David Cameron: Two Nation Conservative
If I had to be a Conservative (I’m imagining Tory HQ has my family hostage) I would be a One Nation Conservative. One Nation Conservatism began with Benjamin Disraeli and was in the ascendancy during the post-World War II governments of Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Heath. One Nation Conservatism is marked by a concern with inequality and poverty, and the determination to bridge the divide between ‘two nations’ of rich and poor. The system of thought springs from Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Sybil and can be understood through one striking quote:
‘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 different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.’
Instead of viewing inequality as the natural consequence of idleness or sin, it is the task of government to ameliorate inequality and improve the condition of the poorest. Thus Disraeli instituted social reforms and post war Conservatives would not take a hatchet (at least until Mrs Thatcher) to the most equalising force in our country’s history: the welfare state begat by the Labour government of 1945 – 1951.
One reason why the Conservatives concerned themselves with inequality was because a party who did not raise the conditions of the working class would not win elections. But it was not simply electoral calculations that have driven One Nation Conservatives. In the case of Harold Macmillan, it was memories of being Member of Parliament for Stockton, which suffered terribly from high unemployment during the Great Depression, that caused his determination to accept the Keynesian consensus and to never pursue policies which would result in high unemployment. Even when Treasury ministers were urging him to follow monetarist policies Macmillan refused to break with the Keynesian settlement.
Another Old Etonian, our current Prime Minister, has claimed that he is a One Nation Conservative. He urges us all to believe that he has taken up the mantle of compassionate conservatism and is ready to unite a divided country. It is true that the early proclamations of general happiness throughout the land, delivered by a Conservative leadership smiling atop the wave of continuing Labour spending promises, was torpedoed by the general collapse of our economy. No previous One Nation Conservative has had to wrestle with the economic problems that the country currently faces.
However, even when a situation is grim and choices are difficult, and it is the case that we cannot live in a world of mounting inexorable debt, it is true there are enough options left to a government to demonstrate which political philosophy actually drives them. Is David Cameron a One Nation Conservative, or is this a self-proclaimed identity, one that melts away in reality?
Harold Macmillan’s era was a time of a very different consensus. During his period in office unemployment was tiny, whereas in recent decades, even when our economy isn’t being battered by Euro crises and credit crunches, an unemployment rate of 4.6% is considered the pinnacle of human achievement. Today even our railways stand pointlessly privatised whereas Macmillan presided over an economy that had nationalised rail, gas and electricity. It was also a world in which a Conservative Prime Minister presided over very high rates of upper end income tax.
Today, we live with the legacy of Thatcherism which has left us a fundamentally divided nation. Currently, the chief executives of the 100 biggest companies featured on the London Stock Exchange earn an average of £4.2 million which is 162 times greater than the average British wage. If ever there was a world in which Disraeli’s warnings of ‘two nations’ are relevant, it is today.
We live in a world in which two nations are the norm. Thus for David Cameron to be a true One Nation Conservative then he would have to try and rectify this gaping inequality, whilst ensuring that deficit reduction is not worsening the divide.
On all counts he seems to be failing. The reduction in the high rate of income tax to 45p is one hugely symbolic example in which the interests of the richest are placed ahead of the outrage of the population at large. However there are many other ways that the Prime Minister is not really achieving being a One Nation Conservative. Although the Coalition have attempted to improve the conditions of the poorest wage earners by raising the level at which people begin to pay income tax, the benefit of this policy has been harmed by the rise in VAT, inflation and reductions in benefits.
A truer One Nation response to this crisis would be to do whatever they can to raise taxes on the richest. There Is No Alternative is the creed of the unimaginative and the ideologically blinkered. There are many ways the Conservatives could raise revenue in a more compassionate way without wealth creators flocking to Switzerland or the Cayman Islands.
One example is to increase asset taxes. Britain is a country in which it seems accepted that property prices balloon and people get incredibly rich from this, often with very little merit. If the Exchequer is looking for a way to raise revenue without harming the poorest part of the nation then something like Vince Cable’s mansion tax would be one way forward.
But David Cameron would never countenance such a move. Instead his party is committed to slicing back our already diminished welfare state. The Conservatives obsess over ways to raise money in ways that will inevitably harm the most disadvantaged, such as through welfare reform. The recent revelations of ATOS and the way that the very sick have been called ‘fit for work’ is a clear demonstration of a government that seems determined to split this country apart.
Due to the fact that Britain is already so unequal, anyone who sees themselves as a One Nation Conservative should not look to Cameron’s Conservatives as the party that can pursue their philosophy. And anyone who is concerned about inequality in this country should surely recognise that this government is not the answer.