As British Conservative Prime Minister in the nineteenth century, Benjamin Disraeli did more than anybody else to reconcile the politics of his party, composed by considerable degree of aristocrats, with the interests of working class voters. In the early twenty-first century, a confusing age of free market economics and growing economic inequality, a range of politicians have found it expedient to reproduce the message of Disraeli’s successful ‘One Nation’ Conservatism. David Cameron has famously attempted to ‘detoxify’ the Tory brand, which is associated by the public with unapologetic elitism. The line “We’re all in this together” is simply a clumsy rehash of Disraeli’s message to the electorate. Interestingly, Ed Miliband has also made a focal point of the ‘One Nation’ phrase in his most recent speeches. Despite his overt leftist streak, which distinguishes him from Cameron and Disraeli, recently commentators have noted the Labour Party’s tendency to social conservatism in this period of opposition, and so perhaps it is not so surprising to hear him borrowing from old Tory rhetoric. More surprisingly, it seems as though this trend has now crossed the Atlantic, as the latest electioneer to opt for this strategic tack is none other than Mitt Romney.
If Nate Silver’s controversial psephology is to be believed, then Barack Obama is, by some distance, the favourite to win the US Presidential Election this week. It may be partly due to this that Romney and his campaign staff have opted to make a late play for voters in the centre. Invoking the spirit of Disraeli is a very canny way of doing this. Republicans will surely hope that this ploy can help to generate the electoral momentum of which Romney – according to Silver’s analysis – is in desperate need. A brief glance at Conservative-minded newspaper websites is enough to confirm that Romney’s claim that he will “represent one nation” is generating at least some enthusiasm. Yet to my mind, his attempt to mimic Disraeli’s One Nation conservatism smacks of hypocrisy.
It is true that during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts, Romney went about his business in a way that could realistically be described as fitting with Conservatism of the Disraelian tradition. Much has been made of the similarity between Romney’s healthcare reforms at the state level and Obamacare, for instance. However, the bulk of his campaign has been built around Conservatism of a very different ilk. It was first of all necessary for Romney to pander to the borderline-extremist right wing of the Republican Party in order to win nomination, against such absurd candidates as Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. Each of these three did, for a time, enjoy the favour of Tea Party Republicans, well ahead of the pragmatic Romney. His selection of his Vice-Presidential running mate also marks a fundamental departure from moderate, Disraelian Conservatism: Paul Ryan’s enthusiasm for slashing government spending would make George Osborne seem positively Marxist by comparison, and so this seems like another concession to the Tea Party. Many observers, me included, worry that Romney and Ryan’s planned methods of cutting taxes will result in further increase in inequality. Note that I write that sentence with all due respect for, and some agreement with, the opinion that lowering taxes in the right way can have a positive effect on the economy and equality. But perhaps most importantly, Romney gave a strong impression in a certain speech that a large group of American citizens were essentially beyond helping:
“My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Such a sentiment is quite simply the exact opposite of the fundamental principles of Disraelian Conservatism, and that is why his attempt to emulate Disraeli is an example of the worst kind of hypocrisy.
It is not my intention to place Disraeli on a pedestal, but his politics were based on a set of principles which I believe that many people find reasonable and just. A true One Nation Conservative accepts that a degree of inequality is an inevitable result of the capitalist system, but stresses that those who find themselves in more fortunate positions have an absolute duty to care for those most disenfranchised. That is a message which translates well from Disraeli’s era to our own time and it is unsurprising that modern politicians have sought to reproduce it. But Romney’s attempt to do so is simply a bid to disguise the markedly less palatable form on Conservatism which many Republicans now adhere to. Even if hypocrisy and untruthfulness are qualities that we come to expect from all modern politicians, I say that this particular brand of ideological dishonesty is particularly troubling and particularly repulsive. For this reason I can only hope that Nate Silver’s model is correct and the American electorate will opt to reject Romney’s final masterstroke of electioneering.
PHOTO/ Cornelius Jabez Hughes