Leader: The meaning of Ed Miliband’s “one nation” rhetoric

This could be Cameron's last chance to outline what he truly believes.

After winning the Conservative leadership in 2005, David Cameron astutely sought to present himself as a “One Nation Tory” in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli and Harold Macmillan. Distancing himself from the excesses of That - cherism, he vowed to resurrect a gentler, softer Toryism, one that recognised that: “There is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same thing as the state.” Having acknowledged the potency of the One Nation philosophy, his biggest error was then to relinquish it so carelessly.

It was the conduct of Mr Cameron’s government that allowed Ed Miliband to claim this mantle deftly for himself in his speech to the Labour party conference. The Prime Minister once declared, in the manner of John Rawls: “The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich.” His decision to abolish the 50p income-tax rate, despite having raised taxes on the poorest, proved otherwise. The phrase “We’re all in this together”, with its false promise of a shared burden, has not been heard since. The government’s reckless reform of the National Health Service and its unbalanced deficit-reduction programme have similarly deprived it of any claim to be a one-nation administration.

The Conservatives are now in retreat in those areas – the north, Wales and Scotland – that denied them a majority at the last election. The consequence, as we stated in July, is that: “It is Labour alone that can now claim to be the true onenation party: the party of the British nation.”

In recognising as much, the Labour leader has established a powerful test for his policies and those of the Conservatives: do they serve to build one nation or two? Mr Miliband vowed to create a one-nation economy, banking system and education system. Much more policy detail will be required if he is not to disappoint expectations but the ambition is admirable. If Labour is to be a “one-nation party”, it must also drastically improve its standing in the south of the country. As Vernon Bogdanor noted in last week’s New Statesman, south of the Severn-Wash line, outside London, it holds just ten of 197 seats. If Labour is to win back some of these it must, as Mr Miliband said, be “the party of the private sector as much as the party of the public sector” and the party of “the squeezed middle” as well as of those in poverty.

The Labour leader was also right to address the threat posed by the prospect of Scottish independence. In a resonant phrase, he warned that it would leave the country worse off, “not just in pounds and pence but in the soul of our nation”. Indeed, the break-up of one of the most successful multinational states in history would leave us profoundly diminished – economically, socially and culturally.

Challenged by the ever more confident Mr Miliband, Mr Cameron should use his party’s conference in Birmingham to outline finally what he really believes. His politics, a mixture of soft Thatcherism, shire Toryism and modish liberalism, has become less, rather than more, coherent with time. In the immediate term, economic revival remains the precondition for his political revival. After allowing himself to be guided by dogma, rather than evidence, he should now be entirely pragmatic and pursue those policies most likely to produce growth.

To date, he has responded to his political woes by adopting an ever tougher line on welfare, immigration and Europe. While this may appease his party’s recalcitrant right, it will not aid the construction of a Tory majority. In his speech, Mr Miliband said he understood why voters were willing to give the Tories “the benefit of the doubt” at the last election. The coming week could be one of the Prime Minister’s last chances to convince them that they were right to do so.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.