Nikesh Pandit: From Disraeli to May - The Conservative Social Justice Tradition

"The Conservatives have done more for the working classes in five years than the Liberals have in fifty"

Alexander Macdonald, 1897, Trade Unionist, Liberal-Labour MP

It has been over 14 years since Theresa May made her famous 'Nasty Party' remark at the Conservative Party's annual conference. The general election results of 2010 and 2015 indicate progress. Yet these victories were not emphatic. A coalition and a 12-seat majority against Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband are hardly the outcome of a groundswell of public support. Indeed the last time the Conservatives won big was in 1987 - 30 years ago - when Thatcher achieved a 102 seat majority on a 75.3% turnout. Why has the party failed to replicate this success? Frankly, one clear reason is because for too many people, particularly young, ethnic minority and lower income voters, the Conservative Party is the narrow-minded party of privilege, the party that doesn't care about inequality - the party that doesn't care about social justice. Yet, as Macdonald's quote (above) demonstrates, the Conservative Party has deep ideological roots in tackling inequality and promoting social justice. What's more the party has a strong, though by no means perfect, legislative track-record to back this up. In the defining year that lies ahead, Theresa May must continue to champion and build on this tradition of Conservative social justice.  

What is Social Justice?

Like many phrases in politics, 'social justice' is a term that is often used, but often left undefined. According to the American moral philosopher John Rawls, social justice is about assuring the protection of equal access to liberties, rights, and opportunities, as well as taking care of the least advantaged members of society. This broadly aligns with the United Nations and International Labour Organisation's position that "we advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture or disability." At its core, therefore, social justice stands for a duty on the part of the advantaged to support the disadvantaged, and for equality -  both in terms of equal rights and equal opportunities. 

Disraeli's Two Nations

The defining features of social justice indentified above fall squarely within the political philosophy of One Nation Conservatism, which originated with the 19th Century novelist, politician and two-time Conservative Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli. In his landmark 1845 novel 'Sybil, or The Two Nations', Disraeli observed through his characters that the rapid industrialisation of Britain had resulted in deep divisions in society, which effectively created “Two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets...". In his writings and as a politician, Disraeli argued that political power should be used to help the working class in defiance of the middle-class factory owners, and thereby bring the nation together again. In less Victorian terms: the advantaged have a duty to support the disadvantaged and by exercising this duty a more equal and prosperous society is created for all.

Disraeli's words were matched by action. His Governments (1868 and 1874-1880) tackled filthy Victorian living conditions through laws such as the 1875 Artisans' and Labourers' Dwellings Improvement Act and Public Health Act, which combated slums, provided housing for the poor and introduced statutory requirements for local authorities to keep sewers in good condition, supply fresh drinking water, collect rubbish and provide street lighting. Disraeli's time in office also saw important legislation to improve workers rights. The Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875 fully decriminalised the work of Trade Unions and legalised peaceful picketing, while the Chimney Sweeper Act 1875 tackled child labour by reinforcing the ban on employing juvenile chimney sweeps. Equally important, the Employers and Workmen Act 1875 made breaches of contract by a worker a civil offence and therefore made workers and employers equal before the law regarding labour contracts. 

20th Century Reformers

Disraeli's One Nation cause remained enormously influential within the Conservative Party for most of the 20th Century. The One Nation agenda was particularly prominent during the premierships of Stanley Baldwin (1923-1924, 1924-1929 and 1935-1937), Harold Macmillan (1957-1963) and Edward Heath (1970 - 1974). These figures weren't afraid to nail their colours to the mast. For example, in a speech in the Commons in 1925, Stanley Baldwin called for a truce between the classes saying his party stood for "stable government and for peace in the country between all classes of the community". In 1938, Harold Macmillan published the 'Middle Way', which as Vernon Bogdanor observes laid the foundations of a society that was neither socialist nor classically capitalist, but combining freedom of enterprise with public control so as to secure the benefits of both. Following in Macmillan's footsteps, at the 1970 party conference Edward Heath, newly elected as Prime Minister, proclaimed: "Our task now is to unite the people of this country, black, white and Powellite, to work for a better tomorrow. Many years ago, Disraeli pronounced the great principle for which this party, in peace and in war, has always striven: We stand for One Nation." 

As with Disraeli, these were not just words. Of particular note is Baldwin's second administration from 1924 to 1929 during which the country saw a series of important changes in relation to the equal treatment of women. Most importantly the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 gave women equal voting rights as men. Other important measures included the Guardianship of Infants Act 1925, which enabled divorced women to have custody for their children, and the Administration of Estates Act 1925, which gave women the same inheritance rights as men, thus ending "women's long legal battle for individual and equal control of property". Indeed gender historians view Baldwin's second administration as one of the most exciting and important for the legal treatment of women in the United Kingdom.

