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One Nation underdog: the mirage of the Tory left
Non-Conservatives like to create a narrative of a downtrodden Tory left who are friendly, humane and progressive, just like them: but it hasn't been real for years
I don’t seek even an ounce of sympathy in this, but it has not, for some years now, been fashionable to be a Conservative. Even some who are “of the right” have chosen to distance themselves from the brand, arguing that the Tory Party is “not really conservative”, or that they are “socially conservative” thinkers rather than machine politicians, or that they adhere to older, more authentic traditions of right-wing thought. For a while, Boris Johnson gave the party an electoral reach no-one else could, however much the left now likes to forget or diminish that, and in 2019 the Conservatives won constituencies that had never been targets or at least not so for a generation or more: Workington, Bolsover, Bishop Auckland, Don Valley, Sedgefield, Bassetlaw.
(The fall of Sedgefield, to local accountant Paul Howell, was particularly piquant as it had been the constituency of Tony Blair from 1983 to 2007, making it a totemic disaster for the Blairite right and a sweet, if displaced, act of revenge for the Corbynite left. It was significant for me as I spent my first three years of life in the town. It’s a small place, about 5,000 people now, and we moved there because my father found a job as a clinical psychiatrist at Winterton Hospital, originally Durham County Lunatic Asylum, just north of Sedgefield. The National Health Service and Community Care Act 1990 doomed large psychiatric hospitals like Winterton, not without cause, and my father was still there, as chief executive of South Durham Mental Health Trust, to close the institution in 1998. But I digress.)
Even when Johnson was in his brief pomp, however, being a Conservative was something one admitted slightly sheepishly, or with an apology. The party had arguably never been fashionable, but there had been a time, perhaps, in the early days of David Cameron’s leadership, when it embraced some “progressive” policies, like concern over climate change and support for equal marriage, that voting Conservative was more socially acceptable, something one might admit freely to, perhaps even articulate or espouse publicly. The party was in the hands of people who seemed like us, or like the sort of people we might be, or know: younger, more casual, juggling the care of young children with career demands. If there had been a long-standing stereotype that the left cared while the right got things done, it seemed that perhaps the two were no longer antithetical.
All of the above is based on feelings, which of course is a popular way to view the world now. And to be a party member in the dog days of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard was to think that one adhered to a narrow cult, a sect which talked differently from society at large, looked at the world differently and certainly would not sit easily around your stripped-wood farmhouse table for a kitchen supper. “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” asked Howard-era election posters. No, Michael, we’re really not: and frankly you make us a little uncomfortable.
One should not, though, allow the optics to lead us to think that conservatism or the Conservative Party were never popular. It has become the inverse, in a way, of the Sex Pistols playing the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976 or Oasis making their public debut at the Boardwalk in 1991: if the number of people who now claim to have been there were accurate, the gigs would have sold out many times over. Equally, if only those who admit it 40 years on had voted for Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party, it would be inexplicable that they won four general elections in a row, held office for 18 years and changed the political geology. Indeed, in April 1992, under John Major, the Conservatives won 14,093,007 votes, more than any other political party has ever secured. Genuinely, ever.
This may seem like an overlong prologue, but all of this was in my mind as I read the editorial in this week’s New Statesman, “The decline of the One Nation Tory”. I am reluctant to tear into the piece, as I know, like and respect people at the New Statesman, and have even, mirabile dictu, written for them myself, some time ago, admittedly. But the editorial perpetuates a narrative which I think serves the purposes of the left but is not really reflective of reality, instead trying to co-opt “acceptable” Conservatives while separating them from the rest of the herd.
A word (or two) on “One Nation”, as it is a term which is still bandied about but has drifted a long way from its original mooring. Today it is used by and for centrist-leaning Conservatives, especially those who support higher public spending and taxation, progressive social views and, almost without fail, the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. Indeed, Brexit has almost become the fault line now: readers may trump me, but I cannot think of a “One Nation” Tory in (or outwith) the current party who supported our withdrawal. And it is a useful label, because it sounds conciliatory, inclusive, reasonable and open.
