These new policies would return conservatism to its roots, shorn of the sectarianism and libertarianism that have choked it. The return to the idea that stable communities and families were of equal value to individual liberty would allow us to provide help to those who needed it. The return to faith in our unifying civic principles, what Lincoln called our “political religion,” would preserve religious liberty while allowing all creeds to share in its blessings. This renewed conservatism would allow us to talk with those who find modern movement conservatism disturbing, the blue-collar whites and minorities who want neither socialism nor unbridled capitalism, neither secularism nor sectarianism.
This reform is actually a renewal because it flows from the principle that has animated genuine conservatism throughout our nation’s history: the belief that all men are created equal. Conservatives have long debated whether liberty or equality was the founding principle of our republic, but the best conservatives knew that neither has value apart from the other. Liberty without equality is arid, while equality without liberty is stultifying. Only together do they wield America’s might.
Britain is not a nation conceived in liberty, but it is in the course of dedicating itself to the proposition that all men are created equal. That is the promise of the platform Boris Johnson’s Tories ran on: One Nation Conservatism.
That term has a long pedigree in British political thought. It originated with the 19th-century Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. He sought to reconcile the privileges of the few to the plight of the many, arguing that those on top had an obligation to those on the bottom. Disraeli’s Conservatives passed laws that improved the conditions for industrial workers and financed construction of houses for them. Subsequent generations of Conservative leaders often continued such policies, but for all there was always an undercurrent of noblesse oblige, of one’s betters doing something for one’s lessers. As such, the Tories never became the party of the working class, especially after the introduction of universal suffrage empowered the Labour Party.
Johnson’s One Nation Conservatism approaches policy similarly but draws its life from a different source. Johnson’s promises of more spending for the National Health Service and massive public investment in infrastructure in the left-behind north are not things one’s betters are doing for the masses. Instead, they are things sovereign citizens are doing for each other.
I’ve long urged American conservatives to take the last words Ronald Reagan left for us to heart. You can see them on the gravestone at his resting place in his beloved California: “I know in my heart … there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” You can imagine my joy when I saw Johnson utter the identical sentiment. “My mother,” he told the Tory faithful at their annual conference this year, “taught me to believe strongly in the equal importance, the equal dignity, the equal worth of every human being on the planet.” Somewhere the Gipper is smiling.
This principle, more than Brexit, defines why Johnson’s Tories won seats in places the Labour Party has dominated for decades (in some cases, for more than a century). Working-class men and women could see that, like them, Johnson was an outsider despised by the London elites. They could see he had the courage to take on those elites, including the ones inside his own party. Just as working-class Democrats cast off 40 years of heritage to vote in 1980 for another outsider belittled by elites, so working-class Britons turned to Johnson, the only party leader who saw them as equals. The result: Johnson’s Conservatives beat Labour among the rich, middle class and poor on Thursday, something they have never done before.
Populist conservatism can unite America, too. It alone gives a home to suburbanites and working-class men and women of all creeds and colors. It alone brings us together rather than pulling us apart. And it rests on that most American of principles, the one that the world first heard expressed politically in an American document justifying revolution against a British king.