Historian David Starkey is leading the charge to make Benjamin Disraeli “relevant” again. Starkey may be best known to American audiences through public television and his documentaries on Henry VIII, the king’s many wives, and the political impact of Britain’s monarchy. He championed Disraeli’s legacy at the outset of Britain’s heroic mission to take back its independence from the European Union. In fact, the constitutional historian believes the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, could learn a lot by following the example of his Victorian predecessor.
Starkey is most pleased with the Brexit result. “We are the first country to turn back the liberal tide,” he tells James Delingpole in a wide-ranging interview earlier this week. “But is it going to last?” Ah, that is the question. “Do you have a government that understands what it has done? Do you have people who can take advantage of it?,” Starkey asks rhetorically. While the historian himself is optimistic, who can overlook his sceptical overtones?
One problem lies with Britain’s political leadership. Boris Johnson, Starkey says, is a “liberal.” Nor is the prime minister a man of ideas — despite his penchant for quoting ancient Greeks and Romans at length. Brexiteers are gratified that Johnson won the December general election on an “independence” platform and oversaw the UK exit the EU at the end of January. Yet, they may well ask, what has he done for us lately?
True, the Conservative government adopts a hard line with respect to trade negotiations with the European Union, stating it will virtually abandon any talks if substantial progress is not made within three months. Brussels wants a “level playing field” to hamstring Britain’s freedom to set competitive fiscal and regulatory policy and access to UK fishing waters (a sore spot with the English), all watched over by the European Court of Justice. The Conservative government will have none of it. The prime minister’s chief EU negotiator, David Frost, is adamant. “It is central to our vision that we must have the ability to set laws that suit us, to claim the right that every other non-EU country in the world has,” Frost explained. “It isn’t a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure. It is the point of the whole project.”
I predict that Disraelianism can promote the fortunes of Johnson and Trump and strengthen the Anglo-American “conservative” alliance.
At the same time, the Tories plan a series of disastrous state interventions: carbon neutrality by 2050, “green” environmental policy, exorbitant infrastructure policy (including high-speed rail or “HS2”), and punitive tax hikes to fund it all. Don’t get Starkey or Delingpole started on the “woke” phenomenon, transplanted from America. On the plus side, though, the UK government is going all in on striking a trade deal with the United States.
On this score, Johnson’s political agenda does remind one of Donald Trump. For while the administration has reduced taxes and regulations that hinder free enterprise, its strategy to coerce trade deals (notably in China) through tariff pressure is a step backward. Not to mention the rising deficit and debt and the failure to address the problem of fiat money that fuels runaway government expenditure, funds cronyism, and impedes real economic growth that rests on savings and capital accumulation.
Nevertheless, Starkey believes that Disraeli’s political idealism can instruct modern Britain. I predict that Disraelianism can promote the fortunes of Johnson and Trump and strengthen the Anglo-American “conservative” alliance. First, focus on institutional rejuvenation. British conservatives want a definite change in how Westminster works. Additionally, they want the powers of an unaccountable elite to be curtailed, whether bureaucrats in Whitehall or justices at the UK Supreme Court. Disraeli called for reforms that are “carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws, and the traditions of a people.” For Disraeli, this was a “national system” in contrast to a “cosmopolitan” and “philosophic” system based on abstract ideas, divorced from the experience and practice of the people. America’s “Tea Party” activists and “Deplorables” can certainly get behind the Disraeli plea to adhere to tradition and custom.
The second Disraelian principle involves “the elevation of the condition of the people.” In the late Victorian era, this was most often achieved through state action. Disraeli’s own method encompassed enlarging the franchise and enacting social legislation to ensure employment equity and safety. Today the best route to empowerment lies through limited government. Indeed, to fully implement Brexit means not only taking power away from Brussels but from Parliament, too, and returning it to the people. Promoting local autonomy and personal initiative are ideas that are readily appreciated on both sides of the North Atlantic. “The great problem,” Disraeli admitted, “is to be able to achieve such results without violating those principles of economic truth upon which the prosperity of all States depends.”
Has Brexit succeeded with King Canute failed, in “turning back the tide”? Such a revolution is reminiscent of Disraeli’s declaration to become “Radical to remove all that is bad” in Britain’s political order. It reminds one of America’s own palæo-libertarian, Murray Rothbard. “We must build a frankly “reactionary” movement dedicated to “turning the clock back,” Rothbard wrote, “to restoring the principles and institutions and culture on which America’s liberty and prosperity and genuine greatness were founded.”
For such a “right-wing populism,” Rothbard foresaw the need for multi-faceted political iconoclasm: “Exciting, dynamic, tough, and confrontational, rousing, and inspiring not only the exploited masses, but the often shell-shocked intellectual cadre as well.”
Indeed, Rothbard foretold the rise of an iconoclast like Donald Trump (and, in lesser degree, Boris Johnson):
We need a dynamic, charismatic leader who has the ability to short-circuit the media elites, and to reach and rouse the masses directly. We need a leadership that can reach the masses and cut through the crippling and distorting hermeneutical fog spread by the media elites.
Can Boris Johnson and Donald Trump deliver? By following Disraeli’s example of “Radical Toryism,” they can be the leaders that Britons and Americans deserve.
Stephen MacLean, a freelancer based in Nova Scotia, writes the Brexit Diary for the New York Sun.