Right, then – we come at last, kicking and screaming, to the Exclusion crisis, the 1670s, and the first really recognisable political parties – Whigs and Tories. Let me set the scene for you – are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.
In 1660 the Commonwealth collapses, everyone says oh bloody hell monarchy it’ll have to be then, Charles II comes back and has a lot of sex as far as I can see, and also does science. And religious repression. And arbitrary power. He has Protestantism but no children, and to be a good monarch at the time you really needed both, especially when his Brother and heir, James is – horror of horrors – a Catholic. Duh Duh DUUUH. In the 1670’s many were frantic at the way things were going – not just in religion but in the growing evidence that fun guy, bit of a card ooh you are naughty – but nice, king of bling he might be, but Charles II was also an absolutist just like Dad; and parliamentarians like Lord Shaftesbury could point to Restoration Scotland where the pendulum has swung back from radicalism so far it’s popped off its fulcrum and fallen in the neighbour’s garden.
A group emerges determined to fight the protestant cause, including non conformists I might add, and to fight absolutism in favour of parliamentary monarchy. During 1678-1681 they pushed Charles hard, and those confirmed royalists in the long lasting Cavalier parliament, putting Charles under enormous pressure. Ttheir focus was to exclude James from the succession to secure England for Protestantism and freedom, and for a while it looked as though they might succeed. But for every action there is a reaction my friend, and their attack on the sanctity of monarchy and its god-given hereditary succession horrified their opponents. Once again, religion was at the heart of the struggle – the royalists were no lovers of religious pluralism, whatever James’ religion; they hated the non conformist protestants, and were determined to enforce the uniformity of the Anglican church – and had already thrown hundreds of ministers out of their livings and the church with that aim in mind, for they shall purify the sons of Levi.
The argument was a little heated. And the ferocity of the argument lead to insults, as can happen on occasion in political barnies. From time to time. The royalists took as their favoured insult the radical Presbyterian cattle drovers of South West Scotland, who took their cattle to market in drives called Whiggamores; and so was born the name of Whig. In return, the Whigs chose Catholic Irish bandits, and thus the name Tory was born. To a degree, both parties took on these insults as a defiant badge of pride, which often happens. I was trying to think of others – Quakers was one; and the Barmy Army another; Suffragettes, Scouse, originally lobscouse, and sailors stew; and in the context of this series, Prime Minister – once hotly denied, as we’ll hear, by folks such as Walpole, for whom it suggested more a favourite like Buckingham or Alice Perrers. So, the names stuck
The Whigs and the Tories were not political parties in the way we understand them today; they had almost no organisation around them, no hierarchy, no formal roles; but they did have that crucial thing, a shared philosophy. And in a way, this two party division reflects a fundamental difference in basic attitudes towards change and politics. Interestingly, Charles II beat the Whigs off in 1681 to the end of his reign. How he did this is quite interesting, and really there are more parallels to his dad that words can wield the matter; if his Dad had possessed his son’s wit maybe all those people would not have to had died. In super summary, he built a party in parliament around the Tories, moved parliament to Oxford out of the furnace of London, and swung people behind the Crown and Anglican church. And there the Tories would remain for a couple of hundred years at least – behind crown and CofE I mean. Interesting though – now we think of the crown as being above politics, and so it had been in England until then – the Crown stood above and arbitrated between factions. When it got involved – there could be trouble – see index under War, Roses. But now the Crown’s and its ministers success in governing would depend on its ability to build a party in parliament. It’s another legacy of the Revolution – Charles I himself proved himself a remarkably effective party leader with people that agreed with him, but a bit late.
Where all this ends is the Glorious Revolution, a phrase I advise you to use carefully on the grounds that it really irritates some people; because it’s the much loved kernel of Whig history, which was shot down in flames by Herbert Butterfield in the 1930s but which lives yet, in the air, in the corners, in the wind and breeze, impossible to eradicate; the enduring belief that progress and improvement has been continual and will be continual. The Revolution was far from Glorious in Ireland, and failed to resolve long standing differences in Scotland.
Anyway – I’m English so yup, Glorious. James II became king, proved he had a tin ear as regards the desire of his people were concerned, and the Whigs rather scandalously engineered a foreign invasion by James’ Daughter’s Mary and her Hub, and found himself expelled. Sic transit Gloria Stuartii. RIP.
