Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Tories and Tradition

Benjamin Disraeli

Marc DeGirolami has called our attention to the importance of law and tradition (here and here, for example), which I was pondering last night as the Conservative Party exceeded all expectations and won a narrow parliamentary majority. Even if the British Conservatives aren't, in some respects, especially conservative (and after last night's wins by the Scottish Nationalists, not especially "British" but only English), the centuries-long enduring electoral performance of the Tories is one of the most remarkable features of Anglosphere politics. I have on my office wall two portraits: Thomas More and Benjamin Disraeli (with an autograph letter of Disraeli’s) for reasons that Russell Kirk once put well about the significance of shaping a political culture and its constitutional traditions:

Now what was it, in the ideas of Disraeli, that provided the Conservatives with spirit enough to recover from Peelism and to dominate a nation more heavily industrialized than any other in the world? What enabled the party of the country gentlemen to hold office well into the twentieth century, when they thought themselves irretrievably ruined in 1845? How did Disraeli’s theory of English history take shape as a political philosophy? The fascination of Disraeli’s personality, and the details of his long struggle against Gladstone, often obscure estimates of his accomplishment. When admirers of Lord Beaconsfield endeavor to sum up his achievements, sometimes one is confronted with a miscellaneous list of innovations--the Reform of 1867, the Factory Acts, aid to schools, commencement of a program of public housing--as if these were of themselves conservative measures. In truth, Disraeli's positive legislation sometimes was inconsistent with his theory, and in any case inferior to it. His really important achievement, as a political leader, was implanting in the public imagination an ideal of Toryism which has been immeasurably valuable in keeping Britain faithful to her constitutional traditions. The Primrose League mattered more than Suez. A foreigner who travels today through West Riding, say, from Leeds to Sheffield, or through any other densely-settled British industrial region, must be astonished that Conservative governments can exist in Britain. Yet many of the workingmen who live in these grim brick rows or in the monotony of the new council-houses vote for Conservative candidates; in the country at large, the Tories claim millions of supporters among the regular trade-union members, and many more among the laboring classes in general. Britain, which Saint-Simon thought ripe for proletarian revolution during Liverpool's ministry, was still Tory enough in 1951 to make Churchill prime minister and in 1986 to sustain a Tory lady in that office. Nowhere else in the modern world has a unified conservative party enjoyed such continuity of purpose and such enduring popular support. In great part, this is the triumph of Disraeli.

Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (7th rev. ed., 1986), 271.


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