It began under that dandy radical, Benjamin Disraeli, orator, genius, showman, imperialist, outsider and favourite of Queen Victoria. He was a Jew, of modest Sephardic Italian origins, baptised a Christian at 12 after his father Isaac fell out with the leadership of the Bevis Marks synagogue off Aldgate in the City of London. It was born from one of Disraeli’s novels, Sybil, or The Two Nations, an 1845 roman à thèse which addressed the condition of the working classes and drew on the author’s interest in Chartism. The idea that Britain, or England (the terms were inaccurately but almost always interchangeable for the Victorians), was two nations, rich and poor, and that that division had to be healed, sums up the generally benevolent and progressive air of One Nation Toryism.
The approach was adopted by Disraeli for altruistic and cynical reasons. He was genuinely motivated to improve the lives of the working classes, some of whom, especially in the capital of the world’s greatest empire, lived in poverty for which “abject” is a wholly inadequate qualifier: it was the England of Charles Dickens, of course, but if you ever really want to shock yourself, dip into Henry Mayhew’s mighty and terrible London Labour and the London Poor, collected from articles in The Morning Chronicle and published in three volumes in 1851. Here, truly, is Hell on earth: poor Irish children acting as “pure-finders”, collecting dog shit to sell to tanneries for a few pennies, “noisy-racket men” who scraped an existence stealing glassware and china from outside shops, the young girls of 11 or 12 who were taking their first steps into prostitution because the alternative was homelessness or starvation.
The label of “One Nation” really gained traction, however, after the Second World War. A group of bright young Members of Parliament, elected for the first time in the general election of February 1950, formed the “One Nation Group” to develop new thinking, particularly on the social services. They chose the name with a nod to Disraeli (though Sybil never uses the phrase “one nation”) to give themselves a spurious ancestry and lineage. The founding members, the men who conceived the idea and breathed life into it, were Angus Maude (Con, Ealing South), Cuthbert Alport (Con, Colchester) and Gilbert Longden (Con, South West Hertfordshire); none is now a household name, and if any is remembered it is Maude, father of Cameron-era cabinet minister Francis, and in his own right one of the intellectual godfathers of Thatcherism. They invited Richard Fort (Con, Clitheroe), Robert Carr (Con, Mitcham) and John Rodgers (Con, Sevenoaks) to join the group, after which a welcome was extended to Edward Heath (Con, Bexley) and Iain Macleod (Con, Enfield West). Finally, Macleod suggested including the new Member for Wolverhampton South West, Enoch Powell.
They met for the first time shortly after the election at the offices of Political and Economic Planning, a think tank, at 16, Queen Anne’s Gate. Macleod had been asked to write a pamphlet for the Conservative Political Centre on social services, and he suggested that it be a group effort, published just before the annual party conference in October 1950 under the title of One Nation: a Tory approach to social problems. It was an instant success, setting a modernising and progressive tone, being reviewed in several languages by the BBC’s European Service and, according to Maude, inspiring the MP for Peterborough, Harmar Nicholls, to propose a resolution at the party conference committing the next Conservative government to building 300,000 new houses. The resolution was adopted (Labour had pledged to build 200,000 houses), Harold Macmillan was appointed minister for housing and local government in October 1951 and the target was achieved by 1953, a year ahead of schedule. Macmillan was set on a course to Downing Street.
The original members of the One Nation Group were hugely eminent. Heath became prime minister, Macleod was (briefly) his chancellor of the Exchequer, Carr was his home secretary, Maude helped evolve monetarist ideology, and Powell, though his time in office was short, had perhaps the best mind on the Conservative benches for decades to come and would be massively influential in public debates in the 1960s and 1970s. All of the original members were Oxbridge graduates, and many had outstanding war records: Heath had risen to lieutenant colonel in the Royal Artillery, Alport had been chief of staff of the East Africa Command, Rodgers had been director of post-war planning at the Department of Overseas Trade, and Powell had risen from private to brigadier, briefly becoming the youngest brigadier in the British Army (after having been the youngest professor in the Empire in 1937).