Now I don’t want this to be a reprise of the constitutional history thing, so I’m not going to go on about bills of rights, partial religious toleration and all that, tempting though that is, so let me just mention a couple of things, and then we can burst out onto the sunny uplands of the long 18th century, which is a hoot; a rather derided and troublesome hoot in the collective memory, but hoot nonetheless. The first thing is the Triennial Act. This had first been passed in 1641, then cancelled in 1664 as part of Charles’ campaign to hobble parliament. In 1694 it was re-established. Why is this so important? Because it meant that parliaments had to be held every three years, and that the king could no longer arbitrarily dissolve parliament and rule without it. Wild. This is a transformation of the political landscape and constitution, a knife through the liver of monarchical power, and the equivalent for parliament of eating three shredded wheats. By which I shamefully show myself to be a victim of TV advertising.
The Triennial Acts led to a period of English history called the Rage of Parties, between 1688 and 1715 ish. Everything went mad, 11 elections between in 25 years. Whig and Tory were never terms in the Scottish or Irish parliaments to the same extent, but just for this period they had some resonance; in Scotland a small party did also emerge called the squandrone volante, flying squad, which helped steer Union home in 1707 – and so here we are now in a British parliament, as it shall henceforth been known in this ‘ere podcast. In 1716, after all the chaos, the Septennial acts were passed; so now and for a long time, elections will come every seven years.
The next hundred and 50 years or so will be dominated by these two political groups, Whigs and Tories, so it might be good to understand what they mean. In political terms, the Tories in 1681 built themselves around three things – the primacy of royal power, if not absolute power; the divine succession of the Stuart kings; and the primacy of the Anglican church. The Glorious Revolution therefore was a bit of a blow, or in other words a defeat so absolute and complete that it tore the heart out of the Tories for maybe 80 or 90 years. Because support for the divine succession to James now meant treason under William and Mary, and Anne, and most certainly the Hanoverians. Whenever you went close to a Tory, there was a vague whiff – and what you are smelling, gentle listener, is the smell of Jacobitism. Now in Scotland, Jacobitism was a long and sustained movement which became a bit of a basket for a few protests – the return of the Stuart monarchy, resistance to the Union, highland Vs Lowland. In England it was far less so; I think there’s an expression somewhere, I may have got it wrong, that as far as Jacobites and the Stuarts were concerned, in England they dreamed of them, in Scotland they fought for them, and in Ireland they died for them. I may have misquoted.
Then along came the Hanoverian succession, and the first two Hanoverians of course would have nothing whatsoever to do with anyone professing to be a Tory; and so the lifeblood of patronage and political reward was completely withdrawn. Nor could Tories talk about the divine succession any more, so what did they stand for? They held on fast to royalism and Anglicanism. But gradually, also came to represent something slightly different; Country and Gentry as opposed to the grand Aristocratic Whig oligarchy, a deep suspicion of growing state power and of the centre – country against the new court as it were. And that relationship between the Country squire and the Tories will last deep into the 19th century. There’s a clever word historians use – because they are a clever lot, there’s no denying that. Squireson – the combination in the country of squire and parson, ruling rural parishes with an iron hand. If you have listened to my Victorian Rural Life series, there they are, Ruck Keene and Napier, alive and well and living in rural Oxfordshire. One wag famously described the 18th and 19th Anglican church as ‘The Tory party at Prayer’ and they knew what they were talking about.
The Whigs will rule most of the 18th century. They will exercise almost complete control patronage, so if you want to get on, best to be a Whig; and in their name we’ll see the first Prime Minister, which we’ll get to. They would remain broadly committed to the principles of anti Catholicism, protestant toleration and non conformism, and most particularly constitutional monarchy & parliament. But they also become associated with some of the more modern and dare I say aggressive aspects of the 18th century – big fans of trade, consumerism, not averse to fighting a war or two, and it has to be said the 18th century was to be no slouch in the war department – best foot forward and all that, let’s hear it for the 18th century. Whoop.
