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Competing Political Ideas: One Nation Conservatives and Thatcherism?

Two competing views have existed within the Conservative Party over the last 40 years, One Nation Conservatism and Thatcherism:-

One Nation Conservatism

This ideology is much older and originates from the Conservative politician and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who talked of Two Nations in Britain with little contact between them, the rich and the poor.

He saw the need for the party, at that time dominated by the aristocracy, to pursue policies that helped the working class.

His Governments gave the vote to skilled manual workers and carried out some social reforms.

In the 20th century Conservative politicians were conscious of the need to appeal to the working class electorate.

The Conservative Prime Ministers of the 1920s and 1930s, Baldwin and Chamberlain, were ready to see Government intervene to improve housing and health.

The language of One Nation was used to contrast the Conservative as the party of everyone against Labour who were portrayed as carrying out a class war on behalf of just one section of society.

After the overwhelming Labour victory in the 1945 general election, the leading Conservative politicians accepted the welfare state, government intervention in the economy to secure full employment, limited nationalisation of industries and good relationships with the trade unions and were able to present this as in the One Nation tradition.

Political historians have talked about a Consensus between the leadership of the two main parties until the 1970s.


Conservatives of the One Nation tradition saw the workings of the market as imperfect and needing correction by the Government and a need to bind together the different groups in society.

But, there were always some Conservatives who believed in the need for a market free from government interference and in the importance of individual effort rather than any idea of society as a whole.

From the 1970s, groups within the Conservative Party, often referred to as the New Right, rejected the post-war Consensus and the economic problems of the 1970s, This gave the impetus for the new leader, Margaret Thatcher, to move the party’s policies in their direction.

The Thatcher Governments from 1979 to 1990 followed many New Right ideas:-

  • A reduction in the size of the State.  The New Right view was that Government Departments and local authorities had an inbuilt interest in spending more on the programmes that they controlled.
  • The reduction of public expenditure because it took resources away from private investment. In the same way, high taxation inhibits entrepreneurship.
  • Deregulation of the economy.  Markets will work best and create wealth without government intervention.
  • Introduce competition into the public sector.  This could be done by contracting public services such as refuse collection out to private firms who would run them more efficiently and cheaply.  Where this was difficult there could still be competition between hospitals for patients and schools for pupils so that the best of these expand at the expense of the worst.
  • Tackle what were seen as ‘vested interests, in particular limiting the power of trade unions but Mrs Thatcher was also hostile to the power of the professions such as lawyers and teachers.

Although Thatcherism saw the reduction of economic control by the State, it maintained a Strong State in political terms.

She was hostile to any devolution of power to Scotland or Wales or to local authorities.

A strong law and order policy in relation to criminal activity or against trade unions was pursued and there was little interest in equality for women or minority rights.