One Nation - Disraeli never said it

For years Alistair Lexden, the Conservative Party’s official historian, has been correcting the mistake that is constantly being made in attributing the famous phrase “One Nation” to Disraeli. It appeared again in The Times on 3 December. The background to the error and a correction were published by Rose Wild in the newspaper’s feedback column on 8 December. They are reproduced below.

Corresponding with Rose Wild before her column was published, Alistair Lexden said: “Incidentally, if my history master had encouraged me to become a Times correspondent in 1961—I did not start until some thirty years later—I would have pointed out pertly that it was John Stuart Mill, not Lloyd George, who called the Tories the stupid party!”

Writing in 1961 about the postwar One Nation Tory group, our political correspondent of the day wrote: “The group did not thoughtlessly take its name from Disraeli’s Sybil.” That novel, he explained, was only the start of it. 

In fact they didn’t take their name from Disraeli at all. The theory that Sybil, Or the Two Nations, gave birth to the phrase “one nation” is a widely held misconception that I’m afraid we repeated this week in our Comment pages. Lord Lexden has written to put us right. 

“In 1995 I discussed the origin of the phrase with Lord (Robert) Blake, doyen of Conservative historians and author of the definitive biography of Disraeli. We agreed that it does not appear in any of Disraeli’s speeches, novels or other writings. Dizzy referred to two nations — the rich and the poor — not one. I told Lord Blake that I had just read a speech given by Stanley Baldwin on December 4, 1924, in which he said that the Unionist Party, as it was then called, should ‘stand for the union of those two nations of which Disraeli spoke two generations ago: union among our own people to make one nation of our own people’.”

So it was Baldwin, whose inter-war policies of paternalist intervention and national unity inspired the One Nation group, of which our 1961 columnist went on to say, optimistically, “The Conservatives will never again deserve the Lloyd-Georgian gibe of ‘the stupid party’”.