Johnson invokes legacy of Britain's first Jewish Prime Minister

In declaring himself to be a One Nation conservative, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is directly invoking the legacy of Benjamin Disraeli in seeking to unite the country post-Brexit.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a Conservative Party event following the results of the general election in London, Britain, December 13, 2019 (photo credit: DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a Conservative Party event following the results of the general election in London, Britain, December 13, 2019
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has evoked the legacy of the country’s first Jewish-born prime minister to lay out his plans as he forms a new government following his election victory.
Taking to the podium after his own constituency’s results were announced, Johnson said on Friday: “This One Nation Conservative government has been given a powerful new mandate.”
It is a phrase he used repeatedly as the results came in.
But what is One Nation Conservatism?
The phrase springs from Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, which explored the gap between the working classes and the wealthy.
Britain, in Disraeli’s view, was made up of “two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”
Disraeli (1804-1881) strove to unite the nobility with the working classes, in opposition to the liberal middle classes of Victorian Britain. He advanced this stance through paternalistic policies that encouraged the wealthy to support the needy through the provision of safety nets and social reforms, which gave the working classes greater freedom.
Serving two terms between 1868 and 1880, Disraeli was able to enact his vision through legislation such as the Reform Act – which gave a franchise and voice to the urban, male working classes for the first time – and through work-place reforms, regulating working conditions for the masses.
Painted in broad strokes, the strategy has proven to be a remarkable success, allowing the Conservative Party to attract voters from across the spectrum of British society into the 21st century.
However, One Nation Conservatism has evolved over the years in response to the changing moods and requirements of the British people.
Disraeli never used the term “One Nation” himself. Rather, his legacy was invoked in the 1920s and 1930s by prime minister Stanley Baldwin, who continued his work on enfranchisement by extending the vote to women, and championing philanthropism. He also set the stage for Britain’s welfare state, which culminated in, among other initiatives, the establishment of the National Health Service.
“We stand for the union of those two nations, of which Disraeli spoke two generations ago: union among our own people to make one nation of our own people at home which, if secured, nothing else matters in the world,” Baldwin said in 1924.
He saw the union of the classes as the perfect foil for socialism, which was gaining traction across Europe at the time following the success of the Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia, and which sought to drive a wedge between the “haves and the have nots.”
Thus established, One Nation Conservatism was championed anew in the 1950s by the One Nation Group, which helped revive the fortunes of the Conservative Party in the post-war years.
The Group, whose members included Edward Heath and Enoch Powell, again sought to counter socialist tendencies with an emphasis on voluntary paternalism and philanthropy, rather than state-directed redistributive policies.
“Toryism,” Powell explained, with its “rooted belief in the nation as a homogeneous, organic phenomenon of nature, could recognize concern for its members as an essential mark of society – and [of] Tory society, mark you, not socialist society.”
However, the anti-socialist flavor of One Nationism was lost during the Thatcher years of the 1980s, as the position often offered a safe-haven to those within the party who felt that Thatcher’s emphasis on free market solutions was once again dividing the nation.
On the other hand, Thatcher herself, by reinterpreting the One Nation through the lens of patriotism rather than paternalism, was able to invoke the binding instinct of One Nation Conservatism to notable effect, inspiring millions of working class voters to back her party at the ballot box.
There has therefore always been some misunderstanding of One Nation Conservatism, even within the party. With its emphasis on social justice, it has been easy over the years for critics to portray it as a soft, state-enforcing version of conservatism, especially following the Thatcher years with her emphasis on free market economics.
However, One Nation conservatism isn’t inherently in opposition to market-driven economic policies, where the emphasis is on social rather than economic cooperation across the classes.
Since the Thatcher era, divisions within the Conservative Party have proven to be occasionally seismic – not only over the issue of membership in the European Union but also over the question of what level of government intervention is correct.
Consequently, the term “One Nation” has come to have a double meaning, wielded by both poles of the party in a bid to invoke electoral success.