One rule of the group—proposed by Powell at a dinner in November 1951—was that it should comprise only backbenchers, and that existing members should step down if promoted to ministerial office (Heath fell foul of this straight away, as he had become a government whip a week before, but it would be excessive to suspect that this was Powell’s motivation). This meant that new members needed to be inducted: in the first few years invitations were extended to (and accepted by) John Vaughan-Morgan (Reigate), Reginald Maudling (Barnet), the Hon. David Ormsby-Gore (Oswestry), Viscount Lambton (Berwick-upon-Tweed) and Jack Simon (Middlesbrough West). Only Lambton was not an Oxbridge graduate.
From here is woven the mythology of One Nation. It was, the legend goes, a progressive, left-wing-Conservative ginger group which came to dominate the party through the 1960s and 1970s, the ascendancy brought to a halt only by the accession of Margaret Thatcher to the leadership in 1975. And the contrast lies barely under the surface. The One Nation strand of Toryism was paternalistic and conciliatory, concerned with full employment, undogmatic, consensus-driven and seeking to use all and any powers of the state to achieve prosperity. In these years the death penalty is suspended then abolished, homosexuality is decriminalised and abortion is made safely available (though most of these were achievements of the 1964-70 Labour government, albeit supported by the Conservative opposition), while the party of Empire transfers its affections to the Commonwealth of Nations, marginalises its toxic, imperialist right wing and wrestles with acceptance of the growing influx of immigrants and the subsequent growth of substantial ethnic minorities. It becomes, to a great extent, a liberal party, progressive and acceptable to polite society, and is only brought low when the hard-edged ideologue seizes power in what Julian Critchley called “the peasants’ revolt” which unseated Heath.
It is an attractive narrative arc for liberal conservatives and unreconstructed Keynesians. The problem is that it doesn’t work. Heath, of course, would become the apotheosis of rudderless centrist Conservatism, scrabbling for ideological grip as the economy plunged into crisis in the 1970s and facing a threat from over-mighty trades unions which broke its Nietzschean will to power. But Heath’s messy, politically confused Götterdämmerung was not an inevitable consequence of a progressive instinct or trajectory. He had won the leadership of the party in 1965 in part because he was seen as punchier and more aggressive an opposition spokesman than his rival, Reginald Maudling, who had settled into a comfortable (and boozy) existence in the boardrooms of the City of London. And the 1970 election manifesto was regarded as quite a radical, pointed platform, assailed by Harold Wilson as “not just a lurch to the right” but “an atavistic desire to reverse the course of 25 years of social revolution”, “a free for all in place of the welfare state. A free for all market in labour, in housing, in the social services.”
Wilson lampooned Heath as “Selsdon Man”, after the Selsdon Park Hotel where the Tories had launched their policy platform, and a nod to the archaeological hoax of Piltdown Man. A Conservative victory, the prime minister warned, would “make life dearer for the many”, drive up rents in “a free-for-all in housing” and slash welfare “to means-tested levels”. The attack lines could as easily be expressed by Sir Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet, and they encapsulate the charge against the Conservative Party which has been made for at least a century: the party of vested interests, the party of established wealth, the party of rampant capitalism and the party of indifference to the unfortunate. It does not sound very “One Nation”.
That is in part because the One Nation Group was never based around a coherent and agreed agenda. Their booklets published in the early 1950s had advocated laissez-faire economics just as much as state interventionism. 1954’s Change Is Our Ally declared that “the last forty years” had seen the political pendulum swing towards extreme central economic control and planning, a more competitive environment had to be created to encourage growth and prosperity, and the Conservatives needed to return to the principles of the free market. It took aim at the Tories of the National Government in the 1930s as well as the Labour Party of the 1940s, and said that the legacy of both was the dead hand of the state. This was no proto-Wet manifesto.
