Of course Ed Miliband is not a One Nation leader. There is too much of the class warrior about him for that, even in his slightly snide reference to his own comprehensive schooling. But his high-profile use of the ‘One Nation’ idea teaches us something important about both the Labour party that he leads, and the Conservative Party that used to be the home of One Nation-ism – if I can use such a clumsy suffix.
First, the Labour Party. The reason Mr. Miliband has grasped so enthusiastically at the One Nation philosophy is that there is simply nothing left for him to plunder from Labour’s own stock of ideology. In its prime, Labour promoted a form of democratic socialism that was red-blooded in tooth and claw. It served a purpose, certainly, but gradually even the modest western form of socialism stuttered into obsolescence as its doctrines failed to really grasp the nature of liberal capitalism. Labour’s most successful leader – Tony Blair – was never much hamstrung by ideology, but did seek to find a replacement brand through such woolly concepts as the ‘Third Way’, and the naming of his party as ‘New Labour’. Miliband is on the same search, and has currently found a home in a tortured version of a famous Tory brand. There can be no greater evidence of the ideological failure of social democracy than that it seeks to find shelter under the principles of one of the great Tory leaders of the past. The Labour leader’s speech was an accomplished one, but it was built on political sands that shifted even as he spoke.
Whatever his own party’s failings, Mr. Miliband has nonetheless gifted the Conservatives an insight into our own condition. It has come to a pretty dismal pass when we have managed to so forget our roots that we have left it to another party to take up what should be the core element of our own principles. Mr. Miliband seized on One Nation with such alacrity because he noticed that the Conservatives appear to have abandoned it, and he believed it would embarrass Mr. Cameron to be reminded of the failure of his moderating project.
It might be useful to remind ourselves why One Nation Toryism is the most successful incarnation of Conservative politics to have been presented to the electorate, and why we abandon it at our peril.
One Nation was about recognising the need for any political party to apply itself to the needs of all the diverse people and needs of a country, and not to simply let one part of the nation – usually the wretchedly downtrodden non-copers stuck in their visceral cycle of decline - wither into neglect. This was especially the case for Disraeli’s own Conservative Party as it faced the challenges of a widening franchise and a perception that it simply represented the interests of the ruling class.
One Nation was a useful, and very non-specific, idea. It is no surprise that it actually surfaced in one of the great man’s novels. Nevertheless, when Disraeli finally achieved office for longer than a few months, his own idea of a unifying form of Conservatism, caring as much for the poor and dispossessed as it did for the wealthy and successful, did achieve practical form. That this was under the aegis of an energetic Home Secretary called Richard Cross rather than Disraeli himself – by then rather more interested in lording it in Europe – matters not a bit. Cross enacted a whole raft of activist social legislation – such as improving labourers’ dwellings, making public health reforms and protecting workers’ rights in factories – that advanced the practical cause of One Nation Toryism considerably. His precedent would be followed in the twentieth century by such luminaries as Neville Chamberlain, one of the most reformist health ministers to hold office, and Harold Macmillan, with his commitment to a stupendous house building programme financed by the government.
The sad thing is that such legislation would be anathema to most of today’s Tories. So strong has become the hold of the classical liberals within the Conservative Party that we have forgotten how to promote a concern for those who cannot make their way simply by their own actions and efforts. The Conservatives today represent the interest of the self-helpers more than anything. This is the root of so much Tory hostility towards public services, or to government aid to various groups, or protective legislation. This is the Tory vacuum that Mr. Miliband is seeking to capitalise on.
David Cameron often cites Disraeli as his favourite politician, and came to power as a leader apparently committed to reviving Tory One Nationism. The Big Society was one outworking of that idea, although denuded of much practical consequence by its separation from any form of government funding or support. The sad thing for Mr. Cameron is that his roots in the Conservative Party have been too shallow to allow him to gain much strength, with the result that he has quickly become buffeted by the prevailing winds which, in the modern Conservative Party, are predominantly rightist – or classical liberal, to use their ideological heritage. As such, he can appeal happily to the relatively small proportion of the electorate who want government to retreat from their affairs, stop providing too much welfare, and reform public services in a downwards direction. His appeal to the majority is correspondingly weaker.
It may be that Mr. Cameron does revive his rhetorical commitment to One Nation Conservatism at the party conference. He’s good at that. He remains an accomplished speaker who set the template that Ed Miliband emulated. But unless he deals more effectively with the gulf that is opening up between himself and the legions of voters who depend upon a One Nation concept of government; unless he starts to promote the few remaining One Nation Tories still in Parliament; and unless he starts standing up to the narrowing strictures of his powerful classical liberal wing, he will leave Mr. Miliband an open goal. And on present form, Ed Miliband may just end up scoring.