Saturday 25 February 2023

Sybil, or The Two Nations

"I would like my portrait to depict me with pimples, warts and everything." These words uttered by the Lord Protector could equally apply to Sybil, or The Two Nations, the celebrated 1845 novel by (then) future Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. It's true this place has little time for Conservatism as a philosophy save its rhetorical commitment to pragmatism, but in its One Nation manifestations it still gets taken out for a tour around public discourse. Boris Johnson perhaps being the Tory leader who talks about it more than most. But in his hands it's meaningless piffle, a few leaves and garnish to the verbose word salad he serves up in his speeches. Yet Sybil, which is widely regarded as the inspiration for one nation conservatism (despite the phrase not appearing in its pages), isn't a paean to warm beer and maids riding in the mist. It is a warning.

Readers are more likely to be familiar with Engels's reporting in The Condition of the Working Class in England. Disraeli's fictionalisation, which was published in the same year, is no less sparing in his portrayal of the poverty and degradation of workers. Both men were as outraged. However, while Disraeli depicts the misery he also goes all out on the glamour. The early part of the book is littered with an enthusiastic description of the parliamentary shenanigans of 200 plus years ago, and the opulence of the gentry with their kinships and Austenian matchmaking. It's in stark contrast to the destitution and humiliation visited on the many, hence the two nations. In a conversation with Charles Egremont, the novel's old Etonian hero, it's put to him that,
Yes ... 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. (Oxford edition, p.60)
Yet Disraeli never gets preachy. The titular Sybil is the daughter of Walter Gerard, a Chartist who goes on to play a leading role in the petitioning of parliament. For Gerard and other Chartist activists, Disraeli sympathetically and accurately narrates their complaints and demands, and shows an understanding of why the radical elements of the movement were driven to violence. Would you ever expect a 21st century Tory to show a similar understanding of the workers' plight today? When Gerard is arrested because the government believes the Chartist Convention is hatching a rising in London, Disraeli, to invert John Major's famous phrase, is interested in understanding a little more and condemning a little less.

Egremont, as the "spare" to the Marney family titles embodies the patricianism now associated with old-style Toryism. He goes out among the people in his district, and when he's "elected" to the Commons he uses his position to speak up for workers' grievances and presses for their inclusion in the commonwealth. During his travels, he meets with and strikes up a friendship with Gerard and, as per a couple more male characters, falls in love with Sybil. Disraeli describes her in possession of heart stopping beauty, which reflects the angelic innocence of her character. Having been brought up by nuns she spends much of her time at cloisters with a view to entering a convent, but shares her father's politics and sees herself as a daughter of labour. She too goes among the people and does charitable works. When the inevitable declaration of intent comes from Egremont, she rebuffs him because the gulf is too wide between them.

Sybil is not a story of love trumping class location, however. Sybil is somewhat removed from the social setting because of her religious affiliations. This affords her critical distance and she becomes distressed when she sees her father moving in a more radical direction. Her faith inclines Sybil to solidarity and taking up the lot of her own people, but not the violent prosecution of their claims. In this, her political journey is on a trajectory to meet Egremont's. But it's events and tragedy, not ethical commitments, that bring about their union.

Throughout the Chartist cause is pressured by radicalism, but we find extremism on the other side too. Egremont's elder brother, the Lord Marney has little time for the little people. They are slovenly, care-free and, in many ways, have it better than aristocrats like him who are responsible for running estates and attending the rounds of social functions. Poverty is a myth and simultaneously good for them, as extra money will only cause drunkenness, debauchery, and laziness. Disraeli also introduces us to the angry petit bourgeoisie. The Diggs', a father-and-son operation own a few fields and lord it over the local populace through their shop. While the men are down the pit, their wives and sometimes children are forced to humiliate themselves in the lines for their store. Joseph Diggs Jr is particularly brutal, enjoying his station as a tyrant over these women, insulting them, causing them to beg for credit, and jumping in among them with a belt and whip to thrash them. He's indifferent when he puts out the eye of a customer's baby. Ditto for when among them a young boy is found to have been crushed by the stampede away from his blows. The Diggs are not fully fleshed out by Disraeli, but serve as another aspect of the injustice that degrades the life of the poor.