Nor did the group conform easily to issues which would become much more prominent and faith-determining. Heath, of course, was the pro-European sans pareil, whose (only?) lasting achievement as prime minister between 1970 and 1974 was to deliver the UK’s accession to the Common Market; Maudling was one of the architects of the European Free Trade Association in 1960 and said of joining the EEC that “I can think of no more retrograde step economically or politically”; Longden was strongly in favour of membership of the EEC and supported the Commonwealth; while Powell, once the arch-imperialist who initially sought a place in the House of Commons to advance his ambition to become viceroy of India, reinvented his mental world as a romantic devotee of the centralised nation state and an implacable opponent of the Common Market.
Powell, if I may take a moment to deal with him specifically, is the member of the One Nation Group which makes today’s soi-disant One Nation Tories deeply uncomfortable. Heath can be partially embraced as the father of the UK’s journey of European integration and a totem of opposition to Thatcherism, while Macleod, because he died in office at the age of 56, perhaps on the brink of the greatest days of his career, can be used as a receptacle for each person’s hopes and wishes. He would have saved, or ameliorated, or succeeded Heath, he would have been Heath’s way of communicating with his own backbenchers but also the heavyweight adviser Heath so badly needed (losing Maudling in 1972, and Hailsham and Douglas-Home being semi-detached). But with the outcome of Powell’s career there can be no accommodation. It is impossible for them to triangulate the 1968 Birmingham Speech (so-called “Rivers of Blood”, though the phrase was never uttered), and it is hardly easier to digest Powell’s absolute opposition to EEC membership or his pioneering of monetarism. Nascent careers can be snuffed out by a careless use of the phrase “Enoch was right”.
The election of Thatcher as leader was Black Tuesday for Conservative centrists. But it also marked the eclipse, for a while of the “One Nation” tag. Thatcher, of course, would develop her own language of sectarianism within the party. “Is he one of us?” she would ask urgently to assess the reliability of young MPs, civil servants, academics or aspirant prelates. She framed it in binary terms, though many colleagues and officials might in fact have straddled the dividing line. Willie Whitelaw, for example, her loyal deputy until he retired at the beginning of 1988, was not by instinct or conviction “one of us”, but, just as he had been second-in-command of 3rd Tank Battalion, Scots Guards, for the last months of the Second World War, so too he decided he would be an unswayably loyal number two to Thatcher. Ultimately, she was the boss.
But the real tribes of the Thatcher era were Wets and Dries. It was language she adopted and popularised in 1979-80, the early months and years of her premiership, when most of her cabinet was still sceptical of her. To be “wet” was to be feeble, irresolute, prone to compromise, lacking in backbone. The Dries were tough, strong, committed, unflinching, willing to absorb the necessary cost of economic transformation. When the economy grew worse in 1981, the Wets urged a change of course. It was madness, they believed, to plough ahead with her reforms, with unemployment rising to levels previously undreamed of, and inflation still desperately high. But the Dries, like Thatcher, knew that determination was the quality needed, the stamina and certainty to weather the tough times before recovery began to arrive.
Recently One Nation has staged a sort of comeback. In March 2019, around 50 Conservative MPs formed a group called One Nation Conservatives, supposedly in order to unite around a candidate in the leadership election to come who would not leave the European Union without a deal. The co-chairs were Amber Rudd (then work and pensions secretary) and Nicky Morgan (then chair of the House of Commons Treasury Committee), with a board including Damian Green, former first secretary of state, and Nicholas Soames, former minister of state for the Armed Forces (and Winston Churchill’s grandson). In May, they published a “Declaration of Values”, a ten-point manifesto with most of which few Tories would disagree, though they were couched in language which touched centrist hotspots. They refer to “an equal chance to a fair start in life” (a rather qualified promise), “tackling social injustice”, “stewards of our local and global environment” and “a framework of good regulation”, but it is hardly The Communist Manifesto.
