In Sybil, or The Two Nations, Benjamin Disraeli described an England where the rich and poor were “as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets”. They were two nations, sharing the same country.
Sound familiar? It should do. It is now, and it is us.
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On the one hand, we have a property-owning class with a particular interest in restricting housing supply at the expense of those who want to get on the property ladder. On the other, we prioritise pensioners at the expense of all other welfare recipients: between 2010 and 2020 the value of the state pension increased by around 8%, whereas unemployment benefits have fallen by 6%. Real disposable incomes are set to fall by 7.1% over the next two years – but not for pensioners, who are, as ever, protected by the triple lock. Economic pain for thee, but not for me.
These conflicts overlap heavily with what feels like the main divide in society: of the old vs the young (although the “young” increasingly stretches up to 50). We are engaged in intergenerational economic warfare. Younger people are forced into a worse quality of life than their parents’ generation. They are expected to live with less space, and spend more for the privilege. They are expected to work for less, and travel further to do so. They are expected to wait longer to buy a property, and rent in an increasingly unstable market while they save up. They are expected to pay ever-more tax, to fund a generation who are actively hostile to their interests.
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This two nation country is the result of 12 wasted years of Conservative government. Instead of fixing the roof while the sun was shining, as George Osborne told us he would, the Conservative Party has built “a political economy that relies on the votes of the anti-growth coalition of home-owning pensioners”: a voter base that relies on increasingly tetchy boomers who are happy to pull the ladder up after them. Fundamentally, the Conservatives have presided over the intensification of a two-nation country.
It is a particularly baffling state of affairs given most of our most recent Conservative prime ministers have described themselves as one-nation Conservatives — Cameron, May and Johnson have all laid claim to that mantle. Sunak has been cagier, but he did win the support of the One Nation group of MPs.
Even Ed Miliband tried to appropriate the ideology! He saw one nation as “A vision of a Britain where patriotism, loyalty, dedication to the common cause courses through the veins of all and nobody feels left out. It was a vision of Britain coming together to overcome the challenges we faced.”
In his Autumn Statement, Jeremy Hunt (another self-described one-nation Conservative) told us that “You do not need to choose either a strong economy or good public services”. And in a sense he’s right – we do not need to choose either of them, because we have chosen to have neither.
This is not some abstract policy debate. Presiding over a two-nation Britain is dangerous for the Conservative Party and for society. As Disraeli also said: “The Tory party, unless it is a national party, is nothing. It is not a confederacy of nobles, it is not a democratic multitude; it is a party formed from all the numerous classes in the realm.”
CCHQ should be petrified of that fact that a Tory voter under 50 is almost as rare as an affordable property in London. A recent YouGov survey found that just 14% of 18-24s and 13% of 25-49s would vote Conservative, compared to 59% for Labour among both groups. Recent polling by Ben Ansell finds that just 15% of all private renters would vote Tory, and among under 50s just 14% of undergraduates and 10% of postgrads would go blue. Demography is not destiny for any political party, but these are worrying numbers.
A two-nation system is bad for society. It is not for nothing that Disraeli warned against it: a perpetuation of the unfair status quo would, he feared, lead to social instability. Improving the lot of the people was not only morally right, it was also a clever act of self-preservation on behalf of the Tory elite.
The real kicker is that it does not have to be like this. We do not have to worship at the altar of the NIMBYs. As far back as 2010, the Conservatives were level-pegging with Labour in terms of winning the support of 18-24-year-olds. Across Europe, young voters often back parties of the Right. There is no iron law that says the Conservatives cannot win the youth vote. It’s a demographic they need desperately to win over.
To do so does not mean they need to look to the past. As Stanley Baldwin noted in 1934, “The responsibility – and it is a great responsibility – that rests with a leader is to try and adapt the policy according to the deep-laid foundations of the Party principles to meet whatever may come in this world.” The Tories they need to recognise that the status quo is not working. And if they want, as they profess, to be the party of one-nation principles, they need to change, and fast.
The key thing is to address intergeneration unfairness. This would mean stronger protection for renters and higher standards demanded of landlords. It does not mean rent freezes, which have consistently been shown to crash supply and reduce quality, but it does mean that extortionate fees, demands for up to 12 months’ rent in advance, and onerous deposits should be ended. Of course, the housing market will not be fixed until the planning system is fixed. There is a plethora of ways to do this, but a move to zoning, alongside design codes and allowing councils to benefit more from changes in land value due to planning permission decisions all seem like good places to start. Areas with increased house building should be rewarded.
A one-nation platform would also mean re-evaluating some of the punitive elements of our current system. The sky-high interest rate on student loans, the five-week wait for your first universal credit payment, and the two-child limit on child benefit should all go. Nobody in receipt of welfare should be living in absolute poverty – as a country, we are better than that. We currently spend more on pensions than we do on education (which somewhat reflects this government’s priorities) and it is not unreasonable to look at means testing pensions, which come in at around 10% of total spending and 5% of GDP.
Levelling up would also be key, recognising how much pride people feel in the local. This would mean investing both in physical and cultural infrastructure. Ratcheting up council tax for funding is not the answer, given the inherent unfairness in the model. A proportional property tax, of around 0.5% of the current value of a property (double for empty second properties), would see 77% of households pay less tax, but increase the overall tax take. There should also be some element of redistribution between councils, in recognition of the fact that some places have a greater need than others. We should all be in this together.
One-nation Conservatism is often seen as being on the Left of the party – a home for bitter remainers, wets, or secret social democrats. That is not true. It is simply a recognition of the core principle of conservatism: a nation cannot survive if it is at war with itself. The Conservative Party has forgotten this important insight, and sadly Sunak and Hunt are unlikely to remember it anytime soon – this is boomer Britain, after all.