The Tories as a political group would almost disappear. And for most political issues you could hardly put a cigarette paper between Whig and Tory in terms in specific policy – we are not talking communists and Thatcherite here, though the Tories would be more little England than the Whig. By that I mean Samuel Johnson and J B Priestley’s little England – what is it about all this imperialism, we’ve not colonised the West Midlands properly yet. Where they did favour expansion, their preference was for blue water rather than getting messed up with continental wars. However, above the specifics, there’s a fundamental difference between the two, which as I said earlier is surely a timeless thing. In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson, who was a dyed in the wool Tory+ thought that
A wise Tory and a wise whig will agree
And summed up the difference between them as this:
A Tory does not wish to give more power to the Government, but that Government should have more reverence
Alexander Pope was more pithy; as a Tory he thought
Whatever is – is right
The a pretty brutal philosophy. A hundred years later Thomas Babbington Macauley did a better job I think when he compared Whig and Tory as each essential to the ‘welfare of nations’. Babbers like grand phrases like Welfare of Nations. We’ve grown cautious of such highfalutin talk. Anyway, Whig and Tory:
One is, in a special manner, the guardian of liberty, and the other of order. One is the moving power, the other the steadying power of the state. One is the sail without which society would make no progress; the other the ballast, without which there would be no safety in a tempest
And to put it yet a third way Whigs feared encroachments on liberty from the king; Tories feared what they charmingly described as the ‘encroaching and overbearing licence of the people’. In these there is some continuity with the English Revolution. The Whigs were the children of Pym and Cromwell – though not of Lilburne and Rainsborough it must be said, they were not democrats. While the Tories were the children of Charles the Martyr, Wentworth and Laud. Whigs would be the parent to classical Liberalism, and it’s important to be a bit specific about what that means – focussed on the liberties of the individual from repression. Whigs are not the parents to the state intervention of new liberalism and socialism – that would be a grave mistake to make. The idea of a public pension scheme would have them choking on their pie in Mrs Miggins coffee shop, and forced to retire to the Kit Kat club immediately with the Vapours. Sink me.
Having said all of that – the identification of individuals as Whig and Tory went much deeper culturally than the difference politically; it really mattered. Identifying who was who became a bit of an obsession – and is a bit of a problem for historians of parliament as we’ll hear. But lists survive from the times of clergymen, naval officers and stockholders in public funds with marks against them for Whig or Tory. People who couldn’t be categorised were weirdoes, objects of curiosity and suspicion. Whig families were proudly Whig dynasties, handed down from parent to child through the generations. So while it seems to me obvious to think of progressives, lefties and so on as anti establishment, anti aristocratic there is absolutely no correlation at all here between that sort of thing and Whigs, really there isn’t. Although the Whigs drew support from wealthy merchants, dissenters and the new industrialists, Whig families were often very, very grand indeed, and Whiggism was as much a question of inheritance as political ideology. Montagu, Russell, Cavendish; earls and barons. They played hard as well as ruling political power. The Kit Kat club of course is famous, habituated by not only aristocratic heavy weights like the Duke of Somerset, Duke of Grafton, Duke of Newcastle – but intellectuals of the day like John Locke. They could be disreputable – we are not talking dedicated social reformers here, however associated they were with change – we are talking oligarchs. By ‘eck it must have been fun.
After the glorious revolution during the reigns of William and Mary and Anne, most of the cards were still held by the monarch; and all of those monarchs tried to switch things around, between Whig ad Tory, or for a while under Anne, just to ignore the whole party thing and do what monarchs had always done and just appoint the ministers they liked. But Anne’s failure to pull this off is an indication of the growing importance of party allegiance in politics – and of the growing importance of the House of Commons as opposed to the Lords. It was becoming essential to appoint ministers that could command a majority in parliament. James I would never even have considered that a question worth asking.
Why is that then? Well, I’m glad you asked that. It’s all about money folks, so sorry. I read a very good book by Linda Colley – there’s a bibliography website page for the series – where she makes the point that the 18th century search for European and World dominance was built on ability to invest in both army and naval resources. Now for most of the time to now, in doing the History of England, this has never really been an issue – since Angevin days, England and Scotland have just been bit part players in European histoiry, Valois and Hapsburg, that’s where the action is, that’s where to clever money goes. Now – with agricultural productivity, international trade, slave trade, and most importantly – coal and a growing population, would you adam and eve it – Britain was a player. Not top dog yet but given its geographical position, perfectly placed for an international empire. And who controlled the purse strings? Why parliament of course. At the start of the English revolution the government drew 40% of its income from parliament. By 1700, it was 90%. Parliament was where it was at.
Still the monarchs held most of the cards; they appointed ministers, ministers didn’t have to even speak to each other, there’s nothing like a cabinet. But the accession of the Hanoverians wrought a fundamental change.
George I reigned from 1714 to 1727; George II from 1727 to 1760. George I preferred Hanover to Britain – his life was easier there politically; he hardly spoke English. Both of them had to rely very heavily on their ministers. At which point please take a bow for a scion of a gentry family of deepest Norfolk – and there is nowhere deeper – Robert Walpole.
