History of One-Nation Conservatism

History of One-Nation Conservatism

Embracing One-Nation Conservatism: Uniting Britain in a Turbulent Era

With the upcoming elections in Britain, one of the prevailing themes in political discourse is the concept of “one-nation conservatism”. While the current campaign highlights the personal choices between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, it also reveals the potential for a unifying political ideology to emerge from this scenario. Mrs. May, proud of her Conservative heritage, recognizes the need for a guiding philosophy beyond personal leadership. A new brand of one-nation Toryism might just be the answer – a unique blend of left-wing and right-wing principles that aims to unite the British people as a single political community.

For years, one-nation Toryism has alluded to left-wing tendencies within the Conservative Party, often associated with anti-Thatcherite or bleeding-heart Toryism. However, Mrs. May’s approach to one-nation Toryism encompasses both left-wing and right-wing values. On the left, there is a focus on addressing the concerns of working-class voters who have felt neglected by previous administrations. This may involve increased government intervention in the economy, a departure from the laissez-faire policies of the Thatcher era. Simultaneously, on the right, as Brexit negotiations intensify, Mrs. May aims to challenge the influence of British cosmopolitans who prioritize their identification with foreigners over their fellow Britons. In doing so, she hopes to forge alliances with nationalist parties abroad, drawing inspiration from figures like Charles de Gaulle and his vision of a “Europe of nation states”.

This new interpretation of one-nation Toryism draws upon a rich but also contradictory tradition of Conservative thought. The origins of one-nation conservatism can be traced back to Benjamin Disraeli, who declared in 1837 that the Conservative Party is only meaningful if it represents the nation as a whole. Disraeli’s notion of one nation was rooted in the responsibility of the classes towards the masses, a theme explored in his novel “Sybil” or “Two Nations”. His mission was to unite these two nations under the benevolent leadership of the Conservative Party. However, Disraeli’s vision did not translate into a comprehensive governing philosophy during his tenure. It was not until Lord Salisbury’s era that the focus shifted towards preserving the unity of the Kingdom, with one-nation Toryism embracing the cause of the Union to combat Scottish and Irish nationalism.

The 1920s saw a return to Disraeli’s concern for class divisions, but with a different approach. Rather than emphasizing the duties of the rich towards the poor, one-nation Conservatives began emphasizing the shared English identity among all citizens of the United Kingdom. Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister between the wars, championed the “real England” of Christian patriotism and voluntary organizations, contrasting it with an “alien England” characterized by class divisions and trade unions. This period also witnessed the emergence of the idea of a “property-owning democracy”, championed by Noel Skelton. The concept aimed to provide every citizen with a stake in the country through property ownership, a vision that found support among Tory reformers.

The advent of the welfare state in the post-war era prompted further redefinition of one-nation Toryism. R.A. Butler, a prominent figure during this period, advocated for a new form of Conservative paternalism to counter socialist policies. Butler’s emphasis on “opportunity” through grammar schools, rather than “equality” through comprehensive education, became central to Conservative education policy. Margaret Thatcher would later rekindle the concept of a property-owning democracy, using the sale of council houses and nationalized industries to fuel a wave of individual property ownership. While successful in transforming the country, Thatcher’s divisive nature left a lasting impact, with opinions on her legacy sharply divided.

Since Thatcher’s fall in 1990, the term “one-nation Conservatism” has been used as a means of softening her legacy. John Major, the next Conservative leader, aspired to establish a “classless society,” but faced constant opposition from Thatcher, ultimately being undone by the exchange-rate mechanism debacle. David Cameron, on the other hand, managed to distance himself from Thatcher’s shadow. He embraced environmental causes, promoted minority rights, and successfully campaigned to preserve the Union. However, his primary focus was on winning back middle-class voters who had abandoned the Conservative Party.

In this context, Theresa May stands a promising chance of making “one nation” conservatism a reality. Her background and character bring a different appeal compared to her predecessors. Unlike Margaret Thatcher’s Southern English triumphalism or David Cameron’s aristocratic upbringing, May’s lineage as the daughter of a vicar offers a more relatable image. Beyond personal factors, the circumstances surrounding May’s leadership are conducive to the revival of one-nation Toryism. The desire for community in the face of globalization and technological disruption, coupled with the issues raised by high levels of immigration, have brought national identity to the forefront of political debate. Jeremy Corbyn’s hard-left Labour Party has also led to a realignment of traditional working-class voter loyalties. Additionally, the rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party and the challenges posed by Brexit have turned the Conservative Party into the leading unionist force. The confrontations with Brussels and dismissive comments about English language relevance made by figures like Jean-Claude Juncker only reinforce the temptation to prioritize national interests above party divisions.

In conclusion, the concept of one-nation conservatism is evolving in response to the complex challenges Britain faces today. Theresa May’s vision of a new brand of one-nation Toryism, embracing both left-wing and right-wing values, seeks to unite the British people under a common political community. Drawing from a tradition that has shifted between addressing class divisions and preserving the unity of the Kingdom, this ideology may be better aligned with the demands of a rapidly changing society. As the political landscape continues to shift, the true impact and potential of one-nation conservatism will become clearer.