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Benjamin Disraeli and the Conservative Response to Change

By Jeffery Tyler Syck

This post is from a new series that will highlight Conservative leaders from history. Once a month, Tyler Syck, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia and native Kentuckian, will highlight someone we think our readers ought to know more about. Sometimes they'll be politicians, other times they'll be thought leaders or intellectuals.

Aside from Burke and Tocqueville, we Americans tend to forget about great conservative statesmen and thinkers who lived, thought, and worked outside of the United States. Among these neglected thinkers perhaps none are as important as Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli (later made Lord Beaconsfield and called “Dizzy” by his friends) was a mid-nineteenth British romance novelist and Queen Victoria’s favorite Prime Minister. Over the course of his long career Disraeli pioneered a conservative philosophy designed to help the British people face a rapidly changing world.

Disraeli rose to power in the midst of the industrial revolution, as British society was radically altered by changing economic and social circumstances. Urbanization and rising poverty rates upset the carefully ordered world of Regency Era England. These changes proved a particularly difficult problem for conservatives. For decades conservative political thought in England had rested on simple support for the aristocracy and monarchy, which typically involved minimizing social upheaval as much as possible. However, in the face of rapid industrialization conservative politicians found themselves facing a difficulty never before encountered.

Conservatives at the time hit upon two different approaches. The first, pioneered by British Prime Minister Robert Peel, was to embrace the brave new post-industrial world wholesale but merely work to implement social change in a slow moderate fashion. The second, largely a continuation of old-fashioned conservative strategy, was to stand opposed to all change and work to undo industrialization. Disraeli thought both approaches deeply wrong-headed. Peel’s approach – to simply embrace all social change and take things slow – Disraeli thought hardly different than liberalism. In Coningsby, the most political of his novels, he describes Peel’s brand of conservativism “as an attempt to construct a party without principles.” Disraeli thought the old guard of his party little better. By attempting to stand athwart the forces of industrialization and stop all change they were trying the impossible.

Disraeli offered a middle ground between these two approaches. He summarized his view in a speech delivered before a crowded banquet hall in Scotland: “In a progressive country change is a 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” which are the real source of human freedom and happiness. In short, Disraeli believed that the job of conservatives was neither to embrace nor stop change but work to preserve and adapt those institutions that sustain human flourishing. In practice, this meant a conservatism that provided generous welfare to the poor while at the same time bolstering custom, tradition, law and religion.

Modern American conservatives have a lot we could learn from Disraeli’s vision for the conservative party. Our contemporary moment, like his, is one of seemingly constant change. New technology and cultural attitudes are drastically shifting each and every year. In response to this, it could be helpful to revive the middle ground of Disraeli and in so doing preserve those things that make human life worth living.

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