Was it all due to Disraeli?
It was mostly in the 18th century that Britain invented the industrial society but in the course of the 19th century most of Europe had caught up and reached a degree of industrialization that was comparable with Britain. Railways were even snaking out across the vast plains of Russia.
And the social problems that industrialization brought were similar too. Economies that had mostly been populated by peasant farmers had rapidly transformed into economies inhabited by factory workers. And compared to their hardscrabble and often hungry life back on the farm, the industrial worker had a greatly improved life. He rarely went hungry and he could even keep a dog. Whippets were very popular.
No matter how good the worker had it, however, he could see that the bosses had it a lot better. And that generated anger. And anger generated unrest, including violent unrest.
So where was society going, many people asked? They were in a totally new situation so the past was no guide. The one thing that was clear however was that the old stability was gone and real violence threatened. The unrest had to be suppressed in some way if an orderly society was to continue.
But that was easier said than done. There was a lot of energy behind the unrest and a new middle class had emerged which produced a new breed of intellectuals. And Karl Marx was only one of those intellectuals. There was an intellectual ferment all over Europe. Even the Pope got involved with his encyclical "De rerum novarum".
And there was certainly all sorts of agitation in Germany. Bismarck, however, kept the peace with his tough stance and ever changing alliances and policies that kept everyone off balance. But there was nobody similar in France so all sorts of revolutionary movements rose and fell.
So if you looked just at Europe in the late 19th century, you saw what looked like an ever bubbling cauldron of unrest that had to be contained in some way lest it degenerate into total anarchy. It was not a pretty sight and it bode ill for the future. Would peace and quiet ever resume? If it were to resume, how could it be done? It looked very much like Bismarck's iron fist was the only viable model. Europe was in danger of reverting to an oriental despotism where a King of some sort kept order through widespread brutality. The energy behind the unrest was great so even greater energies had to be deployed to suppress it.
But what about Britain? The British empire was at its height in the late 19th century. For much of that time the Prime Minister was Benjamin Disraeli, a Jew by ancestry but a nominal convert to the Church of England. Nobody asked him if he believed in the CofE's "39 articles of religion" for the excellent reason that many of the clergy did not believe in them either.
Disraeli showed that democracy was viable in the industrial era. The survival of democracy was not a foregone conclusion. The world has always been ruled by kings before great flowering of democracy in ancient Greece and Rome. But vigorous and transformative though those flowerings were, they eventually succumbed to the Macdeonian monarchy and Caesar respectively. They resumed the normal human form of government: Monarchy. Would the flickering light of democracy in 19th century Europe go the same way?
With Solomonic wisdom, Disraeli saw another way. He was greatly assisted by the fact that democratic trditions were particularly strong in Northern Europe, of which Britain was a part. Disraeli built on that. The fundamental feature of democracy is consultation -- consultation with many if not all of the people governed. In Britain, that process had become pretty corrupt. Those consulted were only a small part of the population. Disraeli decided to widen that. In so doing he worried a lot of people. If you gave the vote to ordinary working people what would they do? Would they seize all the wealth for themselves?
Disraeli solved that problem by making friends with the workers. He praised Britain's great history of liberty and civility and implied that the workers were part of that. And his giving them the vote unasked was certainly a persuasive proof of his high regard for the workers. It would not be stretching it much to say that Disraeli asked all Britons to help him make Britain great again. And it worked. Disraeli made the Conservative party the party that stood for the welfare of the whole nation.
So there was unrest in Britain but it was minimal. Most workers felt proud to be part of Britain and supported the orderly functioning of British society. And to this day, Communist movements have never at anytime gained significant traction in British society. Jeremy Corbyn is doing his best but there just are not the votes in Britain for anything really destructive or extreme.
But amid all this, Britain was arguably the most powerful nation in the world They even marchied into Washington and burnt the White House down in 1848. And the British navy ruled the waves. So the picture of dynamism and power that radiated from democratic Britain was a powerful argument for all things British, including its method of government. Disraeli made democracy the ideal -- though it was often an ideal that was respected rather than implemented. So even ghastly tyrannies such as North Korea feel obliged to call themselves democratic in order to claim some shred of legitimacy.
Because we don't have access to alternative history it is difficult to know how the world would have gone without Disraeli but that he saved democracy for the world seems probable to me.
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