One Nation Conservatism

Sometimes known as paternalist conservatism, this form of conservatism is often linked to Benjamin Disraeli.

A pragmatist, like most conservatives, he was prime minister at a time when socialism was becoming more popular throughout Europe and as a result he was keen to attract the vote of the newly enfranchised working classes in order to prevent this. In his novels Disraeli wrote about the growing divisions between rich and poor as a result of industrialisation and capitalism.

Recently, David Cameron's 'Big Society' speech and his attempts to change the image of the Conservative Party can be linked to the concept of one-nation conservatism. This form of conservatism seeks to reconcile individualism and collectivism, and is an updated version of conservatism that responds to the rise of capitalism. One-nation conservatives believe in the idea of an organic society and reject the laissez-faire approach to capitalism and individualism associated with liberal ideas. Rather than focusing on individual rights, this approach is more collectivist, emphasizing our duties and responsibilities to others as part of a larger whole. One-nation conservatives recognize the social inequalities and poverty caused by capitalism as a problem for all citizens, not just the poor. However, they do not oppose the class structure, viewing it as an integral part of our organic society.

Where does ‘One Nation Conservatism’ come from?

The term has been around since Benjamin Disraeli declared in 1837 that “the Tory party, unless it is a national party, is nothing”. In his book, Sybil, or The Two Nations, published in 1845, more than two decades before he first became PM, Disraeli suggested that the rich and poor were “as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets” - and therefore were two separate nations.

The ideas of Benjamin Disraeli, a prominent opponent of capitalism, had a major influence on conservatism and gave rise to a reforming tradition that appeals to both the pragmatic instincts of conservatives and their sense of social duty. In the UK, these ideas form the basis of one-nation conservatism, whose supporters sometimes refer to themselves as 'Tories' to emphasize their commitment to pre-industrial, hierarchic, and paternal values. Disraeli's ideas were later adopted in the late nineteenth century by Randolph Churchill (1911–68) in the form of ‘Tory democracy’. In an age of widening political democracy, Churchill stressed the need for traditional institutions – for example, the monarchy, the House of Lords and the church – to enjoy a wider base of social support. This could be achieved by winning working-class votes for the Conservative Party by continuing Disraeli’s policy of social reform.

One-nation conservatism is a political ideology that seeks to create a sense of unity and shared experiences among all members of a nation. It is based on the idea of an organic society, where the wealthy have a duty of care to those below them, often referred to as noblesse oblige This duty of care can manifest itself in the form of laws that limit working hours or expand primary education. Furthermore, one-nation conservatism is strongly linked to patriotism and tradition, with institutions such as the monarchy being used to unite the nation and prevent the division of haves and have-nots.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party was divided over her hard-line policies, with those who opposed her being labelled 'wets'. Despite this, one-nation conservatism was still strong during the twentieth century, with the Conservative Party in the UK being part of the post-war consensus and presenting itself as a sensible and pragmatic alternative to the ideological far left and the classical liberal free market.

However, this is not socialism, and redistribution of wealth to create equality is in no way the aim of one-nation conservatives. Instead they advocate paternalism, seeing those at the top of the hierarchy as having a duty of care to those below.

A concern for the unemployed and the poor is a central aspect of one-nation conservatism and led to divisions in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party in the 1980s. She described those attacking her hard-line policies as ‘wets’. Another aspect of one-nation conservatism that is closely linked to the organic society is a belief in patriotism and tradition. In order to prevent the division of a country into haves and have nots, Disraeli argued that institutions such as the monarchy could be used to unite the nations and create a sense of shared experiences. One-nation conservatism was strong during the twentieth century. In the UK, the Conservative Party was part of the post-war consensus, accepting the need for a mixed economy and presenting itself as a sensible and pragmatic alternative to the ideological far left and the classical liberal free market.

Harold Macmillan accepted the welfare state and support ‘planned capitalism’.

He supported public housing and Keynesian economics.

Macmillan was on of the post war PM who accepted the 'post war consensus'