David Cameron has said the Conservatives will govern as a party of one nation. The phrase was apt at a time when part of the country seems to be pulling away with all its might, and after a bad-tempered election campaign, where class warfare was actively encouraged in some quarters. For a time, the phrase ‘One Nation’ was Conservative code for wanting to spend more, but that’s not what Cameron meant on Friday. This is how he put it:
'We must ensure that we bring our country together…We will govern as a party of one nation, one United Kingdom. That means ensuring this recovery reaches all parts of our country, from north to south, from east to west. And indeed it means rebalancing our economy, building that northern powerhouse. It means giving everyone in our country a chance, so no matter where you're from, you have the opportunity to make the most of your life.'
One Nation Conservatism started with Disraeli, and has been deployed countless times since then (Ed Miliband even tried to lay claim to the phrase at one party conference). In a speech in the Commons in 1925, Stanley Baldwin called for a truce between the classes, saying his party stood for 'stable Government and for peace in the country between all classes of the community'. The Spectator thought the speech was excellent, and explained how Baldwin was inspired by Disraeli.
What he borrows from Disraeli is…the ideas of fellowship and mutual helpfulness between class and class. [Disraeli’s novel]Sybil is a story of “The Two Nations” – the Rich and the Poor. As in London, so in the nation as Disraeli saw it, one-half of the population did not know how the other half lived. His account of the miseries in certain manufacturing towns, of the injustices in the factories, appalled his readers.
Sybil is a working class reformer who inspires a young aristocrat, who ends up declaring that the social happiness of the millions should be the first object of a statesman.
It is the spirit of Sybil not its precise teaching that inspires Mr. Baldwin. In Sybil Disraeli denounced the infamous Truck system which provided for the payment of part of a man's wages in kind. The “Tommy” shops where these transactions had to be effected were notorious for flick brutal intimidation and extortion…Fancy a man receiving as part of his wages two or three waistcoats which he did not want! All he could do was to sell them for a fragment of their value, and then they would pass back into the possession of the official keeper of the truck shop for the wicked process to be repeated! Mr. Baldwin's inquiries into food prices are conceived in the spirit of Disraeli's denunciation of truck. He is for the “fair deal”; he is out for improving the Condition of the People – Disraeli's phrase. And we may imagine that he has dwelt often upon Disraeli’s picture of Mr. Trafford, the enlightened employer.
Disraeli’s idea is handily flexible and can be applied to all sorts of projects. Cameron’s one nation rhetoric is more about extending opportunity around the country and through socio-economic groups. Edward Heath used the phrase in his party conference speech in 1970 to argue that recent government reforms were about to bear fruit.
Our task now is to unite the people of this country, black, white and Powellite, to work for a better tomorrow. Many years ago, Disraeli pronounced the great principle for which this party, in peace and in war, has always striven: We stand for One Nation. I would go further than that. What we shall strive for, undeterred by the greedy demands of trade unionists, undeflected by the spiteful jibes of our opponents, unmindful of the swirling sewage in our streets is One Efficient Nation.
When the Conservative party was at a low ebb in 2003, pre-occupied with endless self-analysis, The Spectator ran a very strict editorial, reminding the party of its principles, and invoking Disraeli’s idea of one nation. Conservatism is more in tune with human nature than alternatives, it argued, pointing to the instinct for liberty, and the recognition that the urge to gain advantage for your children has been the single most progressive force in civilisation. It was also time for ‘One Nation’ to take on another cause.
It was Mrs Thatcher who, in a famous speech to the Royal Society, launched the era of mainstream green politics. ‘We Conservatives are not merely friends of the earth,’ she said. ‘We are its guardians and trustees for generations to come. The core of Tory philosophy and the case for protecting the environment are the same. No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy — with a full repairing lease.’ This is as cogent a statement of the idea of Conservatism as one can get. The nation, said Burke, extends in time as well as in space, and every generation has obligations both to its ancestors and its successors.
Conservatives sometimes ask, with Disraeli, what shall we conserve? Here is at least part of the answer. Sensible Tories have long believed in One Nation, the idea that we are all in this together, and that the rich have a duty to the poor. It is time for One Planet Tories, and a deliberate attempt to focus policy and presentation on environmental problems, local and global. At a time of mounting prosperity, people worry about these issues, and many of their worries are well founded. If this change of tack achieves nothing else, it would make people realise that Tories are not lost in contemplation of their own misfortunes, but are interested in the world around them.
It’s an exciting moment for the Conservatives, who now have a chance to bring in radical social reforms, but it’s also a worrying time for politicians: people just don’t like them, and a lot of people loathe the Conservative ones; the Tories have a stronger mandate than anyone was expecting, but it’s not strong. The unifying force of One Nation Conservatism has an awful lot to do.