Published:

Follow Andrew on Twitter.

Back in the late 1990s, I was interested in the question of how Blair had disrupted the coalition of support for the Conservative Party and how we should respond.  The traditional Conservative coalition consisted of four elements: traditional Tories; classical Whigs; Paternalists; and Corporatists.  In a successful Conservative coalition two of these elements are dominant and two subordinate.  From the 1950s to the 1970s the dominant elements were Paternalism and Corporatism, with the former being the central focus in the 1950s and the latter coming more to the fore in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  In the 1980s and early 1990s the two dominant elements were the Tories and Whigs, with the Whig element becoming increasingly the key focus.  Then in the run-up to 1997 the coalition switched to one between Whiggish and Corporatist elements.

Blair disrupted this arrangement especially by stripping away much, if not most, of the Paternalist element, though he also made some encroachments into the Whig core (e.g. on the euro or civil liberties).

From the late 1990s I argued that the coalition should change – specifically that the next winning coalition for the Conservative Party would be one between Whigs and Paternalists.  We needed to stand up squarely to Blair in the main zone he threatened us, whilst maintaining our authenticity.  We were Whigs, and could be no other with integrity, but we could say we would use our Whiggish ideas and methods to serve Paternalist purposes.


The Party was slow to heed my advice, but by 2005 all agreed that indeed the next Coalition would be between Whigs and Paternalists.  The only question would be whether it should be a Whig-focused party appealing specifically to Paternalists; or a Paternalist-focused party appealing specifically to Whigs.  The latter path was chosen – a point I have complained about ever since, including on these pages, since it made us inauthentic.

As we review where we are and the way forward mid-term and post-Thatcher, pondering how Cameron might adapt to try to get an overall majority or who might replace him soonish or in 2015, it's worth wondering whether this coalition is the right one for us.  That of course raises the ongoing question of whether a Whiggish or Paternalist focus is better within the same essential structure.  But it also raises the question of whether a Whig-Paternalist coalition is still, fifteen years on from when I first proposed it, the right way forward.

Let's remind ourselves of what these different elements of Conservatism stand for and what coalitions between them look like.  Traditional Tories believe in a strong hierarchical ordered state, duty, morality, and the promotion of all things British (especially those things that are English).  Classical Whigs believe in a sovereign elected legislature, free markets, toleration and ordered liberty.  Paternalists are Tories that believe those that have have a strong duty to assist those that have not.  Corporatists believe that the state should serve as arbiter and overseer in the bargaining between free business and free labour, so as to promote social justice and offset the vicissitudes of the Market.

Each coalition between these elements involves compromise and tension, and requires a unifying purpose or mission.  For example, traditional Tories are perhaps the most likely of these elements to regard generous state welfare as morally (as opposed to economically) problematic – as encouraging sloth and undermining personal discipline, whilst punishing thrift and damaging social bonds.  Paternalists are perhaps the least likely to regard generous state welfare in that way.  So if traditional Tories and Paternalists are to find a unifying theme, it needs to be one that allows them to circumvent their potential differences over welfare.  More natural unifying themes for a traditional Tory-Paternalist coalition might be the nation, or defence, or the environment, or immigration control.

Whigs and Corporatists have some natural potential affinities in the freeing of business from excessive regulation, but may face tension over issues such as the role of monopoly or over how important constitutional as versus economic questions are (Whigs tend to be more interested in the constitutional and long-term economic issues; Corporatists more in the short- to medium-term economic questions).  Classical Whigs and traditional Tories are in some ways especially problematic bedfellows, since the classical Whig tends to a more libertarian bent whilst the traditional Tory is more authoritarian, but they can be united over issues such as the importance of controlling inflation.

A Whig-Paternalist coalition will naturally tend to be quite socially libertarian – perhaps if it were Whig-focused that might mean legalising cannabis and moving on to consider gay marriage; if Paternalist that might mean legalising gay marriage but deciding that legalised cannabis was too harmful for the folk one looked after; but the general thrust is similar.  Where more tension arises is the economic stance in tough times.

You see, in times of austerity the natural allies of the Whig are the traditional Tory or the Corporatist – the traditional Tory will want to see spending cut; the Corporatist will want to see taxes low.  The Paternalist is not an especially natural ally at this point.  The Whig-Paternalist coalition is more one for economic good times – when one has the luxury to say that Whig methods will be used to serve Paternalist ends.  The Paternalist will instinctively want to see austerity softened and spending cuts slowed.  Indeed, if the coalition is Paternalist-focused, the Whig element may become frustrated by the Paternalist's lack of commitment.  On the other hand, perhaps the Paternalist wouldn't be as cowed by strikes and disruption as might be the Corporatist – the Paternalist may be a more reliable ally to have, not so given to u-turns.  Similarly, the Paternalist is more likely to be interested in a Whig-style economically rational plan than the slash-and-burn-while-you-can traditional Tory might be.

But still, at some point, the balance of advantage versus disadvantage of having Paternalist allies may shift – and I think it probably will shift between now and 2017.  I believe we will face high inflation and then, as a consequence, mass unemployment.  In ongoing tough times we may also need to focus more upon preserving and enhancing our social structures.  Though it is hard to look too far ahead in turbulent times, once we leave the EU – that iconic constitutional issue of Parliament-vs-Pope that has defined Whiggism ever since 1679 – I suspect the age of Whiggish dominance in Conservative thought will have achieved its purpose and start to fade rapidly.

The coalition we have had these past eight years has been a Paternalist-focused Paternalist-Whig coalition, whilst the one we should have had was a Whig-focused Whig-Paternalist coalition.  It might be enough for us to correct that error (certainly that would be a short-term way forward if we were to switch leader before 2015).  But looking longer-term it could be inadequate merely to switch to a Whig-focused Whig-Paternalist coalition.  With departure from the EU imminent and inflation and mass unemployment the great coming issues, the age of the Whig is passing, and the age of the Tory is to come.

My tentative guess is, therefore, that, though our current coalition is more flawed in emphasis than in substance, over the medium-term the next successful Conservative coalition – assuming we do indeed get inflation, mass unemployment, and EU departure – should be a Tory-focused Tory-Whig team.

Comments are closed.