Conservatismequalitylatest – Part 4 – Post-Thatcherism

Russell Haggar

Site Owner

Conservatism, Ideology, Economic Inequality and Poverty

Part One: - Click Here


Conservatives, Economic Equality/Inequality and Poverty: General Arguments

Part Two: - Click Here

One Nation Conservatism:

One Nation Conservatism: Economic Equality/Inequality and Poverty

Part Three - Click Here 

Thatcherite Conservatism:

Thatcherite Conservatism: Economic Equality/Inequality and Poverty

Part Four:


Economic Equality/Inequality and Poverty in the Post Thatcherite Era. Post-Thatcherism and One Nation Conservatism 1990-2017

Part Five: - Click Here

David Cameron

David Cameron and Ideology: General

Economic Equality/Inequality and Poverty and The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition

David Cameron and the Conservative Government 2015-16

Part Six: - Click Here

Theresa May

Prime Minister Theresa May

Part Seven: - Click Here


Appendix Phillip Blond

Appendix: Iain Duncan Smith and Welfare



Part Four


Economic Equality, Economic Inequality  and Poverty 1990-2017. Post-Thatcherism and One Nation Conservatism?


It has is widely claimed that despite some appearances to the contrary under the successive Conservative  leaderships of  John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard the Conservative Party in government and opposition continued to accept the main principles of New Right ideology.

John Major became leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister after defeating Michael Heseltine and Douglas Hurd  in a leadership election which followed the resignation of Margaret Thatcher   Although John Major's 185 votes were 2 short of the 187 votes required to secure outright victory Michael Heseltine [131 votes] and Hurd [56 votes] quickly conceded  victory to John Major   so that no second ballot was necessary. In office the major  difficulties which John Major faced were associated with the initial  weakness of the UK economy, disunity in the Conservative Party over Europe, a series of scandals involving Conservative Ministers and MPs [the so-called politics of Sleaze] and the emergence of Tony Blair as a dynamic leader of the "New" Labour Party. When , after the exit of the UK from the ERM, the fortunes of the UK economy did gradually recover the reputation of the Conservative Government  for economic competence did not and this was  factor leading to the Conservatives' General Election defeat of 1997.

Addition January 2018. In this BBC Radio 4 Programme in which he is interviewed by  the historian Peter Hennessy John Major identifies clearly with  One Nation Conservatism in general and in particular with the views of Ian Macleod. Toward the end of the programme he states that if economic and political circumstances  had been more favourable in 1990-1997 he would have liked to have devoted more resources to the improved provision of housing, education and the NHS in which case it may have been possible to identify him more closely with One Nation Conservatism than some more critical analysts have done.  Peter Hennessy, however, does not seek to investigate  the nature of John Major's One Nation Conservatism in any detail.

Despite Major's emollient  personality and his perhaps somewhat wistful statements that  he wished to see " a country at ease with itself" and to create " a classless society"[ by which he meant the expansion of opportunities for upward social mobility in a capitalist society which would nevertheless remain unequal rather than  the abolition of private property ownership and the demise of the Bourgeoisie as proposed by Marxists or even the radical egalitarianism proposed by democratic socialists] and his self -identification with One nation Conservatism several political analysts argued that in reality  he continued and actually extended the Thatcherite Strategy. For example in their particularly  critical assessment Mark Garnett and Ian Gilmour argued that  although One Nation Toryism  is not a "rigid creed ".....  "however One nation Toryism is envisaged or interpreted  the Conservative governments since 1979 come nowhere near it " and "Major made no significant attempt  to lead the party back  into the Conservative One Nation tradition" ands in many ways his government became even more right wing than hers [ i.e. than Margaret Thatcher's governments]. [Whatever Happened to the Tories: The Conservatives since 1945. Ian Gilmour and Mark Garnett 1997]

In support of this line of argument they cite the privatisation of the railways , the abolition of wages councils  which had been designed to protect the wages of low paid workers, the abolition of the NEDC [which had been a key forum for tripartite economic decision making], the toleration of high salaries for the rich along with the continued demonisation  of the poor as welfare scroungers  and the continued acceptance of regressive patterns of taxation.  These arguments are reiterated strongly in The Major Premiership [edited by Peter Dorey 1999].

Also in  a contribution to very useful collection of essays [John Major : An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? K. Hickson and B. Williams eds. 2017] Kevin Hickson agrees that Major departed considerably from the One Nation Conservative tradition  but argues that he had little alternative but to do so given the disunity which existed in the Conservative Party and the emergence of Tony Blair as a charismatic leader of a Labour Party now located much closer to the centre of British Politics. Furthermore Hickson argued that in John Major one can in fact see a mixture of ideological Influences: traditional Toryism, Thatcherism, Centrism and One nation Conservatism. [Further information on this study can be found via the following link:  "John Major: An Unsuccessful Prime Minister".**  This book is a must read if you require further information on John major as PM.]

