X Close

How to make Britain One Nation again The referendum vote was a cry for a fairer, more united country, something neither Thatcherism nor Corbynism can deliver

A boarded-up pub (Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)

A boarded-up pub (Photo by Anthony Devlin/Getty Images)


September 25, 2019   5 mins

Consett in County Durham remains synonymous with steel – the steel that built British nuclear submarines and famous structures across the Empire. The town’s steelworks provided work that brought genuine pride to the thousands of people who worked there, including my grandfather. Pride in a job well done and pride that Consett steel was known and respected around the world.

The famous steelworks closed almost four decades ago and saw my hometown become one of the first to be given the unwanted label of “post-industrial”. A town that gained much of its meaning from the industry lost it all and with it 4,500 jobs. For a time it suffered the highest rate of unemployment in western Europe and it still has a justified feeling of righteous anger about the way it was treated. Big promises of re-training and re-investment didn’t amount to nearly as much as promised, and the town took several years to get back on its feet.

Consett isn’t some kind of post-industrial dystopia today – much good regeneration work has been done by the local council and others. It is surrounded by some of the most beautiful countryside in England and, after a substantial dip in population, has now attracted many new residents who commute to work in Newcastle and Durham. But many of the new positions created in the town itself aren’t exactly like-for-like replacements for the high-skilled jobs that gave workers pride and dignity in their labour.

My hometown is one of many scattered around the country that has come to be labelled “left-behind”. All too often, these towns suffer from appalling transport links, decaying town centres and community spaces, ageing populations and a lack of skilled work. Old industries, often with well-paid work that instilled pride and dignity, have often been replaced with employment that is insecure, low-paid and low-skilled. Meanwhile successive governments have further hollowed out these towns by actively encouraging talented young people to leave for university.

It was the revolt of long-forgotten towns like Consett that drove the referendum result – a rebellion by voters who politicians had long stopped listening to and caring about. Little wonder that a message as compelling as “Take Back Control” reached receptive ears. Communities felt that things were done to them, and that any economic miracle the country experienced was something that only impacted other people and other communities.

Following the referendum, the political class started talking about places like Consett again and the media began visiting. But the interest soon waned and people became obsessed with the horse trading of the Brexit negotiations, forgetting about the factors that resulted, in places like Consett, in a decisive vote to Leave. This vote wasn’t just about genuine discontent with the way that the EU worked, but also a desire for a new economic settlement. Now is the time to deliver on that decisive message that came from places like Consett.

Laissez-faire liberalism has little to add to the structural issues that so many towns suffer and a state simply “stepping aside” would run the real risk of making divisions worse. A failed top-down socialism, which through its obsession with nationalisation and centralisation contributed to Consett’s decline, simply cannot provide the prosperity and dynamic private sector that these towns need. Between them laissez-faire liberalism and old-style socialism have contributed to high levels of estrangement and alienation.

Our country today is perilously at risk of becoming the “two nations” that Disraeli warned about and a new, genuinely One Nation approach is need to tackle the issue. In my new book, Little Platoons, I set out what such a new settlement should look like.

A new One Nation settlement

One Nation is used as a buzzword by everyone from Labour leaders to hardcore Thatcherites, to such an extent that its true meaning is at risk of being lost. To many in the media, it is now synonymous with being pro-European, while others portray it as neo-liberal economics with some social liberalism attached. Both of these definitions are preposterous, given that the whole point of One Nation Conservatism is a domestic agenda of social reform.

“One Nation” means strongly believing in the market mechanism as by far the best way of creating wealth, while rejecting the more utopian elements of capitalism. It is based on the concept that prosperity should reach all parts of society, and for this reason Disraeli deplored the early excesses of laissez-faire and the fact that while “immense fortunes were accumulating
 the working classes, the creators of wealth, were steeped in the most abject poverty”.

