One nation, divided

Lady Thatcher has got her Tory and Liberal traditions in a bit of a muddle, says Vernon Bogdanor

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"Say what you will," Disraeli's hero Egremont declares in 'Sybil' (1845), "our Queen reigns over the greatest nation that ever existed." "Which nation?" asks Morley, the Chartist, "for she reigns over two." "You speak of ... " said Egremont hesitatingly. "THE RICH AND THE POOR."

Disraeli in the 1840s begged the Tories to combat the market policies of the Liberals which were sundering all social ties. In the 20th century, by contrast, One Nation Conservatism has seen state socialism, not liberalism, as the enemy. Anthony Eden prefigured Margaret Thatcher in championing a property-owning democracy to combat doctrines of class conflict. For it, there was no war to fight; nobody need be afraid of losing. In the Fifties, a One Nation Group was formed by Iain Macleod, Angus Maude, Reginald Maudling and Enoch Powell to press for equality of opportunity as the alternative to socialist bureaucracy and controls. More recently, however, the term "One Nation" has come to indicate coded hostility to Thatcherism and sympathy for the gentler Conservatism of the Macmillan/Heath era.

In her Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture on Thursday, Margaret Thatcher attacked One Nation Toryism as a betrayal of the nation. That is, perhaps, curious. Leaders such as Disraeli and Eden were hardly noted for their cosmopolitanism, while Harold Macmillan sought to enter the European Community after a hard-headed calculation of Britain's interests and only after other diplomatic possibilities were exhausted. His conception of Europe was akin to that of Thatcher rather than that of Jacques Delors.

Besides, it was Margaret Thatcher herself who, as Prime Minister, turned the European Community irrevocably away from a "Europe des patries" when she signed the Single European Act, greatly extending majority voting - something with more radical effects that anything in the Maastricht treaty.

Domestically, Margaret Thatcher identified "One Nation" with state interventionism. The origins of Thatcherism, the former Prime Minister declared, are to be found not in the ideas of Disraeli but in 19th-century liberalism of the kind championed by Gladstone.

Yet Gladstone would be a very awkward recruit to the Thatcherite cause. If the Grand Old Man held to any fundamental belief, it was faith in "The Concert of Europe". Like the Liberal Democrats today, he would have been a strong supporter of European Union as the best means of overcoming national rivalries.

Gladstone was a strong supporter also of devolution, declaring that societies were held together through "recognition of the distinctive qualities of the separate parts of great countries". He even favoured the creation of what he called "intermediate bodies" - regional parliaments, which John Major has called "barmy". Here at least, Margaret Thatcher and the Prime Minister can agree. But it is difficult to regard their position as being at all Gladstonian.

Historians will probably see the Eighties as an era of Thatcherite dominance. Yet, in her two landslide elections - 1983 and 1987 - the Conservatives were unable to secure more than 42 per cent of the vote. Nearly three- fifths of the population were hostile to Margaret Thatcher even at the height of her power.

And Thatcherism appealed more to the south of England than to Scotland, Wales or the industrial conurbations. By 1987, the Conservatives, despite their Commons majority of 102, were able to secure only 10 of the 72 seats in Scotland, and eight of 38 in Wales. In the great conurbations - Bradford, Glasgow, Hull, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield - the Conservatives won just three of the 43 seats.

Thatcherism was perhaps as much a consequence as a cause of socioeconomic and cultural changes that long prefigured the Eighties, as Britain came to be polarised along geographical lines. Margaret Thatcher found herself presiding over two nations divided as much by geography as by class. The upwardly mobile and ambitious nation living in the South-east provided her landslide majorities. For the other nation, she never seemed to care very much.

The writer is reader in government, Oxford University. His 'Essay on Politics and the Constitution' is being published by Dartmouth shortly.

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