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Boris Johnson – one nation Conservative or populist?

4 min read

The one nation tradition runs deep into the psyche of British Conservatism, originating in the epoch of prime ministerial titan Benjamin Disraeli in the mid-19th century.

As principally espoused in his book “Sybil: or the Two Nations” in 1845, the wide gap between rich and poor was a particular Disraelian concern, based on fears that social unrest and even revolution could occur without greater social unity. Policy focus was therefore on the poorest securing improved socio-economic conditions amidst abject levels of Dickensian poverty and deprivation.

Modern Conservative leaders have struggled to strike an appropriate balance between competing one nation and Thatcherite (New Right) legacies.

Modernisers such as David Cameron and Theresa May have sought to transcend internal party tensions regarding such traditions, notably in terms of re-balancing the economic Thatcherite emphasis with the more social One Nation perspective. This was done to varying degrees of success under both of those leaders between 2005 and 2019, but not always sufficiently enough to generate both party unity and wider public support.

Johnson is willing to adopt the language of “one nation”, yet does not always consistently deliver in practical policy terms

In this context, Boris Johnson’s status is a fluid one that is elusive to precisely define. Indeed, for all the recurring self-proclaimed bluster of declaring himself to be a proud “one nation Conservative” and expressing socially liberal conservative sentiments in the past, Johnson’s quixotic blend of policies and associated positioning is far from consistent.

Since becoming Prime Minister in mid-2019, he has embraced uncompromising and divisive (if populist) positions on issues such as Brexit, which have not been socially unifying, and has indeed further polarised a nation already fragmented by the 2016 referendum result.

Boris Johnson has also described himself as “Thatcherite”, expressed individualistic and libertarian anxieties about pandemic lockdowns, and condemned EU regulatory edicts. While Johnson’s Brexit agenda has delivered the appropriate outcome of a high-profile democratic public exercise, the nationalistic and de-regularity undertones are somewhat detached from more inclusive one nation traditions and governmental principles aligned with consensus, paternalism, co-operation and internationalism.

This has heightened scepticism as to whether Boris Johnson has one nation credentials after all, although he has engaged in a more pragmatic and less ideological policy agenda, speaking positively about “society”, while favouring more expansive (post-austerity) social policy commitments. Political commentators observe that adhering closer to the moderate political centre, aligned with one nation traditions, is the route of ongoing electoral success. 

This was notably evident at the 2019 general election, when a leftward tilt on economic interventionism (aligned with notions of state paternalism) combined with a rightward tilt on social and cultural issues reaped significant electoral rewards and brought new social and geographical dimensions into the Conservative fold. Notably a swathe of Red Wall seats in the post-industrial North and Midlands captured from the Labour Party.

In the aftermath of this ground-breaking election victory, Johnson explicitly declared “we must recognise the incredible reality that we now speak as a one-nation Conservative Party”. This appeared to reaffirm his political credentials in this respect, specifically the need for unifying and cohesive positions incorporating both social and economic policy spheres.

In practical terms, this has materialised in pledges to “level up” and tackle entrenched regional divides regarding wealth levels, public investment and individual opportunity. Yet this policy agenda entails further state intervention and significant expenditure – and delivering “levelling up” has yet to occur.

This trend for a more interventionist socio-economic approach was consolidated during the Covid-19 pandemic from early 2020, which saw a further departure from the New Right’s neo-liberal legacy and more towards one nation policy tendencies entailing a more interventionist (and costly) state role in supporting public policy. This has been reflected with the trend of successive Budgets during Johnson’s premiership that have raised taxation to levels not witnessed for decades.

As with other recent Conservative Prime Ministers, Boris Johnson’s political attributes and alignment within the broader family of Conservatism are not always obvious to pin down. Historically, it was easier to categorise the likes of Thatcher and Heath in the 1970s and 80s, but in the contemporary era of “consumer politics”, politicians have sought to broaden their electoral appeal and dilute any ideological traditions they may have formerly adhered to.

As the archetypal populist politician of the 21 century, Johnson has an adaptable approach, willing to adopt the language of “one nation”, yet not always consistently delivering in practical policy terms.


Dr Ben Williams is a Lecturer in Politics and Political Theory at Salford University.

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