‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

19 April 2010

Primrose Day, Progress, and Enduring Toryism

To-day is Primrose Day, a date singled out by British Conservatives in the late-nineteen-century to honour the achievements of Benjamin Disraeli and to inspire the party by his example. It is named for the flower that figured prominently in one of his novels, which later became his floral emblem.

19th April is, incidentally, the day Disraeli died in 1881: His monarch sent a wreath of primroses—‘His favourite flowers, from Osborne, a tribute of affection from Queen Victoria’ read the legend—to adorn his grave site. A controversial figure in his own time, he has become for many the exemplar of the Conservative party, with one stroke embodying a blend of progressive and preserving principles, from a Young England romantic to a sagacious elder statesman. His timeliness with the currents of modern Toryism is nowhere more evident than in a reform speech he gave in Edinburgh in 1867:

In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is, not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.

Progress, yes, but progress that is made the servant of the people and their sensibilities. If one is left in any doubt, Disraeli was uncompromising in his conservative credentials in his treatment of political history, Vindication of the English Constitution:

This respect for Precedent, this clinging to Prescription, this reverence for Antiquity, which are so often ridiculed by conceited and superficial minds, and move the especial contempt of the gentlemen who admire abstract principles, appear to me to have their origin in a profound knowledge of human nature, and in a fine observation of public affairs, and satisfactorily to account for the permanent character of our liberties.

The Conservative Manifesto adheres to many of Disraeli’s goals: decentralisation, and trust in the responsibility of communities and civil society, echo his Ministry’s Victorian faith in permissive legislation, favouring individual and local initiatives which were in ‘the character of a free people’—not enforced through compulsion by Whitehall diktat. The defence of the Union was always at the heart of Disraeli’s patriotism; in 1872, he proclaimed in Manchester that ‘the programme of the Conservative party is to maintain the Constitution of the country’, while in 2010 his party reaffirms that ‘We are a unionist party and we will not put the Union at risk.’ Meanwhile, policies to heal a broken society share the aspiration he called at a Crystal Palace gathering ‘the elevation of the condition of the people’:

...is it at all wonderful that they should wish to elevate and improve their condition, and is it unreasonable that they should ask the Legislature to assist them in that behest as far as it is consistent with the general welfare of the realm?

In that 1872 speech, Disraeli set out a social programme to bridge what he called in the novel Sybil the divide between ‘the Rich and the Poor’—his answer was One Nation Toryism and a series of bills addressing housing and health, finance and trade, and education. In these points and more, the Manifesto may with justification be said to mirror the One Nation vision.

Now, immersed in the fray of a general election campaign, candidates and their supporters would do well to remember his biting witticism about Gladstone, paraphrased for contemporary benefit: ‘If David Cameron fails to become prime minister, it would be a misfortune; but, if Gordon Brown were to remain at No 10, it would be a calamity.’

‘You must act as if everything depended on your individual efforts,’ were Disraeli’s parting words to the Conservative activists assembled at the Crystal Palace. ‘The secret of success is constancy of purpose.’ Happy Primrose Day!

[A version of this essay was published by Platform 10.]

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