By Gary D. Hutchison |

We’ve all experienced academic irritation – whether watching a film, reading an article, or keeping up with the news bulletins.  A misplaced term there, a small historical inaccuracy there, but it all adds up.  As someone researching political history, my subject area is covered by the news almost every day, and as such, broad-stroke explanations and arguments tend to irritate all the more.  But to be fair, one of my main reasons for engaging in doctoral research in the first place was to shed light on the nuances and wider context of concepts that people might take for granted, so here goes…

Shortly after his election victory last week, Prime Minister David Cameron made a speech emphasising his commitment to national healing and consensus.  In it, he made reference to his proposed style of governing by using the term ‘One Nation’,

“I want to bring our country together, our United Kingdom together, not least by implementing as fast as we can the devolution that we rightly promised and came together with other parties to agree both for Wales and for Scotland… in short, I want my party, and I hope a government I would like to lead, to reclaim a mantle that we should never have lost – the mantle of One Nation, One United Kingdom. That is how I will govern if I am fortunate enough to form a government in the coming days.”

Benjamin_Disraeli_by_Cornelius_Jabez_Hughes,_1878

Disreali: Victorian Hipster

This term, coined by Benjamin Disraeli, has proven remarkably resilient since it first made an impact on Victorian British politics.  However, the term as used by the Prime Minister bears very little resemblance to its original meaning.  Disraeli sought in his One Nation ideology to unite two nations through ties of mutual obligation – but the two nations he had in mind were economic, rather than geographic.  The two separate nations of the rich and the poor, rapidly growing apart amid the Dickensian poverty of a rapidly changing Victorian Britain, caused much anxiety in the aristocratic political class.  Disraeli pursued an essentially elitist and paternalist solution, in contrast to the largely laissez-faire policies of the Liberal party.

Given the austerity measures enacted by the previous coalition, it seems unlikely that the Prime Minister intends to pursue policies designed to bring economically disadvantaged groups into the national fold.  Rather, he has appropriated the term in order to promote his party’s agenda.  His references to a One Nation governing style pertain only to relations between the four nations of the United Kingdom.  In this way, he uses the term to indicate that he will attempt to soothe nationalist ire north of the border and to maintain and strengthen the Union of 1707.  This is not the first time the label has been modified – at his 2012 party conference Ed Miliband made an effort to appropriate the term while retaining part of its economic focus on “two nations, not one, the bankers and the rest of the country”.   In addition, the governing style of Ted Heath has often been described as ‘One Nation’, insofar as it maintained many parts of the welfare state which grew out of the postwar consensus.  Indeed, in 1950 he contributed to an influential pamphlet dealing with the relationship between rich and poor, entitled ‘One Nation’.

1998-heath_1744990c

As a One Nation Tory, Heath did not appreciate Mrs Thatcher’s governing style

The fickle nature of political terminology and the fluidity of politicised language is part of what makes studying political history so interesting.  In a sense, observing Cameron using the term for his own ends is watching history in the making.  However, there are limits to how far labels and terms can be manipulated without becoming essentially meaningless.  The long and varied evolution of the term ‘Whig’ shows how a term can become so confused that it disappears from the popular lexicon.  The term, originally used to identify a faction of Scottish Covenanters, now covers a wide range of differing and conflicting values.  Ultimately, part of what we do (or try to do) as scholars is to look beyond the use of simple slogans and labels, because awareness of their historical context can help us to better understand and to help others understand contemporary society.

Gary has also written an article on the the Scottish contributions to the Young England movement, precursor to Disraeli’s One Nation Conservatism – accessible at: https://fournationshistory.wordpress.com/blog/

(Photos: Wikipedia)