Macmillan's record is arguably best demonstrated by his 1960 'Winds of Change' speech to the Parliament of South Africa by which he distanced himself and the country from apartheid. Macmillan's speech is recognised as the first time a senior international figure gave voice to the growing protest against South Africa's laws of strict racial segregation. Another notable accomplishment was the Factories Act 1971, which introduced a series of important requirements for safe and healthy factory working conditions, which continue to inform modern work-place welfare obligations. As for Heath, despite turbulent economic times, he introduced a raft of important social security measures, particularly for the long-term ill and disabled that have stood the test of time. The Attendance Allowance (still existent) was introduced for those needing care at home, and the Invalidity Benefit (now ESA) was brought in to support those who had lost their occupations as a result of developing long-term illnesses and disabilities. Additionally, in 1973 Heath's Government set up the Family Fund, to provide practical help to families with disabled or seriously ill children. Today the Family Fund is the UK’s largest charity of its type, providing support to 89,423 families with over £36 million of grants and services.

Thatcher's Aspiraltionalism

In contrast with the majority of her 20th Century predecessors, Thatcher did not view herself as a One Nation Conservative. Indeed she believed One Nation Conservatism was "No Nation Conservatism". However, this does not mean that Thatcher did not care about social justice. Far from it. As the economics editor of The Guardian observed following her death: "policy was aimed at those who, according to the prime minister, wanted to get on in life. There were big tax cuts for those on the highest incomes, driven by the belief that this would encourage entrepreneurship. But there were also cuts for basic-rate taxpayers: the 1988 budget, for example, cut the top rate of tax from 60% to 40% and the standard rate from 27% to 25%. Council house sales and advertising campaigns that encouraged the public to buy shares in privatised companies were meant to broaden the appeal of capitalism." Unlike any other politician before her, Thatcher understood people's aspirations to own a home, buy a few shares, maybe start a little company, spend some money on themselves, and ultimately leave something for the next generation. These were no longer privileges reserved for the few, but tangible aspirations for everybody irrespective of class, sex or race.

21st Century One Nationers 

After years in the wilderness, One Nation Conservatism reemerged under David Cameron's leadership. Indeed in her first statement as Prime Minister outside 10 Downing Street, Theresa May remarked: "David’s true legacy is not about the economy but about social justice. From the introduction of same-sex marriage, to taking people on low wages out of income tax altogether; David Cameron has led a one-nation government, and it is in that spirit that I also plan to lead." Cameron's One Nation agenda was reflected in May's work as Home Secretary, during which she scaled back the racially divisive use of stop and search, and introduced the Modern Slavery Act 2015, which is the first legislation of its kind in Europe, delivering tough sentences for slave masters and traffickers. True to her words on Downing Street, May has continued to pursue a One Nation agenda as Prime Minister. Her Government's first Autumn Statement announced a rise in the living wage, a stop to welfare cuts, and multi-billion pound investment in housing and infrastructure. More recently, the Government has backed legislation to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

One Nation Priorities for 2017

As we move into an undoubtedly turbulent political year, the Government should stick to a One Nation agenda. A core priority in 2017 has to be sustainable reform to social care funding. Over the current Parliament the Government should consider transferring funds from the £12bn foreign aid budget to plug the social care funding gap, which is expected to hit £2.8bn by 2019-20. It is increasingly indefensible to spend taxpayers' money on fringe and opaque foreign aid schemes, like obscure World Bank trust funds, when the frail and elderly at home are suffering. The focus of our international humanitarian commitments should be the refugee crisis on our doorstep. In the spirit of the Kindertransport programme, this means taking in unaccompanied child asylum seekers from the former Calais 'Jungle' camp, as well as  taking in more Syrian refugees.

Not only is this clearly the right thing to do, but it also makes economic sense: on current predictions by 2030 the 65+ population will surge from 11.6 million today to 15.4 million; by contrast the working age population (16-64) will increase by only 3%. If we want to maintain our welfare state, we will need more working age people to generate the tax revenues to pay for the system. Half of the migrants arriving in Germany in 2015 were under 25. These people endured extreme hardship and took huge risks to get there. Their hardworking and entrepreneurial spirit will benefit the German economy. Angela Merkel is a wise politician, and whilst we do not need to replicate the scale of her refugee policy, Britain should not miss the opportunity to be on the right side of history and future-proof aspects of the economy. At the same time, our Government can reduce unproductive migration and rapidly remove people threatening security by improving the quality of Home Office decision-making and reducing the complexity of the Immigration Rules, both of which currently lead to unnecessarily appealable decisions and delay-induced grounds to stay.

The One Nation agenda for 2017 must also include serious prison reform and egalitarian education reform. The underlying cause behind the recent prison riots is overcrowding. Whilst the Government's commitment to replace dilapidated inner-city prisons is wholly welcome, it must ultimately implement measures to safely reduce the prison population - the current population is double the size we saw in England and Wales when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. A good starting point would be to engage with the Howard League's campaign on reforming the '3 Rs' of prison - Rules in prison, Release from prison and Recall to prison. On education, the goal must be to raise standards across the board. Earlier this month the Alexandra Park School - a north London former comprehensive  school (now academy) - scored higher in the OECD's PISA test than top performers like Singapore. The Government should focus on spreading the practices of existing high-performing mainstream schools like the Alexandra Park School across the existing state system. This is the effective, egalitarian and efficient path to school reform.

In keeping with the Conservative social justice tradition, the above measures are socially just and economically sound, safeguarding the nation's welfare, as well as securing its finances. Ultimately, it is this balance which has previously allowed the Conservative Party to build broad coalitions of voters, win huge majorities and govern in the national interest. In the year ahead,  the Conservative Party should not forget this.