Miliband chose the wrong man

By Geoffrey Alderman, October 30, 2012

On October 2, Labour leader Ed Miliband - the first Jew to lead the party - made a remarkable speech to the socialist-inclined faithful assembled in Manchester. Miliband invoked the political philosophy of Benjamin Disraeli, the UK's first Jewish prime minister, who was a Conservative. At various points in his career, Dizzy had, in a similarly audacious manner, pointed to the apparent existence in this country, of "two nations" whereas his vision was of "one nation".

Taking up this theme, Miliband (having prudently reminded his audience that his own ethnic origins were identical to those of Disraeli) told the party faithful that his was a comparable vision: a land in which "patriotism, loyalty, dedication to the common cause courses through the veins of all, and nobody feels left out". The problem is, this was not what Disraeli meant at all.

A century-and-a-half ago, the Conservative Party was the party of the landed classes and the established Church of England. Both were contemptuous of the "new" wealth created by the Industrial Revolution, and fearful of it. As a consequence, the party was minded to support greater state regulation of industry. The celebrated interventionist social reformer, Lord Shaftesbury, was naturally a Tory, and it was the Tories, in 1844, who pushed through Parliament the nation's first-ever nationalisation act.

The commercial classes tended to support the then emerging Liberal party, because that party upheld the doctrine of laissez-faire - leaving industry alone, with a minimum of regulation, to make Britain what it was - "the workshop of the world".

The political opinions of the manual working classes hardly mattered. Most did not have the vote. But, if they had had the vote, the likelihood is that many of them would have voted Liberal - they didn't want the state interfering with their right to work where and when they liked, and for as long as they liked.

For Disraeli, these facts of political life presented multiple problems. As a flamboyant Jew (albeit baptised) he was only too aware of the prejudice that kept him from the leadership of his party, which in his view needed to attract the "new" wealth if it was ever to regain a majority in the Commons. But if it was ever to attract this wealth it needed to espouse laissez-faire.

Then there were the manual workers to consider. Sooner or later, some of them - the literate, skilled artisans, many of them contemptuous of the established Church - would demand the vote. Could they be persuaded to cast it in the Conservative interest?

Dizzy's answer was to perpetrate the biggest confidence trick in 19th-century British history. In pursuit of a mythical "one nation" he would propose legislation on this and that, but the legislation would be entirely permissive. This, he hoped, would satisfy his own backbenchers, while allaying the fears of the factory bosses and endearing him to the working classes.

Consider his record as prime minister from 1874 to 1880. He decriminalised strikes, but was careful not to interfere with the right of employers to sue trade unions for damages – which they did most successfully. He legislated to permit local authorities to tear down slum properties. But he was careful not to compel them to so to do. He ostentatiously addressed the issue of unseaworthy, overloaded ships by mandating a maximum "load line". But he was careful not to specify where this was to be positioned, thus allowing ship-owners to paint it well above the water-line no matter how heavy the cargo. His Public Health Act merely codified existing legislation. A Sale of Foods & Drugs Act permitted but did not oblige local authorities to appoint public analysts.

His only substantive domestic reform was the Factory Act of 1874, which established the 10-hour day. This was the brainchild of Dizzy's Home Secretary, Richard Cross. After 1876, and his elevation to the Lords, Dizzy lost all interest in the domestic agenda.

Benjamin Disraeli was a first-rate shyster, his invocation of "one nation", cruel rhetoric. Ed Miliband's use of his words in aid of his own political agenda is ludicrous.

Last updated: 5:48pm, November 1 2012