Egremont Writing Competition: David Cameron is like Neville Chamberlain

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Several weeks ago, Egremont launched its first writing competition challenging readers to write an article comparing David Cameron to a past Tory leader other than either Edward Heath or Margaret Thatcher. The competition was prompted by the seeming ignorance of many Conservatives about their Party’s history before 1975. In our first entry, Andrew controversially argues that Mr. Cameron is most like Sir Neville Chamberlain – though not because of the Iran deal, as neocon pundits like Douglas Murray claim. For details about the competition, see here.

Andrew Morrison

Congratulations to the TRG for organising this competition; it is an important exercise for enlightening many members, including myself, on where exactly we have come from.  If we know our past, we can better plot a trajectory for our future. The trouble is that many of our detractors, and indeed supporters both within the Party are broadly ignorant of our history pre-1975.

I take this opportunity not only to state that David Cameron is a latter-day Neville Chamberlain, but also a little revisionism to the record of a leader whose achievements many moderate Conservatives ought to be proud of.

Sir Neville was a great social reformer – one very much in the mould of the One Nation Conservatism that we still champion today.  Beginning his career in Birmingham Town Council, he directly alleviated that city’s dreadful housing shortage and abject poverty – a sign of the widespread welfare reform programme he was to go on and introduce at the Health Ministry in 1929.

The rhetoric surrounding the Unemployed Assistance Board that Chamberlain introduced could easily be mistaken from Mr. Cameron’s rationale for our welfare reforms, i.e. not just to alleviate true poverty, but also lift people from poverty of thought and of ambition. Indeed, of his reforms, Sir Neville said:

[We] saw the importance of providing some interest in life for the large numbers of men never likely to get work, and out of [this] realisation was to come the responsibility of the UAB for the welfare, not merely the maintenance, of the unemployed.

This unified Board replaced the locally administrated Poor Boards, which were usually Labour-dominated and had a tendency to overspend and subsidise those who otherwise could have worked rather than exclusively those who really could not stand on their own two feet.  Set this against a backdrop of Sir Neville’s achievement of halving the Government’s debt servicing costs from 1932 to 1938, and as such lending security and confidence to the Britain’s credit rating.

His welfare reform programme was so successful that it attracted cross-party support. Opposition MPs are on a tighter rein than Sir Neville’s time, thus it is difficult to know the extent to which Labour agrees with Mr. Cameron’s welfare reform in the present day – but we can look to Frank Field’s proposals in 1997 as an indication that he is not a million miles off.

One of the hallmarks of Mr. Cameron’s premiership is his willingness to work with political opponents in the national interest.  As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Neville Chamberlain served under Labour Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald from 1931 to 1935.

Thankfully the only battles that the current Prime Minister fights on the continent concern only the extent to which the institutions of Europe should be competent over British sovereignty.  Some hardline Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party may consider this a form of appeasement; others recognise an indirect, conciliatory approach can work when one is dealing with other rational human beings as compared to war-warmongering demagogues.

Ultimately, both David Cameron and Sir Neville Chamberlain were keen to put European issues to bed in order to press on with domestic policy issues.  The scale of poverty and deprivation in 1930s Britain was of course far deeper and more severe than that which we face today.  Indeed it is more a poverty of ambition and thought than poverty for the materials of subsistence which the current Prime Minister faces today. Nevertheless it is a battle fought against the backdrop of austerity and budget cuts following a Labour government which nearly bankrupted the country. 

Sir Neville was a great social reformer and pioneered many items of legislation that would confound detractors of the modern Conservative Party: reform of factory working hours; restrictions placed on employers for the employment of women and children; introducing paid holiday entitlement for all workers; providing subsidies to accelerate slum clearance; and, of course, nationalisation of national coal stocks.  Chamberlain was the first Prime Minister to legislate “[W]e are all in this together”, if not the first to say it.

Although the predicament touching the poor of Britain today is far less acute than those faced during the 1930s, the levels of poverty which the public are prepared to tolerate decreases.

No matter the level of revisionism Sir Neville’s legacy is subjected to, history will judge him much too unkindly due to foreign policy errors. There has been no comparable crisis against which Mr. Cameron could be compared against thus far, but certainly the present day has been kinder to Chamberlain than the period immediately following his premature death on 9th November 1940. I believe, for better or worse, if Mr. Cameron does not return as Prime Minister in 2015, he may well be subjected to the same treatment – history will judge him far more kindly in future than immediately following defeat. 

