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The geek and the dandy: is Ed Miliband heir to Disraeli?

The Labour leader summoned the ghost of 19th century Tory leader Disraeli in his speech to conference last week. So how do the two British politicians compare?

Jane Ridley
8 October 2012

Ed Miliband’s claim to be the heir to Disraeli the Tory leader was a smart and attention-grabbing piece of political cross-dressing, but he got his facts wrong. Contrary to what Ed said in his Conference speech, Disraeli never used the phrase One Nation. In his novel Sybil, subtitled The Two Nations and published in 1845, Disraeli dramatized the Chartist movement as a conflict of two nations "who are as ignorant of each others’ habits, thought and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones … THE RICH AND THE POOR".

In Disraeli's 1872 Manchester speech, which Miliband referred to, he spoke of neither one nor two nations. As leader of the opposition he was, like Ed, under pressure to produce a policy, but most of the speech was an attack on Gladstone’s Liberals – he memorably described the government front bench as "a range of exhausted volcanoes". In a three and a half hour speech he gave only five minutes to social reform, and devoted far more time to Empire and Monarchy.

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Moreover, it is debateable whether the brilliant ideas that Disraeli threw out in his novels like sparks from a Catherine wheel really shaped his policy as Prime Minister some thirty years later. Certainly, Disraeli had little grasp of the details of social policy, and he was not the author of the housing or trade union legislation passed on his watch. Some would argue that he was above all an opportunist, and he adopted these reforms in the 1870s purely in order to attract the votes of the newly-enfranchised urban working class and not out of any conviction. On the other hand, the Disraeli government of 1874 – 80 did more to improve working-class conditions than any previous administration of the 19th century, and Disraeli was the enabler of this.

Throughout his career Disraeli played with ideas such as Tory Democracy or Empire and Social Reform which aimed to create an alliance between rich and poor, pre-empting class-based politics. Here perhaps there is a similarity with Miliband’s One Nation, which aspires to break Labour’s identification with Red Ed and class politics and position the party in the centre ground.

There are other similarities. Both men are Jewish. Disraeli’s father, like Ed’s, was a North London intellectual – Ralph Miliband was a Marxist political sociologist and co-edited the annual Socialist Register and Isaac D’Israeli a Tory man of letters. Both Ed and Disraeli reinvented their life stories when it suited them. In his speech Ed tried to make out that he is more ordinary than he really is. He said a lot about his immigrant parents and his education at the ‘really tough school’ of Haverstock Comprehensive – no hint here that Haverstock Comp in the 1970s and 1980s was the nursery of New Labour.

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Disraeli excelled at the art of self-fashioning, and he created an exotic political persona for himself. With his parchment face, impassive slit eyes and dyed black hair, he posed as an enigmatic Jewish wisdom figure. He concocted a mythical pedigree, claiming descent from the grandest Jewish families.

Disraeli was a baptised Christian. If he had been a practicing Jew he would have been excluded from parliament by the laws of the time. He was an adventurer and an outsider, where Ed is a political insider – a member of the elitist and somewhat incestuous Labour family. The young Disraeli was a far more colourful figure than nerdy Ed. A raffish dandy, outlandishly dressed with ringlets, bling and brightly coloured velvet trousers, he was a novelist lurching from one scandal to the next and often fleeing his creditors. He was subject to anti-semitic abuse of a sort that is unthinkable today. 

For a Jewish novelist to become leader of the Victorian Tory party was as unthinkable as it was for the United States to elect a black president. The real heir to Disraeli is perhaps Obama, not Miliband. Like Obama, Disraeli was a visionary in politics, a dreamer of dreams and a superb performer. Nor do the likenesses end there. Both Obama and Disraeli were disappointments in office. For Disraeli at least, climbing to the top of the greasy pole, as he put it, was in itself a lifetime’s work.

The phrase One Nation first appeared as the title of a pamphlet written by a group of Conservative MPs in 1950. The man who coined the phrase – in a nod to Disraeli – was Angus Maude, the father of Cabinet minister Francis Maude. Led by Ian Macleod, One Nation became a dining club of Tory MPs who embraced the new welfare state and the middle ground. Members included Enoch Powell and Edward Heath.

One can see why Ed prefers to name check Disraeli, who is a far more glamorous figure than Ian Macleod. But perhaps Ed’s best hope of victory lies in something that Disraeli really did say: "England does not love coalitions".    

Peter Geoghegan: dark money and dirty politics

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