Walpole was a magnificent parliamentary speaker, a man of charm and charisma – and massive self belief and ambition, and not a man to worry too much about the niceties of the anti corruption lobby. It’s tricky to exactly assign dates to his dominance; Walpole rose to power through parliament, and in alliance with other ministers – in this case particularly with Turnip Townshend, that being another Norfolk man, Viscount Townshend, a man with a pash for farming and crop rotation. It is afterall, a fascinating topic. Walpole referred to the pair of them as ‘the Firm’, which didn’t stop him from ditching Townshend in 1730. There are few permanent friendships in politics.
I might take a bit of a shimmy if you don’t mind too much, to talk about corruption in parliament generally. The 18th century has a bad reputation it has to be said, and with some justice; and the modern suspicion, almost always exaggerated in my humble, that MPs have their snouts in the trough of state lives and breathes of course to this day. But let me tell you, we might moan about it these days, but today’s MPs are babes in the game compared to the 18th century. In 1995 therefore we instituted a formal Commons Committee of Standards and Privileges, and as a way of making the unspoken rules of conduct more visible and accountable. So you might be amused and interested to know that from the early 17th century there has been a Committee of Privileges and Elections, formed at the start of each session. Having said that, its main role was to make sure the privileges of MPs and Lords were not infringed nu the monarchy so…not really the same. Still, there was a Committee of Secrecy, which looked at wrongdoings of parliament’s members, and protection from civil law suits was withdrawn from MPs in 1770, so you know – there were standards, though I really doubt we’d see them as such today.
The Act of Succession, where parliament established a right to determine the right to succeed to the throne rather than, you know, God, surely kicked any opportunity for absolutist rule in Britain into the long grass, if such an ambition had not already vanished. The Stuarts and the Jacobites would make a come back attempt a few times but never had much support in England, though in 1745 they got to Derby. Why on earth anyone would want to go further than Derby is beyond me – after all, who leaves paradise? None the less, having seen Derby they decided to get back to the Highlands. Inexplicable.
In addition to this change in the balance of parliamentary-royal power, Walpole now had to deal with a couple of Newbies as kings. It is easy to over estimate the level of disengagement of the Georges – they were usually in the UK; but back home in Hanover they were Absolutist, Britain was so much more complicated – and frankly once they’d found Walpole it was a blessed release – they could put day to day stuff into his capable if slightly grubby hands, and concentrate on what really interested them – continental power politics. Walpole’s ability to control parliament was critical; he managed affairs closely and cleverly as Leader of the House, a role that would remain with the office of PM for some time, until Clem Atlee I think, don’t quote me. So note bene – power now depends on control of parliament.
Politically what Walpole achieved was to appropriate two critical sources of royal power – patronage and ministers. So, Ministers were still appointed by the king and owed their loyalty directly to the king. Now this is a major problem if you aspire to the title of PM – if one of the ministers, who after all control critical affairs of state, disagrees with a PM today, the PM simply fires their bottom. In those days if such a thing happened, the minister could loftily say that look I asked a bloke bigger n’ you, so you’ll just have to put up with it, pal. Pass the port would you? Such was Walpole’s value to the king that in such a case, the king would defer to Walpole; and so xe facto, the ministers now had to please the King’s chief minister, or lose their jobs. In addition, we see the beginnings of a cabinet; Walpole took a few of his most important ministers into a sort of inner closet, where they could feel trusted and in control – and Walpole could control the agenda and messages of their discussions.
The other thing was control of patronage. It’s impossible to over estimate the importance of this – assigning jobs and sinecures to potential supporters, not just major jobs; it is all a complete gravy train. It is the way the world was; but people still hated it, or at least they hated it when they didn’t get theirs because those in power didn’t need them. Walpole dominated GI and II, and they deferred to him, so much so that he was able to distribute jobs freely, and this becomes a habit, custom and practice. It’s still not a permanent fixture or constitutional right by Walpole’s fall from Grace in 1742, but we have travelled a long way down the track of royal control. By later in George III’s reign it has become embedded. The loss of patronage was absolutely critical to the loss of the monarch’s ability to influence and control parliament. It used to be that the monarch could always rely on a significant group of office holders, job holders, and aspiring ambitious men within parliament. Under George III – those folks went to the PM. The group of people in parliament who looked directly to the monarch shrinks, along with their potential to distribute rewards and gather adherents. They become known as the King’s Friends, and to an extent they are like a political party with policy set by the monarch; but they become a smaller and smaller and threadbare group. Because the bread is no longer buttered royal side.
