One Nation Conservatism

By the mid-20th century, 'one-nation' conservatism had added a 'middle way' economic approach to social reform in its pursuit of paternalistic policies. The moderate UK Conservative governments of the 1950s and 1960s steered a central course between free-market economics and state planning, on the grounds that the former led to social fragmentation and failed to protect the poorest, while the latter stifled individual initiative and entrepreneurial flair. Economic policy combined government regulation and market completion to produce, in the words of Harold Macmillan — Conservative prime minister in the UK between 1957 and 1963 — 'private enterprise without selfishness'. This effectively meant that one-nation Conservatives fully accepted that the state had an obligation to intervene in the economy and maintain the welfare state to combat poverty and deprivation. Nevertheless, there were limits to paternalism, in the sense that improving conditions for poorer groups was principally motivated by a desire to strengthen the hierarchical nature of society by removing threats to the social order. contrast, the neoliberal wing of the New Right completely rejects the idea of paternalism.

One-nation conservatism, an updated version of traditional conservatism, emerged in response to the development of laissez-faire capitalism and industrialisation in the 19th century. Its central figure, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81) felt that capitalism encouraged a self-interested individualism that undermined the idea of social responsibility, and threatened to split Britain into two nations — the rich and the poor. If left unaddressed, he argued, this division would lead to class conflict, a declining sense of community and national identity, and possibly revolution.

To remedy this situation, Disraeli called for conservatism to renew its commitment to the concepts of reform and social obligation. His motives were both pragmatic and principled. Reforms to improve conditions for the poorest in society would reduce the likelihood of large-scale social discontent, preserving the position of the upper classes. Such measures would probably increase working class support for the Conservative Party too. Disraeli also maintained that the wealthiest and most privileged social groups had a moral duty to help the poor. Organic society depended not only on 'top down' authority, but also on the governing elite's acceptance of social responsibility for less fortunate people. In an industrialised capitalist society, Disraeli concluded, conservative paternalism should now embrace social reform or 'welfarism' to strengthen national unity and thus preserve 'one nation'.

Disraeli's conception and pursuit of one-nation conservatism had a powerful influence on the development of conservative thinking. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prominent Conservative politicians including Lord Randolph Churchill, Joseph Chamberlain and Neville Chamberlain adopted 'one-nation' values by stressing the importance of the governing elite's social obligations to the poor, the extension of political rights and the provision of some state welfare.

One-nation conservatism was most dominant in the years just after the Second World War. Between 1951 and 1964, successive Conservative governments in the UK based their policies on the one-nation perspective. They adopted Keynesian economic management techniques to maintain high employment, accepted the mixed economy and supported an expanded welfare state.

This 'middle way' approach tried to navigate a path between unbridled liberalism (free-market economics and individualism) and socialist collectivism (extensive state planning and control). Harold Macmillan, the UK Conservative Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963, first coined the term 'the middle way' in 1938, in his book advocating a form of planned capitalism. For Macmillan, this was to be 'a mixed system' that combined 'state ownership, regulation or control of certain aspects of economic activity with the drive and initiative of private enterprise'. There was a clear link between the one-nation conservatism of mid-20th century Britain and Disraeli's original thinking. Another `one-nation' Conservative minister during the 19505 and 19605, R.A. Butler, argued that government policy at that time was focused on 'bringing together what Disraeli called the Two Nations into a single social entity'.

Proponents of the one-nation tradition within the Conservative Party opposed the New Right policies of Margaret Thatcher's governments (1979-90). Among these critics were prominent Conservative politicians, including Michael Heseltine, Kenneth Clarke, Ian Gilmour and Francis Pym, who were mocked as 'the wets' by the Thatcherites in the party. The 'wets' feared that the new individualist and free-market policies of the 19805 would divide the UK into two nations once more.

In recent years, the one-nation approach has continued to influence aspects of Conservative Party thinking and policy. David Cameron, the former Conservative Prime Minister (2010-16), drew on this legacy when he argued that a new 'compassionate conservatism' (hug a hoodie) would underpin his government. His successor Theresa May did much the same thing in early 2017 when she called for the creation of a 'shared society' (compassion for the JAMs Just About Managing) that would focus 'rather more on the responsibilities we have to one another' and respect 'the bonds of family, community, citizenship and strong institutions that we share as a union of people and nations'.