Alex Burghart reminds the Conservatives not to forget the poor and dispossessed
There are few political terms so revisited as ‘One Nation’. Inspired by (but not coined by) Disraeli, it has subsequently been used by Stanley Baldwin to quell class warfare, by Ted Heath to heal racial conflict, and by Ed Miliband (briefly) to push his equality agenda. Its roots, however, lay in the unease Disraeli felt about the gaping distance between the Victorian rich and poor. In his 1845 novel, Sybil or the Two Nations, he had one of his characters describe “two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other habits and thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding; fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws.”
Disraeli actually had little intention of building One Nation – he was too much of a defender of aristocratic tradition for that – but he was keen to make sure the ruling classes recognised that the social order depended on noblesse oblige. Someone who saw the same problem but saw things rather differently was Friedrich Engels who, in the same year, published The Condition of the Working Class in England following a sojourn in the murk of industrial Manchester. Engels had also seen at close quarters the yawning divide between rich and poor and argued that the industrial revolution was actually making things worse for the poor by obliging them to live in increasingly putrid conditions. This was to be one of the most significant staging posts
on the road to international socialism as a mainstream political idea.
Few now would agree with the conclusions reached by either man. Fewer still would think that the divide today between the two nations was as great as it was in a time before the welfare state had been born. But, as the work of the Centre for Social Justice repeatedly shows, divisions there are still, and more, much more, must still be done to bridge them.
Despite the current jobs miracle which has seen unemployment plummet, there are still 226,000 households in which no one has ever worked, and 1.6 million children live in workless households. In one part of Rhyl nearly two-thirds of workingage adults claim out-of-work benefits. Some neighbourhoods in Liverpool have over 60 per cent of their households with no father. Nationally, a 15-year-old today is more likely to have a smart phone than a father at home. In Blackpool one in 17 girls under 18 gets pregnant each year, and one in every 66 children is in care. About a fifth of all pupils fail both English and maths GCSE and the equivalent of 56,000 school pupils in England and Wales play truant every day. Around 1.5 million children have a drug or alcohol addicted parent. Unmanageable debt is eroding family stability and mental health.
As my work at the Centre for Social Justice has shown me, these are the issues that really matter to people, the issues that really hold families and communities back. Under the Coalition, the modern Conservative Party showed that it had the appetite to begin to address many of them. Tories went hard on job creation, reformed welfare and set up Universal Credit, built the Troubled Families programme, pushed through reform of social work and child protection, increased the number of adoptions, reduced crime to all-time lows, passed the Modern Slavery Act, established the pupil premium and drove up standards in education. All of this fed a long-held Conservative desire to help people get on, whenever possible, to help people find their feet and their own means of progression.
All the indications are this majority Conservative Government will seek to build on those successes. The PM used his victory speech on the steps of Number 10 to declare that his would be a One Nation government. As he said in a speech to the Centre for Social Justice a few weeks later: “if you work hard and get on in life, this government will be on your side. Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever your background, whatever stage of life you are at, this government can help you fulfil your aspirations.”
This determination and clarity will be needed. Just as the unmet needs of large numbers of British workers in the mid nineteenth centuries provoked the birth of a new Left, so too could the problems of today. Now the Labour leadership contest has resulted in a Jeremy Corbyn victory, it may be that we hear much more from the heirs to Engels than we have heard in some time. Indeed, even if we don’t it is unlikely that the Old Left genie will be quickly put back in his bottle. Corbynite voices will argue that the modern world does not serve the poor and are likely to call for ever more radical action.
The Conservative Party will have to be ready to show that it has meaningful answers to the country’s deeper social problems. That it can start to reverse family breakdown in our poorest communities, that it can eliminate long-term unemployment and low wages, functional illiteracy and innumeracy, free people from addiction and crippling serious personal debt, provide more and better housing, tackle loneliness and poor mental health.
Achieving this will be no park-walk at a time when budgets are again being put through the mangle. Some solutions will be a long time in coming. But the willingness to seek them is a great part of the battle. Despite what its detractors would have us believe, the Conservative Party has a long tradition of compassion. Its future can only lie in the strengthening and advocating of that tradition so that its commitment to social justice becomes as much a part of its public identity as its commitment to bookkeeping. The willingness to solve the problems that really matter to people, and the practical ability to solve them, are a winning combination, one that can build a country of opportunity and compassion.
It is only by doing this that a modern One Nation can been built. Only by removing, wherever possible, the fences, tolls, border controls and queues facing those who wish to pass from one nation to the other, that we can build a single nation of opportunity. As the great (and too often forgotten) Iain Macleod told the 1960 Conservative Party Conference, “the socialists can scheme their schemes and the Liberals can dream their dreams but we, at least, have work to do.”
Dr Alex Burghart is the Acting Director of the Centre for Social Justice and was the Conservative Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for Islington North in May 2015.
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Autumn 2015 on 11/11/2015. Published online 25/03/2016.