'One nation', 'one nation conservatism', and 'Tory democracy' are terms used in political debate in the United Kingdom to refer to the left wing of the Conservative Party. The term denotes a political stance aspiring towards unity of the citizenry in the nation, as well as harmony between divergent classes and interest groups, as opposed to the social polarisation seen in the likes of both militant socialism and Thatcherism.
The term derives indirectly from one of Benjamin Disraeli's political novels, Sybil, or the Two Nations, in which he described Britain as "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: the rich and the poor." Lord Randolph Churchill would also use the term "Tory democracy" in this Disraelian sense in the late-Victorian era.
British prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Ted Heath, as well as leading politicians such as Rab Butler, were leading figures of One nation conservatism.
One nation conservatives and Thatcher
One nation conservatism fell into disfavour in the mid 1970s. The rising generation of Conservative politicians, represented by such figures as Margaret Thatcher, Sir Keith Joseph, and John Nott, felt that the old model of one nation Tory paternalism, as practised by Macmillan and Heath, had, by 1979, failed. Its political failure had been evident in the Conservatives losing four out of the past five general elections, and its socio-economic failure was manifest in the relatively high levels of unemployment and inflation of the UK of the 1970s.
The new breed (referred to as the "dries", as opposed to the one nation "wets") believed that one nation conservatism had been mistaken in not challenging the post-war consensus, and that a radical new approach to governing was necessary if the United Kingdom was to ever break out of the pattern of decline that had come to a head in the Winter of Discontent of 1978 & early 1979. However, whilst inflation came under control during the Thatcher years, unemployment reached as high as 3.6 million.
Unsurprisingly, one nation conservatives (e.g. Ted Heath) were often the most vocal critics of Thatcher's policies within the Conservative Party.
Possible modern revival
- Since their electoral defeat in 1997 some Conservatives have tried to reclaim the "one nation" ideal for their party: ground which many believe to be now occupied by the New Labour agenda.
- In his 2000 Macmillan Lecture, the Conservative front-bencher Damian Green MP asked "Who Needs One Nation Conservatism?". He answered: "My answer to the question posed tonight, 'Who needs One Nation Conservatism?' is first the Conservative Party, and secondly the British people." Elsewhere the Conservative Party's former leader William Hague said, 'The Conservative Party I feel at home in is the party of One Nation reflecting the whole nation'."
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