Opinion Articles

‘One Nation’: policy platform or empty slogan?

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It is still unclear whether Ed Miliband will persist in his use of the 'One Nation' slogan. Despite his enthusiastic comments in the aftermath of his speech to the 2012 Labour conference, he might still decide to follow the example of Tony Blair before the 1997 general election, and discard the phrase after a brief flirtation. The temptation to do so is likely to grow as the next general election approaches. Although Milliband's use of the phrase showed courage as well as cheek, it is one thing to steal a slogan, and quite another to convert it into the basis for a coherent campaign - let alone to flesh it out into a programme for government.

As Philip Begley has rightly noted in Miliband's 'One Nation': stealing the emperor's clothes?, Miliband used One Nation to depict his party as a force for unity, in contrast to the allegedly divisive Conservatives. He implied that the Conservatives had lost their right to speak of as a One Nation party, and that David Cameron had disingenuously presented himself as a compassionate, post-Thatcherite Conservative. Cameron had claimed to be the true 'heir to Blair', and rather than contesting that dubious title Miliband would rather be seen as the real legatee of Benjamin Disraeli.

In contemporary terms Disraeli is a red herring. His fear s about the estrangement between the rich and the poor referred to the lack of communication between landlord and tenant, more than the gulf between employer and employee. The state could help to affect a reconciliation between the 'Two Nations' to some extent, but Disraeli was really hoping for a spiritual renaissance among the wealthy which required moral exhortation rather than legislation. Unsurprisingly therefore, the social reforms during his two terms as Prime Minister (1868, and 1874-80) were relatively meagre.

By 1950, when a group of progressive Conservatives published the pamphlet, One Nation, it was clear that the gulf between the rich and the poor had become a pressing governmental concern. The original One Nation members included such contrasting personalities as Edward Heath and Enoch Powell, and it would be too simplistic to regard the Group as unified in ideological terms. However, it seems reasonable to suppose that the group adopted One Nation because of a distinctly un-Thatcherite sensitivity to the relationship between the rich and the poor; and that, in the wake of the Attlee Government's social reforms, they assumed an interventionist role for the state in this relationship.

In the post-war context, it was natural that One Nation Conservatives should be concerned about income differentials (although the Disraelian focus on personal relationships between 'masters and men' survived, as One Nation founder members like Robert Carr pressed the case for co-ownership in industry). Unfortunately for the Conservative One Nation tradition, the spectre of mass unemployment on the scale of 1930 first threatened to become a reality when Heath was Prime Minister (1970-4). His attempts to stave off a return to Two Nations led to accusations of a policy u-turn, and arguably were doomed in any case by the impact of rapidly rising oil prices after the Yom Kippur War of 1973.

Heath's deposition as premier and then as party leader (1975) is attributable to a series of unhelpful events as well as personal misjudgements. Yet it can be argued that the Conservative One Nation agenda was running out of road before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979. In exposing the British economy to the full force of international competition, Thatcher was acting in accordance with personal beliefs and unwittingly working with the grain of global developments. Although One Nation Conservatives opposed her doctrinaire economic strategy with plausible arguments, they rested on outdated assumptions about the ability of a nation like Britain to pursue an autonomous course.

This is not to say that, by 1979, One Nation Conservatism was as irrelevant as Disraeli's Imperialism. Heavy hitters within the party, like Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, continued to uphold the tradition. However, rather than arguing that Britain could resist the socially divisive impact of gloablisation, they now saw the country's integration within a European community as the most likely economic shelter. While this strategy could appeal to those who understood the growing restraints which confined UK policy makers, it had limited appeal to the readers of Britain's tabloids, which had abandoned their initial sympathy for European cooperation and, by the time Thatcher delivered her defiantly anti-European Bruges speech in 1988, were ready to launch a protracted and vitriolic campaign against 'Europe'.

In this sense, it is not fanciful to depict the pro-European Tony Blair, with his boasted concern for social exclusion, as a politician who adhered to One Nation politics in practice even if he spurned the slogan. However, the EU has proved ineffective as a protective barrier against global economic developments, and New Labour failed a key One Nation litmus test by allowing the gap between the rich and the poor in Britain to widen. Amidst a prolonged economic recession, it is unsurprising that David Cameron - the leader of a party which owes far more to Thatcher than to Disraeli - has fallen far short of the One Nation ideal. However, studies in the 1970s showed that even the post-war reforms inspired by the Beveridge Report failed to reduce economic inequalities. Thus, a serious attempt to restore One Nation, reducing the gulf between rich and poor, would require something more radical than a return to Old Labour. More likely, Miliband will keep One Nation in reserve, directing his main appeal to members of the 'squeezed middle' - the same 'hard-working families' who aspire to join the rich, rather than suffering social exclusion with the unemployed poor.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.


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