An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


One Nation Under Dog


Labour leader Ed Miliband has declared that his party stands for One Nation Britain.1 Cue talk about the history of One Nationism2 and a return to Victorian values.3

Of course, it is the Conservative Party that has claimed the One Nation as its own, although the group has since become largely redundant in the Parliamentary party. No, it was the other return to Victorian values – Liberalism – which firmly took hold after 1975. Thatcher’s neo-liberalism trumped Heath’s neo-One-Nationism (is that a word? ed).

How can a Labour Party claim One Nation politics as its own? How can things have changes so dramatically in less than 40 years?

One Nation

“One Nation” refers to the policies of Benjamin Disraeli during the nineteenth century. In a bid to appeal to the growing electorate, he argued that there were two nations in Britain. The rich and the poor.

The Liberal Party – the “Whigs” – believed in free market capitalism, which made the rich richer. The growing trade union movement believed in class struggle which sought to overthrow the establishment. Neither solution was considered desirable.

The Conservatives – the “Tories” – therefore argued for pro-business policies which also helped those lower down the social order. By making the poor better off, there would no longer be a distinction between the “haves” and the “have nots”. There would be one nation without class divisions that could move forward together.

The Tories went another way

In the end, however, the Tories became more free-market, and the Whigs more interventionist. It was the Liberals, not the Conservatives, who brought about old age pensions, compulsory education and workers compensation.4

One Nationism was a response to particular political constraints. It did not last. For some, Disraeli was seen as not a real Tory – a traitor to the party and to Conservatism.

However, he was “rediscovered” in the 1950s by a new breed of Tories. Led by influential young thinkers such as Ted Heath, Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell, they soon developed a reputation as the leading faction within the Party.5

Heath would go on to be Prime Minister – Macleod his Chancellor6. Powell would shoot himself in the foot somewhat with his rivers of blood snafu.

However – while Harold Macmillan might be said to be of a One Nation bent (and certainly Heath was) – the Party did not stick with it for very long. Sir Keith Joesph, a staunch One Nationist from the 1950s to the early 1970s, changed his philosophy after seeing Heath in action. Rising unemployment, a stagnant economy, rampant inflation, industrial disputes, three-day weeks, and U-turn after U-turn made him realise that perhaps Liberalism – and not One Nationism – was the answer to the economic malaise of the 1970s.

So he along with Geoffrey Howe and Margaret Thatcher pushed the monetarist agenda. The One Nation group became decreasingly influential, and increasingly resentful. As Walsha7 and others8 have pointed out, this re-reading of history suited the Thatcherite agenda. One Nationism didn’t “fail” as spectacularly as they would have you believe.

It also wasn’t as bad for the working man as the far left would have you believe. Expenditure on the welfare state increased dramatically with Sir Keith Joseph (Health and Social Security) and Margaret Thatcher (Education) spending billions on various social schemes. Granted, much of this was “targeted” so that means testing and other restrictions meant the amount received by individuals was squeezed. But compared to what would follow, it is hard not to take Heath at face value. He and his group genuinely did believe they could look after business and use that strength to help the whole country. Whether this was naive claptrap is up to the individual to decide.

One Nation Labourism

Which leads us to Labour. How can a Labour party try and claim Disraeli, Heath and Macleod?

The simple answer is they cannot. Or at least, the Labour Party contemporary to Heath or Disraeli could not. How can a party which represents the working classes claim to try and destroy the class concept through reconciliation and pro-business policies?

In short, it cannot. The Labour Movement removes class differences by overthrowing the bourgeoisie, not by helping them. It makes little to no sense for a Labour party to claim this centre-right ground.

It does, however, make sense for a social democratic party to try and claim this ground. And this is what Labour has officially become – New Labour. A soft neo-liberal party of the lower-middle classes and socially conscious rich. This speech could well mark the death of any attempt to revive the Labour Party as the party of the workers.

Three Nation Conservatism

It is a damn sight better than current Tory policy, though. Disraeli’s two nations were the “haves” and the “have nots”. The Conservatives currently believe in three nations:

  • The “have lots”
  • The “haves”
  • and “the have nots”

The have lots are the people in charge who won’t pay their taxes and hoard profits to boost their own pay packets while the workers get laid off.

The haves are the ordinary working people – well off enough to maintain a mortgage, a car, an annual foreign holiday and get their kids to university.

The have nots are those who have been failed by the system. Often reliant on benefits or incredibly low wages, they are the “underclass”. The people blamed for all societies ills caused by the “have lots” and tolerated by the “haves” who have no concept of how life is like for those who have next to nothing.

Is One Nation Labourism a “good thing”? Probably not. But would Ed Miliband, leader of the 1970s One Nation Tories be a damn sight better than David Cameron, leader of the 1880s/1980s (Neo)Liberals? Oh, God yes.


1 BBC, ‘Labour Conference: Ed Miliband Speech in Full‘, 2 October 2012 16:35.
2 See the Wikipedia entry for One Nation Conservatism, Wikipedia, ‘One Nation Conservatism‘ (accessed 3 October 2012).
3 As an example from the left, see Socialist Worker Online, Tom Walker, ‘Ed Miliband’s speech takes inspiration from Victorian Tories‘, 2 October 2012 19:44. For the right, see Conservative Home, Andrew Morrison, ‘One Nation? We got it decades ago, Ed — Labour still doesn’t‘, 3 October 2012.
4 Although it must be said there was a Conservative Prime Minister in charge when the 1897 Act was passed, it was a Conservative-Liberal coalition (imagine such a thing!) which passed it. It was strengthened by the Liberals in 1906. See: Elementary Education Act 1870; Workmen’s Compensation Act 1897; Workmen’s Compensation Act 1906; National Insurance Act 1911.
5 For an excellent analysis of the twentieth century One Nation Conservatives, see Robert Walsha, ‘The One Nation Group and One Nation Conservatism, 1950-2002’ in Contemporary British History 17(2) (2003), pp. 69-120.
6 Macleod died a month after taking office in 1970, a blow from which the Heath administration never recovered. He was replaced by Anthony Barber, a political ally of Heath’s.
7 Walsha, ‘The One Nation Group’.
8 Colin Hay, ‘The Winter of Discontent Thirty Years On’, Political Quarterly 80(4) (2009), pp. 545-552.

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