In the end, One Nation was not able to endorse a single candidate. Green supported Matt Hancock, Rudd backed Jeremy Hunt, Morgan threw her weight behind Michael Gove and Soames endorsed Rory Stewart. It was not a striking display of groupthink, and displayed both a flexibility of attitude over Brexit and the underlying lack of cohesion of the group: shared principles were all very well, but when couched so generally and blandly, they could be interpreted in a variety of ways. When Boris Johnson was elected leader of the party and became prime minister in July 2019, Rudd was retained in cabinet and Morgan was rehabilitated to take charge of DCMS, so the group chose Green as their new leader. They were sharply critical of the withdrawal of the whip from 21 Conservative MPs in September for voting in favour of a motion which allowed the consideration and passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, the so-called ‘Benn Act’. In October, a One Nation delegation met the prime minister, and were assured that the manifesto for the next election would not contain a promise to leave the EU without a deal.
That election, held in December 2019, saw many of the leading lights of One Nation quit the scene for one reason or another. Those deprived of the whip were not, of course, able to stand as Conservative candidates, though some had likely been planning to step down anyway; nevertheless, leaving the Commons were Kenneth Clarke, Rory Stewart, David Gauke, Dominic Grieve, Oliver Letwin, Nicholas Soames, Ed Vaizey, Justine Greening and Richard Benyon, among others, all of them broadly towards the centre of the party, or at least not committed free-market monetarists, libertarians or Eurosceptics. It was an eminent group, with many former cabinet ministers in its ranks, and it did carry the whiff of a clear-out.
In the new parliament, however, it was estimated that there were still around 110 One Nation Conservatives, and they were hardly shut out from preferment: Robert Buckland was lord chancellor from 2019 to 2021, Greg Clark became chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Tobias Ellwood was elected to chair the Defence Committee, Stephen Crabb won the Welsh Affairs Committee, Matt Hancock remained health secretary, Guy Opperman was minister for pensions and financial inclusion from 2017 to 2022. There was no bloodbath of the ideologically suspect.
Which brings me (“At last!”, I hear you cry) to the editorial in The New Statesman. Its thesis is that the Conservative Party now has a markedly narrow ideological spectrum, with Rishi Sunak—a Brexiteer who pays homage to the memory of Thatcher and has argued for shrinking the state—being criticised from the right by Conservatives who think he should tack towards them. Liz Truss won the leadership of the party on a distinctly right-wing manifesto of supply-side economics and low taxation, and this is an indication, says the editorial, that “the Conservative Party lacks what it once had: a vigorous and influential One Nation wing”. It points to the book Dancing with Dogma, a critique of Thatcherite policies by former cabinet minister Ian Gilmour. Then it articulates a potential “One Nation critique” of the current prime minister, suggesting a settlement of the industrial action by public sector workers, judicious tax rises (including a wealth tax) and greater emphasis on “the role of the active state in driving economic growth and delivering national priorities”.
This is the first problem. That is not so much an imagined “One Nation” critique of Rishi Sunak as a social democratic wish-list, wedded to the virtue of high taxation and the benevolent role of the state in economic activity. It has not been the policy of a Conservative leader since Edward Heath. Rather, it is an attempt to co-opt those who identify as One Nation Tories and ascribe to them policies which those who share the magazine’s ideological leanings support.
The reference to Ian Gilmour is telling. Dancing with Dogma is an elegant, if rather languid and après-moi-le-deluge volume, but rarely can political tracts have been published with as little impact. The book first appeared in 1992, and you have to be extremely imaginative to see its clarion call of the ur-Wet reflected in the subsequent leaderships of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard, or even in much of the tenor of John Major’s ultimately doomed premiership. One might say that Gilmour’s book equalled the influence his criticism from the backbenches of the House of Commons had enjoyed between 1981 and 1992. Gilmour is, in any case, an odd figure to choose as the champion of One Nation. He was a vastly wealthy aristocrat, a third baronet with substantial estates in Scotland, married to a duke’s daughter and living in a ten-bedroom mansion, Ferry House, in Syon Park. From 1954 to 1967, he owned The Spectator, and was himself the editor until 1959.
