Two 'one nation' parties to preserve a one-nation Britain
Ed Miliband’s adoption of the ‘one nation’ label, the long-standing birthright of the Conservative ‘left’, is a good thing for Tories
Ed Miliband’s adoption of the ‘one nation’ label, the long-standing birthright of the Conservative ‘left’, has sparked much debate.
For some, it marks the transformative moment when Miliband became ‘Prime Minsterial’; some see the legacy of Glasman’s ‘Blue Labour’ thinking; others, particularly Tories, are horrified by the adoption of their language by the other side.
The phrase itself is fairly malleable. It could be an attempt to nurture the British equivalent of the Swedish “folkhemmet”, or ‘people’s home’, where the Social Democrats exercised a near-hegemony over Swedish politics and served, to borrow from Blair, as the political wing of the Swedish people.
Or with an eye on Scotland, Labour might be trying to make the case that only they can keep the UK together, as the only party of the whole country. This is an argument one often hears from Labour unionists (not least Glasgow MP Tom Harris).
This idea is fundamentally flawed. In British politics one ‘one-nation’ party is not enough. To assuage the tensions that risk tugging the UK to pieces, we need two.
The UK is not Sweden. Unlike that country, our politics has a much more adversarial tradition.
There has never been a time when a single party or political tradition has attracted the affections of the great majority of the people. There have been times when the political field has come together in support of great projects – the Empire in the 19th Century; the welfare state in the 20th – but even then, clashes between great parties have been the hallmark of British politics.
If ‘one nation’ in an ideological sense is thus very difficult (and not particularly desirable), it is vital that it be achieved geographically. There are few things in British politics more potentially dangerous to the union than what the Spectator once dubbed ‘Tricolour Britain’, where different geographical areas overwhelmingly elect the same party.
It is all very well for Labour to point out that they, unlike the Conservatives, command strong support across Great Britain (Mr Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ not quite embracing Northern Ireland). Yet if they continue to fail to make headway in rural areas and the south, those areas are going to become increasingly resentful of Labour rule.
The notion, put about by English nationalists and their opportunistic allies in the Conservatives, that Labour is some form of Celtic imposition on the English is potentially deadly.
Labour are blessed, however, that the areas where they are weak – the South and East – are the areas which appear to have the weakest sense of regional identity, and that their strong support in the North and urban England robs the English nationalist case of much of its potency.
The Conservatives have no such comforts. Although their position in Wales is relatively strong and they deserve credit for persevering with their attempt to break into Northern Ireland, the strict geographical limits of their appeal are one of the most urgent middle-term problems facing unionists.
There are several reasons for this. Failing to win in Scotland, Wales, big cities, and the North makes it much harder for the Conservatives to win elections. If party strategists shy away from meeting this challenge, and instead seek to try (and probably fail) to build a competitive electoral coalition in the English countryside alone, it seems increasingly likely that opportunist English nationalism might boil over inside the party and tear it to pieces, perhaps taking the country with it.
Worse, if the party does win elections without carrying large sections of the country with a strong sense of their own identity, the party will continue to face a fundamental legitimacy issue when in government, which will strengthen the hand of the likes of the SNP even if the party’s own commitment to the union remains absolute.
In short, Conservatives should not begrudge the Labour leader’s adoption of the ‘One Nation’ label, for the Labour party being conscious of its own role in preserving the unity of the UK is something to be welcomed.
But it is a label that remains much more important to the Conservatives. Whoever defines what one-nation Conservatism means in the 21st Century must recapture the strengths of the original by appealing to the Scots, the Welsh, the Northern Irish, northerners, and city dwellers in a manner that the post-Thatcher party has so signally failed to do. There may still be Conservatives and Labour people, but both must be found everywhere.
That’s the Conservatism that both the party and the country need to guarantee their long-term survival. If Miliband has finally provoked the Tories into paying proper mind to it, then so much the better.
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