One Nation Conservatism - the only viable one nation politics
Damian Green is the Shadow Immigration Minister and the Conservative MP for Ashford.
Now that all good Conservatives have returned from the beach fully equipped by their summer reading list to nudge, worry about choice architecture and practise libertarian paternalism, it is time to take the intellectual battle to Labour. In particular it is worth pointing out that David Miliband’s notorious Guardian article may have convulsed the plotting classes within Labour, but it was a little empty in terms of new content. The reason is that attempting to warm up Blairism in a Labour context is proving impossible.
What the last two years have proved is that the Blairite project of attempting to colonise the traditional “One Nation” territory which the Conservative Party has occupied for most of the successful years of its existence is no longer credible. New Labour has proved a project for the fat years only. Now that the lean years are upon us it is palpably failing. Not only is the “economic efficiency” half of the equation a distant dream, the “social justice” half is failing as well. The poorest 30% have seen their income fall. Social Mobility is the worst in the EU. Youth unemployment is higher than in 1997.
The underlying reason is that trying to turn One Nation ideas into a centre-left project was always dishonest. One of the most misleading pieces of conventional wisdom about British politics is that the rush to the centre has left no difference between the two major parties. Another is that David Cameron’s Conservative Party is more about style than substance. In reality the recent successes of Conservatism are due to the latest modernisation of its most long-lasting tradition, the idealism of One Nation. Even more importantly the intellectual underpinning of One Nation thought will give a sense of direction and purpose to a future Conservative Government, if we win the next election.
Historically, the most creative periods of One Nation Conservatism have come when its adherents have offered Tory solutions to social problems which the Left believe are its own particular area of expertise. The basic tenets remain the same. It is the duty of Government to take active steps to relieve poverty and its attendant social ills, and it may not be the case that an unfettered free market will achieve this. Pure individualism is not enough, and a Tory Government should encourage the creation of a strong civil society through active measures to help family, voluntary and community action in the areas covered by “social services”. State power is not anathema, but it is the last resort.
R A Butler wanted to make it “perfectly possible to be literate, rational, well-informed and a Tory.” Ian Gilmour was eager to prevent a Conservative “retreat behind the privet hedge into a world of narrow class interests and selfish concerns.” These high-minded ambitions have their modern equivalents. Today it should be not just possible but unremarkable that you can be black, or Muslim, or a public sector worker and a Tory.
It is this generous-spirited Conservatism which Labour cannot cope with in intellectual terms. Ed Miliband’s lecture “Building a different kind of state” argues against a “minimal state,” in attempting to say that Conservatives would be less sensitive to the needs of the voluntary sector. This is typical of two increasingly desperate Labour positions. Firstly that the Conservative party has not developed its views about the role of the state and secondly that voluntary activity is helped by the ever-expanding state it has faced in recent years. Both are demonstrably false. One key reason why left of centre One Nation politics is failing is that centralism is impossible to reconcile with strong local communities and institutions. One Nation Conservatism regards these local influences as essential, and is happy to relinquish some central control to promote them. Not even the combined brain-power of the Miliband family has resolved this dilemma for Labour.
The problem for the Labour post-Blairites is that both halves of the original formulation of One Nation Conservatism are equally important. It needs to be inclusive, to mean all Britons are part of same nation, but to work in practice it needs hard-headed Conservative insights. A successful society will see free individuals choosing to play a role in the community (perhaps after a nudge from the state), and will want to empower these would-be generous contributors to society by keeping their taxes as low as feasible, and the amount of time they have to spend on the state’s business as small as possible. So the pressure on taxes and regulation should be relentlessly downwards.
For the state to be effective it needs intermediate institutions to provide the protection, the helping hand and the focus of local loyalties that citizens expect. These intermediate agents will come messily from the private, voluntary and state sectors as required. There will be no overall pattern. One Nation Conservatives have a deep attachment to this kind of variegated social arrangement. Their left-wing counterparts do not.
So when Conservatives talk about opportunity, responsibility and security they are aiming at a different arrangement of the state from anyone on the centre-left, even the so-called “uber-Blairites” who seem braver in their current rhetoric about “reform” than they ever were in office. Be he ever so moderate a One Nation Conservative will prefer a voluntary or private sector solution if one is available, but will not be ideological about it if one is not. The key issues which the next Government will have to tackle, from welfare reform to transport, will need an approach which does not measure virtue by the amount of public money spent but which does take as a given that the vulnerable should be better protected. Compassion and efficiency, the twin pillars of One Nation Conservatism throughout history, remain equally important to the development of a modern, responsive welfare state.