Putting Principles Before Party?

Would Disraeli agree with Tobias Ellwood?

Tory centrist Tobias Ellwood believes that the lesson to be drawn from Benjamin Disraeli is the importance of leading a united party focused on "winning the centerground". It is true that divided parties rarely win elections. But this is very rarely enough. After all, what is it that party unity should be based on? Does party unity matter more than defending a set of principles? Parties need to find the ‘common ground’ among the electorate, not the centre ground conjured up in Westminster, as Sir Keith Joseph once famously argued. The call of ‘safety first’ is hardly going to win over voters or reassure nervous MPs reading the increasingly dire polling data for the next election.

The problem with this bit of historical analysis is that it is also wrong. Disraeli was willing and able to split the Conservative Party over repeal of the Corn Laws. Disraeli condemned his leader, Sir Robert Peel, for going back on his word to party backbenchers and voters. Rather than blindly following the leader, Disraeli used his skills to promote genuinely conservative ideas and identity. Over time, Disraeli was able to fundamentally reshape the Conservative Party into something new and capable of thriving in the age of mass democracy unlike the technocratic creed of Peelite.

It is true that Disraeli could be opportunistic and exploit an opponent’s weakness for short-term advantage. But that was essential for a party in the political wilderness for over two decades. From ditching protectionism in the 1850s to embracing parliamentary reform in the 1860s, Disraeli did what it took to outmanoeuvre the Liberals. But does this mean he had no principles? Deposing Peel and reshaping the Conservative Party suggest otherwise. Staying loyal to Peel or joining the Liberals could have provided more predictable pathways to office.

Through his journey from Radical to Tory, Disraeli maintained a coherent and consistent conservative philosophy in favour of championing national greatness. He believed that Britain should be an influential and powerful force in global politics. This led to the signature achievements of his premiership in 1774 to 1880. Buying the Suez Canal, granting the title of Empress of India to Queen Victoria, and bringing “peace with honour” at the Congress of Berlin helped to enhance British prestige after the placid and weak foreign policy of William Gladstone.

Disraeli also championed a conservatism that could be genuinely popular among the newly enfranchised urban working classes. His ministry introduced a flurry of social reforms such as slum clearance, better sanitation, and safer working conditions. But this was not just about stronger state regulation to tackle social ills. It was also a freedom agenda of sorts. Nanny state liberals and temperance campaigners had long believed in reforming licensing laws to take cheap beer away from the working classes in the hope of improving their moral character. Disraeli rejected this and defended the right of workers as freeborn Englishmen to enjoy their drink in peace.

Above all, Disraeli defended the British Constitution and its fundamental components from dangerous liberal experimentation. Franchise reform was accepted but Disraeli could never compromise on the maintenance of the Crown, Church, House of Lords, and Empire. It was the balance between democratic reform and traditional institutions that could ensure Britain would thrive as a conservative country. All appeared to be under threat from a new breed of radical liberals wanting to tear down the institutions and put a new elite up in its place, the ancestors of today’s legal-administrative class.

Disraeli’s potent combination of patriotic and popular impulses remade the Conservative Party, priming it for the electoral dominance of the twentieth century. From Baldwin to Churchill to Macmillan to Thatcher, Conservative leaders have turned to Disraeli for inspiration. Disraeli was no stranger to opposition, quite the opposite. But he understood that the Conservatives could only win and hold office if they had a proper vision of national greatness and defending working people. Rather than bland appeals to unity, Conservatives should embrace these Disraelian principles once again.

David Cowan is a Ph.D. Candidate in history at the University of Cambridge and a former staffer and researcher in the UK Parliament.