Having the confidence and trust of the king though remains almost as essential to the PM’s power as it would have done to a favourite like, say, the Duke of Buckingham. Walpole therefore had a tricky moment in 1727, when George I croaked. George the second and his Dad had not had the ideal father son relationship really, and the new flavour of George was very keen indeed to have a man called Spencer Compton as his chief minister. Now there are a couple of things to say about our Spencer Compton. Someone described him as
‘a great lover of private debauchery who was thought to have fathered many children’
Which doesn’t sound good; though in the interests of historical balance I should probably tell you that the someone saying that was Horace Walpole, Robert’s son, so probably not an unbiased observer. However, Lord Rosebury would describe him as
The favourite nonentity of George II
And it was noted that anyone who worked under the lad never wanted to work for him again. So not a whole lotta love out there for Spencer Compton, but – George II would have him. Walpole deployed three things that managed to turn him round. First of all – a good honest bribe – Walpole promised to get parliament to increase the Civil List to £100,00 a year; the Civil List is mechanism by which the royal family received public money, which is in itself a sign of how far monarchy has fallen. Secondly – the skills of a courtier were still important; Walpole had a personal relationship, with Mrs George II, Queen Caroline. The helped Walpole hold on to office – Walpole is the man by the way who move into No 10 Downing Street, and the Queen was a regular visitor there.
But most importantly, another bridge was crossed – Spencer Compton was unable to command a majority in parliament. This was now a requirement and it was pointless for George to make him PM – because he couldn’t get things done. Monarchs kick against this; Spencer will get his go in 1742 – and last but one year. George didn’t quite get it and tried again; in 1746 he tried to appoint Lord Bath to run the government; Bath tried really, really hard, I mean really hard. He wanted it, wanted it bad. But he couldn’t finds enough people even to form a government. So hard did he try, that a wag at the time remarked that
it was not safe to walk the streets at night for fear of being pressed to become a cabinet counsellor’
He had to hand the seals of the First Lord back to George as did Waldegrave the following year. Monarchs still hadn’t quite got the message. You’ll no have to clear the runway for a joke from my history teacher at school, Steve Smith– although you may have heard it. GIII was determined to set back the clock and simply appoint his minister with no reference t parliament. And despite all objections, wanted to get his pal John Stuart the earl of Bute, into the position of PM. To do this he had to get rid of the incumbent Newcastle. This wasn’t itself a problem, since Newcastle was described as
A secretary of state without intelligence, a Duke without money, a man of infinite intrigue without secrecy of policy, and a minister despised and hated by his master, by all parties and ministers
But to get rid of Newcastle they had also to get rid of his supporter, the Great Commoner, Pitt the Elder, Chatham. A very popular hero, credited with winning the Seven Years war. Anyway that was achieved, and The Earl of Bute made PM which according to Steve Smith was the political equivalent of – punchline coming – ‘putting the Bute in’.
look me in the eye and tell me that’s not a good gag. Anyway Bute lasted less than a year. And the game was ended – the PM would be the person chosen by parliament, not the monarch. And by the end of the 18th century, that applied to Ministers also – the PM made the choice, not the monarch.
Walpole so dominated the house and government that his enemies sneeringly described the government as the Robinocracy. To see a physical representation of how it worked, I urge you to get yourself out to deepest Norfolk. Which is worth doing anyway, but in this case to see Robin’s pad, Houghton Hall which he had built after becoming PM. The hall is laid out on strictly symmetrical rules, in a style already becoming antiquated by then, but it was built around the requirements of power. On the 1st floor is a large Chamber where all and sundry could meet – his tenants maybe, being wined and dined. Off that was a Private Chamber – dining for favoured guess, not hoi Polloi. It was part of a corridor of power – leading to a chamber where petitioners would gather and Walpole hold court, a further chamber where only a favoured few would be invited, and then, to holy of holies, his personal closet – only for the very closest. You got as far down the corridor as Walpole allowed you. On the opposite side, there was the exact same corridor of power bossed by his wife. It’s a magnificent way to see how power worked.
