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The Two Nations?

Macmillan's 1895 Edition of Disraeli's Sybil with William Morris (inspired?) cover   “Say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.”

    “Which nation?” asked the young stranger, “for she reigns over two…two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if there were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners and are not governed by the same laws.”

   “You speak of  -” said Egremont hesitatingly.

Title Page of Sybil First Edition (London: Henry Colburn, 1845)I was reminded of this passage from Disraeli’s Sybil (Book ii, Chapter 5) as I was browsing through a completely different book, The Two Nations: A Financial Study of English History by Christopher Hollis (New York: Gordon Press, 1975, p. v).  The distinction Disraeli draws is between the rich and the poor, and it is in that sense Hollis quotes the passage. Sybil (London: Henry Colburn, 1845) was published with the sub-title Or the Two Nations, and Disraeli, an influential leader of the Tory party who served two terms as Prime Minister, also coined the phrase and framed the concept of one-nation conservatism.  Disraeli’s conception of one-nation toryism was designed to appeal to the working classes, binding them into an organic and evolutionary societal framework putting strong emphasis on the duty of each citizen to have a care to all other citizens and especially on the duty of the upper classes to practice patronage, paternalism and pragmatism. So influential on conservatism was Disraeli’s thinking that one-nation conservatism remains a force within modern politics, albeit it still focussed on bridging what divides the rich from the poor.  London Mayor, Boris Johnson, is quoted as saying “I am a one-nation Tory.  There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy”; and in his 2006 pamphlet published by the One Nation Group of Conservatives, Tory MP Andrew Tyrie described current Prime Minister, David Cameron as pursuing Disraeli’s one nation approach in the 21st century much as had Stanley Baldwin and Rab Butler in the 20th century.

Benjamin Disraeli First Earl of Beaconsfield

Benjamin Disraeli First Earl of Beaconsfield


Two nations?I am struck though how easily Disraeli’s analysis in Sybil parallels the current political debate about the future of the United Kingdom and the two nations of England and Scotland within that Union (down to the fact there is once again a Queen on the throne!).  Although Disraeli’s political career may have been glittering I wouldn’t hold him among the finest of novelist of his era.   Yet, it is the way in which his discourse remains relevant, and applicable, even if it is with the assistance of a shoehorn, to contemporary circumstances that lends a timeless quality to his fiction.  And it demonstrates one of the true pleasures and rewards of reading and book collecting: that a serendipitous stumbling can provoke a moment of reflection.  Is there meat in Sybil for those searching for answers around devolution and Scottish independence? I’d need to give the novel a much closer reading to answer that but I’d be prepared to bet it wouldn’t be a bad aperitif even if it doesn’t make an entrée.