Disraeli’s ‘Two Nations’

By | September 4, 2017

I hadn’t realized that Disraeli was an accomplished novelist prior to entering parliament. Born in 1804, he didn’t go to university, instead benefiting from his father’s extensive library. He spent some time in a lawyer’s office but found neither career nor refuge there, turning instead to writing. Vivian Grey was written when he was 22 and won him a market. By the time he succeded in becoming an MP – in 1837, after four failures – he had penned a further five novels. More was to come: Conningsby in 1844, Sybil in 1845 and Tancred in 1847. I read Conningsby some years ago and it stuck in my memory. I am now reading Sybil for the first time. Its famous subtitle is Or: The Two Nations. On pages 72-73 of my old second-hand Penguin edition comes the pivotal exchange, and the one that is the rationale for this blog.  

Disraeli’s noble protagonist, Egremont, is in conversation with two strangers encountered by the ruins of Marney Abbey: 

‘Well, society may be in its infancy’, said Egremont, slightly smiling; ‘but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.’ 

‘Which nation’, asked the stranger, ‘for she reigns over two.’ 

The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly. 

‘Yes’, resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. 

‘Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’ 

‘You speak of –‘, said Egremont, hesitatingly. 

‘The RICH and the POOR.’’ 

I do not hold to the view that literature does a better job of exposing and accounting for social divisions than sociology; but it can certainly prompt, provoke, illustrate, act as catalyst and even set agendas. It can also educate (as Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath did me). Disraeli eschews structure for culture, which for a sociologist would be a flaw. Sybil is informed by class relations rather than an analysis of them. However, though his characterization of a ‘two-nation’ Britain might have faded in the two-to-three decades following the second world war, incorporating the diluted ‘one-nation’ Toryism of Macmillan (check out his house-building record), it never went away and has during financial capitalism revealed itself afresh and in all its edgy and dangerous compulsion.  

The shallow and ‘obvious’ capital-buys-power-to-make-policy regimes of the opportunist Cameron and the vacuous May are stark reminders of the Victorian era and its unapologetic celebration of the violent and rapacious imperial reach of its aristocracy-cum-bourgeoisie on the one hand, and the poor law on the other. But May’s Britain is an aircraft carrier with no aircraft. Brexit is a mere device to allow the rich to cash in, no matter the price paid by the poor. Britain’s putative ‘greatness’ never was – it was constructed out of slavery, exploitation and absolute poverty – and its rhetorical resurrection is an insulting device to facilitate the transfer of yet more capital to the already rich.  

What Disraeli’s Sybil does is remind us of the continuity of (the logic of) capitalism through its various phases.       


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