Where Is the Next Disraeli?
Reviving Disraeli’s One Nation Conservatism may be the right’s best hope of establishing a just political economy.
Over one hundred days after leaving office, former Prime Minister Liz Truss unveiled the autopsy of her forty-nine days in power. Blaming “a very powerful economic establishment” for the failure of her financial plan, which triggered massive market chaos, Truss still clings to her belief that economic liberalization holds the answers to today’s problems. This simplistic narrative does not explain why the British government experienced such a rapid collapse in fiscal and political credibility in such a short amount of time. Nor does it explain the serious errors of judgement made by Truss and her team.
Truss entered Downing Street on the promise of being the second coming of Thatcher and is now trying to rehabilitate herself as Britain’s Barry Goldwater. It has been all too easy for Conservatives and Republicans to retreat into the political comfort zone of Thatcherism and Reaganomics. Reminiscing about the right’s half-remembered glory days is more appealing for older generations of conservatives than facing the hard reality of politics in the 2020s. Many in the Reaganite old guard became cheerleaders for Truss in her mission to revive free market ideology. Truss and her fellow travelers remain intellectually trapped within the hoary mythology that has fossilized around the Thatcher and Reagan years.
Where Truss’s instincts have proven to be sharper is in her argument that people want the current economic consensus to change. The Conservatives have been in office for over twelve years, steering the nation through the fallout of the financial crisis, the Brexit vote, and the pandemic. Afflicted by meager economic growth, low productivity, falling real wages, and rising living costs, Britain is set to be poorer than Poland in 2030. Truss won support from her party’s members on a pledge to reverse national decline and pursue economic growth, but she was ultimately not up to the task. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has focused his energies on clearing up Truss’s mess but has yet to produce his own distinctive policy agenda.
In the face of free-marketeers’ ideological zeal, it is tempting for conservatives to respond with a focus on pragmatism. A healthy dose of realism was certainly needed after Truss’s fall. But economic ideas are needed too. Instead of triangulating between the extremes or falling back on liberal economic orthodoxy, an authentically conservative understanding of how to build a strong national economy is key. American Compass in the United States and Onward in Britain have been leading the way on defining conservative economics over the past few years. To support this mission, conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic can find a rich source of inspiration by delving deeper into Britain’s tradition of One Nation Conservatism.
As far as this conservative tradition in Britain has a founding father, it is undoubtedly nineteenth-century Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. The British conservative tradition arguably stretches back further beyond to Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century or even Richard Hooker in the sixteenth century, but it was Disraeli who consciously visualized and organized conservatism against the forces of liberalism and laissez faire. The call of “One Nation,” inspired by Disraeli’s writings and speeches, continues to define the core of British conservative thinking. It has even shaped the political thought of post-war American conservatives from political theorist Russell Kirk to President Richard Nixon.
Disraeli was the most unconventional and unexpected leader to emerge from British conservatism during the nineteenth century. Although he was baptized into the Anglican Church by his father, Disraeli was forever proud of his Jewish identity. Following the example of the poet Lord Byron, Disraeli became an ardent Romantic, adopting the fashion of the London dandies and writing a series of novels about British high society. From 1832 to 1836, he ran several times unsuccessfully for Parliament, first as a Radical and then eventually as a Conservative but always as a committed anti-Whig.
It was the calculating, utilitarian liberalism of the Whig Party that Disraeli felt instinctively opposed to. Reducing politics to a science of analyzing society as a composite of atoms acting according to fixed laws was to misunderstand what makes human beings tick. Disraeli’s response was to form a caucus of radical Conservative politicians, called "Young England," to launch an assault on the Whig government’s laissez faire policies and make the argument for Britain being a national community defined by its institutions, traditions, and responsibilities. They believed that urbanization and industrialization had unleashed devastation on the working class, allowing exploitation from industrialists and neglect from the aristocracy.
When Sir Robert Peel, the Conservative prime minister, tried to bring his party into line with Whig laissez faire by repealing the Corn Laws that protected British home producers from food imports, Disraeli helped lead the parliamentary revolt. Whig votes eventually helped to repeal the Corn Laws in 1846 but the Conservatives split permanently as a result. Peel’s followers would eventually be absorbed into the Liberal Party while the protectionist Conservatives survived as a large minority party for decades. But it was this period of prolonged opposition, with brief terms in office, that allowed Disraeli to fundamentally reshape British conservatism.
Protectionism was dropped as an electoral liability just a few years later, but Disraeli continued to develop the ideas he first explored with Young England. In his most famous novel, Sybil (1845), Disraeli wrote about the growing social fragmentation of nineteenth century Britain:
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: the rich and the poor.
