DAVID Cameron is still basking in the reflective glow of his general election victory. Last week, in his first official engagement since becoming Prime Minister, it can be no coincidence that he visited Stockton, the former constituency of Harold Macmillan, to highlight his belated conversion to the principles of One Nation Conservatism.
But what does that term actually mean, and does David Cameron really believe in it? And if not, where might its true meaning lie?
One Nation Conservatism is perhaps the most misrepresented and misused term in British politics. Whenever the term is brought up, observers vaguely refer to Benjamin Disraeli. And yet, as a superb new biography of Disraeli by Douglas Hurd and York-born Ed Young rightly points out, Disraeli never believed in one nation. Rather, he argued that there were two nations in Britain, rich and poor, and that they could never be reconciled. How true today, when the gap between rich and poor has widened, and the electoral map of Britain reflects that reality.
Perhaps David Cameron means that he wants to keep our nation – the United Kingdom – together. A laudable aim perhaps? And yet this was the politician who made a point of announcing after the Scottish referendum result last September that he would reopen the case for “English votes for English laws”, a move which pushed the Scottish electorate into the arms of the SNP.
Worse still, Cameron ran an election campaign with the brutal aim of setting the Scots against the English. Post-election, he cannot go into healing mode having caused much of the damage in the first place. If Cameron does represent a nation, it is the English (and perhaps Welsh) nation, not the crumbling United Kingdom.
If there is any substance to Cameron’s One Nation Conservatism, it lies in his close colleague George Osborne’s vision of creating city powerhouses in the North of England, starting with Manchester. The aim is to offer an alternative to Labour’s more federal, regional vision for how Britain is to be governed.
But if we are to find any real meaning in One Nation Conservatism, then we need to go further back in time. Although, as we have seen, the term has been widely misunderstood, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath best characterised an older set of values – a belief in common endeavour bound by wartime solidarity (for Macmillan, the First World War, for Heath, the Second), and a desire never to return to the Depression of the 1930s. Both men recoiled at the prospect of high levels of unemployment.
Macmillan was willing to let inflation rip in the early 1960s to avoid it, while a decade later Heath engaged in his famous U-turns when unemployment crept above one million.
Margaret Thatcher punctured a balloon into One Nation Conservatism, claiming that it would lead to no-nation Conservatism, dragging Britain into a federal Europe. Her ill-fated successor, John Major, referred early on to “a nation at ease with itself”, but he could not hold together the Union in its old form, and devolution followed under Tony Blair.
In truth, One Nation Conservatism is a rhetorical device being used by the current Prime Minister in order to come across as a “father of the nation” figure, supposedly ready to heal the wounds of a hard fought general election campaign.
But when you strip away the rhetoric, Cameron is closer ideologically to Thatcher than to Macmillan or Heath. A One Nation Conservative like Heath would now be kicked out of the Tory party for being too left-wing. So would Harold Macmillan, whose 1985 speech attacking Mrs Thatcher for “selling off the family silver”, was heresy to the privatisers and the moneylenders of the 1980s Conservative Party.
The difference between Thatcher and Cameron is that the latter realises that a softer rhetoric is required in modern politics. Thatcher was successful by pursuing policies of “divide and rule”, whether that was referring to striking miners as “the enemy within” or pitting home owners against those living in rented accommodation.
But such an approach upset too many people, and had a limited lifespan. That is why we heard the “we are all in this together” mantra early on in the coalition, and now we are hearing Cameron’s glib references to One Nation Conservatism.
If the Conservatives do not really believe in One Nation, then who does? During his 2012 Labour party conference speech, the much-maligned Ed Miliband sought to reclaim the term from the Conservatives, defining it as a country where “everyone has opportunity” and “where prosperity is fairly shared”. Miliband’s was a message of social cohesion, in which all the nations of our islands have a strong sense of common endeavour, that we are better acting as a community.
While Ed Miliband’s political career will quickly be forgotten, the new contenders for the Labour leadership would do well to heed his One Nation vision, which can only work if we recapture a shared sense of a common good which binds us together.
Mark Stuart is a political historian from York who has written biographies of Douglas Hurd and John Smith.