Making Parliamentary Democracy safe for Imperialism: One Nation Conservatism in the UK

Bert Ratcliffe reviews the state of the Conservative Party as part of a discussion about UK politics in Anti-Capitalist Resistance.


The Conservative Party is a “one nation” party. Unfortunately, the term “one nation” is generally misused and applied to people supposedly on the left of the Tory party, which limits our ability to understand the Tory Party’s role in UK politics.

The error arises because the label is often used to mean a party “including and representing the interests of people of all classes,” whereas as a concept, it should be understood as meaning a party “creating a set of values around which people of all classes can be gathered.” The difference between these two definitions is that the first implies some kind of agency by the working class in determining what these “one nation” values are, whereas the latter definition reflects assumptions about absolute bourgeois hegemony and the ability to attach all classes to their agenda. The latter is far more accurate in the practice of the Tory Party.

Where did “one nation” come from?

The label and concept are generally thought to have been created by Disraeli in 1867, and though he never used the term the concept is essentially his. Disraeli’s decision to expand the franchise to most adult male workers in 1867 was taken in conjunction with the setting up of a party machine capable of delivering votes, particularly working class votes, to Tory candidates. Over time a vast network of political and social clubs and associations was created, and that cemented a social and ideological foundation for conservatism in its modern form.

In the 1860s there was a revival of working class demands for the vote. Having been effectively denied the vote by middle class and aristocratic radicals in the Reform Act of 1832, and then defeated in the Chartist period of the later 1830s and 1840s, the working class had become politically acquiescent. This acquiescence was largely created by the economic boom of the 1850s and particularly by the skilled working class and artisans, those who had previously provided leadership of the movement and were doing relatively well. The end of that boom saw social tensions rise and the re-emergence of agitation and organisation for the franchise to be extended to all workers.

Disraeli’s response was to restructure UK democracy towards a kind of mass democracy that did not restrict aristocratic political hegemony and imperial expansion. The maintenance of these values against the supposed evils of liberal free trade, Catholic emancipation, Irish home rule and religious nonconformity under the Queen Empress of India, might not have been written down in a document or even unanimously agreed upon, but they were broad values for an existing elite keen to stay where it was and prosper. Whilst the tumultuous rise of the working class, and the need to control it, was the biggest underlying factor, the Liberals were to remain the main enemy of the Conservatives until 1922.

Winston Churchill’s time as a Conservative candidate and MP in Oldham is a good example of the alliances created. Oldham, “Spindlopolis”, was the ultimate industrial town. With hardly any pre-industrial presence, it had become the dominant cotton industry town, totally working-class in population. In 1899, Churchill, with his aristocratic background, stood alongside the leader of the cotton spinners’ trade union as the Tory candidates for the two Oldham parliamentary seats. They both lost, but the following year, Churchill did win his seat on the back of his imperial heroics in the Boer War.

How did “one nation” change after 1917?

The greatest crisis for the “one nation” Tories was a clash with the Liberal Government over the power of the aristocratic and hereditary House of Lords in 1910. Ultimately, they partially lost, but this Parliamentary row paled almost into irrelevance before a massive strike wave, women’s suffrage struggle and the crisis in Ireland over home rule, and, of course, the global crisis of imperialism that resulted in WWI.

In the aftermath of these combined crises, Tory leader Stanley Baldwin rewrote the one nation manual in the 1920s and 1930s. He adapted the Conservative Party; to accept the loss of Ireland, to bring women into the pool of party supporters and, crucially, to understand that the Labour Party was no real communist threat. He contained the working class, particularly enabling the TUC to back out of the General Strike and its apparent threat to the capitalist order.

Working class commentators on the 1920s tend to focus on the emergence of the Labour Party, its first governments and its collapse into splits and coalition in 1931. A more accurate attempt to analyse this period would actually seek to explain how Baldwin was able to let the Labour Party form a government in 1924 when the Tories were the largest party, facilitate the minority 1929 labour government, and then control the Tory-dominated-with-a-Labour-leader 1931 coalition before becoming prime minister for a third time in 1935.

Baldwin dominated British politics for fifteen years and created the political structures we now have to live with. Most importantly, he maintained the values of monarchy, empire, aristocracy, and family around which he could unite enough of the population against any individual threat. Even when the empire and the monarchy both went into turmoil in 1936 over the Government of India Bill and the monarch’s abdication, he could hold the line. This task was made easier in the absence of any consistent opposition, and that itself was a product of the depth of earlier successes in embedding “one nation” values across society. Not surprisingly, effective opposition in the last two cases came not from the Labour Party but from Churchill, from a reactionary and not a radical viewpoint.

What are “one nation” values? Do they change?

One nation values are not fixed and they have shifted over time; that is at the root of the “pragmatic” self-description accepted by the Conservative Party. Disraeli’s version was very literally monarchic, aristocratic, Church of England, and imperial. Patriarchy and family have always been there. The fantasy of a rural idyll in place of urban squalor has always been a myth of England, but oddly, it has developed a recreational and ecological side to maintain some relevance now. The “woke wars” inside the National Trust are an interesting battleground that reflect these issues.

