In the wake of Ed Miliband's headline-grabbing 'One Nation' party conference speech, Ben Jackson draws out the lessons of previous progressive leaders who have embraced the politics of social patriotism.

Much of the discussion of Ed Miliband's 2012 Labour party conference speech has rightly focused on his appropriation of Benjamin Disraeli and the rhetoric of 'One Nation' Conservatism. Miliband's imaginative new theme, by claiming the mantle of the traditional Tory left, has been widely praised as an astute attempt to grab the centre ground. But successful political rhetoric is always multi-layered. Miliband's speech in fact drew from the left as well as the right, although the historical connections between One Nation Labour and earlier progressive rhetoric have been rather neglected amid the fascination with its Conservative antecedents.

Patriotism has long been an important theme for progressive leaders seeking to make the case for social reform and national renewal. From this perspective, the key passage in Miliband's speech was this:

'In One Nation, responsibility goes all the way to the top of society. The richest in society have the biggest responsibility to show responsibility to the rest of our country. And I've got news for the powerful interests in our country: in One Nation no interest, from Rupert Murdoch to the banks, is too powerful to be held to account.'

Miliband's juxtaposition of the vested interests of the powerful with a broader public good has a long and resonant lineage in progressive oratory. As a brief historical recap will show, successful reforming leaders of the left have often couched their appeal in populist and patriotic terms, seeking to mobilise low- and middle-income citizens against powerful elites.

Gladstone not Disraeli

Here the most useful precedent is not Disraeli but his chief antagonist, William Gladstone. Gladstone famously drew the electoral battle lines in the late 19th century as 'the masses against the classes', contrasting the sectional interests of privileged elites - 'the classes' - with the national view taken by the majority. Gladstone noted the great opposition to the Liberal party from elite groups: 'It cannot be pretended that we are supported by the dukes, or by the squires, or by the established clergy, or by the officers of the army, or by a number of other bodies of very respectable people.' These 'highly privileged' groups ranged against the Liberals on key issues therefore raised a question, he said, 'of class against mass, of classes against the nation; and the question for us is, Will the nation show enough of unity and determination to overbear, constitutionally, at the polls, the resistance of the classes?' Gladstone reviewed the great milestones of progressive reform over the 19th century - the abolition of slavery, the expansion of the franchise, the abolition of religious discrimination - and concluded that 'on every one of them, without exception, the masses have been right and the classes have been wrong.'

This Gladstonian rhetoric was very influential: defending the national interest against the sectional concerns of privileged elites proved to be a potent form of democratic populism. While Gladstone invoked the nation against the classes largely in the context of the constitutional controversies over the franchise and the Irish question that dominated the politics of the 19th century, later liberals and socialists developed this theme by focusing on the vested interests of wealthy elites who opposed measures of social reform designed to meet the material needs of the majority.

Labour and the nation in the 1940s

Labour's 1945 manifesto took a similar approach. It argued that the economic slump before the second world war had been the result of 'the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men', who 'felt no responsibility to the nation'. Instead, Labour promised 'to put the nation above any sectional interest'.

Clement Attlee's radio broadcast during the 1945 election campaign was a powerful example of the importance of 'the nation' to Labour's electoral appeal in the 1940s. The evening before Attlee's broadcast, Winston Churchill had attempted to style the Conservatives as the truly national party. Presenting himself as the leader of a caretaker administration that had now been deserted by Labour and Liberal politicians who had 'put party before country', Churchill said: 'I claim the support of all throughout the country who sincerely put the nation first in their thoughts.' He added that he was standing in the election as a 'Conservative and National'. In contrast, Churchill argued, Labour was bent on promoting alien socialist ideas that would undermine traditional British liberties. In this spirit, Churchill uttered the ill-judged words that are often recalled from this broadcast, asserting that Labour 'would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance'.

Attlee's response engaged directly with Churchill's claim to represent the nation. Attlee conceded that perhaps 40 years earlier Labour 'might with some justice have been called a class party'. But, he contended, the ranks of Labour's parliamentary party and candidates now included 'men and women drawn from every class and occupation in the community', including wage earners, professionals, business people and many members of the armed forces (representing, at this particular historical juncture, the voice of youth). In rebuttal, Attlee argued:

'The Conservative party remains as always a class party ... It represents today as in the past, the forces of property and privilege. The Labour party is, in fact, the one party which most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life.'

By invoking the nation in support of social reform, Labour politicians such as Attlee tapped into a patriotism that differed from the vision of national unity projected by Conservatives such as Churchill. In place of an account that privileged imperial glory or the monarchy, Labour laid claim to a social patriotism that focused on the growth of liberty, democratic government and social justice as the most important British traditions. This social patriotism was in part a unifying discourse, portraying British history as a story about the long struggle for democracy and the gradual improvement of the condition of the people. As a result, it nurtured an inclusive socialism that bound together different classes.

