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COULSON Rebecca

Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

Like most of us, I have a thing about justification. Of course, we won’t be won over by any old argument simply because it seems right to the person making it. Rather, we’re wary of people – and particularly politicians – who don’t feel the need to bother. I’m not asking for ideology in the sense of an overriding normative system; I just want deeper explanations for individual political priorities than the catch-all undertones of, say, saving money for saving money’s sake.

Having argued in last fortnight’s column that classic liberalism should be better exploited as a justification for Conservative policy, now might be the time to consider its traditional alternative: paternalism. If liberalism warrants state action through the consent of its citizens (the tacit contract that they enter into to gain protection of their liberty), then paternalism warrants it by proposing that the state’s role is to protect them as members of a hierarchical society. ‘Paternalism’ implies this is a fatherly role. But, as the newly-knighted Roger Scruton points out in his Dictionary of Political Thought, ‘the term can be used as one of praise or abuse, depending on whether the responsibilities or the advantages of a father are emphasised”.

Sometimes, paternalism’s motivation is moral: providing for the poor is an obligation for those informed by certain social traditions such as feudally-inspired noblesse oblige, or by religion, in the case of Christian democrats. Sometimes it is pragmatic: if the ruling class doesn’t help those who struggle, they will cost it more in the long run, and might rebel. Typically, paternalism is encouraged by a mixture of these motivations.

The leading paternalist movement within British conservatism is ‘one-nationism’. I was talking with a friend the other day about the growing prevalence of this term: it’s everywhere (remember Ed Miliband’s full-on flirtation?), yet nobody seems keen to clarify its meaning. Like ‘liberal’, it has become an ambiguously virtuous sound bite. Its conventional definition, therefore (assuming the politicians who use it are aware of that) needs restating, not least to counter obfuscation.

It is increasingly unusual for MPs to have a background in the arts. Disraeli not only wrote novels, but those novels grounded his politics. Sybil, his most famous, sets out a view that Britain faces being divided into two nations – the rich and the poor – unless it is united through establishment support of the disadvantaged. Again, this was motivated by pragmatism as much as morality: the novel was written at a time of pronounced poverty, when unrest over similar conditions had led to European revolt.

Regarding the conservative ‘nature’ of one-nationism, my view is that – as with liberalism – it has evolved as part of the Conservative tradition, here. To me, conservatism isn’t inherently anything: it is practical and situational, seeking to conserve what works; its followers accept that change is inevitable, but favour gradual reform over radical ‘solutions’.

Disraeli’s theoretical one-nationism – a response to the opposing Liberal Party’s individualism – was realised in his legislation for the working-class vote, and reforms that brought improvements to health and housing. This paternalism was continued in Lord Randolph Churchill’s ‘Tory Welfare’ strategies to make social institutions accessible, but Conservatives had become progressively liberal by the end of the nineteenth century.

A return of one-nationism peaked following the Second World War, with consensus over the nascent welfare state. This was exemplified by Rab Butler’s paternalist intellectual approach (and his ‘Butskellism’), and in Harold Macmillan’s ‘middle way’, which offered a balance between the extremes of individualism and state planning, and was exercised in the aim of achieving full employment and an embrace of nationalisation and advanced welfare provision. While Margaret Thatcher led a backlash against the extended state and reinstated economic liberalism, certain of her policies demonstrated a continuing paternalism, and there have been prominent one-nationists within every Conservative government or opposition, since.

But what about the present party leadership’s espousal of this word? Should they do this – in terms both of expediency and accuracy? Well, when clarified, One Nation can prop up programmes with wide-spread appeal. And there are many ‘Cam-borne’ policies that  fit its rationale, including: the concentration on employment, or ‘jobs miracle’; the living wage (at least in its messaging); upping the personal tax allowance (ditto); greater state provision of childcare; the updating of a state institution in the introduction of equal marriage; and measures to help people buy homes. However, few of those were explicitly put forward under a well-explained One Nation slogan.

We saw a recent nod towards highly paternalist social engineering in Matt Hancock’s suggestion that employers should ask job applicants which kind of school they had attended. Thankfully, this idea has been widely acknowledged as counter-productive. But the question of why it was proposed now – and why we might see increased paternalism over the coming years – brings us to the current leadership’s most overt One-Nation instantiation: the abandoned Big Society initiative.

Some consider this initiative to be original: in Jesse Norman’s The Big Society: the Anatomy of the New Politics, he describes a society connected by affection rather than personal gain, in which the state promotes charity and community activism by launching an ‘audit of government’ and policies focused on decentralisation, ‘intermediate institutions’, and culture. The Big Society is also interpreted more broadly, however, as classic paternalism in the Red Tory tradition. Regardless, it is often felt to be Cameron’s forgotten aim – a worthy aim that was sidelined for the election-winning single-issue rhetoric of ‘fixing the economy’.

An escalating governmental use of One Nation can be seen as a rebranded attempt to solidify that lost legacy: a modernised form of the middle way – pragmatic, centrist, well intentioned, and popular. And as a moral and practical fight against inequality, or as a method of reinforcing the vote when a shouty minority cares more about neo-Marxist economists than the fact that capitalism has, in absolute terms, improved conditions across the globe.

It is also a reaction to unpopular decisions. There are excellent arguments for reducing over-extended welfare, but to save money is not one of them. Justification has been missing in approaches that, to many, contradicted a supposed desire to promote societal cohesion through compassionate conservatism: the removal of the spare-room subsidy, planned disability benefit cuts, and other attempts to curtail (yes, ballooning) welfare. That lack of reasoning was compounded by the common view that politicians are always ideological, whether they admit it or not: in advancing controversial policies without a clear explanation aside from economic return, the party was left open to attacks from those suspicious of some secret drive based on greed and elitism.

Disillusioned voters want change; they want politicians who are different. Recently, that disillusionment has given power to someone purely because he exudes principle, no matter what that principle is (Jeremy Corbyn), and to someone purely because he’ll stand up to the establishment, no matter what platform he uses (Donald Trump). They are early products of a dangerous void in Western politics.

Whether Conservatives should turn to liberalism, paternalism, a mixture of both, or something else to justify their actions, is not the point. I’d prefer the first for the reasons I set forth last week, yet agree that a combination of the two traditions would be most electorally successful, and seems to offer a decent explanation for many of this government’s decisions. It is not sufficient – or easy – to bring about good effects without justifying your intentions.

9 comments for: Rebecca Coulson: Do we need One Nation conservatism?

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