There have been a great many soundbites and buzz words from David Cameron and George Osborne during their time in power, with the “northern powerhouse”, a supposed commitment to boosting the economy of the north, and “One Nation” Conservatism among the most recent.
To take One Nation Toryism, the idea of being a compassionate Conservative. It was a label Cameron laid claim to time after time in the heat of battle in this year’s general election campaign.
Cameron was insistent that he was the latest torchbearer of the mantle of the One Nation concept, a term originally coined by the 19th century Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli, but heavily associated with Harold Macmillan, prime minister in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Macmillan, and for that matter Disraeli, and probably like Cameron, saw the One Nation slogan as a way of seeking to appeal to working people and of attempting to dispel the perception of being politicians from extremely privileged backgrounds, leading a party defending such entrenched privilege.
When Harold Wilson’s Labour Party defeated the Tories at the general election in 1964, a year after Macmillan left office, it did so on a platform of sweeping away what many saw as the out-of -touch, crusty and over-privileged establishment that Macmillan appeared to personify, with images in the public mind of him shooting grouse on the moors.
Macmillan, an Old Etonian – a former pupil at the famous English public school – was indeed from an immensely privileged background, with his family founding the publishing house Macmillan.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, Britain is once again governed by Old Etonians, with both Cameron and another hugely influential Tory, the London mayor Boris Johnson, having attended Eton.
Cameron is in fact the first politician from such a background to occupy Downing Street since Macmillan and his successor Alec Douglas-Home, who had just one year in office before losing to Wilson in 1964.
The author Nick Cohen, not long before the 2010 general election, published the book Waiting for the Etonians which laments what he accurately predicted would be the Tories returning to power and what he warned would be the reintroduction of a privileged society.
Cameron’s supporters would doubtless label such arguments as “inverted snobbery”, but recent policies such as the government’s original intention to slash tax credits, that opponents claimed would cost the average working family £1,300 a year, gave a clear signal that extremely wealthy politicians like Cameron and Osborne simply don’t “get” how devastating the loss of such an amount is to most people.
It’s the example of the tax credit cuts – and other polices such as the bedroom tax, which many argued amounts to the effective eviction of some people from social housing they have lived in, often for decades – that mark Cameron and Osborne out from the likes of Macmillan and make a nonsense of theirs claims to be of a “One Nation” persuasion.
Macmillan had a back story a world away from Cameron, having served in the Grenadier Guards during the First World War, when he was wounded three times and received the Military Cross.
He was nicknamed “Supermac” at the height of his powers as prime minister in the late 1950s, when living standards were on the rise, with memories of war-ravaged Britain and rationing starting to dissipate.
It was during this time, in 1957, to be precise, when Macmillan famously claimed in a speech to his supporters that “most of our people have never had it so good”.
Macmillan was a strong believer in the postwar settlement, when the Tories as well as Labour were committed to a strong welfare state and an interventionist approach to creating full employment. Macmillan, unlike Cameron who represents the affluent constituency of Witney in Oxfordshire, was for a time the MP for the northern industrial seat of Stockton-on-Tees and was hugely influenced by the unemployment and grinding poverty he witnessed there during the Depression of the 1930s.
It’s true enough to say that One Nation Tories like Macmillan wanted to retain their privileged position over the masses, wanting to remain in charge of the old order and probably taking the view that they “wanted working people to live well”, but perhaps “not quite as well as themselves”.
But perhaps we can get an idea of critical differences between Macmillan’s approach and that of Cameron’s with the advice from the former prime minister that: “There are three bodies no sensible man directly challenges: the Roman Catholic Church, the Brigade of Guards and the National Union of Mineworkers”.
Of course the advice to governments was very much of its time and it would clearly have been wrong for example to allow the Catholic church’s opposition to same sex marriage to stop the UK and Scottish governments’ groundbreaking legislation on same sex marriage.
But at the same time it signals a consensual attitude to trade unions, to which Macmillan’s government took a non-confrontational approach. Such an approach was perhaps personified in the era’s iconic film – I’m All Right Jack, starring Peter Sellers, which portrays unions influential within British society.
Cameron by contrast moved pretty quickly to clobber the unions after his election win in May with his planned shake-up of employment law that means a majority vote for industrial action will no longer be enough to make a dispute legal.
It would probably be overstating the case to say that Macmillan is the left’s favourite Tory and it’s worth pointing out that the former prime minister presided over a very hierarchical society with entrenched inequality, as well as one where capital punishment was still in existence and where homosexuality was still illegal.
However, at least in terms of social and employment policy, it’s unlikely that Macmillan’s One Nation idea would have included Cameron’s bedroom tax or crackdown on trade union activity.