One Nation in a Post-Referendum World

September 25, 2016

Having referred to ‘One Nation’ 46 times in his speech at the 2012 Labour Party conference, Ed Miliband faced accusations of slogan appropriation and identity dysphoria. Increased use of the term may have risked it becoming an ambiguously virtuous sound bite, but it was a bit much for a Labour leader to attempt to commander the classic form of paternalist British conservative thought.

It’s firmly back on the Conservative scene, now. After a leadership contest in which it was enounced by every candidate, the new prime minister — not usually one for overt messaging — relied heavily on One Nation in her first Downing Street proclamation. May used it to imply both that her government would concentrate on the concerns of social justice above those of the economy, and that she was offering a solution to division between the literal nations constituting the UK, as well as One Nation’s usual focus: the gap between rich and poor.

Presumably, therefore, we can expect the term to resound at the upcoming Conservative conference. But what does it mean? And what can we expect from those volunteering it? Traditionally, One Nation represents an assertion that the state’s duty is to protect its citizens as members of a hierarchical society. This relates, not least, to helping them observe their obligations to each other in times — like today — of seeming segregation over access to wealth and opportunity.

One Nation, however, has seen various instantiations since Disraeli (is credited with having) coined it in his novel Sybil, or the Two Nations. Of course, he didn’t go as far as Miliband and actually name-check One Nation as a political approach. And it’s debatable as to whether the Victorian prime minister’s compassionate intentions were heartfelt or simply expedient, not only in terms of vote seeking, but also bearing in mind concurrent unrest in Europe in response to similar discord. Nevertheless, precedent was set for the theory of One Nation being turned into practice, in his extension of the franchise to the working class, and reforms that brought improvements to healthcare and housing. It was continued in Lord Randolph Churchill’s ‘Tory Democracy’ strategies to make institutions widely accessible.

Then, following decades of a more liberal conservatism, One Nation peaked following the Second World War, in consensus over the emerging welfare state. This was exemplified by Rab Butler’s state-paternalist intellectualism, before being diluted in Harold Macmillan’s ‘middle way’, which offered a balance between the extremes of individualism and state planning, with an embrace of nationalisation and advanced welfare provision, and his famous aim of achieving full employment. Margaret Thatcher then fought the fattened state by reinstating economic liberalism on the supply-side, but she worked with, and there have been prominent One-Nationists in the Conservative Party (often driven by a penchant for social democracy), ever since.

So, One Nation’s rhetoric is not unfamiliar. And its return was unsurprising, considering the current political climate: the EU referendum result has brought divisive underlying questions — of privilege and disadvantage, representation and voice, disillusion and discontent — to the fore. Old tensions over tribal politics have seemingly been replaced by new theoretical revisions of class, geography, nation, and age. In the face of political and economic uncertainty, a need for unity makes addressing both the realities and perceptions of division not only desirable, but essential, too — for greater societal cohesion, and for electoral gain.

First, it is necessary to assess to what extent those feelings of societal fracture are justified. It is important to note that many people seem unclear about the facts of key anxieties, such as the educational prospects of disadvantaged children (improving), and the number of Britons in employment (higher than ever, and continuing to increase post referendum). We must also take into account that disadvantage in the UK is relative (not just to here, but to elsewhere, too). And, that — as neatly pointed out by the Our World in Data project run by Oxford economist, Max Roser — the problem of truly absolute poverty has, thankfully, reduced quickly over the past forty years, across the world. Moreover, the lack of nuance in the standard measures of inequality has been further exposed in recent work by the Resolution Foundation, showing that the infamous ‘elephant curve’ is skewed by rapid population change, and therefore inaccurate in its portrayal of income stagnation. But none of that is to suggest there is not progress to be made in the UK. Few politicians disagree that the state has a responsibility to address society’s problems.

The most explicitly interventionist policies of the Cameron government — the living wage, proposals for a sugar tax, and on — can largely be seen as non-ideological and responsive: easy popular policies that came towards the end in his time in office, and worked at the moment of announcement, with the effect of staving off rising criticism. Those are policies that could be described as ‘compassionate’ in the broad sense of the state being seen to care for its citizens. They can be described as ‘paternalistic’ in a state-focused statement of noblesse oblige: the government making decisions about how people should lead their lives, and the opportunities they should want to access. Yet, if those individual policies were an integral part of a bigger plan, then that wasn’t clearly messaged — and certainly not under a specifically One Nation umbrella — as, one could argue, was little in the run-up to the 2015 election, beyond the victorious ‘fixing the economy’ motif. That absence of messaging laid Cameron’s party open to unfair allegations of alternative motives, such as greed, from those who could not conceive of responsive, non-ideological politics.

Early on in the Cameron years, however — alongside an emphasis on environmentalism, and international aid — there was a strongly-messaged instantiation of what was, by some, deemed to be compassionate conservatism: the Big Society initiative. Its argument was that the state should enable people — in and as communities — to help each other. This was ‘compassionate conservatism’ in a technical sense. It is compassionate conservatism in the sense in which Jesse Norman, in his Policy Exchange report of the same name, outlines the underpinning of a more ‘connected society’, referring to Cameron’s self-avowed commitment to ‘trust, responsibility, and inclusiveness’. In his subsequent book, The Big Society: The Anatomy of the New Politics, Norman recounts a society connected by affection rather than personal gain, in which the state promotes charity and community activism, by launching an ‘audit of government’, and policies focused on decentralisation, ‘intermediate institutions’, and culture. Instead of seeing the Big Society, therefore, either as Red Tory paternalism, or as a government passing its obligations on to the charity sector — both accusations that were levelled against it — this top-down urge to move certain societal responsibilities away from the state could be interpreted as communitarian-style liberalism. Regardless of its position in the conservative tradition, however, the initiative is often felt to be Cameron’s forgotten aim — a ‘worthy’ aim with an attractive name.

If he had continued as prime minister, a return to conspicuously ‘compassionate’ ideals, and a push to build upon and explain his cabinet’s paternalist approaches, would presumably have marked his legacy period. Indeed, that return was clarified in his party conference leader’s speech last October, with its promise of an ‘all-out assault on poverty’, and its stress on ‘life chances’. A renewed desire to become seen as a compassionate government, which would actively assist its citizens to prosper in a difficult world was already in place, therefore, when the Conservative leadership candidates capitalised on One Nation, this summer. And, as May’s government will have to persevere both with the austerity agenda and good societal change, while holding the country together — not least regarding Brexit — there is greater need than ever for explanation of intention. Yes, One Nation is primarily an issue of strategy, but a successful concentration on opportunity must be more than virtue signalling.

Therefore, the proposition of a new One Nation answer to today’s societal problems brings up urgent questions for politicians and policymakers, alike. Clarifications over terminology can help to justify such an approach, but a fresh look should also be taken at the role the state should play in our lives, the space within a ‘One Nation government’ for classically, or communitarian, liberal conservative viewpoints, and how we can and should measure and engineer societal ‘progress’. And, when the days of overdue large-scale action seem past — the need for Disraeli to increase the franchise, or Joseph Chamberlain to improve basic sanitation — what sensible options remain for social reform?

Whether or not May beats Miliband’s record for the number of mentions in a leader’s speech, we can expect to hear more of One Nation yet.

Policy Exchange’s Conservative Party conference event on this topic, One Nation in a Post-Referendum World, is onTuesday 4 October, from 2-3pm, in the PX marquee

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