Rawls and the New Whigs 4-what is a Whig?

Our series on what has gone so wrong, and how it might be fixed

Mention the word “Whig” and it evokes a gentleman in eighteenth-century costume earnestly ingesting generous quantities of roast beef and claret, while pulling a profitable deal in business or politics. Nothing at all to do with a world of Artificial Intelligence, State surveillance cameras and genetic engineering. Or is there something else lurking below this easy caricature-something which might yet save us from our worst instincts?

A glance at Whig history [1] [2] reveals a confusing picture of factions, policies, personalities and plans that changed and metamorphosised over time, both in Britain and the United States of America. And it is true that by 1860 the party had disappeared into oblivion, felled by the new forces of class and identity politics which were surging in both countries. What exactly were they-and was it the same at the beginning as at the end?

As often happens, one of their best descriptors was their inverterate enemy, Samuel Johnson, who observed, rather petulantly that Whigs were “vile opponents” of the Tories, who “adhered to the Ancient Constitution of the State and the Supremacy of the Church of England” What did it mean then and what does that mean now? To adhere to anyhting ancient and hallowed is an act of Faith, not Reason. Seen in that light, the position of the Whigs became clear. They represented the voice of reason and of thought. From that the rest flows-trade, learning, justice. The Whigs were always Parliament men, suspicious of Kings and arbitrary authority. Thus the greatest achievement of Whig thought was the American Revolution and Constitution, based on Enlighteunment principles and not old customs. Deep down, is a awillingness to embrace the new, where that can rationally be shown to benefit.

Seen in this light, a shadow Whig Party has always existed. It sits in the centre of the political discourse. Its beacons are prosperity, enquiry and inclusion; for these are the true bases of an efficient economy. It therefore passes, or has passed by many names: Democrats, New Labour, Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland, and many others. Its instinct is always pragmatic and for discussion over decree. And it sees justice as the only stable basis of society ( St Augustine knew about this in the fifth century) It would of course be ridiculous to revive such a hoary name in election propaganda. But its time could come again. And we believe that one man who shows how it might be done was John Rawls, who will form the basis of the next blog in this series.


[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whig_Party_(United_States)

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/apr/14/labour-policies-philosophy-john-rawls-neoliberalism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s