On Brexit, Theresa May is borrowing from the tactics of Benjamin Disraeli

Tory PMs have led rebellions against the elite before. 

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“We must all obey the great law of change,” said the pre-eminent Tory philosopher Edmund Burke in 1792. “It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means, perhaps, of its conservation”. Burke put forward this central tenet of Conservatism at the height of revolutionary fervor in France.

Theresa May, like Burke, is facing up to a fundamental fissure in our civilization. But while Burke was confronted by the birth of modernity, the Prime Minister is standing on what might be the precipice of its terminal decline. Her speech at the Conservative party conference suggests she can smell the revolt in the air. 

Her rhetoric, at least, indicates that she will embrace a hard Brexit and leave the single market. The biggest obstacle to this lies in Parliament, which must approve any deal. Before the referendum, the majority of MPs backed Remain – 454 wanted to stay in the EU compared to 147 who wanted to leave. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has called for a coalition of Labour, Liberal  Democrat and moderate Tory MPs against hard Brexit. 

The Lords, too, could be a stumbling block. Excluding crossbench peers, Labour and the Lib Dems hold a majority.  

Another threat for May, a Cabinet veteran, is that many Brexit voters can be seen as part of a wider anti-establishment movement seizing the western world. Here, May can draw on the legacy of another eminent Conservative, Benjamin Disraeli. 

Being fond of mass democracy is a relatively new look for the Conservatives. In 1819, a march protesting the fact only 2 per cent of the population could vote was ruthlessly suppressed. In the aftermath of what became known as the Peterloo Massacre, the Tory Prime Minister Lord Liverpool restricted the right to gather and the freedom of the press. As the demand for an extension of the franchise grew, Conservatives became increasingly concerned about preserving their own positions in society. One Tory Prime Minister, The Marquess of Salisbury, saw electoral reform as submitting to the “tyranny of the majority”.

However, the party was also home to a visionary. Disraeli understood that electoral reform would happen, and believed Conservatives should support mass democracy on their own terms. In 1867, he passed the Electoral Reform Act and extended the franchise to parts of the urban poor. He thought the new voters would reward his party with a win in the 1868 election. Instead, he lost. 

Undeterred, Disraeli went back to the drawing board, and seized the next opportunity to turn the party into a mass populist movement. The new Liberal government’s Licensing Act of 1872 gave boroughs the ability to ban alcohol. It brought the country close to riots. Disraeli redefined his party as the opposition to the liberal elite - the defenders of the ordinary man’s liberty. The Liberals would go on to lose the next election, with the outgoing Prime Minister, Disraeli’s great rival William Gladstone, blaming his defeat on “a torrent of gin and beer”. 

Disraeli was against a sanctimonious elite that would deprive people of beer. Margaret Thatcher was against those who would use class to deprive people of aspiration. During the EU referendum, Michael Gove railed against “experts”. Now, May is arguing that people should be able to follow their beliefs free of intervention from the paternalistic, politically-correct elite. As she put it in her Conference speech: “Too many people in positions of power behave as if they have more in common with international elites than the people down the road”. (She also praised Disraeli “who saw division and worked to heal it”.)

In 2016, the dividing line is not alcohol, but social liberalism. Leave voters were more likely to consider social liberalism a force for ill, according to Ashcroft polls. The think tank Nesta found the best indicator that someone backed Leave was their answer to questions such as “Do you think criminals should be publicly whipped?” 

This suggests Brexit was a cultural outcry, against a society moving away from traditional values. 

May must now position herself not as a member of the elite, but as a champion of democratic change. She squared up to the MPs threatening to oppose Brexit, telling conference: “Those people who argue that Article Fifty can only be triggered after agreement in both houses of parliament are not standing up for democracy, they’re trying to subvert it.”

The PM has embraced Brexit, and she must fight for it. But now the conference season is over, and the business of governing begins. Britain’s businesses are lobbying for concessions that will retain access to the single market. Scotland is being as obstructive as possible. The value of the pound continues to plummet. The constitutional crisis that could be unleashed by Brexit is not between the devolved nations and the government, or Britain and the EU, but between the sovereignty of the electorate versus their elected representatives.


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