Ed Miliband’s recent evocation of Benjamin Disraeli’s One Nation rhetoric was not just a brilliant exercise in semantic theft. It also opened the door to a much-needed change in the public culture of this country. Virtually all the successful Conservative leaders in the last hundred years, from Baldwin to Churchill to Harold Macmillan to Edward Heath, have laid claim to the ‘one nation’ mantle, sometimes overtly and sometimes only tacitly. The one great exception was Thatcher; and despite winning three general elections and carrying through a revolution in Britain’s political economy, she left a bitterly divided party that became increasingly out of touch with the nation it aspired to govern.
After winning the Conservative leadership, Cameron had the sense to do everything he could to present himself as another ‘one nation’ Tory in the Baldwin-Macmillan mould. In opposition he succeeded pretty well – though not well enough to win an absolute parliamentary majority. But governmental performance has belied opposition promise. Whatever the Coalition may or may not be, it certainly isn’t a one-nation government.
But the Brown government wasn’t one-nation either; and nor was the third Blair government. I suspect that, in present conditions, no government can be one-nation in the sense that Ed Miliband appears to have in mind. This country is engulfed in a profound crisis, the most profound, I believe, since the First World War. It erupted in 2007/8 with the collapse of Northern Rock and Lehman Brothers, but its origins go back to the early 1990s, when the collapse of communism ushered in a wildly hubristic form of capitalism, or even to the early1980s when the Thatcher regime in the UK and the Reagan regime in the US started to dismantle the social democratic legacy left by Franklin Roosevelt in America and Clement Attlee in Britain. It is, of course, an economic crisis; and quite understandably that is what most politicians and commentators focus on. But it is also a political crisis – and, as well, a cultural and moral crisis.
This crisis cannot be overcome by any one political party or the adherents of any one political tradition. It transcends these familiar dividing lines. To overcome it, we need a wide-ranging national conversation, a bit like the Victorian conversation on what was then called ‘the condition of England Question’, to which all the varied traditions of our culture – conservative as well as socialist or social democratic; republican as well as liberal; and religious as well as political – should contribute, along with the burgeoning green movement. By invoking Disraeli, Ed may have begun such a conversation. I devoutly hope so.