Johann Hari: Which way will David Cameron turn: back towards Salisbury or forward with Disraeli?

There is little evidence, beyond his sweet smile, to show he wants to pull out of Salisbury-land
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Now the real battle for the Tory leadership begins. It is going to be staged in David Cameron's mind, beneath his reassuringly hair-covered scalp - and it is between the visions of two men who have been dead for more than a century: Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Salisbury. These 19th century Tory prime ministers represent opposite poles of Conservatism, the Good(ish) Cop and Bad Cop of the blue corner.

Benjamin Disraeli was an upbeat Jewish dandy. While most of his colleagues were dull, dim Tory squires, he was an urban wit who made himself famous writing novels - most famously Coningsby and Sybil - that dissected the British social divide. They laid out the swollen, infected inequalities created by the Industrial Revolution for his aristocratic readers. For the first time, many realised England was divided into "two nations", the rich and poor, "between whom there is no intercourse and sympathy; who are as ignorant of each others' habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets".

Against this, Disraeli wanted to make the Tories into a "national party", representing all classes rather than just the bloated squirearchy. Once he became prime minister, he expanded British democracy - giving 1.5 million extra people the vote - and introduced a swathe of social reforms to reduce the social gap a few inches. The Artisan Dwellings Act was one of the first attempts at slum clearance in this country, while the Public Health Act establishing proper sewers and vaccination. The historian Robert Blake called this "the greatest installment of social reform passed by any one government in the 19th century", although this is a bit like being the cleverest person on I'm a Celebrity: there ain't much competition.

But Disraeli left behind a vision of one-nation Conservatism that drove Tories like Harold Macmillan and might - just might - tempt David Cameron. Although the Tory Party will really never help the poorest (one of the infinite number of reasons I could never support them), our first and only Jewish Prime Minister showed how they could at least expand the middle class and remedy the most blatant and ugly inequalities in Britain.

Lord Salisbury - Disraeli's successor - left behind a very different vision of Conservatism. He was a sour, dour depressive aristocrat, born to one of Britain's richest families, and he stood for the protection of raw class interest. He was in politics to defend the already-powerful and already-rich from any competing claims. In the 1860s, Salisbury read Marx, and - as his biographer Andrew Roberts puts it - "he agreed entirely that a class war was being fought. They only differed on who should win."

Salisbury made the Conservatives into a tireless defender of the overdog. He fought tenaciously against Disraeli's expansion of the franchise, and once it was introduced he fought hard to whittle down any meagre scrap of progress that crossed his desk. Old Age Pensions? He told people to rely on existing benefit societies. Regulation to prevent servants and workmen falling to their death? He scoffed: "Do we propose to repeal the law of gravitation by Act of Parliament?"

He saw all forms of democratic state regulation as an illegitimate interference in the sacred laws of property, to be tossed into the bin. But he discovered a magical exception: whenever his own class needed to be bailed out, he managed to suspend his apparent principles and crowbar open the Treasury. When Barings Bank teetered on bankruptcy, for example, he lathered money on them. This is reminiscent of the Tories today, who splutter and stammer at the "bureaucracy and expense" of tax credits for the poor, but somehow tolerate the bureaucracy and expense of subsidies for arms dealers, multi-millionaire landowners, and the Windsor family.

But this shouldn't surprise us: Salisbury's spirit has dominated the Tory Party for over 30 years now. Margaret Thatcher said that a diet of raw markets would expand opportunity, create a "property-owning democracy" and make it easier for talent to rise. She probably even believed it - but now the evidence is in. Dozens of academic studies have shown that during the 18 years of Tory rule, social mobility - movement between the classes - collapsed. The chances of a smart-but-poor child rising to the top virtually disappeared as Thatcherism tossed all the ladders onto the tax-cutting bonfire. One direct and obvious result is the ascendancy of the New Toffs today across British society - from politics (step forward, Dave) to the media to the arts.

Salisbury would have been delighted. With a more realistic understanding than Thatcher, he knew that raw markets - unless they were accompanied by an active, redistributive state - would simply reinforce the existing class structure. That's why he loved them. The rich would enter the marketplace with massive advantages and so they would remain rich. The poor would enter the marketplace at a huge disadvantage and very few would struggle to the top. Indeed, Salisbury said, this new marketisation actually carries a big benefit: it will give a neat meritocratic sheen to the unearned wealth of people like himself.

The question now is - will David Cameron reverse the Salisbury-Thatcher mania of the Tory Party? Does he even have the inclination to? There is certainly space for a new Disraelian conservatism. Globalisation - like the industrial revolution in Disraeli's time - is creating a pressure for growing and painful inequality, and New Labour has only held inequality steady, running frantically up a down escalator. Cameron's friend Andrew Roberts believes he is "a Disraelian through and through". He is certainly speaking Disraeli's language, saying that "we are all in this together" and "we need to come together" so often that his press conferences are beginning to sound eerily like a Diana Ross concert.

But beyond the rhetoric, I see very little evidence. One of his few commitments so far is to give schools the power to select 100 per cent of their intake, on any criteria they fancy - a recipe for segregating our schools even more viciously along class lines, with the children of the poor fenced off further from children of the rich. Cameron has criticised every too-small, too-slow move by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to sandpaper down inequality as "excessive". Is he going to back Labour's pledge to eradicate child poverty in Britain by 2020, a commitment they are quarter of the way towards achieving, or carry on deriding it? Is he going to persist with the hallucinatory idea - trumpeted just a few months ago by his best friend, George Osborne - of abolishing progressive taxation and introducing a flat tax?

In the 1860s, Disraeli said - in a dig at Salisbury - that "whenever the Tory party degenerates into an oligarchy and speaks only for the interests of one class it becomes unpopular." David Cameron's party has been sunk in Salisbury-land for too long - and there is depressingly little evidence, beyond his sweet smile, to show that he wants to pull it out.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

Comments