Disraeli's lesson manifests in the rising towards the end. A mob is whipped up into a frenzy under the leadership of a corpulent bishop who styles himself the "Liberator". They rampage through the countryside with the intent of firing factories and farms where the general strike he called is not being observed. For example, the mob stop by the Diggs's shop where they're fired upon by Joseph jr armed with a blunderbuss. In retaliation, they set his building on fire and he's seen perishing in the flames clutching his ledger with the records of all his debtors. Later, at another factory the crowd are halted by an impassioned speech by Gerard, who had earned their respect for his Chartist work and serving time for the cause. He assured them the workers there were on strike, and diverted the mob to one of the nearby estates. The bishop fancies liberating the wine cellar of its contents and they make haste to the big house. It happens that Sybil is there and she and the resident family are terrorised as the mob storms the stairs, take the library, and force themselves into the cellar. Sybil escapes as Egremont and an attachment of yeomanry under his command arrive and drive off the mob. But not before fire consumes the house's lower reaches, and the bishop and his band of sodden lieutenants greet their demise in a haze of insensible drunkenness. Meanwhile, away from the scene the crowd are dispersing when they're attacked by Lord Marney's yeomanry. He fires and kills Gerard, who was merely present. Seeing their leader dead, the mob is reignited and they tear him off his horse and bludgeon him to death.

Months later with the dust settled, everything has come good. With his older brother dead and childless, Egremont inherits the title. And following the recovery of title deeds in one of the book's sub-plots, Sybil is declared blue-blooded and no longer has any hesitancy marrying her Etonian darling. A couple of Chartist allies of Gerard trade in their radicalism and become successful capitalists. Disraeli's message? Class division with its cruelties and inequalities can only lead to mutual ruin if not ameliorated. The deaths of Diggs, Lord Marney, and Gerard demonstrate the zero-sum nature of social conflict. Wise rulers and voices of moderation are not exciting, but they are the best bets for social peace. And when barriers from above and below are cleared, even the most resolute of radicals can become successful in conventional terms and achieve respectability. It's exclusion that breeds disaffection and rebellion. Disraeli here is anticipating, by 150 years, the New Labour discourse around inclusion and exclusion. A discourse that still dominates discussions about "social mobility" and "aspiration". Here, Disraeli is suggesting the war between above and below can be averted if common sense prevails - that legitimate grievances be dealt with, but within the bounds of a law that mutually protects the haves and the have nots.

As limited and as distorting of politics this is, if the Tories want to have a future beyond the catastrophe the polls are expecting, going back to Disraeli and heeding his warnings about stoking two nation politics is a necessity. But One Nation politics and meaning it appears well beyond the ken of today's Conservative Party, and that is why the fall, when it comes, will prove itself unsparing.


David said...

Great piece Phil, thoroughly enjoyed that! Next - Starmer as Gladstone?

Ken said...

Who knew? A real page turner, although if written today it might well be a bodice ripper.
Emma Thompson should write a script.

Old Trot said...

Strange article, Phil. Unfortunately , in the USA and the UK, (and most of the Western world now) widespread , rather than very, very, sporadically individual, UPWARD social mobility opportunities have come to an end , as the expansive capitalism that both the UK and US experienced for much of their post WW2 boomtimes , is long gone now. Today it is 'ascription' (ie , who you know and are related to) , rather than genuine 'open opportunity' for the thrusting and brightest', irrespective of birth class) that determines your life chances. So today pretty much every top job, from politics, to journalism, to business to entertainment is occupied by a scion of the better off, well-connected, and mainly public schoolboys at the very top.

The NuLabour and 'one nation Tory' emphasis on individual 'aspiration' and equal opportunity is pure hokum in our current era of systemic capitalist crisis. The concept today is merely a cynical attempt to split off sections of the 'aspirational' middle class from the rest of us proletarians by holding out a , largely bogus, prospect of a 'foot on the upward mobility ladder' to them if they side with the neoliberal status quo.

Is your quite strange article here really all about your own personal shift back to the Nulabour class collaborationist side of the ever-rising UK class struggle, Phil, and not really about the Tories at all ? Just asking. After all YOU chose to back the ghastly Yvette Cooper, not Jeremy Corbyn in the iconic 2015 Europe-wide 'Left Surge' Labour Leadership contest. 'One Nation' Toryism AND Right Wing neoliberal Blairite 'Third Way social democracy' have nothing but empty slogans, the mass media , distracting pseudo patriotic warmongering, and the FPTP system to sustain their hegemony today. Their time is nearly up - after just one more, guaranteed disastrous collaborationist , authoritarian, Austerity-enforcing, Labour government.

