Giles Marshall 11.24am
Of course Ed Miliband is not a One Nation leader. There is too much of the class warrior about him for that, even in his snide reference to his comprehensive schooling.
But his prominent and frequent use of the ‘One Nation’ idea in yesterday’s conference speech teaches us something important about both the Labour party that he leads, and the Conservative party that used to be the traditional home of One Nation politics.
First, the Labour Party. The reason Mr Miliband has grasped so enthusiastically at the One Nation philosophy is that there is simply nothing left for him to plunder from Labour’s own stocks. In its prime, the Labour party promoted a form of democratic socialism that was red-blooded in tooth and claw. It served a purpose, certainly, but gradually even the modest western form of socialism stuttered into obsolescence as its doctrines failed to really grasp the nature of liberal capitalism.
Labour’s most successful leader – Tony Blair – was never much hamstrung by ideology, but did seek to find a replacement brand through such woolly concepts as the ‘Third Way’, and the naming of his party as ‘New Labour’. Mr Miliband is on the same search, and has currently found a home in a tortured version of a famous Conservative brand.
There can be no greater evidence of the ideological failure of social democracy than that it seeks to find shelter under the principles of one of the greatest Tory leaders in history. The Labour leader’s speech was accomplished but it was built on political sands that shifted even as he spoke.
Whatever his own party’s failings, Mr Miliband has nonetheless gifted Conservatives an insight into our own condition. It has come to a pretty dismal pass when we have managed to so forget our roots that we have left it to another party to take up what should be the core element of our own principles. Mr Miliband seized on One Nation with such alacrity because he noticed that the Conservative party appears to have abandoned it, and he believed it would embarrass Mr Cameron to be reminded of his failure fully to modernise and moderate.
It might be useful to remind ourselves why One Nation Toryism is the most successful incarnation of Conservative politics to have been presented to the electorate, and why we abandon it at our peril.
One Nation was about recognising the need for any political party to apply itself to all the diverse needs of all people in this country, and not to simply let one part of the nation – usually the wretchedly downtrodden incapables stuck in their visceral cycle of decline - wither into neglect. This was especially the case for Disraeli’s own Conservative party as it faced the challenges of a widening franchise and a perception that it only represented the interests of the landowning classes.
One Nation was a useful and very non-specific idea. It is no surprise that it actually surfaced in a great work of fiction, Sybil, from whose Tory protagonist these pages take their name.
Nevertheless, it achieved practical form when Benjamin Disraeli finally took office for longer than a few months, carrying with him this notion of a unifying Conservatism, caring as much for the poor and dispossessed as it did for the wealthy and powerful, did achieve practical form.
That this was under the aegis of an energetic Home Secretary, Richard Cross, rather than Disraeli himself matters not a bit. Cross enacted a raft of activist social legislation – such as improving labourers’ dwellings, making public health reforms and protecting workers’ rights in factories – which considerably advanced the practical cause of One Nation Toryism.
He would be followed in the twentieth century by such luminaries as Neville Chamberlain, one of the most positively reformist health ministers to hold office, and Harold Macmillan, with his ambitious commitment to a vast house building programme out of public funds.
The sad thing is this: so strong today has become the hold of the classical liberals within the Conservative party that we have forgotten how to show empathy and real compassion for those people less able to fend for themselves. The Conservative party today represents the interests of the self-helpers more than anything. This is the root of so much Tory hostility towards public services, or to government aid to various groups, or protective legislation. This is the vacuum that Mr Miliband seeks to fill.
David Cameron often cites Benjamin Disraeli as his favourite politician; and he came to power as a leader apparently committed to reviving the Tory One Nation tradition.
The ‘big society’ was one outworking of that idea, denuded though it was of much practical consequence by its separation from any genuine form of government funding or support.
The sad thing for Mr Cameron is that his roots in the Conservative party have been too shallow to allow him to gain much strength, with the result that he has quickly become buffeted by the prevailing winds which, in the modern Conservative Party, are predominantly rightist – or classical liberal, to use their ideological heritage. As such, he can appeal happily to the relatively small proportion of the electorate who want government to retreat from their affairs, stop providing welfare, and emasculate public services. His appeal to the majority is correspondingly weaker.
It may be that Mr Cameron can revive his rhetorical commitment to One Nation Conservatism at next week’s party conference. He’s good at that. He remains an accomplished speaker.
But unless he deals more effectively with the gulf opening up between him, his party and the legions of voters who depend upon an efficient but strong and compassionate, One Nation concept of government; unless he finds roles for the few remaining One Nation Tories still in Parliament; and unless he starts standing up to the narrowing strictures of the powerful classical liberal wing, he will leave Mr Miliband an open goal. And on present form, Ed Miliband may end up scoring.
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