One Nation Conservatism can be redefined (again)
Historically there is some truth to this. One Nation Conservatism is phrase routed in the political philosophy of Benjamin Disraeli. It is a paternalistic and pragmatic ideology, one that defends the status quo in social order, but believes that people have obligations to one another. Landowners should care about their tenants, employers about their employees, and the government about the people. In Disraeli’s day there was a heavy class element to this, hence paternalism.
A “One Nation” administration in this light governs as though the steward of the public good for all people, not merely as the representatives of sectional interests of those more likely to have voted for them, or one geography against another. One Nation Conservatives are not radicals. In the 20th century they accepted much of Labour’s post-war socialist consensus, most notably the NHS and nationalisation.
By the 1980s they were treated as “wets” and “part of the problem”. The post-war consensus with its welfarism, corporatism, debt and resulting stagnation was the target for major reforms rooted in part in the free-market ideas of the Institute of Economic Affairs. That great contrast though, between wets and radicals, between social democracy and economic liberalism, between and larger and smaller state, does not usefully define what One Nation does or could mean today.
One Nation is a shifting concept rooted in the principle of “governing for all” and public duty, not an economic system. If it were the latter, how then can Disraeli’s administrations, operating with a small state (public spending <10% of GDP), be compared with those today, operating in an era of high taxation and extensive regulation? Which of those worlds is the more economically liberal? Yet both have had “One Nation Conservative” governments.
It is then a mistake for economic liberals to treat the label as a target rather than an opportunity. That plays into the hands of people for whom One Nation is a convenient mask for some extremely lazy thinking, or the false pragmatism of failing to make difficult choices. The May administration, for example, was not so much One Nation as No Decisions.
The principle issue with Disraeli’s concept of One Nation conversely has nothing to do with markets; it’s the paternalism. To have a sense of obligation to others does not require you believe you know how they should live, let alone a desire to direct it, but a degree of empathy and respect, coupled with an optimism for progress and how it can benefit everyone. You can be a One Nation Liberal, and if that is the status quo then defending it is what it also means to be a One Nation Conservative.
Moreover, liberals and libertarians are not by default “selfish individualists”, which was part of Disraeli’s assault on Gladstone. That label is a characterisation. Both groups are as deeply rooted in their families, communities and countries as any soggy socialist or high church conservative. They just happen to believe that political and economic freedom, underpinned by the rule of law and property rights convey greater benefits to all peoples than authoritarian control or the patrician wisdom and good intentions of elites and experts.
A free-market critique of the NHS for example is based on a desire to improve health outcomes by permitting different providers to compete to make you better, not undermining universal access. A free-market critique of green socialism is that it involves redistribution from the poor to a tiny elite of landowners and large corporations; it is not pro-pollution. These are in every respect more “One Nation” positions than their counterpoints.
In regional policy – the rebalancing of which appears likely to be central to the new government’s thinking – what matters is unleashing opportunity and prosperity in the North, not defending failed welfarism as though this had anything to do what northern pride or growth. That requires removing barriers to entrepreneurship and investment as much as encouraging better connections between cities hemmed in by shoddy infrastructure. One funds the other.
If free marketeers allow the label to be owned by people who merely prefer not rocking the boat, like proclaiming they are “on your side” without any sense of what your side might be, or just find it appealing to be thought vaguely moderate, they are missing a trick. All great political movements have at some point taken the clothes of their opponents and tailored them to a new style.
Which may indeed be what the prime minister intends. Rather than reintroducing some 1950s concept of the managerial state, or revisiting the divisions of the 1980s, his “One Nation Conservatism” may be deeply rooted in the pragmatic applications of markets to the challenges of the 2020s. His leading thinkers, for example, care deeply about innovation over intervention and global free trade, not regional protectionism.
Free marketeers could then embrace the language, ensure that it is now associated with freedom and choice, not managed decline, and use that clarity to move the debate onto their own terms rather than those of opponents.