Even after winning a parliamentary majority for the Conservatives in 1874, ending decades of his party’s minority status, Disraeli could not fully realize his ideas or overturn the liberal consensus in Victorian Britain. But he provided a mode of thought for criticizing its excesses, curbing its impact, and inspiring later generations to find alternatives to Victorian political economy. The passage of historic social reforms, impacting swaths of public life from sanitation to housing, demonstrated how constructive Conservative governance could benefit ordinary Britons and reconcile the two nations.
This social conscience was combined with an intense national pride. When Disraeli died in 1881, Lord Salisbury, a future Conservative prime minister, paid tribute, saying “Zeal for the greatness of England was the passion of his life.” Disraeli was also willing to adapt to the arrival of mass democracy, passing the Second Reform Act in 1867, but he was a staunch defender of the nation’s vital institutions. The church, the land, the crown, and the empire were the core of his conception of British national greatness and identity. Stanley Baldwin, Conservative prime minister during the 1920s and 1930s, would christen Disraeli’s combination of patriotism and solidarity as “One Nation" Conservatism.
For much of the following century, Disraeli’s creed influenced the Conservative Party’s greatest reformers. Lord Randolph Churchill, father of the famous wartime leader, made his slogan "Tory democracy" into a rallying call for grassroots conservatism in the age of mass democracy. Joseph Chamberlain defected from the Liberals and gave the Conservatives a radical and positive policy substance to back the party’s One Nation rhetoric. Winston Churchill and Harold Macmillan helped their party come to terms with the post-war economic settlement and welfare state. It is the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and economic liberalization that broke this chain of tradition.
One Nation ideals have still played a supporting role in Conservative politics since 1979. Thatcherism certainly benefited from the work done by One Nation reformers such as Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine in regenerating urban areas and spreading home ownership. Thatcher’s Conservative successors sometimes tried to reclaim the One Nation mantle but with mixed results. Even the Labour leader Ed Miliband briefly tried to steal this item of political clothing in the early 2010s as part of a bid to reconnect with culturally conservative working class voters. The vote to leave the European Union in 2016 created the best opportunity in decades for a break from liberal economics and a return to a genuine One Nation tradition.
Voters in the deindustrialized heartlands or struggling coastal communities did not back Brexit so Britain could become a “Singapore-on-Thames” with light touch tax and regulatory policies. They wanted to “take back control” of British politics after years of seeing their communities being left behind by globalization. Economic and cultural insecurity fueled the sense of alienation from the nation’s leadership. While power, investment, talent, and wealth drained away into metropolitan areas, the rest of the nation struggled to be heard. It is the reemergence of the two nations that has done so much to undermine social trust and economic well being in modern Britain.
Theresa May, the first Conservative Prime Minister to grapple with the task of delivering the Brexit result, sensed the nature of the moment and declared “we should employ the power of government for the good of the people.” Parliamentary deadlock slowed the transition towards a reformulation of British conservatism. Covid, personal scandals, and the war in Ukraine also thwarted Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempts to “level up the country” and heal the breach between the two nations. Sunak is now hoping to rebuild his party’s pro-Brexit electoral coalition on One Nation principles.
After the upheaval of last year, the Conservatives are trailing well behind Labour and look unlikely to win the next general election which must happen by January 2025. Sunak has started by under promising in the hope that he can over-deliver and regain public confidence. This is a logical place to start but the nation is still calling out for change. Long-term reform is hard to achieve without a fresh mandate, but Sunak needs to put forward a national strategy for domestic industry, workforce development, public services, and families and communities. Going into the 2024 primaries, Republican candidates will also need to establish what they would do differently from previous administrations. Embracing national developmentalism can deliver the radical energy that is urgently needed from the British and American right.
Get daily emails in your inbox
The history and present state of the One Nation tradition should hold a particular resonance for American conservatism. Nixon described himself as “a Disraeli conservative” with a “strong adherence to basic values that the nation believes in, and to conserving those values and not being destructive of them, but combined with reform—reform that will work, not reform that destroys.” This was an approach emulated by many Republican predecessors from Theodore Roosevelt to Dwight D. Eisenhower but became forgotten after the rise of Ronald Reagan.
Britain and the United States have different politics and culture but there is also much they have in common. Conservatives in both countries have influenced each other through the decades, and it is the One Nation tradition that has reaped the greatest success in Britain. Rather than muddling through the crises of the day, One Nation conservatives have been radicals fighting for the preservation of the national community. Reviving the One Nation idea is conservatism’s best hope of establishing a political economy rooted in the defense of belonging and solidarity.
This article is part of the “American System” series edited by David A. Cowan and supported by the Common Good Economics Grant Program. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.