Adam Hawksbee is Deputy Director of Onward, and a former adviser to Andy Street. Gavin Tucker is Project Director of The Future of Conservatism and a former Special Adviser.
There are moments when the nation comes together. Cheering Team GB athletes as they cross the finish line at the Olympics. Rolling our eyes as the UK (usually) fails to get off the starting blocks at Eurovision. The joy of street parties during the Platinum Jubilee. Shared sorrow at the Queen’s funeral.
There is a power in these moments. People across the country of all ages and backgrounds feel part of something bigger. The flags and football shirts, impromptu barbeques and overcrowded pub gardens, give us a sense of national community that feels unfamiliar because it is all too infrequent.
The weekly banging of pots and pans during the pandemic had emotional weight not just as a thank you to brave public servants, but as a shared national moment.
Conservatives need a renewed focus on the nation. Not as a symbol or a motif, but an organising principle for our politics. Celebration of country shouldn’t be reserved for cultural events or moments of mourning – it should galvanise and animate a shared programme to tackle our country’s biggest problems.
In Michael Gove’s speech yesterday to launch Onward’s Future of Conservatism programme, he called for a “patriotic renewal”. This national moment is central to the political project that the centre-right needs to develop.
A focus on the nation as a mobilising principle is not new. Today, it is too often reserved for the separatists in the devolved administrations who aim to divide us.
But in the past it sat in the political mainstream. The historian David Edgerton has charted how in the first half of the 20th Century the idea of the nation informed an economic policy of onshoring and industrialisation to improve our resilience in a turbulent world.
This politics of the nation forged some of the shared institutions that give us greatest pride – most notably, our National Health Service. And it built a sense of belonging that linked community and country, supported by new organisations with local chapters but national membership, such as the Women’s Institute and Boy Scouts.
The British economy needs a new emphasis on the nation. Reaching energy independence and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels from hostile states requires a collective effort to accelerate decarbonisation, whilst the rise of China has revealed the fragility of supply chains that underpin technologies and sectors with strategic importance.
Our economic model is overly reliant on an ever-narrower set of places and sectors and redistribution from a shrinking public pot. The infrastructure that underpins a form of broad-based growth – houses, trains, grid connections, full fibre networks – is held back by ineffective national policy and contentious local politics.
Our culture also needs a period of national renewal. All around us, we see proxy battles and meaningless conversations on the rewriting of children’s books and the labelling of artefacts in museums.
These are symptoms of a fragile sense of national identity. When our collective institutions, rituals and norms are attacked by fringe movements, mainstream Britain struggles to articulate the ties that bind it together.
This sense of malaise is felt most keenly among young people, who are left atomised by relationships that are too often based solely online or embedded in communities of identity. Rising support for authoritarian government among the young reflects a mutated desire for a bigger and more defined sense of “us”.
Cultural renewal starts locally – with our family and friends – but comes together in a more coherent positive national community.
The war in Ukraine provides the sharpest evidence of a need for a focus on the nation. Our military gives us the means to defend our national sovereignty and bolster the security of our allies. National security can also be a core component of our economic and social renewal, harnessing the sectors and industries that underpin defence and celebrating the shared solidarity of our troops.
The nation is a powerful idea in politics. In many ways, the Brexit vote was a reassertion of the nation against a wave of globalisation that had undermined and disempowered voters. In Scotland, it underpinned the rise of the SNP and the collapse of Labour.
Nationalism can also, clearly, be a force for ill – across Europe, both past and present, there are ugly forms of politics that deploy the idea of the nation to divide and destroy.
But this does not mean that the idea of the nation is some sort of Pandora’s Box that sensible politicians should leave well alone. If employed with careful thought and intention as part of a political programme, a national focus has unique qualities.
It can help to articulate a shared purpose, underpinning industrial policies and infrastructure investments that might benefit different places in different ways but contribute to a shared forward momentum.
It can build a sense of collective identity and cultural coherence, with boundaries tight enough to give people safety and security but flexible enough to change and adapt.
And a positive national community develops strong foundations of generalised reciprocity and trust: the lifeblood of a successful society.
The principle of the nation has always been at the heart of the Conservative Party. Disraeli said that “the Tory party, unless it is a national party, is nothing”. But in recent years the definition and direction of the One Nation movement has been lacklustre – clear on what is against, but rarely what it is for.
We need those who believe in a more inclusive form of economics and politics and a renewed culture and society to give their ideas more clarity and force – and to unashamedly put the nation back in One Nation.