"One Nation Conservatism is back." So says Andrew Tyrie, MP for Chichester, in a new pamphlet reported in this morning’s Telegraph. Mr Tyrie is best known as one of Ken Clarke’s leading supporters – he ran the former Chancellor’s 2005 leadership bid – and is the architect of the current Tory policy on increased state funding of political parties. "The apparent certainties of the Thatcher years and the choices implied by them are being replaced by a new Conservative agenda," Mr Tyrie writes in a paper produced for the One Nation Group of 29 Tory MPs that warmly welcomes Project Cameron’s first full year of modernisation.
With impeccable timing we are reminded of what One Nation Conservatism stood for when those ‘certainties of the Thatcher years’ were being rolled out in the 1980s. Timothy Barnes, who edits an excellent new blog at the Tory Reform Group, has just published an archive recording of Harold Macmillan’s 1985 address to the TRG in which he made his famous ‘selling the family silver’ critique of the Thatcherite privatisation programme. Timothy Barnes is at pains to say – quite fairly – that Macmillan’s attack was not an absolutist attack on returning assets to private ownership but on using the proceeds of sales for current rather than investment expenditure (although I would argue that the proceeds were paying for the one-off pain of the transition from the corporatist post-war economy to a new services-led dynamism).
I have just listened to the whole 35 minute speech and encourage you to do the same – if only to savour the former Prime Minister’s wonderfully textured voice. The main reason it’s worth listening to, however, is to realise how wrong the ‘One Nation Tories’ were during the 1980s. Harold Macmillan talks of shift systems and shorter hours to address the problem of unemployment – the French way – and marvels at the industrial policies of Japan. Progress, he says, won’t ultimately come from scrimping, saving or selling the family silver but from the "politics of union" and working together. He remembers fondly his bipartisan friendships in the Commons and implies that Margaret Thatcher’s belt-tightening had gone too far. One Nation Tories from Pym to Gilmour were broadcasting the same message throughout those years. I had my own small exposure to the One Nation alternative while growing up in Germany in the 1980s. I heard Stephen Dorrell address the Anglo-German society in Bielefeld. I was an enthusiastic Thatcherite – mainly because of her defence policies – and listened horrified as the young Conservative speaker repeatedly talked again and again about all that British Conservatives had to learn from the German model.
Wherever possible the Conservative Party should be a broad church – embracing all of its various traditions but (1) let us not underestimate the wrongheadedness of the one nation critics of the Thatcher years; (2) let us not seek consensus or celebrate established positions when today’s issues of demography, terror and social breakdown, for example, may require Thatcheresque leadership and (3) let’s not allow one wing of our party to claim a monopoly on the one nation idea. Where the so-called One Nation Tories have always been right is to remind the whole party that we cannot be indifferent to the plight of the poorest Britons. But as IDS and David Cameron are beginning to show with the social justice policy group’s work, it is not necessarily a Macmillan-minded-state that has the answers to poverty. Modern conservatism is more likely to be effectively compassionate if it emphasises family structure, school choice, social entrepreneurship, freedom from drugs and zero tolerance policing. It will be interesting to see what Andrew Tyrie’s paper has to say about all of those issues…