Over the past decade, Britain’s “One Nation Conservatism” has received increasing and largely positive attention in the United States. Favorable articles have appeared in First Things, The American Conservative, and National Review. Some see parallels to it in the “Populist Nationalism” and “National Conservatism” associated with Donald Trump, Tucker Carlson, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Boris Johnson’s embrace of it has enhanced its profile.
Advocates of One Nation Conservatism claim that it a traditionalist alternative to the classical liberalism typical of American conservatism. But there’s a problem: Whatever else anyone might think of it, One Nation Conservatism—as it originated and always existed in its British homeland—is antithetical to traditionalism.
In the Anglophone world, traditionalism has two main variants. First is High Toryism, rooted in the royalism of the English Civil War. Only an extreme and somewhat rare form of it favored absolutism. Its mainstream held that the monarch was Parliament’s “superior” in a more limited sense, much as the American Constitution gives the federal government “superiority” over state governments while still placing certain matters outside its authority and within the authority of the states. Second is conservative Whigism, also of seventeenth-century origins but most famously articulated by Edmund Burke. The latter favored a strong parliament and relatively weak monarchy on historical, legal, and pragmatic grounds while rejecting social contract theory. In response to the French Revolution, the two groups entered into an alliance that evolved into the Conservative Party.
One Nation Conservatism, by contrast, originated in an attempt to merge elements of traditionalism with elements of what would now be called “progressive” ideology. It is understandable that contemporary American conservatives might be intrigued by it, as they search for a more traditional alternative to the classical liberalism and fusionism that has dominated the Republican party for decades. However, in seeking new economic theories and policies to better support social conservative ideals, American conservatives should be wary of looking to One Nation Conservatism for inspiration. Some historical background can help explain why.
Benjamin Disraeli: The Father of One Nation Conservatism
The founder of One Nation Conservatism, Benjamin Disraeli, was one of three Victorians who rose to prominence as philosopher-politicians before becoming prime ministers. Early in his career, he jumped back and forth between the Conservative and Radical parties, seeing both as enemies of the classical liberalism he loathed.
At first glance, the basic professions of Disraeli’s philosophy seem conservative enough: limited and decentralized government, devotion to his country’s cultural heritage, prioritization of culture over economics, acceptance of social hierarchy, and claims of continuity with traditionalists of the eighteenth century. Yet Disraeli also believed that earlier traditionalists were the forerunners of his own day’s Radicals, who were heavily influenced by French egalitarians and determined to restructure Britain’s social and political order. Disraeli insisted such an overhaul wasn’t required by the core values of Radicalism. Instead, he believed the values could be implemented through “reform” undertaken at a slower pace and aimed at more “moderately progressive” goals. He called on the traditional elite to place themselves at the head of a social and political order acceptable to the mainstream left.
This was not a pragmatic alliance. It was an ideologically motivated “progressive conservatism.”
Since these views meet leftist criteria for “respectable conservatism,” Disraeli is often touted as the genius who developed a “traditionalism for the democratic world.” In fact, his “reforms” severely damaged the Conservative Party’s electoral viability until its classically traditionalist wing reinvigorated it under the leadership of Disraeli’s rival—Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, third Marquess of Salisbury.
The Pragmatic Fusionism of Salisbury
Another Victorian philosopher–prime minister, Salisbury saw in eighteenth-century traditionalism not a prototype of Radicalism but its antithesis. His strategy? Use issues on which conservative positions had widespread support as the basis for election campaigns and governing coalitions, then use the latter to implement a broader conservative program. Fight tooth and nail against every leftist attack. Did defeat seem inevitable? Drag out a rearguard action as long as possible to keep the left from moving on. Were leftists pursuing indifferent policies? Fight them to use up their time, energy, and resources. Believing there would be a manufactured constitutional crisis over the House of Lords (a bastion of the old order and property rights), he tried to provoke one, on the grounds that the sooner it came the better the chances of a conservative outcome.
Unlike Disraeli, Salisbury’s preferred allies were classical liberals. In the years surrounding Disraeli’s first term as prime minister, he had even thought a classical liberal “government” (“administration” in American terms) reliant on traditionalist support was the best way to minimize “reform.” This wasn’t because he was an “intellectual fusionist” who thought traditionalism and classical liberalism could be merged into a single philosophy. It was because he believed that traditionalists and classical liberals—despite disagreements—shared enough common ground to be natural allies in the face of the “progressive” menace.
Salisbury led the Conservative Party to twenty years of almost uninterrupted dominance and became the longest serving Victorian prime minister. His time in office—nearly fourteen years—at least doubled that of seven of the other ten men who held it during Victoria’s reign. But his death left the traditionalists without a leader possessing his combination of talent, strength of character, and prestige. A catastrophic Conservative electoral defeat in 1906 left the party unable to regain a parliamentary majority until after 1922.
