Who are the Conservatives now? The One Nation debate

Ed Miliband’s confident evocation of the Tory mantra ‘One Nation’ speaks volumes about the Conservative Party's failure to conserve its ideological roots. But who will benefit from the land grab? 

Niki Seth-Smith
16 October 2012

“Can the Conservatives respond to Labour’s One Nation land grab?” I joined a discussion last night, hosted by the centre-left think tank IPPR, to answer that question. In other words, why was Ed Miliband able to conjure the ghost of Disraeli so effectively in his recent speech to Conference, and has Cameron really ceded this centre ground?

As with all good debates, the first answer questioned the question. It wasn’t a “land grab”, argued Marc Stears, a Miliband advisor who shared the panel with David Skelton, deputy director of Policy Exchange, and Tim Bale, hailed in IPPR’s literature as “the leading academic expert on the Conservative party”. Firstly, said Stears, it was nothing new. Blair claimed One Nation for Labour in 1995. But more importantly, it was not (or at least not primarily) a tactical move as it was for Blair, but about doing politics differently. The “magic of the speech” lay for Stears in its success as not only “an articulation of a better society… but also of the means by which you pursue it.” Ends and process came together, from the banks (Miliband wants the highstreet separated from the financial casino) to training and apprenticeships.

Tories in the room, both on the panel (Skelton) and off (Phillip Blond) denied any such shift from Miliband, but Stears clearly believes the speech marked a policy turning point. So it’s safe to say that was the aim. As a founding contributor to Blue Labour and one of the brains behind the speech, when Stears talks about Miliband’s intentions, it’s wise to listen. He proceeded to set out what he saw as the three pillars of One Nation Milibandism:

Giving every citizen a stake in Britain; ending a situation where people feel at the mercy of forces beyond their control. (You could call this the democratic principle, and it includes reclaiming power over the City.) Distributing the benefits and burdens of our social life fairly (squarely in the social democratic tradition). And thirdly, protecting “our common national institutions”.

Now this last, whether you call it a ‘land grab’ or not, is most obviously Tory ground. Bale spoke from the panel about the Conservative party’s abandonment of this territory since coming to power in 2010. Drawing on his essay for IPPR’s journal Juncture, he painted the picture of a party bordering on the “delusional”, who had chosen a Macmillan leader, David Cameron, only to have him revert to the Thatcherite “orthodox type” on being faced with the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Within this picture, I could see the Big Society as the perfect veil for a conjuring trick: a One Nation promise, of trusting citizens, pulling together, an appeal to the British characteristics of entrepreneurialism and good-natured neighborliness – all as a cover for the cuts. (Arguably, as the project only applies to England it could never claim the One Nation cloak in the first place, but the English question was notable for its absence in the discussion.)

Skelton and Blond rose to defend the plurality of their party against what was really an accusation of ruling market utopianism. The policy expert claimed that there was more discussion of One Nation ideas in the ranks now than in the 1990s, while the father of Red Toryism claimed the growing influence of evangelicals and Catholics within the party – a group he argued provided most of the surviving advocates of Macmillan-style politics. Bale dismissed this as “tinkering around the edges”. I’m inclined to agree.  Skelton’s own description of One Nation Toryism as “adaptable”, “flexible”, “not overtly ideological”, able to speak to and unite North and South, is very far from the current party whose lurches to the right with this year’s Budget, the cabinet reshuffle and now Cameron’s Conference have brought back the old Nasty Party label.

Yet it is misleading, I’d argue, to describe this simply as “the demise of progressive Conservatism” (the subtitle of Bale’s Juncture essay). Not only is it the withering of the party’s left: the Conservatives have forgotten how to conserve. We approached this paradox quite late at the IPPR event, but I thought it the most insightful part. A deeply psychological picture emerged, one of a lack of closure, in which the party remains fixated on Thatcher's victories and headstrong tactics (set out your stall, hold fast, the glory will be yours in the end). Forgetting a) that the Iron Lady came to power and led the country in a highly specific set of circumstances with the opposition divided; b) that her vote always went down even after the Falklands; c) that the party even had a history at all pre-1975. Not a second too soon, Vernon Bogdanor pointed out the lumbering elephant: Europe, and the damaging legacy of Thatcher’s relegation of her One Nation Tories to the scrapheap as pro-European, hence ‘no nation Tories’. He argued that they had never recovered.

So did I find the answer to the question, “Can the Conservatives respond to the One Nation land grab?” I certainly left convinced, if I wasn’t before, that there was a grab to be made, in fact a vast territory left unoccupied by a three-party system that has lost touch with the country and its peoples.

Maybe the One Nation mantle will succeed in allowing Labour to offer protection, preservation and guardianship, as well as Blairite ‘progress’. Miliband is up against Cameron’s self-described “revolution of the state”, and I believe he is right to evoke small ‘c’ conservative values in the face of this. I’m not convinced that there’s flesh on the bones yet, and the retort that ‘Ed is still at the beginning of a journey’ doesn’t cut it mid-term. But the pledge to repeal the Health and Social Care Act is a start. As we saw in Danny Boyle’s Olympic Opening Ceremony, itself a moment of jubilant togetherness, being the party of the NHS cannot be a stronger ‘One Nation’ stance. (Cameron knows this, hence no mention of the re-organisation in his Conference speech.)

Finally, Miliband’s One Nation speech did not speak to the urgency of a crisis here in Britain that is more than economic, but also profoundly political, cultural and moral – as David Marquand has expressed so eloquently in his piece today. As Anthony Barnett and Bogdanor said at last night’s event, it’s deeply worrying that Labour seems to think the worst of the economic crisis is over, rather than building steam. One Nation notions will be put to the test before the next election if the Euro goes bust. Will they hold up? 

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