As minor gentry, Walpole would never have expected to own such a place; that he did speaks to the continuing corruption in the 18th century world; there were few PM’s for whom a few quid wouldn’t somehow find their pocket – although fair dos, often above board, gifts from a satisfied monarch. The few who did not play the system in this way were rare and notable; Henry Pelham was such a one, an unusually long serving PM for 18th century standards, serving 1743-1754. He was a scrupulous man as Horace Walpole slyly suggested when he wrote that
‘He lived without abusing his office and died poor’
I cannot relate all the political events of the 18th century, nor I think would you want me to, but there are a few more general points. First is the title of PM. This was not a thing as far as a description was of a constitutional office was concerned – there was no such job, no job description. I mean people used the term, but if you were in the role you had to deny it with horror – it stood the danger of tearing away the fiction that it was the monarch who ran things. Walpole therefore said very defiantly – chin probably wobbling with outrage as he said it –
I unequivocally deny that I am sole and prime minister
Yah. Right. Pitt the Elder would agree with him –
‘an abomination in a free country’
By the time of his son, Pitt the Younger, the idea of a first minister was gaining ground, and Pitt would advocate it; but it took until 1835 for the term to be used formally, and the 1850s for it to become standard. You might know that officially Prime Ministers are appointed as the First Lord of the Treasury, ever since Robin. It’s thought this is because controlling finances is the most obvious route to power, although the First Lord quickly became a meaningless title; but up to and including Pitt the Younger and 1800, Prime Ministers have often also been Chancellors of the Exchequer, rather than having a separate Finance minister. He who pays the piper, plays the tune, as my father was wont to remind me. Though I suppose that should be chooses the tune I guess, because Dad didn’t play the pipes. He did smoke one though. Anyway, how did you get me onto this?
The point about PMs though, whatever you called them, is that by the end of the 18th century, and in fact before, PMs had autonomy to make decisions, with reference to the monarch, though the monarch might still have a veto, but autonomy of patronage and tactics, a lot of strategy too. They appointed ministers not the monarch; and crucially the cabinet of ministers has emerged, and a sense of that group of ministers forming a collective government with responsibility not to the monarch, but to each other, to the PM and accountable to parliament. So when Lord North lost his job in 1781, as the United States went their own way, it was notable because the whole cabinet resigned as well – the first time that has happened. It was the PM now, not the monarch, who was seen to represent the nation in politics and diplomacy.
Um. Um um, what else to say about the 18th century pre Pitt, before we get into parties and electioneering? Nothing really – let’s get into those pasties. No, I suppose one more thing; we’ve not talked much about Lords and Commons. By and large, the lords is still where the centre of power resides, given how important society is to the 18th century oligarchy. But it’s not that important – because Lords and Commons try very hard to work in partnership, and ties between the personnel in both were very close, and so they normally achieve it. Things are changing – the Commons is becoming more and more important. But the showdown of 1832 is a long way away, still less that of 1911. Though having said that the precedence of the monarch appointing peers simply for political reasons to shore up a government and get a bill through parliament was set in 1711 by Queen Anne, so that Robert Harley could bring home the peace of Utrecht in 1713. It’s a long time before it was threatened again, but that’s the thing about constitutional historians – they have memories like elephants.
You might think that after the Rage of Parties and appearance of Whig and Tories that parties would be away and running now. If so – very much not. The composition of Parliaments and the loyalties of MPs are notoriously difficult to read – historians have poured over voting patterns and all that. Really, groups such as there were, might coalesce around people and family networks, but mainly around government or in opposition to it; there is little party organisation. But a very large number of members were simply non aligned – they came to parliament and voted on the issues as they saw each one, which sounds like an ideal situation – unless you are trying to run a government. Fortunately, in the world driven by patronage, it was the government that controlled the purse strings. So when it comes to elections we are used to the idea that the government goes to the polls, faces the electorate and wins or loses. That is almost never the case in the 18th century. When the 7 years are up, there’s an election, and the government wins. Because they control the money. Personnel changes, ideas therefore change a bit, but this is an elective oligarchy, not a democracy.
I picked one year at random then to show you how this might shake down – these could vary lots depending on the year you pick, This is 1788 with Pitt the Younger firmly ensconced in office. Ready for some stats? Here are the figures:
- The Crown and its government: 186
- Pitt Younger personally: 52
- Other MPs supporting Govt: 43
- Then Independents, non aligned: 108
- CJ Fox: 138, Lord North 17 and Others 14.
So, total supporting the government, 281, actively opposing 152, floaters 122. Managing that would be a nightmare; all done of a personal basis rather than through a party machine. Having said that, there are whips. They don’t get really moving til the 19th century, and are cooking on gas after 1868, but the first whips, whose job of course it is to corral people to vote the right way – or in the 18th century idiom, bother to get out of the coffee shop or Pie club and turn up at all. It is entirely appropriate, given the social background of the MPs, that the word ‘Whip’ comes from a hunting terminology of the Whipper In of the hounds. I suggest a comparison of the hunt and 18th century parliament would be a rich vein. Outside of whips there is little party organisation going on, though there’s a National Whig Club formed in 1784. But of local party organisation is there none; each candidate would go to the expense of employing agents & such like, taking out adverts if required.
