In Act IV Scene V of King Lear, the deranged Lear tells the blinded Gloucester: “Get thee glass-eyes, and like a scurvy Politician, seem to see the things thou dost not.” This line always gets a laugh, for it is indeed (as Edgar comments) “reason in madness”. Never has a politician furnished a better example of such glassy-eyed hypocrisy than the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Addressing the Labour Party Conference in Manchester last month, Edward (“call me Ed”) Miliband made a great show of stealing the Conservatives’ clothes by invoking Benjamin Disraeli’s celebrated Manchester speech of 1872, given in the nearby Free Trade Hall. The Labour leader declared: “We must be a one nation party, to become a one nation government, to build a one nation Britain.”
One must first ask: had Mr Miliband actually read Disraeli’s speech before he delivered his own? I prefer to believe that he left this task to his aides — for if he did read it, he is a fraud. Disraeli begins by defending constitutional monarchy and church establishment, causes alien to Mr Miliband’s professed atheist and socialist principles. Still less can one imagine the Labour leader resisting Lords reform by defending, like Disraeli, the hereditary principle against the then novel proposal of life peerages, by arguing that a peer whose children may inherit his title has more to lose by ignoring public opinion.
Disraeli then announces his own radical idea — in Latin. He adapts the Vulgate — “vanitas vanitatum, omnia vanitas” — to coin his new slogan, “sanitas sanitatum, omnia sanitas“, without bothering to translate it. “The first consideration of a Minister,” he explains, “should be the health of the people.” Disraeli’s proposal, though, is not for a national health service, but for legislation to improve public sanitation — in other words, for the state to take on the modest role of enforcing minimum standards, rather than of providing monopoly services that eliminate competition. He discusses what Victorians called “the condition of England”, but his conclusions are the very opposite of Mr Miliband’s politics of class envy. Disraeli tells his audience: “You have created a society of classes that gives vigour, variety, and life to the nation, and yet there is no class that has a privilege; all are equal before the law.”
As for the working class, Disraeli surveys their “immense results”, their gains in prosperity and political rights over the 40 years since he had entered politics: “Their progress has not in any way been inferior to that of any other class.” But, he insists, while legislation to improve sanitation and other public goods was indeed necessary, in future economic progress “much depends upon the working classes themselves”. Disraeli was alive to the danger of creating a culture of working-class dependency — far more so than Mr Miliband, who has before him the melancholy evidence of half a century of welfare-driven decline. Victorians cared passionately about relieving poverty, but they thought it no business of the government to abolish inequality.
Disraeli’s most famous words in this Manchester speech, though, had nothing to do with social justice. Unlike Mr Miliband, he spoke at length on the terrorist threat, then posed by Irish Fenians rather than Islamists, on defence and foreign policy. But his most wounding charge against Gladstone’s government was that “extravagance was being substituted for energy”. Disraeli’s mordant wit showed the Liberals no mercy: “As I sat opposite the Treasury bench, the Ministers reminded me of one of those marine landscapes not very unusual on the coasts of South America. You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest.” The shaft hit home: within two years, Disraeli was returned to office. Can one imagine Mr Miliband delivering such a killer blow to the present coalition?
Disraeli nowhere mentions “one nation” in his Manchester speech — or, indeed, anywhere else. The notion was later extrapolated from Sybil, subtitled The Two Nations — a book which Mr Miliband shows even less sign of having read than the speech that it preceded by 27 years. In this, the best-known of his political novels, the young Disraeli warns of riots unless the rich and the poor cease to be “inhabitants of different planets”. As leader of the Young England wing of the Tories, he saw the remedy for discontent in a romantic alliance of monarch and people, not in punitive taxes or big government. Just as Marx was predicting the collapse of capitalism, Disraeli was ensuring its survival by extending the franchise and expanding the empire.
Disraeli concluded Sybil with an appeal: “The claims of the Future are represented by suffering millions; and the Youth of a Nation are the trustees of Posterity.” His social reforms engendered a new phenomenon, the working-class Tory — now an endangered species. Disraeli may have been ruthless in his ascent of “the greasy pole” but he was too honest with his public about what he saw in the industrial slums to be one of Lear’s “scurvy politicians”. In disposing of his elder brother David, Ed Miliband acquired the mark of Cain; his ruthlessness, though, has been to no obvious purpose. His policies would recreate the two nations, by deepening the division between private and public sectors, between those who pay taxes and those who spend them. If Mr Miliband had listened less to the glassy-eyed Marxists, his father Ralph or his mentor Eric Hobsbawm, he would not now behave as if it were a crime to be bourgeois.