Also Click here ** for  for Steve Richards' 2013 article on John Major which suggests that he may reasonably be associated with the One Nation Tradition. We should repeat that however we choose to characterise John Major in ideological terms  his Governments did not succeed in reducing income inequality and poverty between 1990 and 1997 although it has to be admitted that this may have been to a considerable extent because of the difficult economic circumstances which his Governments faced especially in 1990-1992 and the length of time that it took to recover from these economic difficulties.


I hope to provide further information on the Conservatives 1997-2005 at a later date.

William Hague did show some signs in the early stages of his leadership of attempting to shift the Conservative party towards the centre ground; Iain Duncan Smith was much exercised by the problems of long term poverty and Michael Howard too claimed that he would lead the Conservative Party from the Centre  Yet in none of these cases was the ideology of Thatcherism significantly challenged. Once his initial attempts to challenge New Labour on Health Education and Welfare issues proved unpopular William Hague reverted to an emphasis on social authoritarianism and Euro- scepticism in an ultimately forlorn attempt to improve Conservative poll ratings: Iain Duncan Smith’s analyses of poverty were to a considerable extent derived from New Right theories of the Underclass which were supported especially by Charles Murray: and Michael Howard’s claims to new found moderation were rejected out of hand by many of those who remembered his previous strong support for Thatcherite ideology.


Click here for a BBC documentary on William Hague 1997-2001

Click here for a BBC item on William Hague

Click here and here for interviews with William Hague and Michael Howard respectively by the historian Peter Hennessy

Click here for a detailed article on Iain Duncan Smith by Richard Hayton and here for a BBC item

Click here for a speech by Michael Howard at the  Conservative Party Conference 2005


This brief discussion of the ideological stance of John Major illustrates that by the 1990s the meaning of One Nation Conservatism had become subject to competing interpretations. One the one hand it has been associated with the policies of Conservative Governments 1951-64 and to some extent 1970-74 and with detailed statements by Ian Gilmour and his supporters in which they have focused on the importance of government intervention to promote social and economic reforms designed to improve the living standards and life chances of the disadvantaged.

Sir Ian Gilmour was  openly critical of the  macroeconomic and social policies in the Thatcher/Major era policies and critical also of the growth of poverty  and of the Thatcher/Major tendency to blame the poor for their own personal failings rather than the misguided nature of Thatcher/Major  welfare policies themselves. Nevertheless he made it clear that although greater equality was now necessary no Conservative had ever supported total equality and he also accepted that Conservative privatisations were likely to increase economic growth and that further restriction of trade union power was essential for otherwise trade unions could well become a threat to democracy. It could therefore be argued that Sir Ian Gilmour had not neglected the importance of a strong private sector as contributing to the living standards of the disadvantaged

This approach has been supported by Richard Hayton in an article written in 2014 in which he identifies One Nation Conservatism with the Conservative Governments of 1951-64 and claims the One Nation Conservative approach was discarded by Mrs Thatcher and is unlikely to be  reasserted. in the future  Click here for Richard Hayton 2014 article "The Demise of the One Nation Tradition"** in which he states that " "It is consequently very difficult to foresee a renewal of the One Nation tradition in the contemporary Conservative Party. While future generations of Conservative politicians will no doubt exploit the beguiling rhetoric of One Nation , as an ideological tradition it has been relegated to the very margins of the party's politics."

Also in an article entitled Ideology and Values [in David Cameron and Conservative Renewal : The Limits of Modernisation Gillian Peele and John Francis Editors 2017" ] Richard Hayton claims that "despite some rhetorical distancing from the Thatcher era  Cameron largely failed to alter the trajectory of contemporary conservatism which remains essentially Thatcherite "

However other analysts  harked back to the original  statements of Disraeli  that social and economic reforms were  to occur within an essentially market economy based upon private enterprise  which was crucial  to overall improvement in living standards and that significant wealth and income inequalities were actually necessary to  promote the economic growth on which rising living standards depended. On this view One Nation Conservatism involved a judicious mixture of government sponsored social and economic reforms  as well as reliance upon the private sector of the economy and Sir Ian Gilmour might be presented as deemphasising the importance of the private sector as a means of attacking the policies of the Thatcher- Major era.

