Viewpoint: ‘White nation’ conservatism

Viewpoint: ‘White nation’ conservatism

John Holmwood

Nick Timothy, the former advisor to Theresa May when she was Minister at the Home Office and then Prime Minister (until the disastrous 2017 general election), has written a book outlining a new vision for conservatism, Remaking One Nation: The Future of Conservatism (Polity). Its publication during the Covid-19 pandemic is not propitious. It involves some mean-spirited score-settling and is un-generous to those who facilitated his rise.

His objective is to set out a new ‘one nation conservatism’ grounded in communitarian philosophy. He sets his position against what he calls ‘ultra-liberalism’, or ‘elite liberalism’, represented by the right and the left: free marketeers on the right, proponents of multicultural ‘identity politics’ on the left. Together, Timothy argues, they ratchet up ultra-liberalism in lock-step; left, right, left, right. This has opened-up the country to global competition, mass immigration, and the promotion of ethnic minority rights against the interests and sentiments of ‘ordinary’ people. According to Timothy, this led to the popular democratic reaction to ‘take back control’ that was expressed in Brexit, of which he is an ardent proponent.

One part of the book is an outline of ‘left-behind’ communities, regional disparities in income and access to public services such as health, welfare and education. The UK, he argues, combines wide inequalities in income and wealth with extremes of deprivation. Paradoxically, however, he demonstrates these features by comparisons with Denmark, Germany, Sweden, and other EU countries, all of which fare better. The ‘left behind’, it seems, are produced by our national free market policies and not by policies enjoined by membership in the EU.

Indeed, the globalisation whose consequences he regrets will be accentuated by the very Brexit he endorses. This has been pointed out by Ferdinand Mount – former policy adviser to Mrs Thatcher – in his critique of the new orthodoxy under Boris Johnson. Liberal free trade plus infrastructure spending was always unlikely to bring about the ‘levelling up’ that its advocates promise. However, with the World Trade Organisation predicting global recession as a consequence of Covid-19 and significant reduction in trade between 13 and 32%, this is hardly the moment to insist on a Brexit that would separately reduce trade with our closest neighbours. Yet Timothy is very firmly set into that lock-step – ideology trumps the pragmatism he claims is at the heart of his ‘Burkean’ approach.

Mount also warns of the populist sentiment that has infused the current Conservative Party, especially after the expulsion of the ‘one nation Tories’. In another article, he proposes that Enoch Powell’s nationalist politics have returned to shape current conservatism. Timothy has just one mention of Powell, but it is significant. It is to the latter’s commitment to ‘One Nation’ conservatism. There is no mention of Powell’s exclusion of the non-white, ‘immigrant descended’ (to use the cold phrase from Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech of April 1968) from the nation.

There is a constant drumbeat to the march of Timothy’s argument, namely that of the ‘problem’ of immigration and its threat to ‘national identity’. There are two aspects to the threat.

The first is that immigration, especially from the EU after expansion to take in post-communist countries, has undermined wages and put pressure on local services. The evidence is otherwise. It has been the UK’s policies of labour market de-regulation and low wages that has attracted unskilled migrants. High wage economies tend to have lower rates of immigration. Moreover, it has been austerity that has reduced spending on public services and the evidence suggests that migration has little net impact on services when the fiscal contribution of migrants is also taken into account. Indeed, it has been estimated that had there been even a marginal relaxation of austerity it is likely that the Remain vote would have carried the day.

Timothy is immune to such arguments because the real focus of his argument, its second aspect, is cultural not economic. It is here that the arguments against economic immigration become an unveiled argument against the ‘immigrant descended.’ In his view, this is where identity politics has made a baleful contribution to ultra-liberalism; multiculturalism has promoted fragmentation and separation. Timothy seeks to embrace the particularity of communities and their hierarchical incorporation into a story of the nation. Instead, he argues, the antagonistic group rights of minorities have been promoted. As he puts it, what should have been E pluribus unum (out of the many, one) has been converted into E pluribus nihil (out of the many, nothing). More, the white working class has been ‘left behind’, as the only group not allowed to express its group identity, an argument he takes from Eric Kaufmann’s defence of ‘white racial self-interest’. At the same time, Timothy argues that ethnic minorities are allowed to live separate lives expressing values antithetical to those of ‘Britishness’.

Timothy’s arguments are both tendentious and contradictory. If the working class has been ‘left behind’ by neo-liberal globalisation, then that must also include the non-white working class. ‘Levelling up’ would address the inequalities and social and economic disadvantages of all citizens. However, despite showing that ethnic minority British people experience greater social and economic disadvantage than white British citizens, Timothy argues that widening inequality has produced relative deprivation for the white working class. Stagnating incomes are felt to be particularly unfair as the middle class become more distant and conditions of the white working class become more similar to those of ethnic minorities. He deplores the fact that ultra-liberals show little solidarity with their poorer fellow citizens (page 100), but shows little solidarity, himself, where those fellow citizens are not white.