Gilmour was charming and witty, contemporaries report, an excellent host and possessed of all the courtesy of the best of his class. He had the comforting and attractive views which progressive observers of politics share: against capital punishment, in favour of European integration, against the censorship of books and theatre, in favour of legalising homosexuality when it was still a criminal offence. It is hardly a surprise that some of his closest friends in politics sat on the other side of the House, especially Roy Jenkins, somewhat oddly as the Labour MP turned founder of the SDP turned grand old man of the Liberal Democrats had a decades-long affair with Gilmour’s wife, Lady Caroline. It is sometimes written rather breathlessly of Gilmour that he was languid and pessimistic in what is supposed to be a stereotypically aristocratic way, or that he could have been the reincarnation of A.J. Balfour, or that he was a great Tory intellectual. These views may or may not be right.
He was, however, a pretty hopeless minister. He flourished under Edward Heath, because he shared Heath’s views on Europe and on the messy and battered Butskellism which still wielded influence over the British economy by the late 1960s. He spent the entire Heath administration at the Ministry of Defence, as under-secretary of state for the Army, minister for defence procurement, minister of state and then, for the final eight weeks of the government, secretary of state for defence. But he was a poor speaker, one colleague observing of his performance at the despatch box that he could box but he could not punch. In 1973, while discussing ministerial prospects, the chief whip, Francis Pym (later one of the leading Wets himself), told Heath that there was “uncertainty as to his political weight” and that maybe Gilmour could be let go. Instead Heath promoted him to cabinet the following January.
Nor did his intelligence or his One Nation civilisation always make his judgement unerring. In 1979, he was reunited with his boss at the Ministry of Defence, Lord Carrington, who became Thatcher’s foreign secretary and had Gilmour as his number two. One of the major tasks facing the FCO team was resolving the crisis in what was still white-ruled Southern Rhodesia. The former crown colony had declared independence from the crown unilaterally in 1965 to avoid having to accept greater rights and powers for the black majority, and was then consumed by an insurgency of the armed wings of pro-majority rule groups. The Rhodesian Bush War scarred the government of Ian Smith until the issue of Rhodesia’s status was resolved in 1979.
The Lancaster House Conference on the status of Rhodesia was announced at a Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Lusaka in August 1979, and convened in London the following month. Carrington chaired it as foreign secretary while Gilmour acted as his deputy. Behind the scenes there was initially a sharp difference of opinion between the prime minister and the Foreign Office: Thatcher wanted to recognise the new United African National Council government of Bishop Abel Muzorewa, a United Methodist bishop who was now prime minister in alliance with his predecessor, Ian Smith, but the FCO persuaded her to a bolder strategy. Instead the UK position became to favour the two guerrilla groups, ZANU and ZAPU, headed respectively by Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo. An agreement was reached in December 1979 and multi-racial elections held in February 1980: ZANU-PF triumphed and Robert Mugabe became prime minister of Zimbabwe.
It is easy to be wise after the event, and one should not be too critical. Mugabe seemed like an attractive candidate for the leadership of Zimbabwe because he was not funded by the Soviet Union, which its rival, ZAPU, was. At the height of the Cold War, this was an important consideration. Moreover, although Mugabe preached a kind of Marxism-Leninism with support from the rural peasantry, it was the British assessment that he was beneath the surface an old-fashioned African nationalist, of a type with whom they were confident they could deal. Muzorewa, by contrast, preached non-violence, and his association with Smith robbed him of international legitimacy. One can understand, therefore, why the FCO took the line that it did, but one can be forgiven now for thinking that the Wet-dominated Foreign Office pulled off a stroke of genius by installing Robert Mugabe in power.
This is not deliberately a J’accuse! against the late Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar. He is here a kind of synecdoche, a part of what we can loosely call “the One Nation tendency” who stands in for the whole. And here’s why: the left again and again picks attractive figures from the right, emphasises their human, relatable qualities, attaches the One Nation label to them and suggests, or outright states, that this is the true soul of the Conservative Party, this is the ideology around which reasonable people can cohere, and this is the tradition which rejects extremism and just wants to get on with sensible policies. The country, it is strongly implied, would be much better if these people were in control of the Conservative Party, whether it was in government or in opposition. It is the fallacy of the agreeable centre.