Iain Macleod also eloquently warned that “you cannot ask men and women to stand on their own two feet if you give them no ground to stand on”. One Nation Conservatives understand that the state can be used intelligently to help create the basis for economic revival in communities that have long known only hopelessness and economic decline.

Two nation economic divisions are all too evident in today’s Britain. The City of London has a gross added value per head of over £300,000 while County Durham has one of £16,000. Since the banking crash, the FTSE 100 has risen by around 60 per cent, CEO salaries have soared and workers’ salaries have barely risen at all.

An equally stark divergence has occurred between the diminishing ranks of property owners, the number of which has fallen by 14 per cent in the past 19 years, and the rising number of people stuck paying expensive private rent (up 17 per cent in the same period) and unable to get on the housing ladder. If a One Nation approach isn’t found to these issues, then a more divisive one will surely fill the void.

Tory objections to laissez-faire economics are also centred around the impact of an unfettered market on those institutions that conservatives care the most about. In itself the market has little respect for tradition, family, community or nation – it is a dynamic and often atomising force. Too many social divisions can be seen in a country where some communities have become fractured, important institutions that brought people together have been in decline and issues such as alienation and loneliness have become more profound and worrying.

The un-conservative impact of unbridled economic liberalism was understood by Hayek, when he explained “Why I Am Not A Conservative” – arguing that “the liberal position is based on
 a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead”. It was that “preparedness to let change run its course” that resulted in so many towns like Consett feeling left behind.

Whereas One Nation conservatives believe in the importance of place, continuity and the familiar, in contrast a free market that isn’t moored by social norms can emphasise the new and the faddish. One Nation Tories understand that, in the words of Sam Rayburn, “any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a good carpenter to build one”.  Communitarian conservatism is based around restoring local communities as well as local economies.

A One Nation agenda for a renewed economic settlement should be bold and audacious, with the goal of transforming long declining local economies, empowering communities and bringing prosperity and a sense of control. Young people should be encouraged by the opportunities to stay in their hometown and those who have left should be excited by the opportunities of returning – because social mobility and “opportunity” shouldn’t be the same thing as “escape”.

A programme of national reconstruction would ensure that towns as well as cities have world class road, rail and digital infrastructure. Devolution should also be accelerated, and the most radical devolution and most substantial investment should be focused on economically stagnating towns.

The industrial heritage and emphasis on skill in many “left behind” towns should also be used as a foundation to build a new settlement. It’s clear that deindustrialisation has gone too far, with Britain doing so more than any other country in the G20. We should look to reindustrialise some forgotten towns with an ambitious industrial strategy that encourages and incentivises industrial investment.

An audacious vocational education revolution should also be developed, with new and ambitious vocational educational institutions established in partnership with the private sector.

Making our country One Nation again means turning around long-forgotten towns, strengthening communities and empowering people who have long felt disempowered. It would mean that towns like Consett were at the centre of political and economic thinking, having spent too long at the periphery. This would build a new One Nation electoral coalition for the Conservatives, transforming society and politics for decades.

Little Platoons: How a Revived One Nation can Empower England’s Forgotten Towns and Redraw the Political Map is published by Biteback


David Skelton is author of Little Platoons, founded Renewal with the goal of broadening the appeal of the Tory Party and was Head of Research at Policy Exchange

djskelton

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

18 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kelly Mitchell
Kelly Mitchell
3 years ago

“Imagine foreigners come to your homeland, kill some of you, and tell the rest everything you ever believed is rubbish. Your religion is rubbish, your traditions are rubbish, your values are rubbish, the way you organise your entire economy and life is wrong.”

We don’t have to imagine it – we have social justice warriors. (All but the kill some of you part is essentially the same.)

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
3 years ago
Reply to  Kelly Mitchell

Not kill, true; but cancel you, lose you your job, destroy your business, shame and vilify you in front of the world. And can you today enter any profession or public life, or expect promotion, if you do not bow down and worship at the prescribed altar?

