Yesterday I explained that I believe Labour to be a zombie party – already dead, and capable only of threatening unwary folks’ brains – and that scenarios where it is replaced by a neo-SDP or by Ukip seem implausible. Instead, I suggested, some time around 2030-2035 there will probably be a split in the hegemonic Conservative Party.
Whether I am right or wrong in all that – and such speculation is almost always wrong, especially in the detail – I think we can be more confident regarding what the essential nature will be of whatever two parties eventually emerge.
The reason is that the British electorate can be seen as almost always choosing governments of one of three natures. One type we can term “Paternalist”, which almost always arises when there are periods of utter dominance by one party or one national coalition. Paternalism can vary a bit with the character of the age, but its key feature is the notion that we’re all looked after in difficult times and everyone pulls together.
Whenever politics involves a healthier to-and-fro, the electorate chooses a government of one of the other two types. Its opposition is not always immediately of the other of these two types, but the opposition tends to fall into line fairly quickly in order to compete.
These two types are the two sides of the main three-and-a-half centuries long struggle in British politics: that between what I shall call the “Catholic Collectivists” and the “Whigs”. Whatever two parties we eventually end up with after Labour’s final expiration, over the long-term one will be mainly the party of Catholic Collectivism and the other mainly the party of Whiggism.
Catholic Collectivism was the major political doctrine enacted during the middle ages, and has evolved and found new expression in each new age – as all vibrant political philosophies must. It is a coherent, attractive and powerful foe. For much of the 20th Century its major expression was Corporativism, a programme explicitly inspired by two Catholic encyclicals – Rerum novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo anno (1931). Setting aside its brief 1945-50 Paternalist Socialist hegemony, Labour in government was always Catholic Collectivist, never actually Socialist or even truly Social Democrat. New Labour’s “Third Way” was Catholic Collectivism’s most recent and most explicit form. Conservative governments were sometimes heavily influenced by Catholic Collectivism as well.
Catholic Collectivism advocates close co-operation between employers and workers over working conditions, wages and prices, production and exchange, with the state as overseer. It aims to promote social justice and order by substituting collective considerations in the place of competition and the price mechanism. Catholic Collectivism has always promoted a pan-European hierachy, and still does. New Labour’s philosophy added a populist side, with a collectivist notion of democracy. For New Labour, democracy was something we do collectively. It is how we “rule ourselves”. Focus groups and opinion polls were how New Labour’s policies found their moral legitimacy. New Labour wanted to reflect the People’s Will, so that those who oppose it were automatically wrong — they opposed the People. (There is thus a certain delicious irony in the dilemma of Mandelson and Blair in responding to the EU referendum result. But let’s not go there…)
By contrast, the Whig is the champion of the individual and the underdog. Whiggism is the doctrine of that strand of British politics that favours the British Parliament over the Executive, the interests of small traders over concentrated wealth, the toleration of non-conformists and the promoting of ordered liberty against the arbitrary powers of the State.
Both these political philosophies are familiar to anyone involved in British political life. The appetite for one side of the other of this divide will not go away just because of Brexit or the death of the Labour Party. The fault-line runs very deep, and outlasts shorter-term, shallower political divisions.
We should therefore be confident that, whatever parties eventually emerge, one will be the party that, most of the time, reflects Catholic Collectivism; and the other will be the party that, most of the time, reflects Whiggism. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.