Only the Ghost of Benjamin Disraeli Can Fix Theresa May’s Omnishambles Brexit

The winner of the battle for Britain's future, and Tory leadership, is already in its history books.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 12:  British Prime Minister Theresa May sits with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as she holds the first Cabinet meeting of her new team at 10 Downing Street on June 12, 2017 in London, England. The Cabinet met for the first time today after being reshuffled by British Prime Minister Theresa May following the Conservatives failing to achieve a majority during last week's general election. (Photo by Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 12: British Prime Minister Theresa May sits with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as she holds the first Cabinet meeting of her new team at 10 Downing Street on June 12, 2017 in London, England. The Cabinet met for the first time today after being reshuffled by British Prime Minister Theresa May following the Conservatives failing to achieve a majority during last week's general election. (Photo by Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

This year Great Britain marks the 150th anniversary of the Second Reform Act. Sandwiched between the Reform Acts of 1832 and 1884, the middle act is, perhaps understandably, not getting a great deal of attention. This is a pity: More so than the earlier and later bills — indeed, more so than any other event in British history — the Second Reform Act both anticipated the Brexit confusion presently consuming British politics and offered a script for its resolution.

By the mid-19th century, the English ruling class had no choice but to confront what crusty Scottish thinker Thomas Carlyle called the “Condition of England Question.” While it was spurred by the material and economic misery that was the common lot of most workers, Carlyle’s question also had a political element. While the 1832 Reform Act began the shifting of power from rural England (and its infamous “rotten boroughs”) to burgeoning manufacturing cities like Manchester, it extended voting rights to a relatively small number of citizens. Though the act prevented — in the words of Lord Charles Grey, its principal author — “the necessity of revolution,” it nevertheless whetted a popular appetite for deeper and wider electoral reforms.

By the 1860s, this appetite had become a persistent hunger. While vast crowds peaceably assembled at Reform League meetings, there were also the Hyde Park Riots of 1867, when a great press of protesters forced their way into the royal park. While the workers carefully avoided trampling on the Queen’s flowerbeds, an alarmed Parliament heaved into action as they confronted what one member described as “events too strong for men.”

At this moment, the Conservative government’s chancellor and de facto leader, Benjamin Disraeli, took control. Intuiting the nature of the protest movement and measuring the stakes involved, Disraeli made a series of brilliant speeches in Parliament and crafty moves behind its closed doors. By the end, he succeeded in hijacking a popular movement whose goals were aligned with the Liberals under William Gladstone and the Radicals led by John Bright. Moved less by moral convictions than practical goals — to keep his party in power and become its next prime minister — Disraeli proved more liberal than the Liberals by extending the franchise beyond even what Gladstone envisioned.

The passage of the act not only launched Disraeli’s career as prime minister but also launched the British worker onto the nation’s political stage. The number of voters nearly doubled, from 1,430,000 to 2,470,000, with the great majority hailing from the class of artisans and skilled industrial workers. And yet, 150 years later, the descendants of those same men have ushered chaos into national politics by helping initiate Brexit.

No doubt the most alarming element of last year’s Brexit vote — at least to Gladstone and Bright’s spiritual heirs on the British left — was the critical support blue-collar voters threw to the “leave” camp, whose narrow victory (at 51.9 percent) stunned pollsters and politicians alike. While ethnicity and age proved to be important fault lines between the “leave” and “remain” voters, by far the most dramatic gap was socio-economic. According to a 2016 Ipsos study, 62 percent of voters falling into the C2 category — namely, skilled and semi-skilled workers — voted for the “leave” side. Not only did many of these votes come from Labour’s rank and file — 35 percent of Labour supporters cast “leave” votes — but yet others came from former Labour supporters who had migrated to the Conservatives and the UK Independence Party.

Over the past few months, however, the considerable costs and consequences of the divorce have grown clear. One of the “leave” campaign’s most powerful promises — that money saved from leaving the European Union would allow the government to funnel 350 million pounds per week into the faltering national health system — has turned out to be a lie. Astonishingly, the mastermind behind the “leave campaign,” Dominic Cummings, recently confessed that the referendum was a “dumb idea” and warned that Brexit would be a “guaranteed debacle.” The “leave” campaign’s promise to retake control of its borders — a visceral issue, especially for older voters — has become no less problematic. Several sectors of the economy have already felt the effects. Hospital administrators are losing skilled staff, while farmers — some of the most solid supporters of Brexit — now worry about the loss of EU subsidies and a hemorrhage of immigrant workers.

Popular unease over the so-called “hard” Brexit — quitting not just the EU, but also the single market and customs union — crystallized in this summer’s parliamentary election. The election was called (to her eternal regret) by Prime Minister Theresa May, and the popular thumping delivered to the Tories revealed the shape-shifting nature of support for Brexit. It appears that voters let fly a shot across the bows of the “hard” Brexiteers with whom May has surrounded herself. Polls now register burgeoning support for a “soft” Brexit — an elusive term that ranges from an extended transitional period between the triggering of Article 50 (which began the process of separation) and the final divorce to remaining in the single market and compromises on critical issues like the free movement of people. For example, a poll taken earlier this month by the think tank British Future reveals widespread support among “leave” voters to make immigration to the United Kingdom easier for both skilled and unskilled EU citizens.

