Wednesday, 19 December 2012

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, hesitantly. “ THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil (1845)

Disraeli in 1878 by Cornelius Jabez Hughes

Disraeli's novel was set in the then present day. Published in 1845, the same year as Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, it's action takes place in the years 1837-44. The words quoted, and that phrase 'two nations', and the consequent notion of 'one-nation' politics that has resounded, one way or another in the Tory party and English politics since, right down to Ed Miliband's recent speech, were put in the mouth of Walter Gerard, father of Sybil and a working-class radical, but there is no doubt that they carry, to a large extent, the author's endorsement.

Disraeli, First Earl of Beaconsfield, was the British Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1850s and 60s, leader of the Conservative Opposition in the late 60s and early 703, and Prime Minister in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880. His policial career yoyo-ed with that of William Gladstone, leader of the Liberal Party. Queen Victoria much preferred Disraeli to the dourer moralist, Gladstone.

It is a long time since a British Prime-Minister to be wrote serious literary novels (or, perhaps, even read them: Harold Macmillan said he liked to 'take a little Trollope to bed' with him), but it is difficult to imagine any modern politician, even one sincerely convinced, uttering such social commentary so vividly. Ed Milliband certainly did not meet Disraeli's standard.

Disraeli was hardly the modern idea of a social paragon. As a young man he engaged in financial speculation was was ruined in his early 20s by the collapse of a South American mining bubble. he in fact returned to literature to try, with limited success, to recoup his financial fortunes (but was rather more than the Jeffery Archer of his times, on several considerations). Financial embarrasment plagued him until his marriage to a rich widow, twelve years older than he, in 1839. Though initially based on expediency, the marriage grew to be deeply affectionate. In earlier years, before he entered parliament, his dubious relations with woment, in the words of his biographer, Lord Blake, contributed to "the understandable aura of distrust which hung around his name for so many years".

Disraeli's social consciousness, though vivid and real, did not mean that, at the time of the great Reform Acts of the nineteenth century (how the word 'reform' has by comparison become debased to petty political partisanship in our own time), he was liberal in his political view or deviated from an idea of society in which justice and harmony were established by mutual respect and fulfilment of obligations between the classes rather than by equality.

Disraeli was of Jewish origin, but his parents were non-observant and he was baptisted in the Christian religion at the age of twelve and remained a practising Anglican throughout his life. Nevertheless, his obvious Jewishness hampered, though clearly did not thwart, his political career. It is difficult to imagine in our supposedly more inclusive and enlightened age someone so obviously Jewish, almost architypically so in appearance, becoming leader of one of our main political parties and Prime Minister.