28 October 2022

What Britain’s second ethnic minority PM can learn from its first


Britain’s evolution as a tolerant society continues with the ascent of our first British Asian Prime Minister. This was not entirely welcomed by the party who elected him, with one Tory member calling LBC to describe Sunak as ‘not British’ – a baffling remark to make about someone born and raised here. Still, the ease with which Britain’s oldest ruling party (and a party with an uneasy record on racial tolerance) has adopted Sunak is a sign of the change since the PM’s parents arrived in England in the 1960s.

Sunak is not, however, our first ever ethnic minority Prime Minister. That honour falls to Benjamin Disraeli. Aside from that superficial similarity, though, the truth is that Sunak has far more in common with some of the more establishment members of the modern Conservative Party than with Dizzy.

That’s not to say that Disraeli and his family were averse to blending in with the establishment of their own era. Though Jewish by birth, Disraeli’s father had him christened in the Church of England and dropped the apostrophe in D’Israeli to boot. After all, to be a member of the establishment in nineteenth-century England, you had to be an Anglican.

What was really remarkable for the 1840s was that Disraeli joined the ruling class despite having no aristocratic pedigree and a dilettantish, unrespectable literary background, with neither a public school or university education, nor a fixed profession. He was a wild, speculative young man, who burdened himself with personal debts in the 1820s.The day he was first sworn in as a MP he was smuggled into the Common disguised as a cook to avoid creditors. Indeed, he partly became an MP for the immunity from debtors’ jail it provided. Many of his experiences were so thinly disguised in his fiction it caused long-term rifts with contacts who could have helped his career. He was, in short, a chancer.

All of this might remind you of one recent Tory leader, but it certainly isn’t Rishi Sunak, whose track record of Winchester, Oxford, Stanford, and Goldman Sachs is as impeccably establishment as you can imagine. Disraeli, on the other hand, made hay out of his outsider status. Inspired by Byron in his youth, he never quite gave up dressing like a dandy. Although he did manage to avoid wearing a dramatic cape in the Commons, he liked to goad Gladstone by yawning through the Grand Old Man’s speeches and flamboyantly pulling out his pocket watch and making a face. He had a neat trick where he elaborately pulled a handkerchief from one pocket, passed it distressingly across his face, and placed it in the opposite pocket. Sunak is a polished performer, but he isn’t really one for great showmanship or roguish charm.

And a good thing too. Don’t be fooled. Disraeli sounds fun but he was an unmitigated bounder and cad, a thorough-going no-good who would – and did – say or do anything to further his career. It is often said that Peel split the Tory party by repealing the Corn Laws, but the biggest efforts towards splitting the party came from Dizzy, who poured invective down on Peel day after day in long Philippics in the Commons. The great statesman was seen crying on the front benches while his principled stand to feed the poor was mercilessly leveraged for political advantage. And all the while, Peel was in possession of a letter from Disraeli begging for a government job!

In such a state, Disraeli began his tenure as the head of his party in the Commons through the wilderness years, occasionally in brief governments headed by Lord Derby. He eventually clawed his way to a majority, decades later. A sympathetic view is that his novelist’s imagination was able to fully feel the history and emotions of the British state, whereas Peel thought, in Jonathan Perry’s words, ‘men could be governed by adjusting tables of import duties’.

There’s some truth to that – Disraeli was the outsider, the arriviste, who saw clearly what history, tradition, and the idea of being British meant to national politics. Peel was right in principle; Disraeli understood what it took to govern men. There is no sense in which Sunak will resemble Disraeli’s protectionist, nationalist and, ironically, aristocratic politics. The idea of Disraeli as the great pragmatist is more or less nonsense cooked up by Stanley Baldwin as a way of giving the Conservative Party a practical brand during turbulent times, after a generation of being out of office. The real Disraeli was not an enthusiast for liberalism. And he was a total opportunist. He once passed Gladstone’s Reform Bill, only with extended provisions. 

Disraeli and Sunak do share a belief in the role of the individual. Disraeli believed fervently that high intrigue is essential to high office. Politics is a game of personalities. We might wish it were not so, but Liz Truss’ tragic premiership made clear that political history is reliant on political biography. Sunak was prepared to wield the knife over Boris, as Disraeli did with Peel. Sunak was happy to watch and wait while Truss fulfilled his economic prophecy. He knows as Disraeli did that Francis Bacon was right: ‘all rising to great place is by winding stair’.

The next lesson Sunak can learn from Disraeli – whose biography sat on the bedside table of one Richard M. Nixon – is that politics is a game of chance. When opportunity comes, you have to strike. Disraeli was the great opponent of the radicalism of his times, not a bad description of Sunak. But where Disraeli was sectarian, Sunak is inclusive; where Disraeli was protectionist, Sunak is global. But Sunak can build on the (slightly misleading) idea of Disraeli the great pragmatist.

Social reform was the big issue of the 1870s, when Dizzy was PM. To contrast himself to the hyper-active Liberals, Disraeli chose six bipartisan issues for legislation in one year, such as sanitation reform, employee relations, and landlording. He made great political rhetoric out of these occasions, leading to his later reputation. Sunak can learn something here.

Dominic Cummings has been saying for years that voters are non-ideological. They are looking for someone in the middle-ground, someone like Boris prepared to offer policies from both sides of the aisle. The new government should therefore embody some of Disraeli’s bipartisan spirit, with work on areas such as housing, planning, childcare, energy, productivity and business investment. But, crucially, with a figurehead in Sunak who is quite different from the opportunistic, unprincipled Disraeli.

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Henry Oliver is a writer.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.