If on the other hand he does return to No. 10, hopefully with a majority government, he shall be celebrated as the man who reformed his party, reformed Parliament, and reformed his country – all in the One Nation Conservative tradition exemplified by Sir Neville Chamberlain at a time before it was necessary to differentiate between One Nation versus any other form of Conservatism.

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'One Nation Labour' is an oxymoron

Jonathan Waddell

Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different time zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws … The Rich and the Poor.

Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil (The Two Nations)

Ed Miliband’s 2012 speech was an interesting one to say the least, and it goes without saying that for many members of the Conservative party such as myself, every time he said the words “One Nation”, a little piece of me died inside. Not just because he so obviously and admittedly stole the term from the Conservatives, not least because he greatly misunderstood the concept but largely because the concept of One Nation, is actually entirely incompatible with his and his parties politics. However, he has managed to continue the front of One Nation Labour on past the 2013 conference and will continue into 2014.

Please now draw your attention to the quote above from Benjamin Disraeli’s Sybil, a book written with the intention of outlining the great problems of working class Britain and the divide between the rich and the poor at the time. This quote is one of the best to outline exactly what he aimed to achieve in his political career and his writing, he explains that not only are the rich and the poor two different types of people, but they have no understanding of each other, no sympathy to each others ideals or lives but perhaps most importantly, no connection to each other. It’s with this that I must stress, there is no vitriol in this statement or message, nor is there malice to the rich or the poor, and for very good reason.

The ideals and purpose of One Nation, is to bring these two nations together, to find that missing connection and make two nations become One Nation. Just look at recent statements by Sir John Major let alone his entire career and compare them to statements Ed Miliband has been making his entire career. The fact of the matter is that while the focus for One Nation Tories is Social Mobility and making the poor richer, the focus of Ed Miliband is to make the rich poorer, to punish ambition and tax success. Social Mobility, in the eyes of One Nation Tories, is the link between the rich and the poor. Opportunity is what it takes to make the Two Nations become One.

Miliband and the Labour party want to attack the well off. Not just those who have inherited wealth but those who have worked for everything they have. That’s not One Nation, that’s class warfare. How does that encourage Social Mobility? How does that encourage someone to work hard, do better, achieve more if once you have achieved more than you ever thought you could, the government take half of your earnings? The simple answer is that it doesn’t, which is why a leftist like Miliband can simply not be a man of One Nation, nor can any leftist party like the Labour party be a party of One Nation. One Nation Labour is an oxymoron. Anyone who wants to persecute any part of society is not someone who subscribes to One Nation, how can they? They don’t see One Nation, they see multiple nations and instead of joining them together, they wish to simply eliminate one of them. Each to their own, but I know I do not want to live in a society that is that way inclined.

Today’s two nations are in fact not as clear as they were back when Disraeli made his observations in Sybil, where it was the middle class factory owners against the working class factory workers. Today we see a society that has wages that spread from the lowest possible to the highest imaginable and everything in between. If we use traditional terms like Working and Middle class, then the difference between them is as little as a Penny on your average wage.

Of course, we also have people who live desperately on the welfare state to get by, and these are now the desperate people in our society who need help. Labour and Miliband think that throwing money at it is the best thing for them, and of course, money will do them well in the short run; it will pay their rent and put food on their table - but what does it do for them in the long run? The reality is that nothing will help them better than opportunity, education, work and social mobility. Ed Miliband’s ‘socialism’ is nothing more than social welfarism, and as much as welfare helps people in the short term, it does little to help anyone in the long run. Today’s two nations is that of people on welfare with little or no way to get into work and young professionals in private sector jobs and working their way up their career ladders. If we wish to see One Nation, we must wish to help those who on welfare make their way onto a path of financial security and social mobility.

If Labour wish to be “the party of the working class” they can have it, because we all know they can’t be the party of One Nation, the party of One Nation has to be a party that encourages hard work, ambition, self-determination and your own path to prosperity, certainly not a party that preaches class-warfare and wants to punish success and ambition. A One Nation party is a party of all classes and backgrounds, not just singling out one and attacking another.

This post was originally posed on the site of Conservative Future Scotland North.

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For a supposed ‘wonk’, Ed Miliband has surprisingly few ideas of his own

James Willby

You might remember that there was a break-in at Labour HQ. The joke was that the thieves had gone in looking for a policy but hadn’t come back with anything of note.