Furthermore David Willetts argued in the 1990s that his Civic Conservatism involved a judicious balance between reliance on the private sector of the economy and the promotion of communitarian institutions and that "the One nation Group were a group of young Conservative thinkers ...who were rebelling against Baldwinian corporatism  and the nearly Bennite socialism of Harold Macmillan's  tract misleadingly called "The Middle Way."  {Is Conservatism Dead John Gray and David Willetts 1997]

David Willetts ,David Seawright and others pointed out  that the original One Nation Group formed in the Conservative Party in 1950 had contained MPs from both the Right and the Left of the Conservative Party who were keen to establish such as balance while in an article written in 2005 Damien Green stated that One Nation Conservatives believe it is the duty of government to take action to reduce poverty and deprivation and that an unfettered free market will not alone achieve this task but also that the history of the One Nation Groups showed that "simplistic analysis of this group or One Nation thought generally as being on the "left" of the party is wrong."

Also  Kenneth Clarke who was and still is strongly associated with One Nation politics nevertheless supported much of the Thatcherite economic programme  although he claimed to be more supportive of government spending and to be more liberal on social issues. Thus in his recent autobiography [Kind of Blue 2017]  Clarke [who had served as  Minister in Mrs Thatcher's administrations]  describes himself as an economic liberal and a social liberal and hence a One Nation Conservative.

Mr Clarke states that he agreed with much of the Thatcherite neo-liberal agenda because he thought that it was a recipe for greater economic efficiency the benefits of which could in principle trickle down to the poor. For example  he agreed with the Conservatives 1981 budget which was so strongly criticised by Sir Ian Gilmour and other "One Nation Conservatives"; agreed with the Conservatives' privatisation programme; agreed with tighter regulation of the trade unions; and agreed with the increased quasi-marketisation of the health and education services and as Chancellor of the Exchequer in John Major's Government believed that it was undesirable to reverse the income tax reductions introduced by Mrs Thatcher's Governments because increases in income tax would adversely affect economic incentives. Thus , for Mr Clarke there was no necessary conflict between support for neo-liberal policies because the benefits of such policies could in principle trickle down to the poor.

This plot thickened even further following the resignation speech of Iain Duncan Smith who claimed that he was resigning because in his view Mr Osborne had disregarded the One Nation Conservative principles in which he {Iain Duncan Smith ] believed. This reminds us of the variability  and complexity of the term One Nation Conservative" . It might be argued that if the term One Nation Conservative can, at various times incorporate Disraeli, Enoch Powell, Harold Macmillan, Sir Ian Gilmour , Kenneth Clarke, David, Cameron, George Osborne, Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May the precise meaning of the term must be at least a little uncertain.  Remember also that on occasion even Margaret Thatcher sought to identify herself with the One Nation tradition.

Furthermore under the leadership of Tony Blair the Labour Party appeared to accept much of the Thatcherite economic agenda [ privatisation, low rates of income taxation,  trade union reform, social security reform ] while claiming that this could be consistent with a revised , modernised version of social democracy. Many may therefore have believed that if such policies were consistent with a modernised social democracy surely they could be consistent also with a modernised One Nation Conservatism. This apparently was the basis of a newly party political consensus.

Clearly it has always been recognised that One Nation Conservatism is a term which is subject to competing interpretations and these problems of interpretation were revisited ted in a short article by Professor Tim Bale [written  soon after Theresa May had replaced David Cameron as Prime Minister] in which he argued that it was necessary to distinguish between the mass media and the purist perspectives on One Nation Conservatism  . Thus it would appear that in Professor Bale's view  the purist perspectives on One Nation Conservatism  was to be found in the One Nation Group's emphasis on the need for balance between government intervention and support for the private sector whereas in the mass media greater emphasis is given to the kind of government intervention supported by the Conservative Government s of 1951, by Sir Ian Gilmour and by Harold Macmillan [ whom David Willetts {see above} adjudged guilty of "nearly Bennite Socialism"].

According to Professor Bale the Purists have lost the battle for public opinion but the since very concept of One Nation Conservatism is capable such competing interpretations it was no surprise that ideological controversies over its nature were ongoing. Thus  Steve Richards wrote an article in 2013  suggesting that John Major could indeed be regarded as a modern One Nation Conservative;  Martin Kettle would write that David Cameron was without doubt a One Nation Conservative  and  Matthew D'Ancona would write that the 2015 Cameron administration was a One Nation  Government at its core but now had to deliver One Nation policies . Subsequently Ms Theresa May also would identify strongly with the One Nation tradition.


What is One Nation Conservatism..again?

Read the following articles and summarise some of the difficulties involved in defining One Nation Conservatism

Click here for an article on One Nation Conservatism by Professor Tim Bale. ** He describes One Nation as" one of the most used and abused terms in the Tory lexicon."

Click here for Richard Hayton 2014 article "The Demise of the One Nation Tradition"**

Guardian article on David Cameron as a One Nation Conservative [Martin Kettle]**

Click here  for Guardian article  "Toryism has found its heart...." [Matthew D'Ancona Guardian]**


 For Part Five: - David Cameron  Click Here