It falls down for three reasons: first, because “One Nation” is not, nor ever has been, a coherent, consistent policy platform of anything but the most inoffensive generalities (as seen in the 2019 Declaration of Values above); secondly, because it tries to corral leading Conservatives on the apparent basis that they are simply “the nice guys”, whether or not they are influential or effective figures in the party; and thirdly, because what are portrayed as “traditional” One Nation policies often seem to be suspiciously close to what a left-wing party with centrist aspirations would want to implement.
A perfect illustration of at least two of these reasons comes in the person of the quintessential One Nation Tory, Kenneth Clarke, now Lord Clarke of Nottingham. He is a politician with an extraordinary appeal beyond the usual suspects, an ability to charm, even without doing anything conscious, men and women who would usual wish a plague on both the houses of our politics and maintain the bare minimum of awareness of the whole subject. Clarke is iconoclastic and disdainful of convention, from his plain speaking and his genuine sense of humour to his brown suède brogues (in fact he has never worn Hush Puppies), his love of beer and small cigars and his ability to switch off from politics and listen to jazz or watch cricket. He is, above all, approachable, the sort of person with whom members of the public can imagine going for a drink and spending an enjoyable, funny, gossipy, boozy evening. And of course he is a moderate, sensible person with no time for extremism.
Clarke is indeed some of those things. He really does care little for conventional and will often say what is really occupying his mind rather than the diplomatic or polite answer. He can compartmentalise very effectively, and jazz, cricket, birdwatching and football are some of the ways he achieves that. And he is genuinely and spontaneously funny. But he is also much more interesting than the lazy sketch of his public persona.
It is now a long time since it was hard to remember, but Clarke was once a prodigy. He was elected to the Commons at 29 in the 1970 general election, for the Rushcliffe seat in south Nottinghamshire he would hold for nearly 50 years. It was his home turf, and his origins were modest in a way that was much more unusual in the Conservative Party of the 1960s than they are now. It was not so long since the party had had three Old Etonian leaders in a row (Eden, Macmillan and Douglas-Home), themselves coming after the Old Harrovian grandson of a duke (Churchill). Clarke was a classic 1960s story: a scholarship to a fee-paying school, on to Cambridge to read law, the chairmanship of Cambridge University Conservative Association and the presidency of the Cambridge Union, and the gathering of a group of friends with whom he would share a journey through his professional life: the Cambridge Mafia of that time included Michael Howard, John Selwyn Gummer, Norman Fowler, Leon Brittan, Norman Lamont and Peter Lilley. Brittan and Gummer would be ushers at Clarke’s wedding.
But the One Nation mantle sits surprisingly uneasily around Clarke’s shoulders. Certainly he was not a Thatcher supporter at the beginning, but he spent most of the period from 1975 to 1979 on the opposition front bench as an industry spokesman. He went on to be one of only five ministers who served all the way through the 18 years of Conservative government (as well as Lynda Chalker, Antony Newton, Patrick Mayhew and Malcolm Rifkind). And he did not do this by being an outlier. From 1985 to 1989, he was the Commons spokesman for Lord Young of Graffham, one of Thatcher’s favourite ministers and one most in sympathy with her politically, first at the Department of Employment then at the Department of Trade and Industry. This was the front line of Thatcherism, too, with the introduction of compulsory interviews of jobseekers under the 1986 Restart scheme, the privatisation of businesses like British Airways and Rover Group and the commercial redevelopment of old industrial sites. Clarke was a pugnacious and robust proponent of these policies.
This status as a champion of free-market policies, if not the Lady herself, only became more marked when he became master of his own ship in July 1988; the health portfolio was taken out of the sprawling and unmanageable DHSS and Clarke was made secretary of state. His priority was the introduction of the internal market to the NHS, a course of action he argued successfully for in place of his predecessor’s instinct towards compulsory individual insurance. In January 1989, he published the white paper Working for Patients, which outlined the measures to create the purchaser/provider split and bring about an internal market. The clinicians’ groups, especially the British Medical Association, dug their heels in against change, but Clarke used his powerful argumentation, his determination and his heedlessness to criticism to push forward. Thatcher later wrote that he was “an extremely effective Health minister—tough in dealing with vested interests and trade unions, direct and persuasive in his exposition of government policy”. This for a man we now think of as a One Nation icon!
