One day, after many years of advocating his legacy, I wake up to find Benjamin Disraeli’s face all over the TV. Has 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 ideological disposition.
To be a one nation conservative is to advocate, rather than believe, in a weltanschauung 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, that are continually renewed by the consent of those who are a part of it, should be respected rather than condescended to. 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 simply 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 a noblesse oblige; a sense that we have an obligation to help those less fortunate but this is a contested concept and one easily claimed by any political party. The disposition as a motivation is lost, seldom attributed and rarely ever discussed.
Part of the problem is intimidation: because a thought is old, to believe it can only be understood or used by knowing the entirety of its history and its advocates. 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, tabula rasa. In persuading people of an argument and way of thinking should be to teach them that a disposition or tradition is not contingent on the flag bearers of the past, but rather one’s perception of the past, present, and future. This is how dispositions and orientations become self-evident and ethereal.
So to trace the origins of the one nation conservatism tradition to Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli is not nearly as important as understanding the thought behind what is falsely considered a purely political creed. To be a one nation conservative is to be sceptical and mistrusting of claims of true knowledge, of governments that claim they know best.
This can be traced to the ancient Greeks and has in the time between taken many different forms and been called many different things 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.