The monarchy has been repeatedly reinvented, often controversially, into something less deferential, something that can be seen in Princess Diana’s role and the current fracas and scandals in the Royal Family. The fight of the House of Windsor to remain relevant is not a conspiracy by some kind of secret state supreme command. It is their real fight to maintain their usefulness and integration into a global administrative apparatus which is highly competitive and internally ruthless.

The Commonwealth has been developed as an alternative to the Empire, even as the number of new republics increases. In many ways, the Empire’s “finest hour” was that it could deliver vast volunteer armies for the first two years of the First World War. By adopting anti-fascism, it was able to bring in conscription and another mass mobilisation as soon as World War II started. The empire-glorifying aspects of the remembrance of the hundreds of thousands of UK and Empire subjects killed are now less than they were, mostly because WW2 is now viewed as nostalgic and more recent wars are seen as less lethal, at least for the UK, and supposedly humanitarian.

New values

More recent additions to Tory “one nation” core values have not just come from inside the establishment but in response to outside pressures. To some extent, they were led by working class opinion, and sometimes by organised labour’s access to power, by the Labour Party in power or by unions in recognised negotiations and consultations. This is the only way that my first definition of “one nation” – as representing people of all classes – becomes in any way accurate, and that only superficially.

The biggest additions to “one nation” values after WW2 were the Welfare State, particularly the NHS, council housing and education. They also had enormous benefits for the bourgeoisie in providing the workers they needed. They modernised the UK, and these initiatives remain enormously popular in the working class. However, they allowed the working class to become “aspirational” within the system; aspiration for all was to become a core value. In many ways this is also a basic working assumption of of modern social democracy. Old social democracy was more rooted in self organisation, self help and challenging the system.

Humanitarianism and democracy have been adopted as watchwords in foreign policy rather than the glory of empire. This was the case even while these values were under attack around the world by allies and, ominously, at home. The effects of World War II left the UK as a post-imperial empire that was trying to figure out who it was. However, the world economic boom that followed the war brought in enough money to keep the welfare state going.

Are “one nation” values only good for the Tories?

The Labour Party has effectively become a junior partner in the governmental system since 1945. It has been in office for 29 of those 77 years, but at virtually no time have they gone against those dominant “one nation” values, and they renewed the system with the welfare state between 1945 and 1951.

In 2015, Ed Miliband tried to steal the “one nation” label by saying that the Labour Party, which he led, was the real party for people of all classes. But he missed the point about their essentially Tory nature. Starmer is no different, and Corbyn was broken, in part, because he challenged some aspects of those values.

Does any of this matter?

Yes it does. One Nation Conservatism is at the centre of the UK Constitution. It holds the whole thing together. But it is in crisis. The flexibility of that constitution depends on a adaptable ruling parliamentary party that arbitrates between the component interests and outside pressures. It needs core values that, broadly speaking, guide policy and ensure electoral support. If the party cannot be held together, a rigid constitution would be needed to replace it. Worse from an establishment point of view, would be outright authoritarianism, a method of government that is not known for longevity or efficiency. These are not attractive establishment options and would mark the end of a 160 year old political project which has up to now been very successful.

This situation has been exacerbated by the last two Conservative Party leadership elections. The split between the grey suits/direct members of the elite (who are themselves divided because of the different wings of imperialism they represent) and the party members became overt (hence the despite efforts to avoid a members vote in the second election). The whole Brexit debate from the very beginning has posed this problem for them. UKIP was only ever about restructuring Tory key values, but in favour of one wing of the party.

The main problem for the Tories today is pinning down viable core values that can maintain their electoral position at the same time as ripping up the welfare state. This is why they are in crisis. The reason for so much flip-flopping and U-turns and deep internal conflict in recent years has not been because Boris Johnson was personally inconsistent (though he is), or Liz Truss too rigid, but comes down to real contradictions between the economic policy needs of capitalists and the difficulty of pinning down the good old “one nation values”.

By a quirk of fate, the turn to the so-called “Red Wall”, based around Brexit, has exposed the Tories further problems as they seek out values to keep the support of some tens of thousands of working class voters who are decisive to holding those seats.

None of this is not to say that there are not leading establishment figures who favour other options. The history of the 1970s with its coup plots and rumours as well as organisations for the maintenance of supply and fascist goon squads, shows that these figures can emerge quite quickly. Nor does it mean the Tories cannot become far more authoritarian while maintaining their base.

This is the point. They want to maintain parliamentary democracy because it provides the political groundwork for whatever they do. This requires cross-class support. That requires values that people of all classes can be won over to. We must take the Conservative Party’s continuing role seriously rather than imagining its demise anytime soon. “One nation” is at the ideological core of that, and the Conservative Party is still very much at the centre of the ruling class’s grip on power.

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