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Study notes

One-nation (Conservatism)

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel

One-nation conservatives view society as organic and value paternalism and pragmatism.

The one-nation school of thought dates back to the work of the nineteenth century statesman Benjamin Disraeli. In his novel ‘Sybil’ (1845) Disraeli examined the gap between the wealthy elite and the working-classes. He laments that they were “as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings as if they were … inhabitants of different planets.” 

Disraeli argued that it was in the interests of the ruling elite to adopt a stance of paternalism towards those less fortunate. For instance, the provision of a safety net for the unemployed would alleviate the most acute forms of poverty. More importantly, it would prevent the emergence of revolutionary consciousness amongst the disaffected.

Disraeli was a consummate politician who argued persuasively that the one-nation outlook would enable the Conservatives to reach out towards all sections of the electorate. With the benefit of hindsight, this proved to be a highly effective electoral strategy. Paternalism has enabled the Tories to present themselves in a positive light to those with very little wealth to actually conserve (the term conservative stems from the Latin “com servare”to preserve). In doing so, one-nation ideas have allowed the Conservative Party to claim a mandate to govern on behalf of society. Partly because of paternalism, the Tories are the most electorally successful party in the UK with a sizeable level of support amongst working-class voters. Throughout their history, the Conservatives have often appealed to a wide swathe of the electorate due to their ‘catch-all’ nature.

In ideological terms, the one-nation school of thought is firmly opposed to the state dictating the lives of its citizens. Whilst the state must be strong enough to deliver the smack of firm government, it must never seek to suppress the individual. To do so would be contrary against everything Britain stands for.

Based on this line of argument, one-nation think tanks like the Tory Reform Group favour the defence of individual liberty. Even during the Second World War, Winston Churchill opposed the introduction of ID cards. He argued that such a scheme was associated with totalitarian regimes and therefore incompatible with our national character. Under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, the government scrapped Labour’s ID cards programme soon after gaining office. 

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