‘One Nation’ has a poor track record and still isn’t popular: following Brexit we should adopt a new Conservatism for 2024
Having been the mantra since 2010 you’d be forgiven for thinking that every Conservative was ‘One Nation’. It certainly sounds nice at face value: a Conservative Party for all, from banker to barrow boy; from Knightsbridge to Knaresborough, what’s wrong with that? Well, nothing at all of course, in fact, one of the main problems with the term One Nation is that it supposes a kind of exclusivity in being the only branch of conservatism for all.
Of course, One Nation isn’t the only branch of the Party that caters – and cares – for the nation as a whole, and that is just as well because it isn’t particularly popular among conservatives and hasn’t succeeded at election time either. Indeed, the last 10 years have seen three consecutive One Nation leaders at four General Elections, yet when you look at One Nation’s record at attempting to govern for all, it doesn’t take long to see how many would rather it didn’t govern at all.
Disraeli was Cameron’s favourite politician and he was a member of the ‘One Nation Caucus’ of MPs. His ‘Big Society Programme’ for the 2010 General Election aimed to distance the Party from Thatcherism, whereas his 2015 manifesto was more paternalistic still. Cameron advocated the preservation of institutions and traditional principles of democracy but in combination with big social and economic programmes. Of course, 2010 resulted in coalition with just 36% of the popular vote and 2015 a very slim majority, with just 37%: hardly a success for the natural party of Government accustomed to stable majorities after 13 years of Labour rule.
Teresa May’s manifesto read that “True Conservatism means a commitment to country and community; a belief not just in society but in the good that government can do.” Mrs May was a member of the One Nation Caucus and offered a brand of conservativism inspired by Christian democratic thought and the social democratic agenda of the former Labour leader Ed Miliband. Although gaining 42% of the vote in 2017 – this was in large part due to the implosion of the Lib Dems who largely switched to Corbyn who even achieved 40% of the popular vote himself – she lost the Party it’s majority and presided over a minority government propped up by the DUP.
At his count in Uxbridge on election night in 2019 Boris Johnson – a long time member of the One Nation Caucus – said that “It looks as though this One Nation Conservative government has been given a powerful new mandate to get Brexit done.” He had delivered a large majority but this sentence was telling. As much as Johnson wanted to see his majority as a boon for his One Nation programme, the campaign slogan for the ‘Brexit Election’ was to ‘Get Brexit Done’. Any critic proposing that Johnson won a landslide based on a One Nation pitch for Government would be labelled ‘alternative’ to put it mildly.
Funnily enough, the Conservative Parliamentary Party echo the country in their appraisal of One Nation too. Among the 365 current Conservative MPs, a sizeable majority don’t affiliate as One Nation: there are only 110 Tory MPs in the ‘One Nation Caucus’ and 255 MPs who aren’t, and this is for good reason: they are aligned to other groups. There are 160 Tory MPs in the ‘Blue Collar Conservatives Group’, for example, and 90 in the ‘Cornerstone Group’. Indeed, it isn’t so much that these MPs don’t feel an affinity for One Nation ideology, so much as they have an active affinity elsewhere. It’s not simply that most of the Parliamentary party aren’t One Nation but that they subscribe to an altogether different type of Conservatism.
The same thinking plays out among the Membership too. In December 2019 the editor of ConservativeHome surveyed over 1000 Party members on the breadth of support for One Nation. The last sentence of the article reporting on the survey echoed how Members views played out in the numbers: “that some seven on ten members, a clear majority, view One Nation with emotions ranging from suspicion to hostility.” Again, it’s not simply the case that not all Conservative Members support One Nation but that most actually don’t, and – shock horror – might be against it.
Apart from elections, the Parliamentary Party and the Membership – as if that wasn’t enough – what greater rejection of paternalistic thinking have we seen most recently than Brexit? A vote by 17.2 million people to take back control from the ruling class and be allowed to get on. Indeed, traditional, libertarian, patriotic, free-market and socially conservative values are the antithesis to the centralised, federalist, highly regulated and bureaucratic model in Brussels. It was the voters of the Midlands, the North and the Counties reaction to such thinking that drove the Leave vote to victory and won this Party a majority.
Still, it was Brexit that provided a cause and vehicle for the expression of these sentiments. Voters didn’t unite behind any blue-collar or traditional conservative manifesto policies, so much as they voted to ‘Get Brexit Done’ and ’Take Back Control’. In this respect, and contrast to the establishment driven, paternalistic programmes of One Nationism, Brexit shone a light on the depth and scale of support for these values, brought them to the surface and provided a democratic channel for them. So to attribute the result of the referendum or general election with any success in catering to libertarian, free-market, traditional or socially conservative values beyond leaving the European Union would clearly be an error. It is why the Reclaim Party have come onto the scene and why other Conservatives need to step up.
One Nation was a style of policymaking in the throws to the guilt of Thatcherism and Theresa May’s identification of the Conservatives as the “nasty party”. Of course, the left continued to label the Conservatives as such in response to cuts under Osborne, yet with record new voters turning out for Corbyn in 2017 long after Osborne had gone, and Mrs May had announced an end to austerity, the appeasement politics of ‘Mayism’ didn’t change their thinking. If they are blue they are nasty, and that’s that.
Still, here we are, as the Prime Minister remarked on election night: this is a ‘One Nation Conservative Government’. So the question is: why and what to do about it? Most simply Conservatives of all shades need to make their pitch. Libertarians, free-marketers, traditionalists and social conservatives of all persuasions need to put their case forward and take their place at the top table. In No.10; in the Cabinet; at CCHQ; in the Press; on the floor of the Commons; in the Pressure Groups or more widely in the public sphere: conservatives of all kinds must accept how the landscape has changed and what will work in 2024.
One Nation has a poor track record at elections and still isn’t popular among the Parliamentary Party or the Membership today. Brexit has laid the political ground bare and made it fertile for a new Conservatism to take root and the Conservatives will reap whatever it is they decide – or don’t decide – to sow in the run-up to the next General Election.