There’s been talk of “predators and producers”, of “the squeezed middle”, but the only clear instances where Miliband has produced anything like a coherent vision were with his use of Disraeli’s one nationism and his proposal for a freeze on energy bills. Then with the intervention of former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major, Miliband thought he had finally struck gold.

“Many people face a choice this winter between heating and eating” he quoted at a despairing David Cameron.  “These are the ordinary people of this country who this Prime Minister will never meet and whose lives they will never understand.”  It was, to quote a boxing term, a straight KO and the Prime Minister returned to Downing Street to lick his wounds. So, should we Conservatives be worried by such a performance? Does it herald the change of fortunes Labour activists have been so desperate to see? Hardly. 

The Labour leader’s use of Disraeli and Major, whilst good politics, illustrates his Party’s fundamental weakness – simply put, it has no idea who it is or what it’s for. From free schools to referenda, from reducing the taxation on the poorest to green investment, everything that is fresh and exciting is coming from the ongoing tussle between the Coalition parties. The fact Miliband is forced to rely on the words of former Conservative Prime Ministers in his battle with Mr. Cameron shows just how bad the situation has become. Nineteen months from a general election and Labour’s ideas factory is a wizened burnt-out old husk.

Despite endless internal reviews and conversations, it has produced nothing of substance and Miliband’s tenure has seen him hop from bandwagon to bandwagon in a vain attempt to capture the public mood. Chris Bryant’s attempt to get tough on immigration blew up in his face. Tristram Hunt is now floundering over free schools, first backing them then seemingly veering away, and on HS2 I doubt anybody within the Labour Party knows what their policy actually is.

In laying claim to Disraeli’s one-nationism and Major’s compassionate conservatism, Miliband invites us to judge him by their principles. Does his opposition to deficit reduction chime with Disraeli’s observation that “Debt is a prolific mother of folly and of crime”? If he becomes Prime Minister, will he seriously be able to claim that Labour “inherited a sick economy and passed on a sound one” as Major did?  Perhaps we can best sum up Labour’s dilemma by paraphrasing Thatcher. You see Ed; the problem with ‘Milibandism’ is that eventually you run out of other people’s ideas. It might be time to get some of your own. 

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The TRG: The Home of ‘One Nation Conservatism’

David Cowan

There are many strands of thought which flow through the Conservative Party’s rich history and have contributed to it throughout the centuries, but none have done as much to define it as One Nation Conservatism – and it has found its home in the Tory Reform Group for over thirty years.

One Nation Conservatism can trace its roots back to Edmund Burke, who emphasised the organic nature of society and its reliance on social and political institutions, and Benjamin Disraeli, who imbibed this vision with a social conscience. Since then it has influenced many of the party’s greatest statesmen, such as Lord Randolph Churchill, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, R.A. Butler, and Harold Macmillan. As a political compass, rather than a rigid set of rules, One Nation Conservatism helped pave the way for Britain’s transition towards embracing the welfare state and universal suffrage without compromising the fundamental social and political institutions our society depends upon.

When the TRG was founded as the modern home of One Nation Conservatism, Peter Walker put it very well when he said ‘My objective as a Tory was to get the correct balance between efficiency and compassion. The trouble with compassion devoid of efficiency was that it never provided the means to exercise compassion. The trouble with efficiency devoid of compassion was that it created a society so divisive that efficiency itself was destroyed’.

During Margaret Thatcher’s premiership the TRG lived up to this mission by supporting the economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, with its 1976 publication supporting the sale of council houses to tenants; Geoffrey Howe’s 1981 austerity budget; Michael Heseltine’s Enterprise Zones and Development Corporations; and Ken Clarke’s budgets which helped deliver low debt, low inflation, and high growth. It was crucial that the failed socialist experiment be scrapped without undermining the state’s ability to help the most vulnerable in society.

Their example has continued to inspire senior Conservative figures, including both David Cameron and Boris Johnson! Today in government One Nation Conservatives are helping deliver the Coalition’s much needed public services reforms at a time when the finances are once more in dire straits because of Labour misrule. As a party we are now having a vibrant and dynamic debate about how to change the state so that it is more economically efficient and more socially compassionate. In this exciting political climate it is the Student Tory Reform Group’s aim is to inspire the next generation of Conservatives to explore the One Nation tradition and to take it into the future so the vision of Burke and Disraeli can live on.