Yet, Timothy concedes that the residential segregation that he criticises is a consequence of the movement of white Britons away from areas as they become more diverse (page 141). Moreover, in terms of educational achievement, despite worse social and economic deprivation, ethnic minority Britons – especially those of African, South Asian and East Asian heritages – outperform those of white working class backgrounds and, indeed, according to recent research from EPI, have outcomes equivalent to, or better than, the average for white British pupils. This does not seem to him to be evidence of the ‘integration’ of ethnic minority communities in their efforts to support their children. Rather, it is taken as an indication – with no evidence provided – that ethnic minorities have been unfairly supported.

To some extent he suggests, the issue within white working class households is the breakdown of families and that the problem is that governments have promoted gender equality, rather than support for families. He cites the sociologist, Catherine Hakim, to the effect that around 20% of women are ‘home-centred’ in their orientations, with only 20% ‘work-centred’ (page 150). Yet just nine pages earlier he had deplored home-centred preferences among Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, referring to some 57.2% of them as ‘economically inactive’. Nor is he interested in the data that shows the high levels of educational achievement of girls from those backgrounds.

Indeed, the schools at the centre of the Birmingham Trojan Horse affair, which took place when Timothy was an adviser to the Home Office, were among the most successful schools in the country, including for the achievement of girls. He cites Louise Casey’s report on self-segregation in support. But though Casey’s report derives much of its evidence from Government responses to the affair, Timothy is oddly silent about it and his own role. Despite this silence, calls for a legally binding definition of ‘Islamaphobia’ are dismissed by him as seeking to ‘put extremists above scrutiny’ (page 217). Like Enoch Powell and his strong disapproval of allowing Sikh bus drivers and conductors to wear the turban, Timothy would ban the burqa and niqab in public; ‘the manipulation of women and girls, and the deliberate construction of walls between communities must end’ (page 217).

Significantly and strangely, Timothy also entirely ignores the ‘hostile environment’ policy toward irregular immigration, notwithstanding that he and fellow advisor, Fiona Hill were heavily involved. This policy made checking the right to be in Britain a responsibility for employers, health providers and landlords and created enormous collateral damage to British citizens from the Commonwealth who had come to the country prior to the changing of the Nationality Acts in the 1970s and had every right to remain while not having the documentary proof now required by the policy (and as Wendy Willaims notes in her official report into the lessons of Windrush, there was no reason for those who had arrived before 1973 to follow the changing law as was recognized by Home Office staff at the time of the changes to the law). This led to the loss of jobs, housing, access to healthcare and other services and even to deportation of fellow citizens from backgrounds in the Caribbean, Africa and South and East Asia.

Yet Timothy advocates a hardline immigration policy aligned to problems he associates with ethnic minorities in Britain. Its first principle is that, ‘Britain’s immigration rules should reflect the quite understandable desire of the majority group to slow the pace of change and protect and preserve their cultural identity’ (page 16). This is merely Mrs Thatcher’s ‘swamping’ rhetoric repackaged.  The whiteness of his ‘one-nation’ conservatism could not be clearer. He proposes that, ‘immigration rules should give weight to people with strong cultural connections to Britain. These might be based on bonds of language, geography or history’ (page 216). Lest we doubt that these rules are asymmetrical, he goes on (my emphasis): ‘they might be based on the extent of integration – or lack of it – by existing diasporas in Britain’.

The book was published at the height of the Covid-19 crisis when community has come to the fore and the market suspended, but, even without this pandemic, Timothy is seriously out of step with the times. Covid-19 has shown that the key workers that are relied on to deliver the nation’s health and well-being – hospital workers, care workers, cleaners, shop workers and distribution workers – are disproportionately from migrant or ethnic minority backgrounds and disproportionately made up of the low paid and are disproportionately likely to be its victims). The ‘one nation’ that has come together to ‘save the NHS and to save lives’ is not the one represented in Nick Timothy’s nation. His is a nation divided between ‘the people’ and ‘alien others’. Thankfully, we are being reminded daily that multiculturalism has not failed, and that, in a crisis, it is saving the nation. Let this not be forgotten after the pandemic has passed; let conservatism also stand for a nation undivided and one that is properly pragmatic and tolerant.


John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham. With Therese O’Toole, he is the author of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair, Bristol: Policy Press, 2017).

Image: Fabio Venni