The speeches of Attlee and his colleagues did not disparage the ambitions of working families who sought to improve themselves. On the contrary, they spoke in terms designed to construct a political coalition between low and middle-income voters. Once the welfare state was put into operation, argued Herbert Morrison in 1947, 'the middle classes as well as the working classes will have reason to bless these services'. As Morrison added, this illustrated that the Labour party 'stands up for all the useful people'. Social reform was not presented by these politicians as advancing only the interests of the working class or the poor, but as a majoritarian project that improved the economic position of the average citizen.

However, the social patriotism of the 1940s was a conflictual as well as a unifying discourse. As we have seen, Labour leaders argued that social reform was opposed by a powerful minority pursuing its own sectarian agenda. The old elites who had presided over the policy failures that led to the depression and the war, and who were responsible for its disastrous opening phase, were characterised as the vested interests holding back national improvement.

Can it work today?

So while the interest of Miliband's One Nation Labour derives in part from the ground it steals from the Conservative tradition, it also stems from the revival of the language of social patriotism. It is this second aspect of Miliband's rhetoric that opens up the space for a serious debate about the responsibilities of those at the top. This was a subject that New Labour famously found it very difficult to talk about. Many of the key figures involved in Labour's electoral rebirth in the 1990s were nervous about associating the party with what they regarded as antediluvian rhetorical fireworks unsuited to the politics of the 21st century. One worry about the evidence presented so far might therefore be that it calls on ancestral voices unlikely to resonate with contemporary politics. If One Nation Labour is in part about a return to Gladstone and Attlee, a critic might observe, what guarantee do we have that such political language will really be attuned to the values, priorities and anxieties of today's electorate?

The re-election of Barack Obama provides an answer. Obama's successful pitch to voters in the United States made much of economic populism and social patriotism. Starting with his powerful speech on inequality at Osawatomie, Kansas, at the end of 2011, Obama defined his agenda as a defence of the prosperity of the broad majority against special interests seeking to protect only the rich. The unfairness of the low taxes on the wealthy, as favoured by the Republicans, provided a striking illustration of what Obama said he was up against:

'This isn't about class warfare. This is about the nation's welfare. It's about making choices that benefit not just the people who've done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefit the middle class, and those fighting to get into the middle class, and the economy as a whole.'

The success of the United States, Obama argued, was greatest:

'when everyone gets a fair shot, where everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren't Democratic values or Republican values. These aren't one per cent values or 99 per cent values. They're American values.'

Obama's success with this line of attack suggests that the economic debate in the wake of the financial crisis can plausibly be led from a populist and patriotic direction. At a time of squeezed living standards, questions of distributional fairness have become more salient than in the boom years. In such circumstances, a right-wing agenda of tax cuts for the wealthiest and increased economic insecurity for everyone else can, with the right rhetorical touch, be portrayed as elitist and even anti-aspirational.

A well-calibrated populist and patriotic electoral appeal along these lines could, it seems, play an important part in Labour's argument in the run-up to the 2015 election. Whether the use of such rhetoric is politically successful, however, always depends on how well it fits with the non-rhetorical constraints that circumscribe politicians' room for manoeuvre. Gladstone's 'masses against the classes' ultimately failed to hold together the fissiparous Liberal party in the struggle over Irish home rule (and was in any case not a message perfectly suited to an electoral era that predated universal suffrage). Attlee's Labour party, on the other hand, was more successful at making a populist argument that resonated at election time and could be translated into an agenda for government.

But rhetoric was only one part of the story here. Attlee (like Obama) found himself taking on opponents who could plausibly be described as vested interests; his rhetoric was supported by distinctive policies that illustrated the contrast between left and right; and, fundamentally, the most pressing economic concern of the time could be persuasively narrated as the protection of the average citizen from irresponsible economic elites. There are intriguing parallels between these conditions and British politics today. Labour's policy development remains a work in progress, but stagnant living standards and the priorities of the Conservative leadership have furnished Miliband with a political context conducive to the revival of social patriotism.

The potential of One Nation Labour lies in its synthesis of Disraelian conservatism with Gladstonian populism, because it is in the combination of the two that a distinctive post-crisis Labour message can be discerned. The framing of the electoral contest as a Labour party seeking to govern in the national interest against a Conservative party which favours the better-off is now a real possibility.

A longer version of this essay appears in the latest issue of Juncture, IPPR's journal for rethinking the centre-left.