Dizzy Boris: The return of One-Nation Toryism

Exotic: Benjamin Disraeli (right), PM in 1868 and again from 1874-1880, was an outsider. © Alamy

What can we learn from history? The Victorian leader Benjamin Disraeli is the politician that Boris Johnson looks set to emulate as his triumphant Conservatives return to Parliament today.

New MPs, today, take their seats in Westminster for the first time. After a tense and fractious election campaign, the country will be wondering what sort of premiership it might be able to expect from the party now branding itself as “The People’s Government”.

A clue might emerge from the thick fog of our industrial past. In 1874, a man named Benjamin “Dizzy” Disraeli became Prime Minister. As commentators have not hesitated to point out, Boris Johnson’s personal and political style clearly echoes that of the Victorian.

Both boast international, relatively exotic heritages. Disraeli was born to an Italian-Jewish family while Johnson, born in New York, has Turkish, French and German ancestors.

As young men, they focused their eccentric tendencies on writing. Disraeli penned many socially aware novels decrying how, since the industrial revolution, the UK had become two nations: one rich, one poor. Johnson has been a journalist and columnist most famous for his eurosceptic pieces on Brussels.

The two men rose to prominence in the Tory Party as the result of crises. While Brexit is a beast of Boris’s making, Disraeli stood against his own party’s repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws.

Deft political strategists, once in power, they both subscribed to a vision of the Conservatives as the party of the entire country. This one-nation ideology, as it came to be known, rests on the unison of working-class and middle-class voters who share the same values.

Satisfying newer, atypically Tory voters means moving to the centre-ground. While Disraeli pursued policies that brought about housing for the poor and running water, Johnson has promised increased NHS spending and infrastructure projects.

Abroad, Benjamin Disraeli helped secure Britain’s role as an imperial power by purchasing shares in the Suez canal. Post-Brexit, Boris Johnson has the opportunity to redefine Britain’s place in the world with new trade deals.

There are undoubtedly many similarities between the two men. But do historical parallels really help us to understand modern politics?

Never forget

Yes! There is a reason that so many successful politicians — not least Churchill-biographer Johnson — love their history so much. Only by knowing the past can someone truly understand the present, and only by truly understanding the present can they successfully shape the future. History is also a rare tool to make sense of real events. Its narratives often define our ideas of nationhood and identity.

Not really. Parallels with the past — while compelling — are never predictive. Johnson can be compared to Disraeli, but he is still his own person. He won’t be reclaiming Suez or reforming chimney-sweep legislation. Social and political events may appear to happen in cycles, but events never actually repeat themselves. When you study history, you can only ever learn what has already happened.

You Decide

  1. Can we really learn anything from a Victorian politician?
  2. What policies would allow Boris to satisfy both disaffected Leave voters in the north of England and traditional wealthy Tory supporters in the south?

Activities

  1. Think of a recent political event that has reminded you of something that you learned in history. List the similarities and the differences between the two events.
  2. Imagine you are one of the newly elected members of Parliament today. Write your own speech outlining how you might go about uniting the country after Brexit.

Some People Say...

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910), American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
When his maiden speech as an MP was drowned by laughter, Disraeli declared, “The time will come when you will hear me.” Johnson is said to have become a politician because “they don’t put up statues to journalists”. Disraeli once said that the Tory Party was “the national party […], the really democratic party of England”.
What do we not know?
How strongly Johnson actually believes in any one-nation policies. Notoriously difficult to pin-down, Johnson was once described by former PM David Cameron as a “greased piglet”. And we do not know whether the Right-wing of the Tory Party will support Johnson’s ambitious spending plans.

Word Watch

Premiership
The leadership of a Prime Minister; their time in power.
Eurosceptic
Critical of the European Union and the UK’s place in it.
Corn Laws
Tariffs imposed on imported cereals, to defend the interests of British producers.
Deft
Skilled, effective.
Ideology
System of beliefs and understanding, usually political.
Centre-ground
Neither Left nor Right; a form of politics which avoids extremes.
Infrastructure
The built, physical elements needed for a working society (roads, bridges, hospitals).
Suez canal
Man-made crossing and major trade route in Egypt that allows a waterway to run between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

Subjects

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