David Cameron made much of the Queen’s Speech being the agenda for a ‘Progressive, One-Nation Conservative Government’. But what does that mean?


Political ‘progressivism’ is a difficult concept to pin down. It began around the end of the nineteenth century, and advocated the application of ‘scientific’ principles to social affairs. Scientific method had produced great improvements in our understanding of the physical world, leading to rapid material progress. The progressive insisted that this physical progress was vital to the improvement of the human condition. And they further believed that the ‘scientific’ management of society would advance social and economic progress still further.

Progressive Conservatism tries to introduce such interventionist ideas (expressed largely in income redistribution and economic planning) into the paternalist but otherwise anti-interventionist Conservative mainstream. This by itself is a difficult balancing act. And authors from Adam Smith through Ludwig von Mises to F A Hayek have highlighted the unintended consequences of interventionism, noting the limits of our ability to understand society and make it do what we want. So Progressive Conservatism is both a tricky and potentially forlorn approach.

‘One Nation Conservatism’ is easier to pin down. It goes back to Benjamin Disraeli, whom David Cameron has cited as his favourite Conservative leader. Disraeli coined it round about 1845 as a warning against Britain becoming two ‘nations’ – rich and poor. Based on the idea that society was organic and that the different classes had social obligations to each other – particularly that the upper classes had an obligation to those below – it was a brilliant PR move. It at once suggested to the working classes that they could rely on Conservative paternalism, and that Disraeli’s Liberal opponents were selfish individuals who did not regard themselves as having any such obligation.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Conservative Party had become more free-market and less interventionist, but after the depression era of the 1930s, and particularly after the Conservatives’ defeat by the radical postwar Atlee government, the One Nation phrase began to be used much more; so much so that people talked of a ‘postwar consensus’ between Labour and Conservative political movements. And more recently, after Margaret Thatcher’s more free-market policies were replaced by the dominant centralism of Tony Blair, the phrase has come back as the Prime Minister’s new watchword.

There is, however, a difference between these modern usages and Disraeli’s. Both agree that the rich have a duty to the poor. Disraeli regarded this a largely a duty of individuals to individuals. Given the expansion of government today, it has instead come to mean a duty of taxpayers to beneficiaries. Disraeli’s idea, that the better off should willingly be generous and honourable to others and ensure their equal treatment under the law, has morphed into the idea that the better off should be forced to pay higher taxes for the benefit of others, which of course treats people very differently under the law. It replaces the idea of an organic society that prompts natural interpersonal obligations, with the idea of a politically designed society whose leaders impose political and financial obligations on particular groups (of their choosing), to support (in ways of their choosing) other groups (of their choosing). Indeed, even to use Disraeli’s phrase (or even ‘Progressive’ and ‘Conservative’) for this seems to stretch the language beyond endurance.