Lord Lexden is the Conservative Party's official historian. Read more of his historical articles on his website.
Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), the first and last Earl of Beaconsfield (he turned down the offer of a dukedom from Queen Victoria), is the only British statesman to be remembered almost entirely for the wrong reasons. Over 130 years after his death, he continues to be acclaimed for inventing the concept of “one nation” to heal Britain’s gross social divisions, an achievement considered so great that Ed Milliband has impudently laid claim to it for the Labour Party without, the opinion polls would indicate, much success.
Disraeli is widely praised within the Conservative Party for furnishing it with a new vision, Tory democracy, that was to transform a small aristocratic organisation, run from the Carlton Club, into a mass movement following his audacious Reform Bill of 1867 which doubled the electorate by giving the vote to a significant section of the urban working class.
He is celebrated, particularly by David Cameron, as the first progressive Conservative who envisaged a kind of Tory welfare state, providing a first instalment of it through the great social reforms passed by his government of 1874-80, formed after the only election victory he ever secured during his 34 years as Tory leader.
In their brilliant new biography of the famous Conservative hero, Douglas Hurd and Edward Young - two fine Tories differing widely in age but writing in perfect unity - show that none of this is true. Far from championing “one nation”, Disraeli explicitly repudiated it. They have carefully studied his (almost unreadable) novel Sybil , subtitled The Two Nations. Until now everyone has assumed, without reading the work, that Disraeli dedicated himself thereafter to reconciling the Two Nations in a united , contented social order. He did no such thing. On the contrary, they write,“ he argues that the Two Nations are fundamentally so different that there can be no meeting between them”. The eponymous heroine “ends up not crossing, but confirming, the class divides”.