Little Platoons: How a Revived One Nation Can Empower England’s Forgotten Towns and Redraw the Political Map by David Skelton

The rhetorical star of this book is Benjamin Disraeli. He did not invent the term “One Nation” – that distinction belongs, as Lord Lexden never tires of reminding us, to Stanley Baldwin.

But Disraeli is by far the most enjoyable and inspiring Tory for One Nation Conservatives to quote, and Skelton uses him very well. He reminds us that Disraeli rebuked the Whigs, after the Great Reform Act, for trying to establish “a utopia composed purely of wealth and toil”, based on a “spirit of rapacious covetousness”.

The Conservatives are today widely thought to be actuated by a “spirit of rapacious covetousness”, and to care only about the rich. The injustice of this claim does not make it any less damaging.

And the claim is in any case not totally unjust. Parts of the kingdom have been left behind, excluded from the prosperity enjoyed by the rest.

Labour is at least as to blame as the Conservatives for this sin of omission. That is one reason why Labour support in Scotland collapsed: for many decades it had taken its impoverished heartlands for granted.

And it is why Labour is now vulnerable in its English heartlands too.

Disraeli understood the alliance the Tories could make with the newly enfranchised working class. Skelton contends, convincingly, that the Tories can now connect with the patriotic working class which for decades has felt disenfranchised, but which in the 2016 referendum seized the chance to make its presence felt.

In his opening paragraph, Skelton reminds us that “of the 42 former coalfield areas, some 41…voted for Brexit”. He himself is from Consett, in the north-west corner of County Durham, which felt shut out from from politics since the closure in 1980 of the great steelworks on which for over a century the town’s fortunes had rested, and where men were proud to work:

“The steelworks was home to world-leading engineers, metallurgists and chemists and dozens of different types of craftsmen who passed these skills on to apprentices.”

One of Skelton’s grandfathers was a foreman fitter in the works, the other was a miner, or pitman as they preferred to be known, in the Durham and Northumberland coalfields.

There was immense local pride in the Consett works, and local control until nationalisation, which meant decisions about the future were taken hundreds of miles away, and essential investment in modernisation took second place to the need for public spending cuts.

A year after the closure of the works, a third of the men in Consett were unemployed. Low-paid, insecure jobs, for those who could get them, and low-quality training programmes whose chief purpose was to keep others off the dole, did not restore the dignity of labour to these craftsmen, but became a daily humiliation.

Nor did either of the main political parties have much to offer. Labour, a party created by the trade unions, ceased to take much interest in the fate of the working class once the power of those unions had been broken.

The unions could bring the country to a grinding halt: not an ideal state of affairs, but one which gave the working class, or its leaders, undeniable clout.

Here was a ladder of advancement for gifted trade union organisers who could get a political education, gain selection as Labour MPs and rise into the Cabinet. That stream of recruitment has pretty much dried up, and the party finds itself in the hands of an urban middle class which feels a greater affinity with Brussels, Berlin and Paris than with Consett.

Skelton’s chief purpose in this book is to trace the One Nation tradition in Conservative politics, and to argue that it needs to be rediscovered. He does it very well: again and again, one wonders if he has thought of, say, Iain Macleod, and up an apposite quotation pops.

Harold Macmillan is the hero of this account:

“He was probably the last Prime Minister with a genuine belief in ‘Toryism’ and the real importance of balancing economic efficiency with social justice. He had a burning desire that we must never again become ‘two nations’ and was convinced that government and private enterprise had an important role to play, together, in preventing that from happening. He believed in modernising industry and the country, but without the managerial indifference of Heathism or the retreat into liberal economic determinism. His One Nation was a profound belief in the common good and the fundamental national unity that makes us stronger.”

Under Margaret Thatcher, Macmillan’s spirit of pragmatic intellectual compromise started to sound a bit wet. Some of her Government’s successes – the Nissan works outside Sunderland, the start on regenerating Liverpool and the London docks – would not have happened without the state playing a leading role, but this was not the story she and her admirers told.

The Conservatives were gripped, in Skelton’s phrase, by “myopic economic liberalism”, the illusion that if only the Government got out of the way, recovery would occur of its own accord.

In Consett, this was not the case. It was a steel town which now produced no steel, and could not pull itself up by its bootstraps. Its most able and enterprising young people left: they went off to university and never came back.

Forty years on, Skelton reports, Consett is in large part a dormitory town for people who work in Newcastle or Durham:

“In contrast to the beauty of its surroundings, its town centre is still pockmarked by a collection of charity shops, bargain stores (including Consett’s enormous ‘Barry’s Bargain Store’, which has taken over the whole of the old indoor market), travel agents and bookmakers.”

Our country contains hundreds of towns like Consett. Often the handsome old buildings bear witness to former pride and prosperity, eclipsed in recent decades by demeaning and self-perpetuating shoddiness.

Few people with energy or talent want to settle here, or shop here, or set up new businesses. For about half a century many of these town centres have been left to rot, however prosperous and pretty the surrounding villages may be.

Skelton remarks that policy makers in London pride themselves on the regeneration of a dozen cities. He quotes with approval Lisa Nandy, Labour MP for Wigan, who says

“this consensus that began under New Labour, and was embraced by George Osborne, sees cities as engines of economic growth with surrounding towns at best anchored to them and pulled along in their prosperous wake. This is a model that has neither provided nor defended the things that matter most in our towns: thriving local high streets, shared community institutions like libraries, post offices and community pubs, good public transport, work that gives dignity and meaning, green open spaces and time with families.”

Any Tory who wants to understand how a revived One Nation tradition can help to revive our towns should read Skelton’s book.

In a recent piece for ConHome, he itemised some of measures, including world-class infrastructure, the creation of “prosperity hubs” and a vocational education revolution, needed to transform our forgotten towns. This list, enlarged upon in the final chapter of the book, will not make every Tory heart beat faster.

There is, however, a Conservative with a remarkable command of language, and declared One Nation sympathies, who can take forward the revival of these neglected towns with a brio worthy of Disraeli and Macmillan.

Boris Johnson has recently been at pains to emphasise that we will remain a European nation: rhetoric with which he wishes to reassure Remainers that he does not intend to lead a retreat into barbarous isolation.

But in the forthcoming general election campaign, he will doubtless also seek to persuade working-class patriots who voted Leave, and who feel an intense love of country, that the regeneration of this nation must extend to its unloved towns.