One of the most interesting political slogans in recent years has been “One Nation,” which was utilised in a 2012 speech by Ed Miliband to set out Labour’s plans for a fairer Britain and has, arguably, been the Labour Party’s official slogan ever since.
Although many people would associate this slogan with the Labour opposition, the term can actually be traced to the one-time Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, who spoke of England in novel, Sybil, as being made up “of two nations – one rich, one poor,” and as prime minister introduced a wide range of reforms aimed at bridging that gap. Amongst these included measures to improve the legal status of unions, improvements in living conditions and sanitation in urban areas, food safety standards, and restrictions on the working hours of women and children.
The term “One Nation” came to be associated with members of the Conservative Party who believed that Conservatism should reach out to all sections of British society. In the latter years of the Nineteenth Century, Lord Salisbury (who served as Prime Minister on three separate occasions) presided over the implementation of reforms in keeping with Disraeli’s “One Nation” approach, such as the establishment of free elementary education, workers’ compensation, and the provision of state funds for tenants to buy out landlords.
The principles of “One Nation Conservatism” were also evident in the social policies of successive Conservative administrations in the first half of the Twentieth Century, who used the power of the state to mitigate various social evils. Arthur Balfour’s 1902-1905 administration encouraged the growth of secondary education, introduced proper regulation of the employment of children, and passed legislation setting up Distress Committees to provide financial assistance or temporary work to tackle the hardships suffered by those experiencing unemployment. In later years, Neville Chamberlain’s 1937-1940 government introduced such measures as the 1937 Factory Act (which improved standards of safety at work) and an increase in the scope of state pensions, while also encouraging an extension of paid holidays in industry.
Although making a number of questionable policy decisions such as introducing NHS prescription charges and decontrolling private rents (which led to cases of illegal evictions by slum landlords), the values of One Nation Conservatism were nevertheless reflected in many of the policies implemented by successive Conservative administrations after the end of the Second World War. Winston Churchill’s 1945 “caretaker” administration passed legislation providing for the establishment of family allowances, while his final administration from 1951 to 1955 expanded safeguards for tenants and launched a major housebuilding programme that produced 300,000 homes per annum. Under Anthony Eden’s 1955-1957 administration, legislation to combat air pollution was passed and family allowances were extended to all schoolchildren as an incentive for children to remain in education, while Harold Macmillan’s 1957-1963 government presided over positive developments such as the introduction of a graduated pension scheme, a hospital building programme, and measures to improve health and safety in the workplace. Edward Heath’s 1970-1974 administration, although controversial for abolishing free milk for primary school children between the ages of 8 and 11, was responsible for such innovations as rent allowances, an invalidity benefit for those with severe disabilities, and the Family Income Supplement, a top-up benefit for those earning low wages, which was the first of its kind in the United Kingdom.
With opinion polls showing Labour holding a marginal lead over the Conservatives, and less than six months to go until the next general election, it may be time for the Conservative Party to reclaim the “One Nation” mantle and adopt a more activist strategy aimed at making greater use of the state as a force for social change if it hopes to remain in office after 2015.
In the area of housing, the Conservative Party could adopt the call by pressure group Renewal to build one million homes from 2015-2020, while taking steps to control rent rises. In education, the age limit for free school meals could be extended from the current limit of seven, while a fee discount scheme (inspired by recent proposals put forward by the Sutton Trust) could be provided for university applicants from low-income backgrounds to make it easier for them to access higher education, and thereby improve their career prospects. For those at work, the level of statutory sick pay should be increased to a level closer to that of a person’s earnings, thereby preventing many people from returning to work early due to the substantial loss of income they experience by taking time off sick.
The Conservative Party could also improve the family benefits system by introducing new social programmes for families, reflecting the commitment it made in its 2010 manifesto to make Britain “the most family-friendly country in Europe.” A Recreational Allowance could assist families with paying for pastimes such as going to the cinema, while a Family Holiday Allowance could help pay towards the cost of holiday activities. In addition to Child Benefit, an Infant Allowance could be provided for low income parents with children up until the age of three as a means of combating childhood deprivation. Similar benefits to these are already in force in neighbouring France, and could be of equal value to families in Britain.
A “social card” modelled on the transactional benefit introduced by the Berlusconi Government in Italy in 2008 could support households below a certain income threshold with gas and electricity bills, while a compulsory system of long-term care insurance based on the German scheme launched by the Kohl Government in 1995 could help lower the costs borne by households paying towards social care for the elderly. A guaranteed minimum income scheme, based on the programme announced by the centre-right president of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades back in 2013 and rolled out a year later, has the potential to mitigate levels of hardship amongst those struggling to get by on low incomes. In addition, a fitness tax credit along the lines of the scheme currently operating in Canada could help tackle childhood obesity in Britain while giving more children the chance to take part in sporting events, both local and national.
Such policies are not only consistent with the principles of One Nation Conservatism, but if implemented, could go some way towards compensating families for the decline in real earnings they have experienced over the past few years.
There exists, therefore, a number of policy options in keeping with the “One Nation” tradition of the Conservative Party that a future Conservative administration could introduce. Adopting a more progressive policy agenda would not only be beneficial to the Conservative Party in political terms, but by tackling disadvantage and raising living standards, it would be beneficial to the British people as a whole.
By Vittorio Trevitt