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Things look good for Britain’s Conservatives at the moment. Not only did they unexpectedly win a majority in the election, but the new political landscape in Scotland (which wiped out Labour) appears to give them a clear advantage in the singularly disproportionate election system used in Britain. This advantage might be shored up even further when changes are made to parliamentary seat boundaries by the time of the next election. Add electoral bonuses to the debilitation of the other main English parties and David Cameron’s party might be forgiven for thinking it has secured a lock on future elections, guaranteeing them a further two or three terms in office.
They should be wary. The long-term trajectory of the Conservative vote has been one of retreat since the time of Margaret Thatcher back in the 80s. Mrs. Thatcher may have been the Tories’ most electorally successful leader, but she achieved her extraordinary dominance in spite of a falling vote. She benefitted in part from a split opposition, with a new centre-left party, the Social Democrats, taking votes away from Labour. In fact, Tory MPs were gradually being expunged from the electoral landscape in the north of England, from Scotland and Wales, and from many of the big cities. The Conservatives became an essentially English country party, concentrated in the wealthy south and east. So severe was their electoral problem that David Cameron is the first Conservative leader to win a majority since 1992, and it is – let us remind ourselves – only by 12 seats.
So when he announced that he would govern as a “One Nation” Conservative, Mr. Cameron was consciously re-igniting a Tory brand that had been a dominant and popular one in the previous century, but which had fallen into abeyance under Mrs. Thatcher and her successors. He had become Tory leader promising to modernise the party and repair its electoral image. Now fully in control of a Tory government, he wants to make good on his promise. Indeed, this may be the last chance English Conservatism has to once again become a genuine party of the whole country.
Mr. Cameron’s task is not an easy one. His party is predominantly Thatcherite (an ideology combining classical liberal economic thought with social conservatism). His newly appointed cabinet reflects this. It has several committed Thatcherite ministers, such as Justice Minister Chris Grayling and the newly appointed Culture Minister John Whittingdale. It has no-one, apart from Cameron himself, who could claim to be a genuine proponent of One Nation conservatism. Cameron’s key ally, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, is a pragmatist and strategist par excellence, but has been quiet on his bigger Conservative vision.
Furthermore, Mr. Cameron’s new programme of government – outlined rather archaically in the Queen’s Speech – would seem to be firmly anchored in Conservatism’s right-wing. As well as the much publicised commitment to a referendum on British membership of the EU, it included proposals to extend police and intelligence surveillance powers, proposals for further cuts in welfare, the selling off of housing stock to tenants, a freezing of income tax and stronger action on migrants.
Scratch beneath the surface, though, and we see that the One Nation vision is there. Nascent, but intact and ready to grow. Mr. Cameron, for example, is freezing income tax rather than lowering it as his more Thatcherite party members would prefer. He continues to espouse strong commitment to Britain’s free health service, the NHS, wanting to expand it into a 24/7 operation. He is doubling childcare allowances and increasing apprenticeships. And, most significantly, he is going slowly on the replacement of the Human Rights Act with a specifically British Bill of Rights. It wasn’t in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting Cameron is pursuing a pragmatic long game – another feature of One Nation leadership.
If Mr. Cameron successfully embeds his One Nation vision into the policies and actions of this term of Conservative rule, he may be able to reverse the Tory retreat in the UK, and truly make it a party ready to govern One Nation. It would be the most successful Tory legacy since Thatcherism, and more unifying.