Margaret Thatcher did not shrink from using the term as late as 1985. Enoch Powell and Edward Heath belonged to a group named after it.
Boris Johnson has taken to sprinkling the expression through his columns with all the prodigality of a pigeon fancier rattling a can of dry corn to tempt his birds home, and a group of Conservative MPs have announced that they are supporters of it.
One Nation Conservatism is so popular among Tory MPs that the term sometimes signifies nothing beyond a desire to be regarded as benevolent while not actually being a socialist.
Its supporters think of themselves as followers of Benjamin Disraeli, the only British statesman ever to inspire the founding of a posthumous cult, and at this distance in time a figure to whom almost any views can be attributed.
Lord Lexden must sometimes feel he has lived in vain. The Conservative Party’s official historian has frequently attempted to point out it was actually Stanley Baldwin who, at the Albert Hall on 4th December 1924, in the aftermath of the Conservative Party’s greatest general election victory, said:
“We stand for the union of those two nations of which Disraeli spoke two generations ago: union among our own people to make one nation of our own people which, if secured, nothing else matters in the world.”
Disraeli had suggested, in Sybil, or The Two Nations, published in 1845, that the Rich and the Poor did not form One Nation, and were “as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets”.
He added, for example in his Crystal Palace speech in 1872, that
“The…great objects of the Tory Party are…to maintain our institutions, to uphold the Empire, and to elevate the condition of the people.”
But inspiring though Disraeli’s vision of elevating the condition of the people was, by the 1920s, with the Bolsheviks in power in Russia and the Labour Party supplanting the Liberals in Britain, something more was needed to meet the threat posed by the socialists, with their doctrine of class conflict.
There was at this time, in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, great fear of Communism. In February 1923, Baldwin, at that time Chancellor of the Exchequer but only a few months short of his unexpected elevation to Prime Minister, tried to reassure people that it could not happen here:
“I am myself of that somewhat flabby nature that always prefers agreement to disagreement… When the Labour Party sits on these benches, we shall all wish them well in their effort to govern the country. But I am quite certain that whether they succeed or fail there will never in this country be a Communist Government, and for this reason, that no gospel founded on hate will ever seize the hearts of our people – the people of Great Britain.”
Baldwin’s answer to the class struggle was social harmony. The Conservatives stood for One Nation. They would avert revolution by preaching and indeed practising harmony. Labour would be made welcome and would become junior partners in upholding the system.
Under Baldwin, Conservative leader until 1937, this inclusive approach worked pretty well. Millions of voters wanted to believe in his doctrine of uniting the nation by treating people decently.
But from 1940, Baldwin ceased to be a name any Conservative hoping to win an argument would bandy about. Nor, after Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, did his approach seem to offer any clues about how to regain the intellectual initiative.
Instead, as Enoch Powell recalled in 1991 in a piece for The Independent, reprinted in Reflections of a Statesman, “the memory of Benjamin Disraeli, primroses and all, enjoyed a springtime among young aspirants in the Tory ranks”.
It was in that statesman’s works, including Sybil, that clues to a Conservative idea of the nation were discovered by some of the most gifted members of the 1950 intake of Tory MPs:
“What comfortable words for struggling youth in a Conservative Party reeling under the combined impact of electoral defeat and the popularity of the welfare state… Here was the evidence that the heirs of Toryism, with their rooted belief in the nation as a homogeneous, organic phenomenon of nature, could recognise concern for its members as an essential mark of society – and Tory society, mark you, not socialist society.
“Slinking out of the chamber disconsolately after yet another failed frontal attack upon the Labour Party’s welfare state, Iain Macleod and Angus Maude put their heads together and said ‘Let’s write a book about One Nation.’ ‘As one,’ like St Paul, ‘born out of time’, I was the last to be recruited to the noble nine who toiled week by week in a committee room and produced the Conservative Party’s bestseller of that autumn of 1950.”
Powell points out that One Nation “was anything but a wets’ charter”, and remarks on “how surprised” Macleod “would have been to find himself the darling of the refugees from Thatcherism”.
“Voluntary effort,” the original nine-strong One Nation Group insisted, “must provide much the greatest part of the services needed” for the old.
Yet under Margaret Thatcher, “One Nation” did become a rallying cry for the wet, often somewhat patrician Tories who believed her harsh policies were dividing the country into two nations.
The One Nation Conservative Caucus is reportedly intent on opposing a no-deal Brexit. It is evidently a group of the centre-left, though one of its leading members, Sir Nicholas Soames, remarked yesterday that “everyone now claims to be a One Nation Conservative”.
Baldwin’s speeches, though carefully and artfully intended to convey a sympathetic idea of the nation, were also carefully and artfully designed to exclude anything which might be construed as intellectual or ideological.
It is, one fears, to that platitudinous and wilfully vague level that quite a few purveyors of One Nation Conservatism now want to sink. Baldwin really is the model for a lot of this stuff. No one as inspiring as Disraeli is yet in view.
If Conservative MPs are not careful, they will find themselves conducting the leadership battle in a code which renders it incomprehensibly and insultingly dull to the wider public.