If you want to learn more about STRG or get involved then please feel free to join our Facebook group at http://www.facebook.com/groups/studenttrg/, follow us on Twitter at @ToryReformGroup, or email me at student@trg.org.uk. You are also more than welcome to come to our events later this year, which includes our Student Reception at this year’s Party Conference in October and our Autumn Reception with Michael Heseltine in November.

This article was originally published on Conservatives Student.

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To restore Tory fortunes, Cameron’s modernisation of the Party needs completing, not retrenching

Harry Fraser

David Cameron should remember the principles that got him in to Number 10 in response to the growing discontent from the Right.

In 2005 shortly after becoming party leader, he declared that he would not be a ‘prisoner of an ideological past’, and in the run up to the 2010 election defined himself as a ‘one nation, relatively liberal Conservative’. To stand the best chance of achieving a Conservative majority at the next general election, Mr. Cameron must reaffirm these testimonies and broaden his appeal further rather than turn his back on modernisation.

Recently there has been a marked growth in discontent towards the Prime Minister, and most notable is the grievances from the Right rather than the Left. The rise of UKIP and their populist message has frustrated the established political parties and has prompted calls for the Conservatives to assert more ‘traditional’ conservative values and reflect this with policies of that nature. A debate regarding the Party’s future is becoming more evident, a battle between ‘Swivel Eyed Loons and The Cameroons’, if you will.

In response to the growth of electoral support for UKIP the Tories’ right-wing, anti-Cameron sentiment has currently culminated with the ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’, a number of proposals from various backbench MPs that they describe as a “genuine attempt” to show what policies a future Conservative government could deliver. Most notable of the 42 bills proposed were calls for a referendum on the Same Sex Marriage bill, abolishing the Department of Energy and Climate Change, renaming the late August Bank Holiday Margaret Thatcher Day and reintroducing National Service. All of these policies you wouldn’t be surprised to find between the covers of a would-be UKIP manifesto.

Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin identify that UKIP’s recent converts are much more likely to be low-income, financially insecure, and working class. The party is widely seen as to the right of the Conservatives – but that is not how UKIP voters view themselves. Whereas 60% of Tory voters place themselves to the right-of-centre, the figure for UKIP supporters is only 46%. Also interestingly 25% of Tories say they are in the centre, or even left-of-centre, the figure for UKIP voters is higher at 36%. (See here). This suggests it is more a protest thought process behind voting for UKIP rather than being ideologically drawn to the party.

Whilst it has enjoyed some gains recently this appears to be more of a blip than what is set to be a long-term trend. UKIP’s time in the limelight has led to just as much ridicule as acclaim and their support has already begun to dwindle.

Come 2015 the electorate will not be voting in protest as many did so in the May local elections, they will be voting for the party they believe is most competent at running the country. UKIP’s populist pick n’ mix manifesto will come under greater scrutiny between now and then, and Farage’s party have a long way to go before mounting any serious challenge of the political establishment.

That does not mean the reasons why people turned to UKIP should be ignored, however; nor should the fact that UKIP have a higher proportion of supporters from lower incomes than the other two parties. Cameron appears to be in a Catch-22 situation: He cannot afford to turn to the socially conservative right, which left his party in the wilderness for 13 years, yet he also can’t ignore the fact that increasingly he is seen as out of touch with the views of everyday people. When the public were asked, ‘Do you think that David Cameron understands people like yourself?’, the overwhelming response was a resounding ‘no’.

There is thus a belief that to restore Conservative fortunes and appeal to those that have jilted us for UKIP means reverting to more socially conservative, right-wing policies evident within the ‘Alternative Queen’s Speech’. The zealous ideological pursuit of social conservatism conflicts with the notion that the Party is the party of pragmatism. Cameron’s modernisation of the Party has been more beneficial than damaging; we have seen a 100% rise in support from younger people since he became leader and it would be wise not to stifle trends such as these. Instead of pandering to divisive politics of the past, Cameron should stand firm by his One Nation principles that he committed himself to pre-2010 in order to offer real benefits to working people.

“One Nation Conservatism” is the idea that the country is strongest and most stable when united and when social antagonisms are kept under control with relatively centrist, pragmatic politics. The debates of the 2015 election will be centred on the economy and facing the realities of government has meant that the pursuit of Thatcherite economics has replaced the compassionate conservatism Cameron promoted before 2010.

