One day, after many years of advocating his legacy, I woke up to find Benjamin Disraeli’s face all over the TV. Had the prophet returned? No, Ed Miliband has pinched his legacy.
I’m being facetious, but there’s a point: ‘one nation’ is a loaded phrase. You hear it and think of ‘unity’. In fact, it’s a merely a prism to view society through rather than a complete argument in itself. It is neither wholly conservative nor completely radical, and it’s rooted in a philosophical rather than ideological disposition.
To be a one nation conservative is to advocate, rather than believe, in a weltanschauung – a world view – that is humble. You cannot know everything; ergo, you shouldn’t meddle in things you do not understand. Things, places or practices that have stood the test of time which are continually renewed by the consent of those who are a part of it should be respected rather than condescended. Those who are specialists in their field know best. To be a one nation conservative is to view institutions as a grand ship of Theseus: the ones that survive are the ones that embrace and don’t avoid the winds of change. They keep what works and alter what is failing. Stalwart reluctance to change is suicide, and something no one nation conservative could advocate.
As a concept or an idea, there is no shame in being reductionist. The media repeatedly tells us that ideology in life and politics is dead. Perhaps. But ideas and dispositions are far from that; they tend to be unknown or just forgotten. Referring to ‘one nation’ in politics is like referring to God. It has become a romantic embellishment and is more of an appeal to romantic imagery than a pragmatic consideration. It is oft used as a byword for noblesse oblige; a sense that we must help those less fortunate, but this commitment can be claimed by any political party. The disposition of a one nation conservative as a motivation is lost, seldom ever attributed anymore and rarely ever discussed.
Part of the problem is intimidation about what one nation conservatism is. A disposition can exist independent of a history lesson, and while one nation conservatism is long in the tooth, it can stand on its own. It is merely a disposition and tradition which is not contingent on the flag bearers of history, but rather one’s perception of the past, present, and future.
So, to trace the origins of the one nation conservative tradition to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is not nearly as important as knowing it’s not purely a political creed. To be a one nation conservative is to be sceptical and mistrusting of claims of ‘true’ knowledge and of governments that claim they alone know best. This can be traced to the ancient Greeks and has taken been taken up by many different people from Pyrrho to Michel de Montaigne to David Cameron.
We must reject the parochial arrogance of assuming one nation conservatism is a unique idea founded by one man. Ideas are not prejudiced; they can be a torch carried by anyone. To accept this is to assess scepticism’s enduring relevance and to reject the standard kowtowing to political ideology.
This, perhaps more than anything, is the disposition we need for our politics today.