Put the Nation back into One Nation Conservatism
Is One Nation Conservatism a real idea or just an empty slogan?
“Everyone now claims to be a One Nation Conservative,” moaned the much shrunken figure — politically as well as physically — of Sir Nicholas Soames earlier this year. Soames was a leading light in the foundation of the “One Nation Caucus” back in April. This had two aims: to corner the label of “One Nation” for its own peculiar brand of Conservatism and to stop Boris Johnson becoming party leader. It failed spectacularly on both counts.
Instead, brazen Boris, now prime minister as well as leader, launches his general election campaign by proclaiming, more or less in the same breath, that he leads both a Brexit government and a One Nation Tory one.
Is that possible? Indeed, is One Nation Conservatism an idea at all? Or is it just an empty, one-size-fits-all slogan that can be stretched to accommodate whatever content is forced into it?
As usual, the answer is in the history. The originator of One Nation Conservatism — the idea, that is to say, though not the actual phrase — was Benjamin Disraeli. Disraeli was responding to the crisis of the 1840s, when the first great wave of the Industrial Revolution crashed upon the world, with England at its epicentre.
The crisis of industrialisation opened a gaping gulf between the “Two Nations” of the rich and the poor, which Disraeli identified in his novel Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845). It created an unstoppable campaign for Free Trade. And it led to the rise of a new, educated, urban elite that was liberal in its political sympathies, international in outlook and indifferent if not hostile to history and the traditional way of doing things.
All of which threatened to render the Tory party as extinct as the dinosaurs. But Disraeli’s genius saw there was a germ of hope. He identified a natural sympathy between “the Conservative party and the Radical masses” and, confident that “the working classes of England are proud of belonging to a great country”, he gave them the vote in the Reform Act of 1867–68.
His instinct proved right. And it was the votes of the Tory working man and later working woman that made the Conservatives the natural party of government in the later nineteenth century and beyond — working men like my cotton-spinner maternal grandfather, who voted to make Winston Churchill Conservative MP for Oldham in 1900 and volunteered in the First World War despite the fact that he was married and in his thirties with three children.
In other words, there are two aspects to One Nation Toryism: first, the belief in the nation and its essential unity; second, the recognition of the connection between the party and the people and the choice of policies, rhetoric and an electoral strategy to maintain it. The former is a constant; the latter varies with time and circumstances.
Disraeli was unambiguous about both. “The Tory party, unless it is a national party, is nothing,” he stated repeatedly. And he was an unashamed populist too: “The Tory party is only in its proper position when it represents popular principles,” he declared in 1863. “Then it is truly irresistible.”
In all the other, subsequent iterations of the One Nation idea, “the nation” has played a similarly central role. Stanley Baldwin, who actually coined the phrase “One Nation” in 1924, the year the Labour party first held office, even wanted to rename the Tories “the National party”, while Enoch Powell, a key figure in the “One Nation dining club” of the 1950s, harked back to a Tory “belief in the nation as a homogeneous, organic phenomenon of nature”.
There is a single exception: the “One Nation Caucus” founded earlier this year. Its “Values Declaration” (ugh!) can only bring itself to use the word “nation” in a negative, when it proclaims that “we are patriotic Conservatives who reject narrow nationalism”. Instead, it continues, “we believe in the United Kingdom as the embodiment of our shared values and as a force for good in defending our values in the world”. This is pure cosmopolitanism.
Naturally, “the world” then features far more frequently than Britain or its institutions, as the caucus expresses its faith in “global challenges”, “global citizenship” and “universal human rights”, not Magna Carta, the Common Law or the Mother of Parliaments.
In other words, the One Nation Caucus was a vile antithesis: its members did not believe in the nation; they were not Conservatives and they aimed to appeal, not to the “somewheres” of the working class but to the rootless “anywheres”, who are least likely of all to vote Conservative.
The reason the working class have turned against Corbyn is his lack of patriotism
But events, as events tend to in politics, have taken the question out of the study and into the ballot box. For why, as I write, are the Conservatives enjoying a 20 per cent lead over Labour among working-class voters? It’s not because such voters dislike Jeremy Corbyn’s headline policies of nationalisation and “tax the rich” — though they certainly doubt his ability to implement them. Still less have they fallen head over heels in love with Boris.
Rather, the reason the working class have turned against Corbyn is his lack of patriotism: they detest his eagerness to shake hands with Britain’s enemies and turn his back on Britain’s friends. And, in the same vein, they see his shilly-shallying over Brexit as the mark of a man who has no confidence in his own country and not much love for it either.
Which is to say that between them globalism — which is only a bigger re-run of the crisis of the 1840s — Brexit and Corbyn’s leftish internationalism have delivered the Tories (with almost no effort on their part, it should be said) the One Nation electoral coalition that Disraeli devoted his whole life to constructing.
But, having acquired it in a fit of absence of mind, as it were, will the Conservatives let this winning formula slip through their fingers? There is a real risk. They must not put their faith in Labour-lite policies. That failed in 2017. And they must not use 2017-style Labour language either like “burning injustices”. Instead they must use conservative language to describe Conservative policies.
Take the key issue of immigration for example. Immigration to Britain is not a right that we owe to the world and the dispossessed, as cosmopolitan internationalists such as Diane Abbott seem to think. Nor is it just an economic transaction, a correction of a deficit in the labour market, as dry-as-dust Liberal-Conservatives view it. Instead it is an application to join the nation. As such, it has a heavy price and a supreme value, which is to become one of us — though the best immigrants, like Disraeli, contrive by being bicultural to remain themselves also.
Boris has much in common with Disraeli: he is exotic, slippery and has a gift for language and phrase-making. Can he learn to talk as convincingly about the nation as Disraeli? If so, this election and his premiership are in the bag.
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