The People's Conservative
“The Inventor of Modern Conservatism” by David Gelernter, in The Weekly Standard (Feb. 7, 2005), 1150 17th St., N.W., Ste. 505, Washington, D.C. 20036.
Historians usually name Edmund Burke, the 18th-century British philosopher and statesman, the founding father of modern conservatism. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, casts his vote for Benjamin Disraeli (1804–81), the British prime minister who reinvented conservatism as “a mass movement.”
“Dark, handsome, exotic-looking,” a quick-witted ladies’ man (but a devoted husband) and prolific novelist, born a Jew but baptized a Christian at 13, Disraeli entered politics in 1832 as an independent with radical tendencies. After four defeats, he finally won a seat in Parliament as a Conservative in 1837. At the time, Sir Robert Peel was struggling to reconstitute the Conservative Party from the wreckage created by the Whigs’ Reform Act of 1832, which extended the franchise to most middle-class men and thus undercut the power of the landowning elite, represented by the Tories. Peel’s solution, according to Gelernter, was “a pale pastel Toryism, a watered-down Whiggism that attracted some Whigs but inspired no one.”
Disraeli was a man of many contradictions, and one of them was an ability to harbor deep convictions while simultaneously playing the master political operator. When Peel decided in 1846 to bid for Whig votes by repealing the Corn Laws, the tariffs on imported grain that benefited landowners at the expense of city dwellers, Disraeli led the opposition, split the party, and brought Peel’s government down. The very next year, he came out against such protectionist laws.
While the Conservatives would later form new governments, it would be 28 years before they again commanded a clear majority in the House of Commons. “That gave [Disraeli] the time he needed to refashion the wreckage into a new kind of party.” Rather than continue with Peel’s “watered-down Whiggism,” he wanted to expand the party’s base to include workers and others. He was an important force behind the Reform Act of 1867, which gave the vote to many city workers and small farmers.
In reshaping his party and conservatism, says Gelernter, Disraeli acted out of a belief “that the Conservative Party was the national party,” that it must “care for the whole nation, for all classes,” at a time when the Left was appealing to the working class to unite internationally. As Disraeli saw it, conservatives were no less progressive than liberals. But conservatives carried out change, in his words, “in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people,” while liberals followed “abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.”
Disraeli served briefly as prime minister in 1868. Returned to office in 1874, when he was 70 years old, he pursued a strong foreign policy, bringing India and the Suez Canal under the direct authority of the Crown and restoring British prestige while helping to redraw the map of Europe at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. At home, new legislation dealing with health, housing, the environment, trade unions, and working conditions constituted, according to one biographer, “the biggest installment of social reform passed by any one government in the 19th century.” In summarizing Disraeli’s life, Lord Randolph Churchill wrote: “Failure, failure, failure, partial success, renewed failure, ultimate and complete triumph.”