Rishi Sunak's 'two-nation' Conservatives are creating the divided country that Benjamin Disraeli warned against – Henry McLeish

‘One-nation Conservatism’ was born out of Disraeli’s concept of two hostile nations – rich and poor – within 19th-century Britain. Today’s Tories are ignoring poverty and inequality, focussing instead on ‘cheap patriotism'

Months away from a general election, Britain faces a deepening crisis. Political well-being is in decline. Trust and truth in politics are sidelined. Decline and delusion characterise a tired Tory government. Lacking any vision for the country, massive challenges at home and abroad are being glossed over.

This is the stark reality of Tory Britain where the loss of public trust in government threatens our democracy. Overcoming despair and reviving public trust in politics and government will be key to rebuilding the confidence of the electorate, and setting a new course for a disunited and dangerously divided Union.

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Harsh realities abound. A polarised electorate and toxic politics are, in the first instance, the product of an outdated first-past-the-post electoral system. Capitalism, exceptionalism, absolute sovereignty and the lure of greatness, post-Empire and two World Wars, have left a legacy which can only be described as an obsessive delusion disorder – believing in things that couldn’t possibly be true – a condition dramatically illustrated by Boris Johnson where fact and fiction, lies and truth are interchangeable.

Benjamin Disraeli pictured speaking in the House of Commons in 1873 (Picture: Culture Club/Getty Images)Benjamin Disraeli pictured speaking in the House of Commons in 1873 (Picture: Culture Club/Getty Images)
Benjamin Disraeli pictured speaking in the House of Commons in 1873 (Picture: Culture Club/Getty Images)

Fourteen years of a government haunted by history have revealed a party out of touch with the needs of modern Britain. In recent months, the factions within the party, the rise of the right and the astonishing behaviour of Johnson, Truss and others only serves to illustrate the deep contempt the Conservative party has for electors who are treated like fools.

Blind eye to poverty

Helped by a powerful right-leaning media and deep-pocketed donors, this government promotes a ‘private affluence and public squalor’ agenda, relying on cheap patriotism whilst turning a blind eye to rising levels of poverty, inequality and social breakdown.

Can this politics of chaos and deceit, be replaced by a more coherent, constructive, consensual politics to restore faith in our democracy? What kind of country do we want is the question all parties have to address. The Tories are shrinking the future: there is no sense of how our quality of life could improve under such a regime.

Over the years, the Conservative party has ignored some exceptional advice. Edmund Burke in the 18th century described common-sense conservatism as “an approach to human affairs which mistrusts both a priori reasoning of revolution, preferring to put its trust in experience and in the gradual improvement of tried and tested arrangements”. Whatever happened to this?

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Van Jones, a modern-day US political analyst and civil rights advocate, talks about cheap patriots, in contrast to deep patriots, as those whose every action is the opposite of what they advocate. Brexit was a surrender to populism as the engine of white grievance and nationalism, yet it was sold as protecting the national interest and “taking back control”. Now widely acknowledged as an act of insanity, Brexit – the product of such cheap patriotism – is ruining the economy.

‘Moral justification for selfishness’

In 1845, future Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli published a novel, Sybil or The Two Nations, saying of the rich and poor that “so disparate is their opportunity and living conditions and so hostile to each other, that they seem almost to belong to different countries”. This is the Britain today.

In his 1958 book, The Affluent Society, JK Galbraith talked about “private affluence and public squalor” as public services broke down in an “affluent society”. Galbraith added: “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.” As true today as it has ever been.

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The theme of private affluence amid public squalor was taken up by Graham Vanbergen in The Economic Times. “Does anyone think that the UK can get back on a path matching its global peers with people like Rees-Mogg, Suella Braverman and Liz Truss at the helm? This is the toxic reality in which electors now inhabit,” he said, adding, “that for them this has become the new norm”. Another modern norm “is that millions are slipping between the cracks and descending into squalor as services completely disintegrate”; a third that “the continued erosion of public life, if left unchecked, will only lead to more breakdown”. Guilty as charged!

But faced with HMS Britain going under, Rishi Sunak’s campaign response is an astonishing, “stop the boats” – a crude populist expression of anti-migrant sentiment, pandering to a growing white English nationalism, while ignoring the needs of the other nations of the Union: a devastating commentary on 14 years of Tory rule!

Labour needs a vision

Should Labour inherit this broken Union, there will be obvious dangers as economic growth stutters and public finances decline. Caution will abound as an incoming Labour government manages expectations and seeks to avoid a ferocious onslaught from the right-wing media and their financial backers. Fear will become the Tory campaign weapon of choice, seeking to intimidate Labour on Europe, devolution, tax, immigration, crime, race and spending. This is where questions of “what kind of country” and “what is the right thing to do” should take centre stage and occupy the minds of voters.

Describing the Labour party’s weakness nearly a century ago as “its lack of creed”, not manifesto details, RH Tawney said: “There is a void in the mind of the Labour party which leads us into intellectual timidity… which keeps policy trailing in the rear of realities.”

Labour must not diminish or erase its historic commitment to a new deal for working people. Reinforcing this point in a recent podcast, former Labour strategist Alastair Campbell acknowledged the mess the country was in, but said “signalling direction” was vital. A lack of short-term finance should not diminish an injection of hope and a vision for the future.

What kind of country we aspire to requires more than just a hint of what Labour stands for and seeks to achieve, possibly not today, but certainly tomorrow. The grotesque levels of poverty and inequality and the collapse of political well-being in Britain require a new politics.

Henry McLeish is a former First Minister of Scotland



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