History

How the new Whig Oligarchy brought us the politics of Brexit

BY Joseph Rachman   /  23 October 2019

Stop me if this sounds familiar. A bien pensant elite has over the course of decades slowly cemented its grip on power. Members of said elite attend the same schools and universities, intermarry, and provide each other with jobs. Talented outsiders can break into this golden circle which assimilates them gracefully, but this is relatively rare and takes a generation to cement itself. However, this system is to be shaken by two vast crises that occur in a few years of each other sparking debates about the nature of the nation. Yet even the insurgent forces unleashed by these earthquakes draw leaders from the established elite. Am I talking about today or the latter days of the Whig oligarchy?

The peril of studying history is of course believing your areas of interest provide unique insight into current events. Nonetheless, I am convinced there are some uncanny resemblances between the politics of today and those of the later 18th century.

In the mid-18th century the Whig oligarchy reached its apogee. The Tory party had been driven into extinction. It would only revive in the 1790s/1800s, sharing little with its predecessor but the name. Comfortable in its grip on power Whiggism became less an organised political force than a series of accepted political and cultural practices. The personalised nature of politics reached new heights. Political leaders cultivated personal loyalties and dispensed patronage to form coteries of supporters. Dynasties formed as sons and relatives were inducted into the family business as reliable supporters.

Today the two-party system somewhat limits these excesses, but politics is personal in a way it has not been for generations. The Blair years were defined by Tony Blair’s slow estrangement from his former close friend Gordon Brown. The next Labour Party leadership contest was between the Miliband brothers, socialist aristocrats thanks to their left-wing intellectual father Ralph Miliband. The Labour Party seems positively infested with the scions of previous luminaries. In addition to the Milibands prominent examples include Hilary Benn, David Prescott, and Stephen Kinnock.


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