Political parties are multiplying like vermin. Of the 428 registered in Great Britain, a full 221 have been founded since the last election. Yet, by my count, only one of those new parties is also paradoxically an old party – and that is the Whigs.
The Whig Party was born again, in the spirit of its Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century antecedent, last September. Its leader is a chap called Waleed Ghani. It has a manifesto for the coming election. And it has four candidates standing; three in London seats and one in Manchester.
I recently had coffee with Ghani in his – and until recently my own – home territory of Camberwell in the capital’s south. On his account, the Whigs are occupying a vacuum in British politics. It’s what he calls the progressive centre. “There’s no-one in this Whiggish space. You’ve got this very dry, very hard Conservative Party. You’ve got the Liberal Democrats, who are an irrelevance at the moment. And you’ve got a Labour Party that doesn’t know what it is anymore.”
So how is life at the progressive centre, apart from lonely? The Whig manifesto is its own form of answer, if you’d care to read it, but basically it comes down to fairly unconstrained social liberalism mixed with slightly more constrained economic liberalism. The party describes itself upfront, on page one, as “pro-EU, pro-immigration and pro-gender equality.”
Ghani admits that he voted Conservative in 2010, in large part because he saw some of those same ideals in David Cameron: “When Cameron appeared in 2005 it was very refreshing to see someone in the tradition of Carrington or Clarke or Heseltine.” But now he reckons that Cameron’s better instincts have yielded to pressure from the right. Out went Ken Clarke, Dominic Grieve and David Willetts at the last reshuffle. And what was left? “If you look at the Tory frontbench of today, you’ve got Theresa May, Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith, George Osborne – some quite ghoulish characters.”
This is a kinder towards Cameron, and unkinder towards some of his colleagues, than I would be. The Prime Minister’s journey from “vote blue, go green” to “green c**p” has left me wondering whether he actually had any of those ideals in the first place. Whereas Duncan Smith and Osborne who strike me as the more committed modernisers, even if they don’t exactly share the Whigs’ fondness for Europe. These particular frontbenchers are more good than ghoulish.
But such nuances shouldn’t obscure the main point: many of Cameron’s former supporters are disappointed with how Cameron’s rule has turned out. Ghani, who has never been particularly wedded to the Conservatives beyond voting for them in 2010, decided to just disinter the Whig Party. But others with closer ties to the Tories, such as Ian Birrell, have also called for a similar alternative. You might remember Birrell’s article proposing a party that “champions cosmopolitan values,” such as being pro-immigration, as well as “focusing on genuine political failures such as inadequate housing supply, poverty and tax avoidance.” Paul named it “the Metropolitan Party”.
Birrell’s imagined Metropolitan Party is, in some respects, Ghani’s realised Whig Party. At which point, I should probably point out that, according to one of this site’s polls, only eight per cent of Conservative Party members would switch allegiance – and their membership dues – to the metropolitans. The Whigs won’t yet challenge the Tories as they did in centuries past.
For his part, Ghani recognises that metropolitanism can be as off-putting to some voters as it is attractive to others. “I’m a Zone 2 Londoner in my early thirties. Party of me did worry: okay, maybe this is just going to be a party for Zone 2 Londoners.” But he’s since been consoled by the support his party has received from beyond the Tube’s concentric circles. “The typical email I get is from a final-year student at a provincial university.”
Could the Conservative Party ever receive similar emails? Not if the leadership continues to be dragged along by UKIP’s dance of death. But there is another way. Ghani himself points to several Tories who more or less exemplify his sort of politics: Nick Boles, Dominic Grieve, Jesse Norman, Rory Stewart. He doesn’t think the party is a totally lost cause just yet. It’s just that, for him, a Whiggish Conservative Party – or, for that matter, a Whiggish Liberal Party or a Whiggish Labour Party – is so distant from what we have now that it’s not worth waiting for. Better to just go full Whig.
Whigging out, as I believe it’s called, is currently a niche pursuit, although it still ought to trouble Conservative supporters of every persuasion. It’s not a question of how many votes the Tory candidate loses to Ghani in Vauxhall. It’s a question of what happens in the months and years after the election. For whether Cameron is removed from Number 10, or whether he remains at the head of a minority government, the Conservative Party is likely to experience a struggle for its soul. Was modernisation the problem? Or didn’t modernisation go far enough? Whatever answer the party arrives at, it could scare voters away.
Then there’s the prospect of an EU referendum two years later. One argument soon after another. Ghani believes that this will cap a “messy period” for the Tories, during which they labour to “work through their various contradictions”. As much as I’m eager to see the referendum take place, it’s hard to disagree. The scrap between Eurosceptics and Europhiles may illustrate a fact of Conservative politics that is often forgotten: the left of the party can be just as disgruntled as the right.
And all the while this new, old Whig Party is demanding people’s votes. Just a few hours after I returned from Camberwell to my current patch of South London, I happened to see a political poster in the window of a house on my street. “Fed up with today’s politics?” it enquired. “Vote Whig! The party with a past.” Perhaps it’s catching.