The electorate are not screaming en-masse for more Thatcherite economics in light of hard economic times. In 2009 when launching The Big Society, Cameron warned of the dangers regarding a “simplistic retrenchment of the state which assumes that better alternatives to state action will just spring to life.” As the economy shows signs of recovery Cameron should spend the next two years reassuring the public the Conservatives are not ‘enemies of the state’ but are the real One Nation Party that can represent all.

Our problem is not that the Conservatives aren’t ‘right-wing’ enough, it’s that people still don’t believe they care. David Skelton provides a useful conclusion. He notes how Cameron has rescued his party from the scrapheap once, but his modernisation is still a job half done. The move away from divisive social policies of the past is half of Conservative modernisation, but until the party does more to connect with ordinary working people, Cameron’s mission will remain unfinished business.

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We are still failing to define ‘One Nation’ for the twenty-first century

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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Putting purity before power: how many Tories truly want to resist UKIP?

Giles Marshall 11.58am

With Tory cabinet ministers scrambling over each other to assure the party of their Euro-scepticism, one might wonder what the fuss over UKIP is all about. Aside from a matter of timing, it seems most Tories are united on the referendum.  Yet of course, there is more to it.

UKIP is not only a repository for Euro-sceptics. Indeed, Europe is just the hook on which to hang a whole panoply of concerns. UKIP is fundamentally a protest party. For disillusioned Tories in particular, UKIP offers an unrepentant leader in Nigel Farage who contrasts nicely with the more nuanced David Cameron.

Tory members and a significant number of backbench MPs are not happy in coalition, hate the notion of Tory ‘modernisation’ and dislike the thought of compromise. In their black and white - or blue and red - world, there is much virtue in Tory puritanism and Mr Cameron’s great crime is in failing to recognise this.

Mr Cameron, of course, is trying to operate in the real world. His Toryism derives from his upbringing rather than deep political conviction. It was never honed through a party activism that might have brought some deeper, grittier understanding of the party he leads. His Toryism is instinctive, and thus more inclined to accommodate itself to the demands and pressures of the world outside the bubble of the party. That lies behind his chaotic but worthy pursuit of ‘modernisation’ and it still lies behind his desire not to take knee-jerk approaches to such complex issues as EU membership.

Mr Cameron is, at heart, a Tory pragmatist of the type that used to dominate in the twentieth century heyday of the party.

The party he leads no longer resembles that triumphant machine. It is questionable as to how far this change is due to the legacy of the party’s first truly ideological leader - Margaret Thatcher - and how much would have occurred in any case as a result of a growing sense of alienation in the modern world.

Whatever the cause, the Conservative party today is a puritanical beast, railing against the iniquities of the world but struggling to find solutions. Like 16th-century puritans, today’s Tories take comfort in purity and isolation and want nothing to do with the murky waters of compromise politics.

Even before the halfway mark of the Coalition, many Tory backbenchers had been restlessly pushing against its constraints. They have managed to breach some, even to the extent of proposing Bills that challenge their own government.  In such times it is difficult to distinguish backbench Tories from a brand of opposition MP.

Europe - or rather its forced removal - is the great prize. Mr Cameron has tried to feed that appetite but has found its gaping maw remains open no matter how much he tries to satiate it. He is facing the same problem as John Major. Paul Goodman makes the comparison on Conservative Home, and puts the issue down to a failure of leadership on the part of both men.

This is not the whole story. It is not really possible for any outward-facing Tory leader to lead his party. No-one who is not a died-in-the-wool Euro-denier has a hope of gaining the support of Tory backbenchers, and yet when such men are put into leadership they fail to win over the country as a whole.

Europe merely represents the high water mark of the Tory party’s desire to become an unadulterated and unrestrained party of the right. Many members envy UKIP’s easy positions and rather want them for themselves. Many Tories now would prefer purity to power.

David Cameron is no longer simply struggling against the Euro-monster. He is struggling against a much bigger desire to retreat to a position of political comfort, a position that he has tried to force the party to vacate since 2005. It is possible that his failure is due in part to the incoherent nature of ‘modernisation’ itself, which was too Blairite in nature and should have taken stronger account of historic One Nation Toryism.

The big question is if Mr Cameron does indeed fail, whether there is going to be another chance for the Tory party to be a broad-based party of the centre-right, or whether it will simply assume UKIP’s mantle, and stay on the fringe.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesmarshall

The One Nation Tory is alive and well: a response to John Harris

Nik Darlington 2.30pm

The passing of Baroness Thatcher has elicited a great deal of Tory stock-taking and soul-searching, as well as comment upon comment upon comment as to what the legacy is of Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century. As John Harris wrote in the Guardian"Thatcher’s death has Britain peering back through time".

