What the hell does One Nation mean anyway?

Ed Miliband claimed to be it. Ken Clarke’s always been it. Thatcher once used it and now Theresa May’s at it as well. But what the hell is it?

To find out, you’re best starting with a novel written in 1845 by an obscure author, part-time man-about-town and full-time dandy named Benjamin Disraeli. Sybil or The Two Nations described a country where there were:

“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: the rich and the poor.”

While it’s rumoured that Disraeli never actually used the phrase One Nation to describe his politics the term has been ascribed to him ever since. His sympathy with the Chartists and his eventual splitting of the Tories with his initial support of the Corn Laws gave birth to a strain of thought within the Conservative Party that all but dominated its collective thought processes for a century. In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, with a new class of factory owners and business people springing up to challenge the old order, One Nationism was both reactionary and progressive. While Disraeli himself could never have been described as being of the old landed class – he was far too metropolitan and, obviously, of Jewish origin despite his Father’s conversion to Anglicanism – his mantra was that a state without the means of change was without the means of its own conservation, or as he put it in his own words:

“In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.”

In short – if we want to be in a country that keeps improving then we’re going to have to adapt our principles, lest they be subverted by ones that tear up the fabric of the country completely. Every Conservative, One Nation or not, would recognise those principles as their own.

Over time One Nationism led to the domination in the upper echelons of Government of well-bred, well-meaning patricians who, in adherence to the pragmatism at the heart of the party, saw it as their duty to look after the ‘less fortunate’, lest the ‘less fortunate’ embrace the socialist alternative. Churchill, in his post-war incarnation and prior to joining the Liberals many years earlier, was in many ways the epitome of this philosophy.  The inevitability of the post-war consensus proved to be undoing of One Nationism. People who wanted more than council houses, industrial jobs and to be thankful for universal healthcare needed politicians to provide it. Many working class people began to see Tory paternalism to be as patronising as socialist paternalism. Mrs Thatcher recognised that people wanted freedom and all the risks that entails, rather than to continue to be smothered by an ever-expanding state. She is reputed to have thrown down Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty onto a desk used by the staff of the Conservative Research Department and told them “this is what we believe now”.

She was scathing of One Nationism and what she saw as the establishment in favour of it, and her reference to it in her 1986 conference speech ripped asunder the notion when she boldly stated that:

“The great political reform of the last century was to enable more and more people to have a vote. Now the great Tory reform of this century is to enable more and more people to own property. Popular capitalism is nothing less than a crusade to enfranchise the many in the economic life of the nation. We Conservatives are returning power to the people. That is the way to one nation, one people.”

It used to be the case the Tory Reform Group kept alive the One Nation tradition in the party before the term’s usage came back into the mainstream. I’ve heard the TRG described as a ‘gateway drug’ in Conservatism, prior to shooting up for real, and indeed many young Tories have snorted it. As a philosophy, they seem to fathom, it’s a lot more palatable to non-Tory friends, especially if you come from one of those areas that still returned Conservatives in 1979 and hasn’t a hope of doing so now. This association with Heath and MacMillan, the ‘nice Tories’ I’d always reckoned, was one of the reasons Cameron seemed to adopt the mantra early on. It distanced himself from Maggie and the Victorian liberalism which had more in common with Gladstone than his arch-rival Disraeli. Confusingly Cameron also branded himself as a liberal Conservative, but for all his strengths, which were many, he was never in possession of any consistent philosophical direction.

Depending on your view, One Nationism can be seen as something of a straw man in its modern context. After all, no political discourse really runs counter to the idea that “we’re all in it together”. It’s use by Tories seems to stem from the idea that Thatcher wasn’t popular, or indeed successful in raising the condition of the worst-off in society, and that it’s expedient to mark yourself out as a different type of Tory to the most electorally successful one of modern times. The actual credo has ceased to exist in an era when we’re all Thatcherties and the phrase has been rendered meaningless. Even Theresa May’s steps-of-Number Ten speech named-check the One Nation tradition but the material was mostly liberal in origin. It is possible to put struggling people first via classical liberal means. This is exactly what Thatcher did.

But if you take its Disraelian context, which implied that the working class and the upper classes shared much culturally and in terms of their interests then it may well be that One Nationism is alive and well. Just not amongst any of the people preaching it.

The EU referendum is a case in point. The well-meaning middle class found their cultural and perceived economic interests cast aside by the result as a defiant working class voted to leave in overwhelming numbers. Patriotism and the importance of sovereignty, both overwhelming features of Victorian One Nationism, featured highest in the minds of those who voted to leave. And the factory owners of today took a massive hiding.

Neil Wilson is CfL Campaigns Director. Follow Neil on Twitter: @libertyneil

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty