After The Conservative Nation:
The State of the Union and Post-Unionist Politics
Chapter in Jonathan Rutherford and Jon Cruddas (eds), Is the Future Conservative, Lawrence and Wishart in association with Compass 2008
We should not forget that Alex Salmond couldn’t ask for more effective allies in his campaign to break up the Union than sour Little Englanders who cry ‘good riddance’ when independence for Scotland is suggested. I’ll fight them all the way. No one is prouder of being English than I am. But I am also passionately attached to the idea of Britain.
David Cameron, Speech at St. Andrews in the Square, Glasgow, September 15th 2006 (1)
He [Brown] talks about values but Britishness isn’t just about values – liberty, fair play, openness – are general, unspecific, almost universal. They are virtues which could be as easily associated with Denmark, say, or Holland. Britishness is also about institutions, attachment to our monarchy, admiration for our armed forces, understanding of our history, recognising that our liberty is rooted in the rule of law and respect for Parliament.
David Cameron, Speech at Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh, December 10th 2007 (2)
Ideas of the nation, nation-state and nationhood have been fundamental tenets of the Conservative Party for over a century (3). These can be seen in their identification as the party of patriotism, the party of the Union, and of Empire and imperialism. These have coalesced from the late 19th century into an over-arching story of Britain and Britishness which has provided the dominant political account of our times: ‘the Conservative nation’ (4).
‘The Conservative nation’ proved to be a very successful, inclusive political concept that was more than a match for the declining ‘Liberal nation’ and subsequent ‘Labour nation’ from the 1880s onward. The Conservatives constructed an idea of the nation which had at its centre stage the concept of authority, the importance of the Crown as political symbol and power, deference, social duty and order, along with social reform to integrate the working class into society.
The Tories are the Village Green Preservation Society
Conservative unionism was one of the main pillars of ‘the Conservative nation’ centred on Ireland, Empire and ‘British Great Powerism’. Ireland became central to the Conservatives from 1886 onwards, Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule Bills and the resulting split in the Liberal Party which threatened the Liberals dominance of British politics from 1832.
The potency of a ‘Unionist’ politics had much more widespread appeal than that of Conservatism or Toryism. Lord Balfour in 1927 explained his preference for ‘Unionism’ because it was a ‘mere question of personal prejudice … partly because so much of my life was spent in attempting in its full sense the Union with Ireland’ and partly because a ‘very large fraction of the future felicity of the world depends upon the union of classes within the Empire’ (5).
One of the central strengths and tensions within Conservatism, just as it was within the United Kingdom, was between Englishness and Britishness. Stanley Baldwin, in a revealing speech in 1924 said that he had ‘a feeling of satisfaction and profound thankfulness that I may use the word ‘English’ without some fellow at the back of the room shouting out ‘Britain’’ (6). Conservatism was able to successfully balance the relationship between the evocativeness of an Englishness which touched a raw, emotional nerve, and a Britishness which was much more reserved and preserved for the politics of statecraft.
Nearly seventy years later how far this carefully negotiated politics had disappeared became apparent when John Major as Prime Minister declared: ‘Fifty years from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said “old maids cycling to high communion through the morning mist”’(7).
The intention of Major’s speech had been to underline his undoubted British patriotism and opposition to European integration, but what it produced was ridicule for his imagery was felt to be completely English, rather than British, and evoking a lost, rural England which had long since disappeared (8).
This dilution of the Conservatives ability to reflect the nuances between Englishness and Britishness has changed the ability of the Conservatives to claim the politics of the nation. It has been a long, slow war of attrition and one which has undermined the basis of ‘the Conservative nation’. The politics of Tory unionism were gravely weakened by Irish succession and independence, the long experience of decolonisation from India and Pakistan to Hong Kong, the challenge from Scottish and Welsh nationalism and European integration; at the same time, the potency of the party of the Union, Empire and Britain as a great power continued to be defining myths and symbols in Tory circles long after the world had moved on.
Thatcherism: A New Conservative Story for Britain
The Conservatives recognised in the 1960s and 1970s that the changing nature of British society, the economy and nation state, posed fundamental challenges to their outlook and politics (9). These included declining deference, increasing secularisation and a more diverse, fragmented society, alongside relative economic decline, and the UK’s attempts to find a post-Empire role and identity. These were major factors in the demise of traditional Conservatism and Tory ‘unionism’ and led the way directly to the rise of Thatcherism.
It is no accident that this crisis of Conservatism happened at the same time as British social democracy began to be buffeted about, by the twin pressures of internal politics such as the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and the collapse of the Wilson Government’s National Plan due to external pressures such as the UK economy’s relative strength declining in the world economy led to devaluation of the pound (10).
The emergence of Thatcherism was an attempt to answer these challenges: to reverse economic decline, to find a new role for the state, and to map out a new place for the UK in the Second Cold War. This was an attempt to outline a new Conservative story for Britain which was very different from the ‘One Nation’ Toryism what came before.
Thatcherism aspired to and partly achieved a radical reconfiguration of British politics and the nature of the state, but could not find permanent answers to the territorial challenges to the British state, whether it be in relation to local government, Scotland or Europe. Instead all it could offer was an intransigent unionism which had very fixed and inflexible ideas of sovereignty and Parliament which flew in the face of the many of the tenets of traditional Conservatism.
Post-Thatcherite/Post-Blairite Politics: A New Conservatism?
The Conservatives have in the post-1997 decade faced the greatest difficulties they have experienced since Gladstone in speaking unchallenged for Britain. The nature of New Labour and Tony Blair has seen Labour lay claim to what were once traditional Tory areas such as patriotism and national identity.
The Conservatives have struggled on a number of fronts to come to terms with this, but finally David Cameron’s leadership has begun to articulate a new narrative: Tony Blair was the continuation of Thatcherism with a human face, and the Tories had to operate on this post-Thatcherite/post-Blairite environment to win back the centre ground. This entailed embracing a politics of the re-configured Thatcherite state within a very different United Kingdom, with devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and new centres of power across these isles.
Cameron’s Conservatism in relation to the nation-state and nationhood can be seen as:
• Not a return to the Thatcherite era and an abrasive, harsh unionism. The age of an English nationalism hectoring everyone is viewed by Tories as being one of the biggest mistakes of the Thatcher years;
• Not the re-emergence of old fashioned ‘One Nation’ Toryism in a modern garb. This perspective was previously characterised by its benign nature and patrician qualities which were central to its ideas of social order, duty and deference;
• Nor is it yet a fully-fledged new unionism at ease with and going with the grain of the United Kingdom which has been changed by devolution and constitutional reform.
Instead, what Conservatism seems to be is an emerging, hesitant, contingent politics of the UK which is still evolving and unsure of its final form.
The Future of Conservative Unionism
This ambiguity and hesitancy has not stopped the Conservatives from beginning to think about the changing nature of the UK across a number of areas:
a) ‘English votes for English laws’:
The Conservatives supported the idea of ‘English votes for English laws’ in the 2001 and 2005 general elections (11). Such a stance was unprecedented in modern times for a mainstream British party (12). Their current position is the result of a Kenneth Clarke led review which has concluded that when it is decided that a bill is ‘English’ Scottish MPs would be able to vote on bills at their second and third reading stages, while restricting votes to MPs with English seats when the detail of laws is debated at committee stage. It would be a convention that Scots MPs would not overturn amendments agreed by English MPs at third reading (13).
This stance is a variant of the simpler form of ‘English votes for English laws’ which the Conservatives previously supported, and if anything, is even more complex. Fundamentally, it still points towards the same ground as before: of the problems of deciding what is and is not an ‘English’ issue, creating two classes of MPs: English and non-English MPs, and the potential for their being two governments and two different majorities in one Parliament. There are also a host of secondary issues such as what to do about ‘Welsh’ issues and Welsh MPs voting rights.
The Tories consideration of ‘English votes for English laws’ would be a receipt for constitutional instability and chaos. While the demand of the Tories embracing this position will on one level diminish if they form a government, on another level the continued English nature of the Tories representation will encourage significant elements of the party to want to pursue this agenda and cause mischief.
b) The Barnett Formula:
The Barnett Formula is the financial mechanism which agrees the dispersal of monies to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Barnett has little support left across the UK – losing support in Northern Ireland and Wales and building up huge resentment in the English regions. Scotland stands as its last defender, and this in a Union where Scotland and London for very different reasons, have more public expenditure per head than the English regions (14). Not surprisingly, there is an increasing consensus across all the main parties in the Scottish Parliament about the need for more fiscal autonomy.
Therefore, the only real basis for its continuation is two fold: the interests of Treasury centralism in maintaining the status quo and financial dependency in the devolved territories, and the instability and uncertainty that would be caused by any fundamental change.
The Conservatives position is to abolish Barnett and adopt an approach which combines a needs based formula across the UK with more fiscal autonomy in Scotland. While the details have yet to be worked out, despite the logic and equity of embarking on reform, the politics of this will be important. David Cameron has talked of change being ‘consensual’ and ‘non-inflammatory’ (15). A future Conservative Government abolishing Barnett will be seen as an attack on Scotland’s public finances by all the parties north of the border bar the Tories, and will have huge political consequences.
c) Westminster passing laws in devolved areas:
Since devolution, Westminster has continued to legislate for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in both reserved and devolved areas. It has done this partly because of the character of the Welsh settlement and Northern Irish politics and partly because the Commons still sees itself as the supreme political authority in the UK, unchanged by devolution, and informed by the principle of parliamentary sovereignty (16).
The Conservatives see Westminster in this light and have set up a front bench commission led by Michael Gove to examine what legislation a future UK Conservative Government can identify and pass in devolved areas and in particular for Scotland (17).
The Conservative are questioning whether Scotland should be excluded from all ‘the good ideas’ the Tories have such as academy schools and the wider public sector ‘choice’ agenda. This has the potential to be politically explosive and to develop new faultlines and conflicts between the UK Government and the Scottish Government and Parliament.
d) A Scottish independence referendum:
One of the central issues in Scottish politics is the practicality of a Scottish independence referendum, which got Wendy Alexander, the ill-fated and short-lived leader of Scottish Labour in such hot political water when she challenged the Nationalists to ‘bring on’ a referendum (18). It is a bizarre paradox at the moment that while Scottish surveys consistently show a majority of Scots would vote against independence, all of the three main unionist parties are content to try to put off a vote and deny the Scots their democratic right of determining their future. What such a position does it give the SNP the moral and democratic high ground to embarrass the other parties.
The SNP intention is to have an independence referendum in 2010 (19). One of the aims of waiting is that by this point a UK general election will have happened and, with the prospect of an UK Conservative Government, there is the chance this will enhance the pro-independence vote.
An independence referendum can only come about by two ways: a majority vote of the Scottish Parliament, or a decision by the UK Government. It is likely that a referendum could come about by the Conservatives voting for one in the Scottish Parliament with the SNP or deciding at UK Government level to bring the issue to a head. This would have numerous advantages for the Conservatives: identifying them with a pro-unionist, pro-democratic position different from Labour.
The result of an independence referendum held under the auspices of an UK Conservative Government would be to put it mildly open to doubt. One crucial factor in the result will be the attitudes, language and policies of an UK Conservative Government. If it embarks on some of the stances outlined above, then there is a significant chance Scottish opinion will vote for independence and the end of the Union.
The Conservatives no longer have a convincing story to tell for Britain. Nor do Labour. This means that we are living in a political vacuum with all that this entails. This is a much more dramatic shift for the Conservatives than Labour, who for more than the last century have been synonymous with being the party of Britain and Britishness, appropriating a host of national symbols and meanings for their cause, from the Union Jack to the idea of patriotism.
In many aspects there is little unique about the party’s language with Cameron’s defence of the Union, and such phrases as ‘we are stronger together’ and ‘Stronger together, weaker apart’, identical to Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander’s argument for the Union against ‘separatism’ (20).
The current Conservatives stance is a conditional, instrumental unionism which will be hugely influenced by events and the balance of political forces in the next and future UK Governments. The party’s positioning on such issues as ‘English votes for English laws’, Barnett and Westminster legislating in devolved areas has been already been influenced by the balance of power and representation in the Conservatives, and this will continue in government.
After the next general election, an UK Conservative Government would still have little to no Scottish or Welsh representation, a near complete absence from large parts of the North of England and a derisory representation in most of England’s big northern cities, where across Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle, the party has one councillor. The Conservatives base would be nearly entirely English, and a very narrow band of England at that, concentrated on the shires, London and the South.
The Conservatives are ultra-conscious of this and their near-total absence of representation outside England is one reason for their discussions about forming an alliance with the Ulster Unionists which would see the Conservatives enter Northern Irish politics for the first time since 1972. This could also be seen as an attempt to find a new pan-British unionism. Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey sees it this way: ‘I think if you look at what’s happening to the Union as a whole, there are threats coming from areas that have never come before. There’s a nationalist government in Scotland, we’ve nationalists in coalition in Wales, we’ve nationalists here in Northern Ireland’ (21).
These moves are indicative of the weakness of the Conservatives as a British political force. The historic Conservative balancing act between Englishness and Britishness is no longer possible. The party faces pressures not only from having next to no non-English representation, but from, anger, fury and disgruntlement from a range of right-wing and English nationalist opinion. These range from significant elements within the party to UKIP, the English Democrats and the Conservative press, who believe the Tories have ‘sold England out’.
England has shifted dramatically from being at the centre of Tory ideas of Britishness to being a powerful and problematic vacuum: the nation that dare not speak its name for offending fashionable opinion in the eyes of some. This perspective can be found on Conservative blogs and points to devolution having changed the political balance of the UK and inside the once powerful coalition of ‘the Conservative nation’ (22). There is a very brittle, potentially explosive ‘England’: one which to some is faced with challenges from within the UK and from without by the project of European integration, both of which strike at right-wing ideas of sovereignty and Parliament.
Where this will evolve is clear. The Conservatives are no longer a British party, but their transition into a predominantly English party carries with it all kinds of tensions and problems. This new terrain has huge dangers for the Conservatives and the future of the Union. It is not beyond the realm of the possible that the Conservatives, for all their history, intentions and David Cameron’s undoubted belief in Britain and the Union, could ultimately become the party which presides over the final imperial retreat: the disintegration of the United Kingdom, and the Conservatives establishment as a post-unionist party.
1. David Cameron, Speech at St. Andrews in the Square, Glasgow, September 15th 2006, http://www.conservatives.com/tile.do?def=news.story.page&obj_id=132019
2. David Cameron, Speech at Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh, December 10th 2007,
3. Philip Lynch, ‘The Conservative Party and Nationhood’, Political Quarterly, Vol. 71 No. 1, January-March 2000, pp. 59-67.
4. Andrew Gamble, The Conservative Nation, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1974; Alan Clark, The Tories: Conservatives and the Nation State 1922-1997, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson 1998.
5. James Mitchell, Conservatives and the Union: A Study of Conservative Party Attitudes to Scotland, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press 1990, p. 9.
6. Arthur Aughey, Nationalism, Devolution and the Challenge to the United Kingdom State, London, Pluto Press 2001, p. 65.
7. John Major, Speech to the Conservative Group for Europe, April 22nd 1993.
8. An interesting commonality within Conservative and Labour attempts to reinvent Britishness is the appropriation and misquotation of George Orwell, utilised in Major’s speech and used by Gordon Brown, where he transforms Orwell’s ‘English genius’ into ‘British genius’.
9. Andrew Gamble, The Free Economy and the Strong State: The Politics of Thatcherism, London, Macmillan 1988.
10. Gerry Hassan, ‘Labour, concepts of Britishness, ‘nation’ and ‘state’’, in Gerry Hassan (ed.), After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade, London, Lawrence and Wishart 2007, pp. 75-93.
11. Conservative Party, 2001 UK Manifesto; Conservative Party, 2005 UK Manifesto.
12. Oonagh Gay and Helen Holden, The West Lothian Question, London, House of Commons Library, revised version, July 18th 2008.
13. The Independent, July 1st 2008.
14. Iain MacLean and Alistair McMillan, State of the Union: Unionism and the Alternatives in the United Kingdom since 1707, Oxford, Oxford University Press 2005.
15. The Herald, May 23rd 2008.
16. The Welsh experience of devolution and Westminster has been defined by the Government of Wales Act conferring no primary legislative powers on the Welsh Assembly and thus primary legislation affecting Wales has to pass through Westminster. The Northern Irish situation has been shaped by the suspension several times since 1998 of the Northern Irish Assembly and reimposition of ‘direct rule’.
17. Private information.
18. BBC Scotland News, ‘Bring On Referendum – Alexander’, May 4th 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7383035.stm
19. SNP, It’s Time, Edinburgh, Scottish National Party 2007, p. 15.
20. David Cameron, December 10th 2007, op. cit.; Gordon Brown and Douglas Alexander, New Scotland, New Scotland, London, Smith Institute 1999; Stronger Together: The 21st century case for Scotland and Britain, London, Fabian Society 2007.
21. BBC News, ‘Tories talk to UUP on closer ties’, July 24th 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/7522326.stm
22. For example see Iain Dale’s Diary and in particular the comments on the ‘Guest Blog’ by the leader of the English Democrats Robin Tilbrook, ‘For An English Parliament’, August 5th 2008, http://www.iaindale.blogspot.com/