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Reference group
One Nation group (act. 1950–1954) was a group of Conservative MPs whose origins lay in the celebrated cohort returned to parliament at the general election of 1950 and who, during the group's founding years between 1950 and 1954, came together to develop and promote new policy ideas for the social services. The 1950 intake of Conservative MPs acquired and maintained a formidable reputation for ability and achievement: they were described as the ‘class of 1950’, with the premier cru of the ‘vintage’ being the ‘One Nation’ group (The Economist, 25 Dec 1954).

In seeking to establish for themselves an ancestral lineage within the Conservative Party, the One Nation group's founders adopted a name that linked them with the party's Disraelian tradition. In his 1845 novel Sybil, subtitled ‘the two nations’, Disraeli drew attention to the yawning gap between the rich and the poor. Disraeli later advocated ameliorative policies that would ‘elevate the condition of the people’. Although Disraeli never actually used the term ‘one nation’, the group utilized this ‘ancestral mythology’ to promote Conservative social policy that would make the welfare state work and would address the condition of the people in post-war Britain. This aspiration led to the received wisdom of the group being on the left of the Conservative Party. Throughout its history, however, the One Nation group has been composed of members from both wings of the party; from those who wished to use limited state solutions, as well as those advocating more interventionist ones, to social policy.

The actual formation of the One Nation group in 1950 was partly fortuitous in that two of the three founding members, Cuthbert Alport and Angus Maude, met by chance at a ‘brains trust’ before entering parliament in 1950. They continued to meet and dine together early in the parliament of 1950–51, and agreed that the severe lack of detail in the Conservative front bench speeches on social policy needed to be addressed. Regarding the creation of a discussion group as a solution to this deficiency, they approached Gilbert Longden (1902–1997), whom Alport knew from before the war from the candidate courses run at the Conservative Ashridge College. These three then invited Richard Fort (1907–1959), Robert Carr (b. 1916), and John Rodgers (1906–1993) to join; then Edward Heath and Iain Macleod. It was Macleod who proposed the inclusion of Enoch Powell in the group to form the original nine members of One Nation.

At their first meeting in the political and economic planning offices at 16 Queen Anne's Gate, Macleod informed the group that he had been asked to write a booklet on the social services for the Conservative political centre. At Macleod's suggestion it was agreed that the booklet should be a joint production of the group and that it would be published before the 1950 Conservative Party conference. Macleod and Maude were joint editors though it was Maude, as the only journalist in the group, who was responsible for the rewriting, editing, and press preparation work during the summer recess of 1950. Maude also suggested One Nation as the book's title. Chapters were drafted by individual members and were discussed at weekly meetings of the group before Maude eventually applied the final polish before publication in October 1950.

An immediate success, One Nation was quickly recognized as an influential contribution to party policy. A review of it was broadcast in many languages on the BBC's European Service programme General News Talk. Maude claimed that the group's eponymous book was indirectly responsible (with the fillip of Harmar Nicholls's successful resolution at the 1950 Conservative Party conference) for the Conservative policy commitment to build 300,000 new homes a year, in addition to the book's overall influence on policy towards the other social services.

The original members of the One Nation group affirmed its back-bench composition and character, which they believed would help maintain their freedom of action in developing sometimes radical ideas. At a dinner on 15 November 1951 the group resolved, at Enoch Powell's instigation, that no member of the government could remain a member. Edward Heath, who had become a government whip, was accordingly informed of the group's resolution, and the convention was established that a member would leave on accepting governmental office and could attend again only on returning to the back-benches or if the party itself lost office. In May 1952 Macleod also left the group on being promoted minister of health, and Alport resigned in 1953 for personal reasons.

On account of such departures the One Nation group needed periodically to search for new blood, though the group decided that there had to be unanimous agreement before extending an invitation to join. ‘Black-ball’ exclusions, although not numerous, were not uncommon. During the group's early years John Vaughan-Morgan (1905–1973), Reginald Maudling, David Ormsby-Gore, Antony Claud Frederick Lambton, and Jocelyn (Jack) Simon all accepted invitations to join.

The actual impact or influence of such a back-bench group will always be contested. But it is indisputable that many of the One Nation group's members were eventually to occupy the most important offices of state. Of the nine original members one (Heath) became prime minister, while the remainder at one time or another occupied the offices of chancellor of the exchequer, home secretary, leader of the House of Commons, and many more junior ministerial posts besides. The question of ‘influence’ was periodically debated within the group itself. There were repeated attempts to fill the Conservative parliamentary party policy committees, as well as the Conservative back-benchers' 1922 committee, with One Nation men. Slates of candidates for these major positions were drawn up, or assistance given to those whom the group had identified as worthy of ‘Nation’ support. A crucial part of the group's impact on the party was its presence within the ‘officer corps’ commanding these committees. There was also what Gilbert Longden termed ‘their corporate action on several critical occasions’ (Longden to One Nation group, 17 Jan 1956, BLPES, Longden papers).

The group's most public ‘corporate action’ was through its publications. In addition to One Nation, Change is our Ally (1954) also appeared during this formative period. These booklets drew on both strands of Conservative thought; the views of laissez-faire Conservatives were espoused just as much as, or even more than, the opinions of Conservatives who advocated extended state intervention. ‘Cub’ Alport and Iain Macleod were at ease with prioritizing a role for the state, while Enoch Powell and Angus Maude advocated supply-side policy for competitive markets. The neo-liberal ideas associated with Thatcherism in the 1980s were anticipated in Change is our Ally, which contemporaries viewed as a return to the principles of free-market economics, as well as a radical criticism of the past practice of both parties. ‘Their book is a riot of idol smashing. They lay violent hands on all party idols—not only Socialist idols like nationalisation but Tory idols like tariffs and farmers—and they pitch the lot in to the dustbin’ (Daily Mirror, 21 May 1954). Two retrospective views captured the differing positions: whereas Longden, writing in 1985, stressed the affinity with Thatcherism (Crossbow, autumn 1985), Alport, in 1996, emphasized the concern with social reform and the intention to make the welfare state work (The Spectator, 30 March 1996).

From its outset in 1950 the One Nation group's membership exhibited the full range of the Conservative ideological continuum, while in terms of the backgrounds of its members the group was a microcosm of the party as a whole. Although the chapters of its publications were drafted by individual members, there was collective responsibility for the publications overall and this collective imprimatur of a booklet became an abiding policy of the One Nation group. The presence of ideological tension meant that the publications had to be compromises, but the group claimed that no principle had to be jettisoned in arriving at them. It was therefore important that members not only displayed the necessary intellectual ability to participate in policy discussion but also that they should do so in a friendly and convivial manner, continuing to dine weekly in the routine established by the meetings to write One Nation. Their success is indicated by the One Nation group's continuing longevity and its legendary standing in post-war Conservative Party politics.

David Seawright

Sources  

D. Seawright, The British Conservative Party and One Nation politics (2007) · D. Seawright, ‘One Nation’, The political thought of the Conservative Party since 1945, ed. K. Hickson (2005) · R. Walsha, ‘The One Nation group: a tory approach to backbench politics and organization, 1950–1955’, Twentieth Century British History, 11/2 (2000), 183–214 · C. Alport, ‘Forming One Nation’, The Spectator (30 March 1996) · G. Longden, ‘The original “One Nation”’, Crossbow (autumn 1985) · The Economist (25 Dec 1954) · Daily Mirror (21 May 1954) · Conservative Party archive, Bodl. Oxf. · Sir Gilbert Longden papers, BLPES · Alport papers, University of Essex, Colchester, Albert Sloman Library · Sir John Rogers papers, CKS