There is however a vibrant public sphere now, a constant and very well informed debate at many levels of British society about politics and world events. Reports and proceeding of parliament were printed and available from the 1690s – although they didn’t include debates verbatim; we have to wait for William Cobbett’s Parliamentary register in 1802 to get detail of debate and then the official complete record with Hansard from 1812 when he took over Cobbett’s work. But there are a wide variety of newsprint available and avidly read all over the country, and of course the famous coffeehouse culture. You can debate when a public sphere arrives in Britain – late Elizabethan age, or the English Revolution – but in the 18th century it is here, no question – well informed, open and almost uncensored political debate. Not always rational of course. But then hey, that’s politics, feelings as they say in HR departments, feelings are facts.
Right, I think we should finish this episode with the seismic event that rocked Europe, the French Revolution. I will, of course, approach it from a supremely parochial view – its impact on British politics. You would expect no less of me. Clearly this is one of the great stories of world history, and one on which it would be worth chewing considerably more than one cud; a 10 cud subject probably. But I should give you a brief catalogue of the main events. The first period, 1789 to 1792 saw a period of great chaos but also a flood of ideas – including Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the 1791 constitution. The came the execution of the King and queen, the republic, various wars as the crowned heads of Europe sought to rub out this alarming display of independence, and the Terror. Sink me to the devil. Then the rise of Napoleon and in 1804 c’etait Vive L’Empereur! Until we arrive at Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated you won the war, and we promised to love him for evermore. Or was that ABBA?
Well, the revolution led to all kinds of chaos and political debate. Now debate about political reform was not unknown to Britain; in the 1760s in particular there had been all kind of radical ideas floating about and the extraordinarily populist career of John Wilkes, and the cry of ‘Wilkes and Liberty!’ from a rash of what were called Corresponding Societies, and a rage of objection to the war in America, which they saw as trying to crush American liberties. Thomas Paine took the same view, and of course plied his trade in the Excise house, and lived in Lewes which looks today like the least revolutionary place you could imagine – except on November 5th every year when it is…well, wild. Then it goes back to wearing green wellies. Paine of course emigrated to America in 1774, but wrote the Rights of Man while in England in 1791. Anyway, demand for political change was in the air, and particularly in Ireland, which must now be a constant part in our story.
Into this walked a couple of real characters – one of those superb political rivalries you get from time to time – Fox and Pitt, Gladstone and Disraeli, Cannon and Ball. Anyway, Charles James Fox would be a force for radicalism that would give us that hardy perennial of party politics, the split. When he joined parliament in 1768 there were no signs Fox would be anything radical at all, and he came with a reputation with being from and connected with the highest aristocracy in the land. I came across a lovely quote, completely and utterly irrelevant to his politics maybe, but really captures something of the flavour of 18th century politics. It’s about him starting at Eton at the start of a new year, when he arrived:
“attired in red-heeled shoes and Paris cut-velvet, adorned with a pigeon-wing hair style tinted with blue powder, and a newly acquired French accent”
How delightful. He was flogged for his pains of course. Fox was a pudgy dliletante and an incorrigible and determined womaniser. But he became much more radical over time, hotly opposed the American war seeing it again as repression, and the use of tax as a punishment; he built a radical wing in the Whigs, and achieved a measure of reform in Ireland – making the Irish parliament sovereign for the first time since Poyning’s law. He was energised as many were by the French revolution
How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world! and how much the best!
William Pitt the Younger, his great adversary, arrived in parliament in a way that reminds us that royal power was still significant. He was George III’s man, appointed at the age of 24 without a command of parliament; 3 years later his competence and ability had turned that around with a massive election victory. He described himself as a Whig, a proponent of parliamentary reform, and an enthusiastic supporter of Wilberforce and abolition of what he described as ‘this abominable traffic’.
The curse of mankind…the greatest stigma on our national character which ever yet existed’
And yet Pitt goes down in history as a Tory. Fox by contrast, stayed radical, and has a right to be considered the father of the Liberal party that will emerge in the following century.
The reason Pitt withdrew to conservatism, little c, was the French Revolution. The battle lines were drawn between those, like Mary Wollenstonecraft who believed in natural rights, and those like Edmund Burke who did not – and believed instead in an organic constitution created custom, tradition and law. Given the virulence of the debate and the wide involvement of the public in the Corresponding Societies, it is not inevitable that Britain would choose the path that it did.
