Drug Act. At least one of the measures had what we would now call a localist flavour: the Artisans Dwelling Act didn’t empower the government to replace slums with better housing, bit gave local authorities the powers to do so. The modern Tory suspicion of central government has deep roots.
There were fewer barriers between the Conservatives and working people in those pre-socialist days. So it was that Disraeli’s Government also saw the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act, which allowed peaceful picketing, and the Employers and Workmen Act which enabled workers to sue employers in the civil courts. He was the bridge between the Tory reforms of Peel, who he had helped to bring down, and those of our modern age.