Tories, Whigs and Radicals: An Eighteenth Century Perspective on the Election image

Tories, Whigs and Radicals: An Eighteenth Century Perspective on the Election

One of my goals for this year has been to learn more about the eighteenth century. And one of the fascinating thought experiments to have emerged from all that—at least, I find it fascinating—is this: what would happen if we picked up the political categories of the eighteenth century, and dropped them on the twenty-first?

Imagine that all modern political parties were dissolved. Then imagine that everyone in the House of Commons, or the US Congress, or whatever, had to identify either as Tories, Whigs or Radicals. (Or, if you prefer, imagine that everyone had to represent either the ancien regime, the Girondins or the Jacobins.) What would that show us about the British political system?

Virtually everyone in parliament would be a Whig. Despite the (hugely outdated) brand labels we currently use—Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat—the Conservative party is not conservative, most Labour MPs do not represent organised labour, and the Liberal Democrats are neither economic liberals nor functioning democrats. Instead, the vast majority of our political classes (which includes not just the politicians from all major parties, but editors, commentators, journalists and media figures) are Whigs—which is nothing more than the eighteenth century word for “progressives.” Their belief in moral, economic and social progress is reflected in economics (a general acceptance of global capitalism), social issues (back then everyone did X, but we are more advanced than that, so now we do Y), foreign affairs (the march towards global democracy continues, and we can give it a nudge), and political philosophy (aristocracy and state socialism are over, and any alternative to the current model is a step backwards, and we could never do that). To reject an idea, for our political elites, is not a matter of showing it is wrong; it is merely a matter of showing that it is old. Labour? Back to the 1970s! Conservatives? Back to the 1950s! Lib Dems? Back to the 2010s! We are a nation led by Whigs.

This is obscured by all the arguments they have with each other, of course. But a brief glance at the substance of the major debates shows that the gaps between the parties are really not that large (and are inflated dramatically by the narcissism of small differences). There may be robust and reasoned disagreement about whether the state should be 40% or 45% of GDP, but nobody is saying it should be 15%, and nobody is saying it should be 80%. The most strident advocates for both Leave and Remain would self-identify noisily as either Whigs (like Daniel Hannan) or Progressives (like Nicola Sturgeon). When compared with any government seventy years ago, or many governments in the world today, all British political parties fundamentally agree on state borrowing, the military, free schooling, free healthcare, welfare, progressive taxation, gay marriage, pensions, environmental protections and trade. And more importantly, they agree on the Whiggish rationale for each of them. The present is better than the past. The future will be better than the present. Get on the right side of history! Onwards and upwards!

This may be why even the Guardian says Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour isn’t that radical, and even the Times says Theresa May’s Conservatives aren’t really conservative. It may be why the Left is unbundling, and why many Christian voters are, like me, politically homeless. Put differently: there are hardly any genuine Radicals (committed to thoroughly reframing social and economic debates along the lines proposed by the Jacobins, or the Communists) in the House of Commons, and hardly any genuine Tories (committed to the primacy of, and not merely the existence of, traditional institutions like the monarchy, the Church and the landed gentry). The few names that crop up on both sides, from John McDonnell to Jacob Rees-Mogg, are still more Whig than either Radical or Tory—and even if they weren’t, they would serve as exceptions that prove the general rule.

No doubt this is all true because the country as a whole, and particularly the key cultural influencers in academia and the media, are essentially Whiggish too. But three interesting things follow from this. The first is that our national discourse is nothing like as polarised in substance as it is in rhetoric, which should be an inducement to some of us (especially the villainising, meme-circulating Twitterati) to calm down a bit. The second is that off-the-shelf historical labels can blind us as well as binding us, and have the tendency to make us feel like modern day Robespierres or Chartists when we’re actually no more than Whigs who drive Volvos. And the third is that we should be just as wary of swallowing a Whiggish outlook in politics, economics or social issues as we would be in theology. Progress, and conserving the past, are in and of themselves morally neutral: it depends whether the thing we’re conserving, or progressing towards, is virtuous or vicious. It’s like Caspian’s comment when he’s asked whether he believes in progress, or development. “I have seen them both in an egg. We call it Going bad in Narnia.”

And if you want to know how all this means I’m going to vote, you can find out here.

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