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Study Notes

Paternalism (Conservatism)

AQA, Edexcel

Last updated 19 Jun 2020

Paternalism is an approach to running the country in which members of the elite seek to govern in the best interests of the people.

Paternalism is therefore closely associated with the concept of noblesse oblige (i.e. people with status have a responsibility to others, or, with privilege comes responsibility). It is also worth noting that paternalism is linked with the predominant theoretical perspective within the history of the Conservative Party. Prominent examples include MacMillan, Heath, Disraeli and Churchill.

During the post-war consensus (1945-79), paternalism matched the cross-party Keynesian approach to economic management (i.e. that the government should intervene in the economy to ensure growth and employment). The economic policies adopted by both the Labour and Conservative Party were so similar that the term Butskellism was used (Butler was a prominent one-nation Tory whereas Gaitskell was a social democrat).

However, the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 marked an abrupt end to the paternalist approach. Further to the right of the political spectrum than previous leaders of the party, Thatcher was determined to overhaul the view that the ruling class knew best. Paternalism was inconsistent with her deep sense of mission, and her deliberately-created persona as a conviction politician.

Paternalism remains a key element of the Conservative Party. Under recent leaders, the Tories have sought to present themselves as a party that looks after everyone. The notion of a Big Society is a pertinent illustration of this theme. However, those further to the right were critical of the moderate stance taken by Cameron for adopting a liberal and metropolitan agenda contrary to the concerns of ordinary people. For instance, his personal support for gay marriage angered those of a more traditional view – many of whom consider themselves natural Tories.

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