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16 May 2016

“Wentworthism”: What the execution of an advisor to Charles I tells us about modern politics

The problem always begins and ends with the king.

By Stephen Bush

On a spring morning in May 1641, Thomas Wentworth was executed in front of the Tower of London. His crime? To serve faithfully in the court of Charles I in during the years 1629 to 1640, when the Stuart king ruled without parliament – until he blundered into a religious war with Scotland.

Wentworth carried the can for Charles’ failures, for the borderline- illegal way he went about raising money without parliamentary sanction, for his attempts to enforce a liturgical revolution on the Scottish Church. His death was supposed to bring an end to the feuding between king and parliament.

But of course, it didn’t. Because the friction wasn’t the fault of Wentworth, but of Charles I – and less than a year later, Parliament and the King were at war. Yes, Wentworth was an absolutist administrator who raised money in ways that might have been within the letter but were outside the spirit of the law. But he had been appointed by a king who thought the same way. Merely executing a luckless adviser wasn’t enough – to fix the problem, Parliament had to execute the king.

Even 375 years after his death, what you might call “Wentworthism” is alive and well in modern political discourse. For many years, Conservative backbenchers have blamed David Cameron’s less-than-full-throated commitment to untrammelled conservatism on a cast of advisers and civil servants: on Jeremy Heywood, Whitehall’s chief mandarin, or Ed Llewellyn, his chief of staff, or Craig Oliver, his director of communications.

Wentworthism extends well past backbenchers and into the commentariat – see this article by Bruce Anderson, writing for the centre-right website CapX, in which he blamed the Conservatives’ difficult period following the collapse of the budget and the Panama Papers on Oliver and Andrew Feldman, the Conservative party’s chair.

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It’s not just a right-wing problem either. During the era of Ed Miliband, sympathetic commentators would call for him to hire “an Alastair Campbell type”, to sack his supposedly under-performing staff, who were “incapable” of communicating in an ordinary fashion. Writing for the New Statesman, Ian Leslie warned that because Miliband tended to recruit in his own image – hiring wonkish blokes from Oxford – he ran the risk of falling foul of dangerous groupthink.

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Now, of course, this isn’t without merit. Cameron has fallen short of what his party’s right flank would like, particularly as many of his colleagues believe that Labour will be out of contention for another decade. Now he is free of coalition, Cameron has become more, not less, prone to drifting into avoidable crises, followed by messy U-Turns. And no-one would now dispute that Project Miliband fell victim to comforting groupthink before going down to a heavy defeat.

But Oliver, Llewellyn and Feldman haven’t kidnapped Samantha Cameron in order to force the Prime Minister to hire them – they remain in place because they reflect the type and style of politics Cameron prefers. Similarly, Miliband didn’t lose a bet, forcing him to hire identikit aides: those were the hires he wanted to make. 

 As Wentworth would have told Parliament if they’d been willing to listen, an adviser is just an adviser. The problem always begins and ends with the king.

This article is part of the New Statesman’s Monarchy Week. Find more here.