Blissex said...

«But One Nation politics and meaning it appears well beyond the ken of today's Conservative Party, and that is why the fall, when it comes, will prove itself unsparing.»

Why should the Conservatives turn "one nation" and move to the left of New New Labour and LibDems, which are not "one nation" but committed to thatcherism?

The core constituency of all three parties is "the Diggs", that 20-40% of the population who own property, with or without mortgages, and that constituency is not "one nation" (a Guardian commenter wrote “I will put it bluntly I don't want to see my home lose £100 000 in value just so someone else can afford to have a home and neither will most other people if they are honest with themselves”, which to me seems the best definition of "centrism").

Anonymous said...

Great article/review. Ignore Old Trot! :D

Dialectician1 said...

".......UPWARD social mobility opportunities have come to an end, as the expansive capitalism that both the UK and US experienced for much of their post WW2 boomtimes, is long gone now. Today it is 'ascription' rather than genuine 'open opportunity' that determines your life chances."

Of course, Old Trot is absolutely correct. A review of the sociological literature on social mobility, shows just this. If anyone is interested in the subject, a good place to start is Selina Todd's recent book (2021):'Snakes & Ladders. The Great British Social Mobility Myth'

Todd draws upon a mass of individual testimony, integrating these accounts with an array of statistical evidence to illustrate her thesis that Britain, far from being a country with a network of open access, meritocratic super highways to accelerate youngsters with drive and ability into top jobs, actually does the reverse.

None of this will be news to many of us who recognise the preposterousness of the social mobility myth. What is strange is why it remains such an enduring narrative. The established middle classes and the upper class have always managed to ensure that their offspring are protected from the indignity of tumbling down the ladder and have employed a subtle array of social closure techniques to keep the rest of us out.

Yet, from the middle of the twentieth century, following the growth of the welfare state and the expansion of non-material labour, there clearly was some evidence of relative social mobility in Britain. Many individuals took advantage of the increased provision of education, which led to significant toing-and-froing on the intermediary rungs of the ladder. This, however, was a brief period. The emergence of neoliberalism in the 1980s and the subsequent deregulation of capital led to the state withdrawing from its redistributive commitments. As a result, Britain’s class structure polarised again and the rungs on the ladder fractured and started to give way.

Just when real social mobility in Britain was in serious decline, the ‘social mobility industry’ and politicians from the main political parties came charging - like the cavalry - to its rescue. From Thatcher to Major, from Blair to Brown and from Cameron to May, the story was the same. Britain, they said, was no longer an old fashioned class-ridden society, it was now a modern meritocracy. As Selina Todd states, ‘the talk was of expanding opportunity rather than equality’. This narrative was supported by an army of think tanks, charities, lobby groups, businesses and organisations that promoted the view that it was only lack of ambition that stopped people getting to the top. They promoted diversity training for managers and in the professions but offered little criticism of private schools and elite institutions like the Russell Group of universities and failed to challenge the working patterns and hierarchies that ensured most people stayed at the bottom of the ladder.

Blissex said...

«The established middle classes and the upper class have always managed to ensure that their offspring are protected from the indignity of tumbling down the ladder and have employed a subtle array of social closure techniques to keep the rest of us out.»

That's a very tory thing to do: torysm is always and everywhere the defense and furthering of the benefits of *incumbency* (which type of incumbency is most beneficial changes with time), and there is no better torysm than the worship of incumbency in the UK (and for good reasons: for over a thousand years most people's lives were largely determined by their incumbency).

«an army of think tanks, charities, lobby groups, businesses and organisations that promoted the view that it was only lack of ambition that stopped people getting to the top.»

Or "education, education, education", because the demand for Queen Counsels or for hospital consultant physicians or for marketing strategists or for chartered accountants is limited only by the number of graduates in their sectors :-).

«They promoted diversity training for managers and in the professions»

One of the great advantages of the DEI strategy is that it costs employers *nothing*: it simply results in a different distribution of the same jobs and wages among the various identities of the working class. It also may reduce wage costs as the competition for the "good jobs" intensifies as previously excluded categories are allowed to compete for them. Since it is purely redistributive, like property, it also had the great advantage of being carbon-neutral.