The one article of faith which would feature heavily in Clarke’s career, and which would stop him from ever leading his party despite contesting the succession three times (1997, 2001, 2005), was his pro-European stance. In an interview last year, he admitted “It’s obvious looking back, I was just too pro-European for the Conservative membership, certainly, and probably for the Conservative parliamentary party”. Yet, with the exception of his one-time, qualified support for a European single currency, it was never so much substance as style which put him on the fringes of his party. He supported the Maastricht Treaty, but then that was government policy, the UK never rejoined the European exchange rate mechanism after falling out in September 1992, and although Clarke was anti-Brexit, by that time he was in the twilight of his career. the black mark against him was his unshakeable determination to treat membership of the European Union as if it were a good thing, to engage positively and enthusiastically with the UK’s fellow member states and not to use the institutions of the EU as a convenient whipping boy for political advantage. Remaining cheerful about Europe was the sin which the Eurosceptics in the party could never excuse.
It’s time to try to draw these disparate facts, assertions and arguments together. It is often said that Margaret Thatcher was very lucky in her enemies—Foot, Galtieri, Scargill, even, in his early days, Kinnock—and conversely the left has had much less luck. There has therefore been a somewhat analogous attempt to craft their own enemy, but because it is (I believe) imaginary, it need not be in direct opposition to them: the left imagines this polite, sensible, agreeable but downtrodden One Nation tradition which it can go a long way towards having common cause with (because it does not exist) and which it can also set up as an enemy of the right-wing Conservative establishment, and suggest that the Tories are not only the bad guys, but that they are controlled by the worst kind of Tories, who keep these lovely, consensual centrists in shackles.
But here are some truths. Firstly, from its very beginning in 1950, One Nation was never a settled, coherent, consistent policy platform. Second, as a result, many of the leading figures of what is called the One Nation tradition held and hold views which are jarringly at odds with the smooth centrist narrative. Thirdly, some of these figures with inconvenient views, like Clarke on privatisation, are often some of the most appealing figures whom the left anoint as the kind of alternative leadership to the right-wing establishment. Fourth, the Conservative Party has now fallen into the grip of an ideological, sectarian right-wing cabal and the electorally attractive One Nation group has, because of the extremism of Conservative members, been laid low and marginalised. But the One Nation tradition has never had decisive impact since the fall of Heath. Numerically they remained strong until at least the 1979 general election and in the leadership until 1983—see the dismissal of Gilmour in January 1981 and then the great purge of the cabinet Wets that September. From 1975 until at least 2005, even if we regard the Major period from 1990 to 1997 as a slight leavening of centrist urges, the Conservative Party has been led from the right, and unapologetically so. It is, after all, a right-wing party, and it has had leaders chosen by a variety of mechanisms, but consistently at least centre-right, if not plain right.
Conservatives shouldn’t let the liberal left write the story of our party, our leaders or our institution. Very few leaders are wholly one thing or another but they have a dominant “hand”, as it were, and it is consistently dexter. The party has not shunned a more talented selection of consensualists who could have maintained the cosy split-the-difference of the 1950s and 1960s, however much non-Tories gaze longingly and pantingly at Clarke, or Francis Pym, or Peter Walker, or Chris Patten, or even Michael Heseltine. They have simply never had the consistent strength, unity or coherence to be what the left wants them to be.
I should have known it would take me more than 6,000 words to vent my slight frustration at The New Statesman’s editorial. But I think I have identified a recurring trope, and I think I have also knocked down some enduring myths about Conservative Party history. Knowing the past of your intellectual tradition is important, because if you don’t have a firm grasp on history, you can find yourself rewriting it and then influencing how you look at the present. Know thyself, and know your party. This stuff matters.