Who owns one-nation conservatism?
One-nation conservatism has become a fashionable term for Conservatives to use to describe themselves as of late, particularly since Boris Johnson’s successes in the 2019 Conservative leadership election and general election. But what really is one-nation conservatism and who has the right to call themselves one?
As an ex-socialist and as a Catholic who’s politics are inextricably informed by his faith, one-nation conservatism to me is a paternalistic, communitarian type of conservatism which harks back to noblesse oblige and a generally Disraelian, sort of corporatist outlook on how Britain ought to function. This, I believe, is the definition most commonly accepted understanding of the term, but as my time as a member of the Conservative Party has progressed I find more and more that some others have a very different understanding of the term one-nation.
This was epitomised by ex-Tory MP and cabinet minister David Gauke’s post on ConservativeHome decrying the current Conservative government as “socially authoritarian” and placing the blame for this on ‘red wall’, new Tory voters largely from the North and Midlands. He then goes on to state that, “If you are a small state free marketeer, or a one nation social liberal, it is a depressing conclusion to reach. But when it decided to be the Party of Brexit, when it decided that it should focus on Red Wall voters, the Conservative Party made its choice. I fear it is too late to turn back.” This to me is an absurdity. Gauke spends the entire article suggesting that Rooseveltian, New Deal-style economic interventionism is un-Conservative, which is not in my opinion an inherently incorrect stance if argued well. What I take issue with is Gauke’s bizarre association of “small state free marketeers” with “one nation”.
To me, contemporary one-nation conservatism means that the state must take reasonable measures to level up the whole country and intervene more than it has done in recent decades, it means a concerted effort to provide first-class infrastructure, it means wise and useful investments in public spending. Yet this is what Gauke warns that one-nationers will be alienated by? This leads me to ask the question; is your one-nation conservatism a paternalistic, Disraelian conservatism, or is it your trendy byword for liberalism or ‘nice’ Toryism. I am not trying to say that if one is a self-identified one-nationer that they cannot hold liberal social values but equally, one can be a social conservative and be a one-nationer as well. In my opinion, this association of one-nation conservatism with ‘nice’ Toryism stems from the ‘wets and dries’ of the Thatcher years. That era of British conservatism drew lines of disagreement and one nationers very much fell onto the wet side of the debate. As such, the association of one-nationers with a very liberal, often pro-EU Toryism has been engendered.
Personally, I feel this is a sad occurrence; to me, the one-nation tradition is noble and should be celebrated for its origins — Disraelian. I believe a Disraelian one-nation conservatism is both useful and necessary for our party and our country. Britain more than ever needs investment in infrastructure, economic security for all classes, and better social cohesion. I believe that a genuine paternalistic conservatism can help us reach this, but I do not believe that a Cameronite, socially liberal/fiscally conservative situation going by the alias of one-nation conservatism can.
To sum up, I have no interest in the gatekeeping of who should or should not call themselves one-nation for its own sake. It is frankly none of my business how someone does or does not identify themselves within or outwith our party. My concern however, is over the one-nation label being exploited and used to describe something totally at odds with the values that I believe to be close to the hearts of many Britons — communitarian, small-c conservatism which seeks to redress economic and social balance. This to me is one-nation conservatism and that is not as simple as Toryism with a smiley face and friendly words.