One Nation, Two Nations, Four Nations: A Broader Approach to the Conservative ‘Young England’ Movement
As David Cameron attempts a new spin on ‘one nation’ Conservatism, PhD student Gary Hutchison (University of Edinburgh) highlights the four nations context of Disraeli’s Young Englandism.
One-nation conservatism, as championed by Benjamin Disraeli in his books ‘Coningsby’ and ‘Sybil, Or The Two Nations’ argued for a paternalistic and pragmatic conservatism which would unite society through the bonds of mutual obligation. The term ‘one-nation’ has remained in political use in various forms since Disraeli’s era – in 2012 the political label was claimed by Ed Miliband for the Labour party. Most recently, David Cameron has made use of the term after his election victory last week.
Many have traced the beginnings of this label to the ‘Young England’ movement, of which Disraeli was briefly leader. A small and largely unsuccessful splinter group mostly made up of traditionalist Tory aristocrats, it existed for a short period in the 1840s but lacked the popular support base to make any significant headway. The main concern of the group was what its members perceived to be the growing divide between what was termed the ‘two nations’ of the rich and the poor. Believing that in previous times a paternalistic aristocracy and church had protected working people, they sought to reinvigorate the mutual reciprocities enabled by a traditional tiered social structure. As a movement named ‘Young England’, seeking to tackle what was termed the ‘Condition of England’ question, it would appear at first glance to be somewhat narrow in national scope. Yet even a cursory examination of the features and background of the movement reveals that a four nations approach can yield insights into its character and development.
The adherents of the movement were nationally diverse in more than one sense. Several of its members were, in fact, from Scottish backgrounds. Alexander Baillie-Cochrane (nicknamed ‘Kok’, and later created 1st Baron Lamington), one of the principal supporters, had inherited the ‘desolate’ estate of Lamington in Lanarkshire which he spent much time and effort improving. He also for a time sat as MP for the county. A gifted member of the movement, he also published several novels, historical works, and poems. Another prominent supporter was the Scot Henry Baillie, the brother-in-law of important Young-Englander George Smythe. In addition to serving briefly as Secretary of State for India, Baillie was MP for Inverness-shire for most of the post-Reform period, from 1840 to 1868. It has however been suggested, notably by David Cannadine, that of all the groups in nineteenth-century Britain, the aristocracy was the most ‘British’, insofar as they were fully integrated into a national social, cultural and economic nexus which served to promote social homogeneity across the four nations.
In examining the ideological makeup of the movement however, it becomes clear that Young England owed a good deal to specifically Scottish strands of thought. For one, the nostalgia of Young Englanders owes its provenance in no small part to the works of Sir Walter Scott, whose particular brand of backward-looking romanticism created a widespread and sustained interest in the medieval. The influence of Scott’s work on Gladstone’s ideological development is well-established, but his possible effect on Disraeli has yet to be explored. Similarly, the contemporary focus on medievalism was perhaps most prominently displayed and promoted by the famous romantic medieval tournament organised in Ayrshire by Lord Eglinton in 1839. Recent work has re-evaluated the significance of both Eglinton and the tournament, going beyond mere repetition of the contemporary scorn which it attracted. The overwhelming success and popularity of the tournament, and the later career success of Eglinton have been established. Moreover, this has been linked to the long-term development of Scottish conservative thought.
The arena in which conservative thought was nurtured and developed in the period owes much to a Scottish context; many leading conservative thinkers, including Baillie-Cochrane and other Young-Englanders, engaged with ideological issues in the pages of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. A more aggressively conservative magazine compared to the relatively sober Quarterly Review, Blackwood’s was also notable for publishing the works of contemporary romantics such as Coleridge and Shelley. The mix of the nostalgic with the conservative in this Scottish magazine perhaps made it the organ most closely affiliated with Young England. The image of Scotland as a uniformly liberal nation during the mid-Victorian period has recently come under question, with many arguing for a reappraisal of Scottish conservatism. Indeed, this is an area on which there is much potentially fruitful work to be done. Increasing knowledge and understanding of Scottish conservatism may well enable the reconsideration of several aspects of conservatism in the wider United Kingdom, including Young England.
David Cameron’s use of the term would appear to be an attempt to alter the meaning of a ‘one-nation’ governing style towards uniting the four nations of the United Kingdom, rather than the two nations of the rich and poor. As such, a four nations framework can help us to explore more fully Young England’s conceptualisation of the two-nation divide, and the origins of its distant descendant, one-nation conservatism.
 Guardian – “Ed Miliband moves to claim Disraeli’s ‘one nation’ mantle” [http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2012/oct/02/ed-miliband-one-nation-speech1]
 David Cannadine, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (London, 1996)
 Ruth Clayton Windscheffel, ‘Gladstone and Scott: Family, Identity, and Nation’ Scottish Historical Review, vol. 86, no. 2 (2007), pp. 69-95 .
 Alex Tyrrell, ‘The Earl of Eglinton, Scottish Conservatism, and the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights’ The Historical Journal vol. 53, no. 1 (2010), pp. 87-107
Gary is a PhD student and Wolfson scholar at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the origins of the Scottish conservative party after 1832, supervised by Gordon Pentland and Ewen Cameron. He is also a Contributions Editor for Pubs and Publications, a blog charting the ups and downs of the PhD experience. His most recent article deals specifically with the changing use of the term ‘One-Nation’– accessible at http://www.blogs.hss.ed.ac.uk/pubs-and-publications/