One Nation Conservatism


Theresa May become PM-Her speech is full of One Nation rhetoric

One nation

A paternalistic approach adopted by Conservatives under the leadership of Benjamin Disraeli in the 19th century — and claimed by David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson — revolving around the idea that the rich have an obligation to help the poor.

It can be traced back to Benjamin Disraeli (1804–81), UK prime minister in 1868 and again 1874–80. Disraeli developed his political philosophy in two novels, Sybil (1845) and Coningsby (1844), written before he assumed ministerial responsibilities. These novels emphasised the principle of social obligation, in stark contrast to the extreme individualism then dominant within the political establishment. Disraeli wrote against a background of growing industrialisation, economic inequality and, in continental Europe at least, revolutionary upheaval. He tried to draw attention to the danger of Britain being divided into ‘two nations: the Rich and the Poor’. In the best conservative tradition, Disraeli’s argument was based on a combination of prudence and principle. The 1867 Reform Act began to enfranchise working-class men, so Disraeli’s one-nation conservatism was opportunistic as well as ethical. In the same way that Edmund Burke argued that society is not static and often must ‘change to conserve’ itself, in his famous Crystal Palace speech of 1872 Disraeli spoke of a new direction and of ‘the elevation of the condition of people’. In an era of rapid industrialisation, laws to protect workers and clean up cities characterised this period of one-nation conservatism.

Disraeli’s ideas had a considerable impact on conservatism to the extent that he is described as the creator of the modern conservative part. He  appealed to both  the pragmatic instincts of conservatives and to their sense of social duty. In the UK, these ideas provide the basis of so-called ‘One Nation conservatism. As the ability to vote extended to all classes One Nation Conservatives stressed the need for traditional institutions – for example, the monarchy, the House of Lords and the church – as well as paternalistic duties to care for the poor and provide good social services, This made the Conservatives the dominant party in UK politics by winning working-class votes for the Conservative Party .

In the postwar period of the 1950s and early 1960s, Conservative prime ministers Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan all sought to redefine conservatism as committed to narrowing social inequality, supporting and developing the modern welfare state created under Labour’s Clement Attlee. In particular, Macmillan’s leadership (1957–63) saw a reframing of both one-nation conservatism and paternalism in ways that resonate to the present day. Like Disraeli and Burke before him, Macmillan highlighted the debilitating effects of unemployment, and the threat it posed to social and economic stability.One Nation conservatism can  be seen as a form of Tory welfarism. It contrasts with another stand of conservatism New Right  and Thatcherism 

Case Study Mrs Thatcher 

The New Right strand of conservatism gathered momentum from the mid-1970s as a rival to one-nation conservatism.

Boris Johnson has sought to distance the Conservative Party from the austerity years of the 2010s, branded by the former governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney as ‘the first lost decade since the 1860s’. In place of austerity and hardship was to be ‘an economy fit for a new age of optimism’, as announced by chancellor Rishi Sunak when delivering his autumn 2021 budget in the House of Commons.

The 2019 general election saw a  redrawing of the electoral map of the UK. Many communities and constituencies that had formerly supported the Labour Party, some for many generations, returned a Conservative MP. Dozens of so-called ‘red wall’ seats in the Midlands and north ‘turned blue’. Wrexham, Workington, Blyth Valley; swathes of the West Midlands, Yorkshire, Lancashire and the northeast — seats that had evaded even Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s landslides — were won by the Conservatives in 2019. Some of this success was attributed to the One Nation appeal of Boris Johnson's brand of Conservatism and it offered the Conservative an opportunity to become the kind of expansive party which appealed across traditional class loyalties.

Boris Johnson  regularly proclaimed the government’s commitment to ‘levelling up’ and ‘building back better’ with a pledge to increase public spending levels to those not seen since the 1950s. In order to afford the investment needed to realise this, however, the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the tax burden (the amount of tax paid by a person, business or nation as a proportion of total income) is set to rise from its pre-pandemic level of around 33% of GDP to over 36% by 2026. The main consequence of this is a significantly growing tax burden for households and businesses.

Commitments to spend the largest proportion of GDP on public spending since the 1970s, along with levels of personal and corporation taxes not seen since the 1950s, have led many to conclude that the Conservative government is entering a new and distinct phase of ‘one-nation conservatism’. 

However, the pandemic, Brexit and the war in Ukraine have contributed to a return to inflation and a recession- all greatly exacerbated by the brief chaotic leadership of  Liz Truss   which has undermined the objective of One Nation government and point to a return to austerity which inevitable falls most heavily of people with lower incomes.

Austerity: after the financial crisis of 2007/08, economic measures were introduced in the UK that echoed a similar period of ‘austerity’ immediately following the Second World War. The 2010s became known as ‘the age of austerity’, associated with the Conservative Party in power from 2010 onwards. Cuts to welfare payments, housing subsidies and social services aimed to reduce the government’s budget deficit but caused hardship for many. Jeremy Hunt signals the return of austerity 2022