At the Union a few terms ago, a debate was held on the motion “This House regrets the NHS’s status as a national religion”. It was a valid discussion to be having; many feel that the National Health Service’s almost spiritual status in the British national conscious is a lamentable impediment to necessary conversations about how to make healthcare provisions sustainable in a society that is ageing and placing increasing demands on the public purse.
Rightly or wrongly, it frequently seems that arguments in favour of the NHS can only be made coherently on the basis of left-of-centre values, whilst all the significant arguments against it seem to ensue naturally from the free-market, anti-statist right. I want to suggest a different perspective that I think Conservatives would do well to take up, and it is informed by a novel written about a hundred years prior to the inception of the NHS. That is, Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, or the two Nations.
For those with a preponderance of spare time in their quarantine routines, Sybil is a book well worth reading. A novel about the social divisions in British (see “English” for Disraeli) society after the Great Reform Act of 1832, the impoverished conditions of the working classes, and the violence of the Chartist movement, Sybil is pregnant throughout with political significance. It is part of a trilogy of books Disraeli wrote in the mid-nineteenth century, and the characters of his works serve as the mouthpiece for his developing brand of Conservatism.
Sybil, in plenty of regards, has not aged well. Disraeli has a very selective historical memory, remembering Charles I as some sort of champion of the British people against the “venetian” (see oligarchic) Whigs; the paternalism of the piece is deeply uncomfortable to the twenty-first century reader; and Disraeli’s relationship with democracy is complicated and on occasions antagonistic- he was a critic of the 1832 expansions to the franchise. However, there is plenty in this book that remains almost prophetically relevant to the politics of today. Disraeli’s “One Nation” Conservativism, which sought to reconcile the interests of the rich and poor, the people and their representatives- to bridge the “two nations” that Disraeli believed Britain had bifurcated into- offers a powerful vision for politics that transcends the context Disraeli wrote in. So does his attentiveness to material improvements in working and living conditions and his consideration of both absolute and relative manifestations of poverty.
Disraeli of course is an exemplar of High Toryism, and this means that the audience to which his Conservatism speaks can appear to be a narrow one. But I want to suggest that he holds lessons about politics that even the modernising Conservatism with which I associate would do well to learn. Primarily, Disraeli teaches us the enduring, cohesive power of institutions.
Sybil paints a picture of extreme societal division- of mutual suspicion, of a dearth of empathy, of violence. But throughout the book, two institutions appear to stand above the mire that aristocratic arrogance and popular agitation had sunken the country into: that of the church and the monarchy. These institutions, founded on the sentiment of shared historical experience, contrast starkly with the selfish and egotistical tendencies of society narrated by Disraeli. The church, physically rooted in the soil, and with an (admittedly idealised) impartiality to all, embodies the common moral compass of the nation. The monarchy represents a similar unity in the political imaginary that Disraeli offers in Sybil; as the various political factions jostle for power, and the intriguing nobles and ladies gossip of the fortuna of Westminster life, a transcendental monarchy symbolises an enduring national cohesiveness in which the “great body of the people” can find certainty and, indeed, pride. The two enduring metaphors of Sybil have these institutions as their subject; the material decay of the church in the principal setting of the book reflects the moral decay of the country in the mid-nineteenth century, whilst the ascension to the throne of Queen Victoria offers the possibility of renewed national unity in the person of the young monarch.
Disraeli’s Britain is not the country we live in today. Church attendances have been bottomed-out, and despite the universally popular figures of the Queen, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and perhaps Prince Charles and Princess Anne, members of the royal family would appear to be making a concerted effort to torpedo the legitimacy of the monarchy. Church and crown do not offer the basis for unity in modern Britain, irrespective of the fact that many of us may continue to believe in God or may remain champions of the monarchy’s place in the British constitution.
But certain elements of the Britain that Disraeli wrote about do seem familiar: the hyper-partisan politics. The sense of divide between the have and have-nots. The lack of empathy in the national community. These are things we can easily recognise in our own politics today. And whilst much of what Disraeli saw in and advocated for British society is somewhat antiquated now, the importance he attached to the galvanising force of institutions is something we would do well to heed.
Today, threatened by a deadly pandemic and marred by the deeply polarising contestation over its relationship with the European Union, Britain has found a powerful unity in the institution of the NHS. Witness the countless people turning out into the street on Wednesday evening to applaud health workers; the efforts of a hundred-year old veteran in Colonel Tom Moore to raise money for our health service; the individual acts of gratitude offered to NHS employees in hospitals, homes and supermarkets across the country. Support for the NHS transcends the animosity, the egotism, the fear that is so often the focus of politics and public debate.
The question for Conservatives is not whether or not the NHS ought to have an almost religious status in this country. The fact of the matter is that it does. It binds us all in the way that religion- or at least so Disraeli thought- used to. Of course, much of this is historically contingent. The British public might now find a sense of unity in the British Navy (as, I would argue, it once did), or the Department for Work and Pensions (inestimably less likely), had history turned out differently. But it didn’t. A Conservative party, a party of government in the national interest, must deal as much in what is indeed the case, as much as in the ideals and aspirations that it has for our country. Part of that is recognising the NHS for what it is- a national institution with remarkable gravity- and safeguarding it accordingly. That may imply courses of action that run-up against the rationalities of fiscal prudence, and I certainly would not deny that the hard-won reputation for economic competence is something to be valued and preserved. But fiscal prudence cannot unify Britain in the way that the NHS can and does.
Disraeli believed that Conservatives served the national interest when they recognised and championed the institutions that galvanised their political community. Today, any government claiming the mantle of “One-Nation” must be committed to the single institution that remains capable of drawing people onto the streets in reverence and gratitude- our National Health Service.
Phd Candidate, Politics