One Nation Conservatism in the Twentieth Century—and Beyond
By that time, the One Nation wing of the Conservative Party was again ascendant, its position having been strengthened by a wartime coalition with the (“progressive”) Liberal Party. Then the Liberal Party imploded. Anti-socialist “progressives” turned to the Conservatives as the only viable alternative to the Labour Party. Among them was Winston Churchill, whose father had led the One Nation Conservatives after Disraeli’s death and been a thorn in Salisbury’s side. Stanley Baldwin, the Conservatives’ head from 1923 until 1937, was the first prime minister to fully put Disraeli’s vision into practice. Neville Chamberlain’s father had been a Radical who left the Liberals over their support for Irish Home Rule.
The bright spot in English inter-world-war conservatism was in the country’s literary life. T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Sayers, and C. S. Lewis were among those most vocal about their traditionalist beliefs. Anthony Powell, Agatha Christie, and J. R. R. Tolkien revealed them more rarely, and in Powell’s and Tolkien’s cases, more subtly. Most of these writers became more outspoken after World War II—when the Labour Party put England under a socialist yoke and the Conservative Party refused to do more than scale back some of Labour’s more egregious policies. A quarter century passed before an economic crisis forced the Conservative Party to return to a recognizably conservative platform under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.
Often considered a classical liberal, Thatcher insisted she was a traditionalist committed to her country’s historical culture and institutions, strong personal morality, and Christian faith. She believed classical liberal economists such as Friedrich von Hayek provided insight into how traditionalist belief in private property, private enterprise, and limited and decentralized government could be put into practice. British traditionalists sometimes criticized Thatcher for not pulling down enough of what remained of the post–World War II system, sometimes for moving too close to classical liberalism, sometimes for expanding government in some areas. Some One Nation Conservatives claimed she wasn’t “socialistic enough” to be a “traditional conservative.”
The pendulum swung again when David Cameron returned One Nation conservatives to power. His years as prime minister were marked by an aggressive promotion of social liberalism opposed by the majority of his own party. The success of the Brexit referendum only allowed traditionalists to regain a secondary place in Conservative Party leadership. Nationalistic but socially liberal One Nation Conservatives like Boris Johnson have retained the upper hand. Today, placing Cameron and Johnson in the same camp seems incongruous—but only because Brexit dominated British politics for the better part of a decade. Before it became an issue, both were leading figures in their party’s socially liberal and then still unified “progressive conservative” wing.
One Nation Conservatism Isn’t Traditional. It’s Progressive.
As this historical overview makes clear, One Nation Conservatism has never been classic traditionalism but “progressive conservatism.” Its adherents have always pursued moves further to the left, first “progressive reform,” then “progressive economics,” now social liberalism. Its defining feature is the belief that “western tradition” provides the basis for “progressive” ideology.
But what does that mean for Americans? Don’t Americans who embrace the term think of it as equivalent to “traditionalism”? Isn’t their interest in the greater public appeal the new term might have? Or in using it to denote a maverick challenge to more established political groupings? The problem is that, sooner or later, those who begin with such vague interest in One Nation Conservatism can end up embracing more of its substance.
If anything, tendencies toward the substance are more common than is use of the term. Matthew Schmitz of First Things was, for a time, well disposed toward a small group calling itself the “tradinista” movement. The American Conservative has occasionally published pieces endorsing socially liberal views. Two professors (of theology and philosophy) I know have expressed sympathy for Bernie Sanders for “traditionalist” reasons. One claimed it was possible to support Sanders on pro-life grounds. The other believed Sanders’s positions on the most important issues disqualified him but agreed with him on most others. I have seen articles endorsing the thought of Britain’s Philip Blond (a one-time David Cameron enthusiast who later concluded Labour was more truly “One Nation”) and Canada’s Ron Dart (who claims traditional conservatism has important similarities to the left rather than the “stereotypical” right).
The pervasive influence of leftist views undoubtedly disposes some Americans toward mixtures of social conservatism and “progressive economics.” On the other hand, one of the most traditionalist features of One Nation Conservatism—its elitism—seems to be of little interest on our side of the pond.
Failure to distinguish means from ends further confuses matters. Salisbury’s mitigation of his party’s support for economic intervention is often contrasted with One Nation support for more interventionist economic policies. In reality, early nineteenth-century Conservative economic regulation and Salisbury’s retreat from it were both intended to preserve the existing social and political order. The same passage of time saw enemies of that order shift from using a freer market to using economic greater regulation as their tool.
In offering these reflections, I do not wish to suggest that growing American interest in One Nation Conservatism is entirely negative. I am, rather, in favor of the basic impetus behind it: the desire to find a more traditional alternative to the classical liberalism and philosophical fusionism long dominant among American conservatives. Something like an earlier form of One Nation Conservatism may even be the most tolerable of the viable options in contemporary American politics. But One Nation Conservatism is itself a type of fusionism, a traditionalist-progressive mix rather than a traditionalist–classical liberal one. Traditionalists should not abandon a pragmatic alliance with the latter for intellectual commitment to the former. And I have no desire to see traditionalists overlook either the points on which they share common ground with classical liberals or the points on which traditionalism and One Nation Conservatism are at odds with each other.