The growing violence of the revolution however swung the dial; although the likes of Fox kept defending the revolution and evangelising its principle, the fear of violence and mayhem, including the rise of the United Irishmen and Wolfe Tone’s revolution in Ireland, drew Pitt into supporting continental opponents of France, and to back away from stirring the pot with parliamentary reform. And so we are launched into decades of war. Edmund Burkes Reflections on the Revolution in France became the foundational text for a new Toryism, although Burke himself, like Pitt, saw himself as a reformer, a Whig – he too had opposed the repression of the American revolution. But Burke utterly rejected the philosophical basis of the French Revolution; there were no natural rights; governments drew their authority from custom, practice and experience; the constitution flowed not from some confected list of written rules, it had evolved over centuries and reflected the national spirit, a far more fundamental moving force than a bunch of intellectuals busking it in some room somewhere. He foresaw and hated the violence, and called it a ‘wild and savage insurrection’ that ‘prowled our streets in the name of reform’.
So, while Pitt would not have used the phrase, the combination of fear, a genuine threat, saw the arrival of a New Toryism – a party of order, which placed social stability, the preservation of the constitution and defence of property above individual liberty or political and religious reform. Pitt managed the wars and administration superbly and with great confidence, he absolutely may not be the top British Prime Minster, but in the words of Brian Clough, he is in a league of one. And Britain unified around Church, king, loyalism and patriotic Britishness. And it has to be said that British patriotism of the likes of Wilkes, and Hogarth takes the most rabid 21st century nationalist, and multiplies it by 2 million. It really is something to see.
I say unifying, but in some respects it was disunifying. Pitt’s response to Wolfe Tone’s rebellion was to conclude that a more conciliatory approach could have headed it off; and that an Irish parliament dominated by the Protestant Ascendency would never introduce fundamental reform. The lunatics were running the asylum. So he effectively bribed the ascendency in Ireland to support an Act of Union, after which Irish reform would be subject to a much wider constituency and hopefully make more progress.
Now I quite like Farmer George it has to be said, though I know his reputation is not high especially outside these shores; there are many attractive and progressive aspects to his character. But he perpetrates a couple of absolute howlers. One of these was Catholic Emancipation; for Pitt this was a crucial aspect of making the 1801 Act of Union work; how could it engage and win the acceptance of the mass of the population that were Catholic? It was a disastrous mistake, and Pitt had all but promised it. George at the last moment refused to approve it, swearing that it was against his coronation oath. Pitt resigned, although he’d be lured back in 1804, to be PM until he died in 1806, and Catholic Emancipation would have to wait another 30 years. Idiocy.
When Pitt died in 1806, it came a shock; he was still only 47 and people expected him to be around for ages, and he had been a leviathan, a dominating and stabilising war leader and talented administrator; his great rival Fox was heard to mutter that there was
‘something missing in the world—a chasm or blank that cannot be supplied’
Sounds a bit like John McEnroe with Borg resigned. Well, a little. In retrospect the shock at Pitt’s death was maybe not that surprising; running the country I would think reasonably stressful, and he got through by drinking vast quantities of port. He never liked speeches and so drank a complete bottle before he went down to make them; this was the rule of the day it has to be said. A biographer wrote of another administration that
‘the only distinguishing feature of his government was their collective capacity for drink’
Pitt also had an impact on politics and parties. Despite being originally George’s placeman, that was a swansong of royal power; a few years later the pupil had eclipsed the master forcing him to dismiss Lord Thurlow, one of his ministers. Ministers no longer felt a sense of being autonomous – they were part of a collective, and knew they could be fired by the PM and looked to him for guidance, not the king. Pitt, unlike his Dad, publicly advocated the role of Prime Minister; he was the first that really had a complete overview of all departments.
Pitt was a great leader. Wilberforce wrote warmly of him as having a
clear and comprehensive view of the most complicated subject in all its relations
For a fairness of mind above faction, and
‘for willingness to give a fair hearing to all that could be urged against his own opinions’
He concluded that
for personal purity, disinterestedness, integrity, and love of his country, I have never known his equal.
Not a bad epitaph. Pitt had re-invented Toryism around a new set of principles – social stability and order, to add to Anglicanism support for the Crown. But he never for a moment considered himself part of political party. God forbid what a thoroughly un-British thought. He inspired later politicians across the political spectrum – including the High Liberal William Gladstone, and also a strand of conservatism that Disraeli would brand One Nation Toryism, and Thatcher would disparage as the ‘Wets’. And indeed, once he was gone, his followers didn’t call themselves Torys – they called themselves Pittites for around for a decade or so. Good job he wasn’t called William Hitt, or they’d be all driving around the holy land in chariots sporting curled and oiled beards and that would never do for the Duke of Portland. However, despite all that, Toryism, having fought nothing but rearguard actions for most of the 18th century, was back in town.