Anthony Howard asks this question in this morning's Times. It's a good question to ask. Unfortunately Mr Howard responds with a circuitous (and not particularly helpful) history lesson.
It's a good question to ask because all of the leadership candidates are claiming to be 'one nation conservatives'. David Davis has said that he is a one nation Tory but his one nation beliefs have so far focused on improving social mobility rather than addressing chronic and intergenerational forms of poverty. Does Sir Malcolm Rifkind believe that DD is a real one nation Tory? Surely the Shadow Home Secretary was one of the people that Sir Malcolm had in mind when he said that the leadership race was a choice between one nation and right-wing beliefs?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind gave a whole speech on the subject on Thursday night. Addressing one thousand people Sir Malcolm said that he joined the Conservative Party because the one nation tradition reflected his beliefs, values and aspirations. The expression derives from Benjamin Disraeli's time. As conservativehome.com's definition notes, Disraeli introduced the idea in his 1845 novel, Sybil. Disraeli wrote:
"Two Nations Between Whom There Is No Intercourse And No Sympathy; Who Are As Ignorant Of Each Other's Habits, Thoughts, And Feelings, As If They Were Dwellers In Different Zones, Or Inhabitants Of Different Planets; Who Are Formed By A Different Breeding, Are Fed By Different Food, Are Ordered By Different Manners, And Are Not Governed By The Same Laws."
The material squalor of Disraeli's time has been banished to the history books but other forms of poverty have emerged - as Iain Duncan Smith and other Tories have been increasingly arguing. Sir Malcolm's speech emphasised four objectives for a modern day one nation conservatism:
- The eradication of residual poverty within Britain: "While the country is more prosperous than ever before and while the old class divisions have been significantly eroded, serious social problems persist and poverty can be seen in many communities."
- An end to racial discrimination: "Only when Asian and black Britons are as likely to vote Conservative as the country as a whole will Britain be able to assume that we have achieved true racial harmony and successful integration."
- A United Kingdom: "One Nation Tories have always found it easier to accept the devolved Britain that now exists and to work for a healthy balance between the component parts of the United Kingdom."
- The fight against poverty in the developing world: "The principles of One Nation apply with equal strength to One World and we have an obligation as well as an opportunity that we must not ignore."
Few Tories could disagree with these aims but, as always, the disagreement comes in discussing solutions. In addressing domestic poverty Sir Malcolm emphasises (1) "radical simplification and reform of the tax system to take the poorest out of tax" and (2) "increasing use of voluntary organisations rather than the state's Job Centres to match people to available employment". These are policies Labour are unlikely to imitate but other compassionate conservatives would also emphasise family strengthening, zero tolerance policing, harm avoidance approaches to drug use and school choice. Where does Sir Malcolm stand on those issues?
More controversial criticisms can be made of his international aspirations - which he sums up in the attractive phrase of 'One Nation in One World'. He talks unspecifically about "global injustice" and about the "the need to see the rule of law in international relations as well as in national affairs". Is this a reminder of his opposition to the Iraq war? Opposition rooted in the US-UK-led coalition's failure to get legal approval from enough of the dictatorships and compromised democracies that sit on the United Nations Security Council? Sir Malcolm's leading role in the Major Government won't help his 'One Nation in One World' credentials either. That administration displayed pusillanimity in Srebrenica, armed repressive countries like Suharto's Indonesia and made deep cuts in overseas development expenditure.