F Healey
F Healey
3 years ago

Good article but still confusing. History is fascinating and the details is where truth lies.
Sorry, but feelings and emotions should not get in the way.
You can cry about the Holocaust but don’t put stage directions in your history books. ( Time to cry now!) Tell the events accurately and let the student reach conclusions and derive any emotions. Each student of history will have a differing opinion and if they can back it up in a debate then great.
The student must read everything factual, there are no “sides” to accurate reporting
Nigerian history is fascinating and the British did both wonderful and terrible things. The Nigerians did also.
Tell the complete story but please spare us the 20-20 judgmental morally superior hindsight.
Your sophisticated condemnation will be applied to yourself in future years so a little historical context is required as we will all eventual fail to measure up to future judges.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago
Reply to  F Healey

I liked the close of your comment: “we will all eventually fail to measure up to future judges.” Sad but true.

susiebalducci
susiebalducci
3 years ago

Agreed, especially as I live in Aberdeen! Everything she is doing with the we’re coming out of lockdown a few weeks later than England, is political. What really annoys me is how many people are buying into it.

SUSAN GRAHAM
SUSAN GRAHAM
3 years ago
Reply to  susiebalducci

The Scots may be buying into it but the English see her for what she is – a chancer. Of course in respect of a referendum she only has to swing Scots – if the English were included to vote then independence would be a shoo-in. This is unfortunate but down to her deep deep hatred of the English. I am English and live in Wales but the dumb First Minister here is playing the same political game, however he isn’t as canny as Krankie – both transparent though.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
3 years ago

I don’t have to ignore or celebrate or self flagellate about the British Empire. I see it for what it was, as with all historical periods, it was a product of its time when such things were normal. The idea that I should feel guilt at a past I played no part in and that I cannot change is ridiculous. I don’t understand this whining and bleating about it. Sorry but you got conquered. Get over it. My ancestors were conquered and enslaved by Romans, Vikings and Normans. So what? All of that has left its mark I’m our culture, language, architecture and landscape but I don’t feel the need to obsess over it, it’s fascinating to me as a story weaved from history, I can see Roman ruins and I have no antipathy towards them or modern Italians, why on earth would I? I love that we were touched by Roman superiority, it benefitted us in the long run. We can enjoy it now. To compare historical modes of thinking to today’s is frankly stupid. Every people, every nation has had its fair share of being conqueror and conquered – including the Nigerians, whose brutal suppressions are touched on but not with such hand wringing emotion as the idea that wypipo came and had a go. I found it very interesting that some Nigerians trusted the ‘fairness’ of British rule more compared to their own leaders – because the reality is that sharing a culture or a skin colour doesn’t make you more righteous or better at making life better for your compatriots. I know a few people from ex colonies who say they were glad they got the British and not the French or the Spanish. Britain has nothing to be ashamed of because self flagellating about the past does not create confident successful people. Looking to the future and to self improvement is far more positive. I can know and understand the darkness and light of empires without feeling *personally responsible* which is what modern activists are attempting to make me do. I say No. The fact that the British spent time, money, lives and ships stopping the transatlantic slave trade, at zero benefit to itself, and probably resulted in its own downfall, and thanks to that we now live in a world that no longer thinks slavery is normal or acceptable, more than makes up for any transgressions as far as I’m concerned because it brought forward momentum out of that longest period of human history when it was entirely normal. In all cultures. That is a momentous achievement and says far more to me about the character of the British and its Empire than anything else. Can the Nigerians say the same about their own conquests? No. I refuse to hate myself or my people or my history in order to appease the inherited (and not experienced) ‘hurt’ of people who now benefit from the fruits of it.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago

