Giles Marshall 11.20am
We need to define One Nation Conservatism. That is probably the most urgent task facing the Tory Reform Group, because until we do, and until we can also give it some political meat in terms of policy and outlook, we really don’t have much to offer as an alternative to the Conservative right-wing.
The problem of understanding what it should mean came up in Damian Green’s Macmillan Lecture yesterday evening. While he was on firm and fluent ground when discussing the need to articulate a case to remain a member of the EU, in my view he was uneasy in grasping the nettle of One Nation.
It is, he said, an ambiguous phrase beloved of the political classes. That being said, what is distinctly ‘One Nation’ about the present Government? I’m afraid that I don’t believe ‘limiting immigration’ and ‘cutting welfare abuse’ are sufficient. For a thoughtful man and longstanding devotee to One Nation Conservatism, Mr Green must in his heart of hearts believe this too.
The problem we have is that our thinking remains too defined by the neo-liberal philosophy that parked itself in the Tory Party when Margaret Thatcher became leader. The triumph of individualism saw itself expressed politically through the emphasis on lower taxes, a smaller state and more self-help. There was nothing particularly ‘Conservative’ about any of this, and yet it has become the lodestar of Conservative political discussion today.
In its most traditional expression, Conservatism was defined as a transcendent alliance between the dead, the living and the yet to come.
Conservatism governed not as a form of short-term political self-interest, but as a commitment to the wellbeing of a society that was defined by more than the life-spans of those currently alive.
Within that broad vision was further acceptance that society’s prosperity and stability was best assured by considering the interests of the many.
This was transformed, almost accidentally, by Benjamin Disraeli’s articulation of ‘One Nation Conservatism’. It was a clever political commitment to broaden the Conservative party’s appeal to newly enfranchised voters and it was given brilliant form by the remarkable energies of the Home Secretary Richard Cross, who used the Victorian state to improve the lives of the poor far beyond anything the Liberals could manage. His reforming zeal was later replicated in the activities of politicians such as Neville Chamberlain and Harold Macmillan.
Macmillan in particular saw the virtue of state action to help the poor, inspired as he was by the conditions he witnessed during the Great Depression in his Stockton constituency. The social reforms enacted by Macmillan and his championing of economic planning are a long way removed from anything advocated by the modern Conservative party. But then Macmillan’s Conservatism was inspired by a commitment to society, and to the enabling power of the state. It had no truck with the notion of an individual self-reliance that was a alien to vast numbers of citizens stuck in an invidious cycle of poverty.
The reason One Nation Conservatism has lost its sharpness is that its few remaining advocates are too willing to surrender much of the ground to an aggressive neo-liberal tendency. We seem happier to discuss social liberalism – admittedly important – than challenging some of the profoundly un-Conservative elements of the dominant ‘New Right’ tendency.
One Nation Conservatism needs to be properly defined for the twenty-first century. It could reap remarkable electoral rewards for a party that has too often in recent years seemed too divorced from the public it seeks to represent. As Damian Green said yesterday evening, “if the Conservative party does not like modern Britain, it is unlikely modern Britain will warm to the Conservative party.”
The Conservative party’s dominance of the twentieth century owed much to its One Nation outlook, in terms of both policy and rhetoric. Sadly, we are still struggling to recover either of them.
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