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Disraeli - What would he have thought of today's political scene?


1st March 2004

It is a great pleasure to be talking to the Society this evening, not least because Disraeli has always featured as a political hero of mine.

It is a great pleasure to be talking to the Society this evening, not least because Disraeli has always featured as a political hero of mine. His belief in enterprise, opportunity, freedom and responsibility are all just as relevant today as they were in Victorian times.

Your Chairman has advised me that the Society has been actively involving itself in the renewal process going on within the Conservative Party and particularly in relation to the Party's longer term policies, so I thought I would concentrate on Party policy this evening and, not only contrast it with current Government thinking, but attempt to provide the additional twist of considering what Disraeli would have thought.

To start where I intend to end, I do think that Disraeli would have been impressed with the process of New Labour and Blairism, but no its results. However, the creative tensions between presentation, the need to have a big idea but also to deliver what has been promised, provide some important lessons for our Party today.

I think that Disraeli would have been very impressed with the formation of New Labour. The breaking up of the old policy positions on matters such as nuclear weapons and Clause 4 coupled with the strong leadership skills of Tony Blair in Opposition would have appealed to him. It was of course, Disraeli that called the Tory Party the "stupid party", one that needed to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world. I speculate that Mr Blair would in private say the same of the 1980s Labour Party. Disraeli could also be accused of having broken up his own Party over the Corn Laws and, at least partially, been responsible for sending the Tory Party into Opposition for decades. But then moulding it in his own fashion and totally reinvigorating the Party machinery. This process may well sound fairly familiar to Messrs Mandleson and Campbell.

Indeed, one could play fantasy politics and imagine a meeting between Disraeli, Mandleson and Campbell. They would probably enjoy discussing how the use of spin and slogans was so central to their modes of operation despite the terminology changing over years. Disraeli would like the catchiness of being "tough on crime and the causes of crime" although on hearing that Labour would "save the Health Service in 24 hours" he would have to have explained what a Health Service was as much as how Labour was going to save it and he would probably have enjoyed discussing what was involved with "a stakeholder society" and "Cool Britannia" as well.

Time has shown that New Labour is more of a political marketing strategy rather than an ideological political movement per se. Disraeli would probably have seen the Tory Party along the same lines. He was certainly never advserse to opportunism and had no qualms at moving a Peelite free trade Party back to protectionism and, later on in his career, back to free trade. He would also probably have admired the way that New Labour was able to steal the Conservative clothes in policy terms, much in the same way as he himself "dished the wigs" over the second Reform Act.

Whilst perhaps being disdainful of the opportunism of New Labour, I do not dismiss the brilliance of its strategic position coming out of Opposition. Labour saw the changes in British Society in the 1980s, the change from public to private ownership in the economy and the new cult of consumerism. They realised that politics needed to be sold like soap suds and this they did with their focus groups and the rest. Disraeli would probably have admired the political strategy of New Labour, but I would draw two clear differences from his own approach.

The first would be related to the cult of the individual surrounding Tony Blair. In many ways, New Labour is indistinguishable from Blairism. New Labour rose with Blair and now, as Mr Blair's popularity ratings are plummeting, so will the New Labour brand. Disraeli likewise had a movement closely attached to his own name "Tory Democracy". This was tied in to Disraeli's second Reform Act, the opening of the franchise to the middle classes and the mass mobilisation of the new Conservative Party in the cities of our country, the formation of the Conservative Club and the Primrose League and so on. But we need to appreciate that "Tory Democracy" was never actually used in Disraeli's own time. It was invented years later by Randolph Churchill to embody a movement that he based on a set of values which maintained Disraeli represented. There may certainly be lessons here for the modern Conservative Party in the need to re-establish itself as a national party in the cities. However, there would never have been the cult of personality with Disraeli's Tory Party as we now see with Mr Blair.

The second key difference leads on from the first. Because once the slogans and spin are said and done, ultimately, there needs to be delivery on policy and I would argue that Disraeli left a legacy of delivery which Mr Blair's New Labour Party could not even start to emulate. Disraeli's Britain was a time of enormous expansion, progession in any area you can think of - a time of great national pride. The Tory Party became the Party of the go ahead middle classes, the Party gave the middle classes the vote, the Party that stood up for the nation. The Party of empire, whether India or the acquisition of the Suez Canal and it was respected for enhancing Britain's reputation abroad, not least on Disraeli's return from the Treaty of Berlin where he famously achieved "peace with honour". In addition to this, Disraeli's social reforms to "elevate the condition of people" laid the foundations for future welfare reforms. It was felt that Disraeli had delivered on the key agenda issues that he set out much as people in the future will look back at the 1979 Conservative Government and be able to say that Margaret Thatcher delivered on: lower taxes, sorting out the unions, standing up to the Soviet Union and expanding property ownership through the sale of council houses. But looking back in years to come, what will people say of the New Labour Government? They make look at devolution and the Labour's Party's failed constitutional reforms, or they may look at how we played second fiddle to the United States in a couple of wars. But when one considers the opportunities that were afforded to Mr Blair following his huge majority victories and coming into power in 1997 with as good an economy as any Government has had in the past - I think that this Government will be seen as the Government of missed and wasted opportunity - a very different legacy from that of Disraeli.

A further comparison can be made on the perceived differences within society in Victorian times and now. Disraeli was concerned with "the two nations" being the rich and poor. Of course, although still existing, poverty now cannot be compared to poverty in Victorian times (despite levels of poverty actually arising under this Labour Government) because state welfare has created a safety net that simply did not exist in Victorian times. The two nations that exist now under New Labour are quite different - they are the public and private sectors. To understand the nature of the Labour Party one needs to understand the indivisible relationship between Labour and the public sector, the fact that all Labour MPs are union members at a time when the significant majority of union members are from the public sector, the fact that most Labour MPs have come from public sector jobs and the fact that the Labour Party receives most of its funding from the unions which again increases public sector influence.

Union membership has recently been increasing at a time when manufacturing jobs have been rapidly decreasing and this of course is as a result of this Government's decision to pump money and jobs into the public sector. Interestingly, last year the private sector pay fell in real terms whilst the public sector pay increased and of course private sector pensions have been taking a hammering over recent years whilst index linked public sector pensions hold their ground. Last year was also the first time in the history of this country that average public sector pay (including benefits) was higher than that received in the private sector and all this at a time when union rights and employees rights are being hugely expanded. But despite this, there were more unofficial strikes last year than there have been for over a decade, particularly in the public sector, and with a new generation of confrontational union secretary generals now coming into post, a dramatic shift in industrial relations and union unrest is taking place.

New Labour's private sector and entrepreneurial funders are disappearing as fast as Labour's membership is crumbling. This means that union funding, of



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