I am thoroughly enjoying Douglas Hurd’s radically revisionist new biography of Benjamin Disraeli, DISRAELI, OR THE TWO LIVES.
When I’ve finished it I will properly review it on this site.
But in the meantime I have to question one of the central charges Hurd levels against Disraeli: that Disraeli’s evocation of Two Nations in mid-19th century England – the rich and the poor – did not automatically bind him to some kind of social justice agenda.
Hurd says Disraeli never used the phrase ‘One Nation’, and that on the contrary he ‘repudiated’ and ‘despaired’ of the idea of the Two Nations ever being reconciled. In the 1840s it was Peel not Disraeli who cared about the poor. Disraeli, according to Hurd, is only posturing and grandstanding and being rhetorical when dealing with deprivation.
It’s worth quoting Disraeli at some length. Here he is in 1844 in West Yorkshire in the middle of an extended tour of northern England:
‘We are asked sometimes what we want. We want in the first place to impress on society that there is such a thing as duty… if that principle of duty had not been lost sight of for the last fifty years, you would never have heard of the classes into which England is divided. We want to put an end to that political and social exclusiveness which we believe to be the bane of this country.’
And here is the famous passage from his novel 1844, SYBIL:
‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are 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, hesitatingly.
‘THE RICH AND THE POOR.’
To think that someone could write these words purely descriptively and not normatively – i.e. not with a sense that such a state of affairs constituted in itself something morally wrong and which demanded a response – this is what cannot be believed about Hurd’s dismissive account of Disraeli’s most famous theme.
Returning to 2013, my friend Sam Tomlin says that in terms of social justice in Britain the fundamental problem is not that we don’t want to do anything about ‘poverty’ (note the impersonal collective noun). Our fundamental problem is that we don’t know the poor. It’s a nation we’ve never been to. What happens there, like the past, is strange: the trends and happenings and life which takes place on the most excluded estates in Britain I am personally ignorant of. Mediated by the media, our data on this other Nation is always derived.
But more on Disraeli when I’ve finished the book…