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What is One Nation Conservatism?

Amber Rudd

Amber Rudd

One Nation co-chair Amber Rudd attends launch of Jeremy Hunt’s leadership campaign

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Amber Rudd

New Tory caucus is proving influential in party leadership contest

In Depth
Wednesday, June 12, 2019 - 1:46pm

Boris Johnson is officially launching his campaign to become prime minister today, declaring that the UK must leave the EU by the end of October.

But Brexit is not the only topic on his agenda. The former foreign secretary and front runner in the race to Downing Street is also expected to lay out a “one nation” vision for the country.

Indeed, One Nation Conservatism is becoming a theme of the Tory leadership race. So what does it mean?

Where does ‘One Nation Conservatism’ come from?

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.

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“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 is 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 has published a written declaration, explaining its values: 

Is Johnson really a One Nation Tory?

Johnson has said that 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.”

He told MPs last week: “The way to win in any seat is to stop banging on about Brexit and put that bawling baby to bed, pacify it and recapture the political agenda with One Nation conservatism. That’s how I won in London twice and how we can beat Lib Dems now.”

But 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.

Nevertheless, while the leadership hopeful has not managed to win the support of Rudd away from Jeremy Hunt, his nearest rival in the race to become PM, he has so far secured twice as many backers.

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