In a subsequent article, born from his introspective itinerary around Britain researching Lady Thatcher’s legacy, Harris asks readers to “spare a thought for the late unlamented one-nation Tory”. His argument is that “centrist, socially-concerned Conservatism” had already died long before her, and largely because of her doing.

Let’s be frank. The Tory Reform Group, its members and leading political representatives have not always seen eye to eye with all aspects of Thatcherism. Respected her achievements and they way she led the country in dark times, yes; but there have been policy disagreements along the way.

However, Harris is simply wrong. The ‘One Nation Tory’ might be a minority concern in today’s Conservative party, dominated as it is by people who cut their teeth during Mrs Thatcher’s battling leadership of the party, and the aftermath; but it is alive and well. Harris claims that every year he attends the Conservative party conference "looking for any signs of its revival…but it is nowhere to be seen". Based on attending a ConservativeHome fringe event, that is not surprising. Did he not care to call in to any TRG events, which every year seem to outnumber those of other Tory groups? Even stars of stage and screen turned up to Ken Clarke’s midnight party last year.

It is perhaps fashionable to presume there are no centrist Tories left, which is peculiar considering the efforts of David Cameron to steer the Conservative party in just such a direction - and indeed, it is more plausible to say that the party did not make it fully over the line in 2010 because it had not moved far enough in that direction, than it is to say it moved too far. It is even more peculiar coming from a Guardian writer, when that newspaper has on occasion so wholeheartedly championed Mr Cameron’s stewardship.

Perhaps it is simply thus: no Tory of whatever ilk can be as “centrist” or “socially-concerned” as the GuardianHarris may be a columnist, not an editorial writer, but he does a fine job of blending into his surroundings.

Harris is right that too slavish an adherence to the free market - a common and unfortunate conclusion reached by today’s self-proclaimed Thatcherites - has landed post-Thatcher political parties (including the Labour party) in hot water. As Sir Ian Gilmour said, “the balance will have to be redressed”.

Harris is right that the present plethora of Tory groups, if they coalesce at all, do so around one interpretation of Mrs Thatcher’s policies. Yet this misses the point, which is that the fact a plethora exists suggests how confused even Conservatives remain about her legacy and what to do with it.

Harris wonders “what would happen if the grandees of pre-Thatcher Conservatism were raised from the grave, and confronted with Britain’s current problems”. He need not resort to table-turning, though many have indeed passed away. Just look at Lord Heseltine’s continued role in public life at the ripe old age of eighty. His growth review, which at its heart recommends a more decentralised approach, has largely been accepted by the Government. Meanwhile, Ken Clarke’s experience, not least as a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer, remains indispensable to the Government. Though not necessarily a ‘pre-Thatcher grandee’, Lord Baker is a life member of the TRG and remains an influential figure in education policy.

Ed Miliband, as Harris says, has “tentatively” attempted to expropriate the ‘One Nation’ theme for the Labour party. I spelled out last October why Mr Miliband’s interesting approach falls flat. His post-Blair (and by extension, post-Thatcher) Labour party is in the grip of myriad interest groups fixated by an ideological nihilism. Signs of this are bubbling to the surface even in his own positioning, until now so often non-committal.

Michael Gove recently told a Policy Exchange gathering that in order to interpret her legacy honestly, we have to view Mrs Thatcher as a “historical figure” - much, indeed, with the detachment we deploy to consider Sir Winston Churchill, or William Gladstone, or even Pitt. Most agree that her prescriptions and demeanour were right for her time. Party political Conservatism has moved on; Thatcherism has moved on too. It means different things to its adherents today than perhaps it did even to Mrs Thatcher herself. In the same vein, One Nation Conservatism, so sidelined since the 1990s (and largely to do with a single policy issue: Europe), has moved on.

Our relative anonymity, and the fact John Harris thinks we are dead, might well be a problem. Yet we have in power a largely centrist, modernising Conservative-led government dealing with economic disruption and deeply moral dislocation - not least in education and welfare policy - that the opposition Labour party refuses to confront.

So while the Tory Reform Group does need to do more to get its message heard above the cacophony of Conservative voices (small ‘v’), I respectfully believe Harris’ pessimism is misplaced.

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