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.

Benjamin Disraeli's ideas, as a notable critic of capitalism, significantly influenced conservatism and sparked a reforming tradition that resonates with both conservative practicality and their sense of societal obligation. In the UK, these concepts underpin one-nation conservatism, with adherents sometimes identifying as 'Tories' to underscore their dedication to pre-industrial, hierarchical, and paternalistic principles. Later in the late nineteenth century, Randolph Churchill (1911–68) embraced Disraeli's ideas through 'Tory democracy'. Amid a period of expanding political democracy, Churchill emphasized the importance of traditional institutions, such as the monarchy, the House of Lords, and the church, garnering broader social support. This goal could be accomplished by securing working-class votes for the Conservative Party through the continuation of Disraeli's social reform policies.

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, the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher faced internal divisions due to her strict policies, leading to dissenters being called 'wets'. Despite this, one-nation conservatism remained influential throughout the twentieth century. The UK's Conservative Party was a key player in the post-war consensus, positioning itself as a practical alternative to both the far left and free market liberalism. One-nation conservatives do not push for wealth redistribution for equality like socialists. Their approach focuses on paternalism, emphasizing the responsibility of those in higher positions to look after those below them in the hierarchy.

Concern for the unemployed and the poor was a key element of one-nation conservatism that caused rifts in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party during the 1980s. Thatcher labeled those who opposed her tough policies as ‘wets’. Another core tenet of one-nation conservatism, closely tied to the concept of the organic society, is a belief in patriotism and tradition. Disraeli advocated for using institutions like the monarchy to prevent the country from dividing into two distinct classes - the privileged and the underprivileged - and instead foster a sense of shared experiences among the people. Throughout the twentieth century, one-nation conservatism held significant influence. In the UK, the Conservative Party was part of the post-war consensus, acknowledging the importance of a mixed economy and positioning itself as a practical and moderate option compared to the extreme left and the laissez-faire classical liberals.

As prime minister between 1957 and 1963 Macmillan championed a conservatism that steered a course between traditional conservative laissez-faire economics and the socialist collectivism of state planning, which he had first discussed in The Middle Way (1938).

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'

Macmillan agreed with Burke that safeguarding society was crucial, seeing unemployment as a serious threat to stability. He embraced Keynesian economics to address this issue, diverging from empiricism. Macmillan's government aimed to manage the economy in a novel manner for a conservative administration. Influenced by modern liberalism and an enabling state, these ideas also drew on traditional conservatism and Disraeli's one-nation conservatism. Macmillan and subsequent one-nation conservatives like Boris Johnson argue that their approach is pragmatic. In contrast, Michael Oakeshott criticized this form of conservatism, highlighting its rational state management and disregard for the limits of human reason.

 Modern one-nation conservatism incorporates social liberalism, deviating from traditional conservative principles. Conservative governments post-1970 have backed same-sex relationship and abortion legalization. David Cameron, during his tenure as prime minister in a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition, enacted the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act in 2013. This shift reflects conservatives' adaptability to evolving social norms.

Disraeli's one-nation conservatism was influenced by Burke's ideas, advocating cautious change, limited state interference, and laissez-faire economics. However,  Macmillan's approach to one-nation conservatism was more proactive, emphasizing state involvement in society and the management of Keynesian economics. 

Subsequent one-nation conservative prime ministers like Edward Heath, David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson have embraced Keynesian economics while recognizing Burke's concepts of 'little platoons' and conservative societal change. Cameron's 'Big Society' policies drew inspiration from Burke. Today, one-nation conservatism owes more to Macmillan and modern liberalism, focusing on the enabling state rather than Disraeli's modest state interventions. Rishi Sunak's post-Covid one-nation conservatism mirrors Macmillan's approach, emphasizing state growth and rationalism.

Theresa May committed to traditional One Nation Conservativism by identifying the JAMs.

In her first statement as Prime Minister, Theresa May, attempted to reassure people she described as just about managing- JAMs. Saying: "If you're from an ordinary working-class family, life is much harder than many people in Westminster realise. You have a job but you don't always have job security.

"You have your own home, but you worry about paying a mortgage. You can just about manage but you worry about the cost of living and getting your kids into a good school. If you're one of those families, if you're just managing, I want to address you directly."

PM Rishi Sunk is "frequently perceived as a pragmatist and as belonging to the center-ground of the Conservative Party". He seemed committed to One Nation Conservatism during the pandemic- with interventionist policies to support the economy when he introduced the furlough scheme, multiple business loans, and a £20-a-month increase in Universal Credit. However, as the Conservative Party's support in opinion polls has declined he has come under more and more pressure to move more firmly to a new right position with tax cuts smaller regulatory state, and socially conservative values. He faced calls from Jacob Rees-Mogg and the New Conservatives’ Danny Kruger and Miriam Cates to “reunite the right” and win back voters who had voted for the hard-right populist Reform Party. Cates and Kruger called for tax cuts, more curbs on immigration and welfare, and a willingness to withdraw from the European Convention on human rights.