What is ‘one nation’ politics?

by Tom Miller

“Well, society may be in its infancy,” said Egremont slightly smiling; “but, say what you like, our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed.”

“Which nation?” asked the younger stranger, “for she reigns over two.”

The stranger paused; Egremont was silent, but looked inquiringly.

“Yes,” resumed the younger stranger after a moment’s interval. “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 a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”

“You speak of–” said Egremont, hesitatingly.

“THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

At this moment a sudden flush of rosy light, suffusing the grey ruins, indicated that the sun had just fallen; and through a vacant arch that overlooked them, alone in the resplendent sky, glittered the twilight star.

-Sybil, or the Two Nations (Disraeli, 1845)

History pleases me, especially given the dire content of the present. And one of the lovely things about history is there where we cannot agree much about the future, the past is something in which we can all take any stake we choose.

Ed Miliband’s conference speech marked an ascendency of trust from both party and press, though I have some scepticism as to how much conference speeches influence a sceptical public these days. In any event, it’s certainly sparked some thinking among people whose views I appreciate. I have had some interesting thoughts triggered since by two people whose views I respect, despite the wild divergence of their politics. One is conservative, Ashton Cull, who chaired Conservative Future locally when I was at uni in Manchester. Another is Liam McNulty, who it would be fair to describe in the broadest terms as a Marxist.

I’ve been prompted twice to ask myself what is really meant by ‘One Nation’. On one level, the adaption of Tory rhetoric, expecially class collaborationist Tory rhetoric, marks a reactionary step for the leader of a Labour Party. At the same time, the founding ideas of the philosphy of One Nation Toryism find themselves significantly left of Blairism, which accepted the ceaseless march of a society moving apart from itself – the poorest satisfying themselves with the workfare crumbs of those who got ‘filthy rich’ and (sometimes) paid their taxes, the middle bought into wrestless neutrality with tax credits.

Consider this:

“If a society that has been created by labour suddenly becomes independent of it, that society is bound to maintain the race whose only property is labour, from the proceeds of that property, which has not ceased to be productive.”

– Disraeli

This is no Marxism. But the mutual obligation implied can have ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ obligations, and is just as rightly the property of social democratic reformists as it is moderate Tories. So for that reason, whatever the merits of reformist social democrats, it is far from charlatanism for them to take up the slogan. And further, it may well be a way of blocking together part of the professional so-called ‘middle class’ workers with the lower paid parts of the working class who are currently being hit with the freight train of austerity – making this part of the ‘middle class’ a progressive one. As a front in totality, if theis is a majority, ‘One Nation’ can be a broad project which is also some distance left of the common sernse, and also potentially hegemonic, if done right. Anyway, this is basically my response to those (such as Liam) who might believe that the notion is wholly useless to the left. It’s not revolutionary, but it can just as much be consciousness raising and majoritarian as it can be damaging. It depends on the substance.

The seeds, by the way, of the left undoing that, are treating supplicant, weaker groups and individuals as part of a different nation – one where food banks or immigration detention centres are acceptible human situations, while a land accross the social waters knocks back a Friday night Sauvingnon or two.

No doubt pressure for this kind of ‘two-nationism’, of making positionally weaker humans into ‘others’, will surely form the substance of the Tory response to this speech – alongside subsequent a Blairite call to triangulate it (or as I prefer, ‘submit’). Labour, after all, isn’t learning – right?

But moving back, I was moved to a deeper thought about what social democracy in the first place means to me by Ashton (whose opinion I value and await).

He asks:

…This has been niggling me for a couple of days. How do you feel about the One Nation rhetoric?

Very much in favour. For me my social democracy can basically be summed up as ‘settled consensus that we have obligations to each other, that bodies must carry them out in a way which is widely democratically accountable, and that fulfilling them helps to make us each more free’ [*].

I don’t think that society and the state are the same thing, but I also think it is artificial to seperate them when the goal of the state is to serve society, when much of society benefits from the state, much of society works for it, and pretty much all of society to some degree or another pays for it.

What I’m saying is that I think the heritage of One Nation stretches beyond individual philanthropy, though Disraeli himself probably would not have approved. I think it stretches from one nation Toryism, deep into social democracy. Economic liberalism is not totally alien to it either, but I think that there is still a mad dash for economic liberalism which is massively socially divisive, and is as contrary to One Nation philosophy as exiling the rich.

Anyway, I think it’s a bold move, and whether Tory or Social Democratic, the driving feature is basically human compassion – something that I think is the main thing our society is forgetting, lamentably. I don’t want someone ruining my mortgage or cutting my wages – nor am I happy to see people spit in the face of bus drivers.

Common manners and respect need a big return, in society and in the economy.

Anyway, here’s my family secret. A political one too.

When I was very young, indeed before I can remember, my father was awarded custody of me. I have lived with him and my Stepmother since when he met her (I was three). My biological mother has been estranged to me for what I make twelve years, for various reasons, though I am considering getting in touch with her now.

Anyway, turns out that one of Ashton’s predecessors as the Tory Chair at Manchester Uni was her father**. Uber One-Nation MP. I never met the bloke, and having politicised into the left at a young age, and with a class background of skilled manual labour via my father and his family, it rather shocked me. His wife was descended from Charles II! Mad.

Oh well. There is plenty of determism aside from the genetic.

The fact is, as happy as I am to accept the rhetoric of One Nation, if I was a Tory, I would be a Thatcherite. I respect ideological leadership, sticking to guns, and having guns to stick to in the first place.

I think if there is to be one nation, that’s all well and good. And if the term helps gain support for it, that’s just as well.

But Disraeli’s mistake was that he thought a society that encouraged freedom and was at ease with itself was the rightful gift of the honourable rich.

But wealth is not gained for honour. Nor is it spent in the pursuit of obligation.

Wealth under neoliberalism is precisely and literally the privilege of being in a different nation. If the poor don’t like tax, they buy less food. If the rich don’t like tax, they move. The same logic applies to pay rises in the two nations.

We need One Nation. ‘Middle class’ workers are essential to engendering this. But it’s not the disadvantaged who split the nation in the first place. If the nation is to be brought towards a tolerant, pluralist and relatively equal place – ‘One Nation’ – then democratic and civic power over divisive market dogma must be massively increased, and on terms which are inclusive of the disadvantaged – our subaltern ‘second nation’. It’s simply not One Nation if they are forced into a cramped island with no way out. And make no mistake, that’s where they are headed, and have been headed for decades.

This inclusion is not something achieved through centrist vaccilation. Particularly in this climate of divisive attacks, and the intended resentment culture that now sits in place of solidarity. In situations where forces are jockeying beneath the surface for position, it’s achieved by creating a social coalition which is broad, yes, but also genuinely progressive, and has reason to be. Good luck getting that from establishment wets! It’s a path we have tried for years.

There are very, very few ‘progressive’ Tories. Show me a Tory as left wing as Disraeli these days, and I’ll show you a Compass member. Leadership towards a more cohesive society isn’t just something the broad left has a claim to.

When it comes to questions of motivation and material ability, they are the only forces in the country capable of taking the claim up, and the labour movement in particular the only one with the withdrawable surplus and power in numbers for the battle ahead.

The die is cast. The struggle of note will therefore be that to achieve leadership within the paradigm itself.

My next post will be about the virtues of populism. It will be shorter.

* Note – perhaps I should have added in ‘that economic class as related to ownership is a major obstacle to this’?
** In the interests of my own credibility, not that proper lefts judge us on lineage, I should point out that I am also descended from a Communist militant immigrant bus driver from the T & G who sacrificed his life to fight Franco. I think that means I genetically average out somewhere near Roy Hattersley.