What is One Nation Conservatism?

Boris Johnson urged Britain to vote for a ‘One Nation Conservative party’ - here’s what he meant

British statesman Benjamin Disraeli
British statesman Benjamin Disraeli
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Boris Johnson is on course to win a convincing majority in the 2019 general election, offering him a mandate to deliver not only Brexit but also his version of “One Nation” Conservatism.

Throughout the election campaign, Johnson pledged repeatedly to lead a “One Nation Conservative administration”. So what does it mean?

Where does ‘One Nation Conservatism’ come from?

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The term has been around since Benjamin Disraeli declared in 1837 that “the Tory party, unless it is a national party, is nothing”. In his book, Sybil, or The Two Nations, published in 1845, more than two decades before he first became PM, Disraeli suggested that the rich and poor were “as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets” - and therefore were two separate nations.

“In Disraeli’s paternalistic vision, the ruling class had an obligation to look out for the lower orders to ensure social stability and to avoid fomenting revolution,” says The Daily Telegraph.

However, the meaning has “changed confusingly over the years”, reports The Economist. In the late 19th century, Disraeli’s successor, Lord Salisbury, altered the meaning to uniting the kingdom, rather than the classes. Then, from the 1940s, the term was reinvented for the age of the welfare state, to refer to a new form of Conservative paternalism.

Margaret Thatcher reinterpreted One Nation Conservative once again, to resurrect the old idea of a property-owning democracy. However, since her fall, in 1990, it has become a “code-word for trying to soften Mrs Thatcher’s legacy”, says The Economist.

What does it mean now?

In March, dozens of moderate Tory MPs launched a new One Nation group reportedly aimed at keeping the party to the centre.

The board has been co-chaired by Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd and former education secretary Nicky Morgan, and includes Damian Green and Nicholas Soames. It now has more than 60 members, nearly a fifth of the parliamentary party.

“It is understood that the group formed after a number of secret meetings and dinners held by MPs who fear hard-line Brexiteers are hijacking the party,” according to PoliticsHome.

The Sunday Times has described it as a “socially liberal” group that aims to counterweight Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group and influence domestic and Brexit policy.

In an article for The Guardian last month, the group talks about bringing together “all four parts of the Union, North and South, Remain and Leave”, and honouring the EU referendum “in a way that unites the 52% and the 48%”.

Some members of the caucus, which has held interview-style hustings with the leading candidates in Westminster, are staunchly against a no-deal Brexit.

The group also published a written declaration, explaining its values:

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Is Johnson really a One Nation Tory?

During his Tory leadership campaign, Johnson said he supports all of the values in the group’s declaration, tweeting: “Agree with all of this. One Nation values have never been more important.”

However, the New Statesman’s Martin Fletcher suggests that Johnson’s policy proposals do not reflect the values of the caucus. “He professes to be a ‘One Nation Conservative’, but champions an ugly nationalism and tax cuts for the rich,” says Fletcher.

Now that he is on course to win the election, Johnson “will have to explain how his 'One Nation' vision can somehow hold together a new Tory coalition that includes voters in the stockbroker belt of Sevenoaks and working-class voters in the terraced streets of Stoke-on-Trent,” the Financial Times says.

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