Tim Bale teaches politics at Queen Mary University of London. The second updated edition of his book, The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, updated to include the party’s time in government and Brexit, has just been published.
Speaking on the steps of Downing Street in July, just before she turned around and walked through the door of Number Ten as Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May promised to lead the country in the spirit of One Nation. Yet when she spoke to the Conservative Party Conference last week, One Nation failed to get a mention. Maybe she no longer believes in it. More likely, however, her speechwriters simply wanted to give the phrase a bit of a rest before bringing it back into play sometime. Certainly it seems almost tailor-made to suit a Prime Minister determined to build “a country that works for everyone”.
Admittedly, One Nation has to rank as one of the most used and abused terms in the Tory lexicon. Disraeli, widely credited with coining it, famously never used it. Nor did he have much practical involvement in some of the nineteenth century social and industrial reforms retrospectively associated with it.
Indeed, it’s not really until Stanley Baldwin came along during the interwar period that the Conservatives could claim to have a self-consciously One Nation leader at the helm. And even then, Baldwin was probably less directly responsible than was his lieutenant and eventual successor, Neville Chamberlain, for the welfare measures that gave it tangible expression – something that’s often forgotten owing to the party’s habit (still with us today it would seem) of airbrushing inconvenient former leaders out of its history.
Post-war, the term is inevitably associated with the dashing young Tories in and around the Conservative Research Department in the late 1940s – most obviously those who established the eponymous One Nation Group. It is only when we recall that Enoch Powell was one of them, however, that we can appreciate that, originally anyway, it was not simply an attempt to persuade the party to come to terms with the expanded welfare state established by the Attlee government, but also to argue that its universalism posed a threat to the nation’s finances and risked creating welfare dependency.
It wasn’t, then, until the term was effectively hijacked in the 1980s by ‘wets’ such as Ian Gilmour as a way of contrasting their own patrician, noblesse oblige Toryism with what they saw as Margaret Thatcher’s devil-take-the-hindmost economic liberalism, that One Nation came to stand for a more centrist (its critics would say mealy-mouthed and wishy-washy) politics of compromise and compassion. And Thatcher herself may not have help matters much by, very soon afterwards, pressing the term into service in her increasingly bitter battle with the party’s pro-Europeans, suggesting that One Nation might as well mean ‘No Nation’.
Still, it is what it is and we are where we are. Champions of terminological exactitude have lost the fight: One Nation is now firmly established, particularly in the mind of the media, as shorthand for a conservativism intent on ensuring that no part of our community and no part of our country should be left behind as we strive to become healthier, wealthier and wiser – one reason why Ed Miliband (remember him?) made a daring, if not particularly sustained or convincing, attempt to pinch the idea in the middle of the last parliament.
That One Nation is an idea, and an ideal, worth keeping hold of was testified to by the haste with which David Cameron (remember him) sought to reclaim it for the Tories on the election night of 2015, and by May’s decision to do the same after she took over from him (gratitude being the most perishable quantity in politics) just a year or so later.
Paying homage – and hopefully not simply lip-service – to the spirit of One Nation provides some sort of anchor against the Britannia Unchained bunch who’d like to see the UK ape the USA, where government is an incubus to be shunned and shucked off, rather than celebrated for the good it can do. It’s all the more necessary in a polity in which a plurality of just 30-something percent can win you virtually untrammelled power. And it’s a reminder of a Tory tradition that sees society as an organic eco-system where we all owe a duty of care to each other and, although an island, live in an interdependent world.
Indeed, the anchoring effect that One Nation exerts on the Conservative imagination is arguably more valuable than ever when, as now, the party faces no serious challenge from Labour on the centre-left. It’s going to be terribly tempting under such circumstances to drift inexorably off to the right – something that poses no immediate danger but, as the party found in the nineties and noughties, can eventually leave you stuck in a hole that it takes an awfully long time to climb out of.