In a much-commented-on opinion piece last month, the Tories’ former small business minister, Anna Soubry, warned May against appeasing the “Brexit ideologues” that fill her Cabinet and the party’s back benches. If May is not ready to confront these ideologues, Soubry wrote, “I gravely fear that the party could split — and that would change Britain’s political landscape completely.”

Soubry is not alone. Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve recently described the current withdrawal bill, the handiwork of Brexit minister David Davis that gives new powers to the government, allowing it to push through laws without parliamentary debate, as an “astonishing monstrosity,” while the Tory’s elder statesman, Ken Clarke, dismissed his party’s withdrawal plans as a pastiche of Lewis Carroll. Marveling over the rosy scenario of flourishing commercial deals and multiplying trading advantages depicted by Davis, Clarke harrumphed: “No doubt somewhere there is a hatter holding a tea party with a dormouse in the teapot.”

While the Mad Hatter has yet to express ambition to replace May as the party’s leader, the same is not true of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, both Etonians and hard Brexiteers who cut very different but equally odd figures. The former — he of the tousled hair and rumpled suits — sent a seismic shudder through the Tories this past weekend with the publication of a 4,000-word defense of a hard Brexit. Published in the conservative Daily Telegraph, Johnson’s opinion piece improbably insists that post-Brexit Britain will save 350 million pounds per week, which could then be funneled to the National Health System. Although the nonpartisan UK Statistics Authority has derided this claim, Johnston seems convinced that he can win the party leadership with the Trumpian tactic of mobilizing one’s base by doubling down on political whoppers.

As for Rees-Mogg — he of double-breasted suits with collars as wide as an eagle’s wingspan and severely starched shirts — one finds he holds decidedly 19th-century views on abortion, marriage, and homosexuality. (He refuses to countenance abortion even in case of rape.) Remarkably, his mien and morals have graced him with the halo of genuineness among Tory backbenchers. To those nostalgic members of the party desperately attached to a certain idea of the past, Rees-Mogg’s seeming authenticity is quite compelling.

But as Susan Sontag once remarked, devotion to the past is one of the more disastrous forms of unrequited love — especially when it is a past that never quite was. Rees-Mogg is not so much authentic as he is an authentic reproduction. As Guardian columnist Marina Hyde recently observed, Rees-Mogg comes across “more as an avid Wodehouse reader’s idea of a Wodehouse gentleman, rather than the genuine article.” This is not to suggest that a fondness for personal reinvention would disqualify someone from saving the Tories from themselves as they lead all of Great Britain, “remainers” and “leavers” alike, to the edge of the Brexit cliff. But the character, and social purposes, of that self-fashioning matter greatly.

Consider the example set by Disraeli. His father, an assimilated Jew, had Disraeli baptized so that his son would not be held back by laws preventing Catholics and Jews from holding certain offices. But as Hannah Arendt argued in her discussion of “exception Jews” in The Origins of Totalitarianism, Disraeli skillfully used his “strangeness” as the improbable means to claim leadership by mesmerizing the thoroughly hidebound and hoary rank and file of the Tory party. Claiming aristocratic origins in the mysterious East, Disraeli parried an anti-Semitic slur made by another parliamentarian by declaring: “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages on an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.”

Disraeli’s flamboyant and improvisatory style of personal leadership was in service of eminently practical political goals: a redefinition of the notions of aristocracy and democracy that promised to preserve both and the creation of a Tory party that moved away from its more reactionary elements and toward the center. Theresa May had the opportunity to do the same when she called for new elections. It was a potential turning point that required a leader endowed with a sense of moderation and courage to do the turning, and the charisma to persuade others to follow her lead. Yet May, who wanted the election in order to win a popular mandate for Brexit, failed to turn toward the middle, remaining very much the captive of the hard Brexiteers.

This is the lesson that, on the 150th anniversary of the Second Reform Act, Tories should glom on to — all the more so because recent polls reveal that, when it comes to Brexit, public opinion remains fluid. An Opinium/Observer poll finds a slight but significant dip in support for Brexit, while a majority — 47 percent versus 44 percent — now declares that, were there to be a do-over, they’d vote to remain in the EU. Perhaps more tellingly, a significant majority insists upon a “soft Brexit,” one that favors a long transition period.

Of course, there is no need for Tory realists like Soubry and Grieve to invent, like Disraeli, exotic lineages in order to reclaim control of their party from the Brexit fabulists. Along with his genius for self-fashioning, Disraeli also had a knack for refashioning the character of his party. The great biographer Robert Blake, who had few illusions about Disraeli’s flaws, nevertheless places the success of the Reform Bill squarely with his subject. “Disraeli, more than any other statesman of his day, had the imagination to adapt himself to this new situation,” Blake wrote. Thanks to his skill as an improviser and parliamentarian, the offspring of a Jewish family managed the Conservative Party by drawing the support of artisans and workers.

Once again, the Conservatives are facing a “new situation,” one that can make or break them (and the country). If the Tories wish to save themselves, they need a leader who, rather than playing the role of an aristocratic toff, can inhabit the role of responsible statesman who grasps, as did Disraeli, that “finality is not the language of politics.”

Photo credit: Leon Neal/WPA Pool/Getty Images


Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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