The anti-colonialist ranting reminds me of that bit from “life of Brian” – “What have the Romans ever done for us”

https://www.youtube.com/wat

Mike Hursthouse
Mike Hursthouse
3 years ago

A good, nuanced article, but a couple of points I’d like to make. I am white but refuse to feel guilt over the Empire, most of which was gone by the time I was born. Secondly, it kind of bothers me greatly that there is a sort of reverse racism in imaging white people as a homogeneous mass of people with little variation outside of our whiteness. When people start up about BLM I’ll say something like:

I had a great grandfather who was a dataller (which in coal mine terminology means taking care of roadways and, more importantly of shoring up the roofs of mines), and other relatives on my father’s side were hewers and fillers. My grandmother was born in a workhouse (which, with huge irony, later became the hospital where I was born). My mother was an evacuee and I spent some years being brought up in a two up two down with an outside toilet and a single cold water tap inside the house. If you wanted a bath the water had to be heated in the copper (etc). In other words there were huge differences in the lived experiences of our forebears and one of the reasons I despise the hordes of white youths ostentatiously strutting their wokedom like peacocks is they have no idea they have been born, and no way of relating to the reality of the past.

T B
T B
3 years ago

Well said, Mike. There appears to be a view that all whites are middle class exploiters, but most white people were the exploited. My forebears were agricultural labourers. My grandfather was working in the fields when he was 10, never had any schooling, and when his mother remarried, ran away to sea where he was beaten and starved. My other grandfather was a coal miner, grandmother working and bearing eight children as well.
Many of us have no pride in our colonial past. Why should we? We had nothing to do with it. I have only indifference. It is history, and there’s nothing we can do to change it, and we should all learn to live with it and not expect people alive hundreds of years later to feel responsible for it; our ancestors had nothing to do with it.

Robert Lush
Robert Lush
3 years ago

Thank you Dr Adekoya, best wishes to you

Tony Taylor
Tony Taylor
3 years ago

Substitute “Scotland” for “Victoria” and you can republish the same about the situation here in Australia.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
3 years ago

The other 2 words those who believe all white people did in Africa was bad are: ROBERT MUGABE

From bread basket of Africa to basket case in one presidency.

Andrea X
Andrea X
3 years ago

Why has this article been published twice, once with the word “canny”, the second with “sly” in the title?

Michael Hanson
Michael Hanson
3 years ago

I think this article is being too critical of Nicola Sturgeon and the Scots in general.

It’s not unusual for a politician to be grim about fresh outbreaks of coronavirus! And Nicola normally has someone signing for the deaf when she speaks to be fair and inclusive – this doesn’t seem like a thing to criticise to me.

It’s a fair point about her ‘doom-mongering’ but again she’s not alone in the world at the moment where every new covid case – not even death – is met with doom-mongering. England locks down Leicester and Scotland locks down Aberdeen – it’s pathetic in both cases not just here in Scotland.

And talking about the SNP, yes of course it has a single purpose to remain in government but specifically to get independence for Scotland. After that there will still be a democratically elected government just like the UK government.

I like new discussion about covid but the SNP bashing was not ‘unherd’ but the same old mainstream cliché after cliché!

Janice Mermikli
Janice Mermikli
3 years ago

– The peasants are revolting.
-Yes, they are pretty disgusting!

Peter KE
Peter KE
3 years ago

Nice article.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

A pity that Polish references appear with the mention that Remi’s wife is Polish, and then immediately disappear. Christmas at the Adekoya home must have been something else! What is Remi’s view of Poland between the World Wars, I wonder, a country which could be construed as another kind of empire. Was it a brutal military dictatorship where Marshall Pilsudski kept in thrall Ukrainians, Belarusans, and Jews? Was it an enlightened nation where Pilsudski, whose socialist background taught him that “all forms of ethnic and religious bigotry…were diversions from the class struggle” insisted on fair treatment for everyone in the country, and Anti-Semitism in particular was rejected? Something else? These aren’t rhetorical questions. I would really like to know his views on the subject. (The quote above is from American historian Richard Pipes, a Polish-born Jew.)