Party Labels in Mid-Eighteenth Century England


Until the late 1950s the Whig interpretation of English history in the eighteenth century prevailed. This was successfully challenged by Lewis Namier, who proposed, based on an analysis of the voting records of MPs from 1760 intake following the accession to the throne of George lll, that the accepted Whig/Tory division of politics did not hold. He believed that the political life of the period could be explained without these party labels, and that it was more accurate to characterise division in terms of the court versus country.An attempt was then made to use the same methodology to determine whether the same held for early eighteenth century politics. To namier’s chargrin this proved that at the end of Queen Anne’s reign in 1714 voting in parliament was certainly based on party interest, and that Toryism and whiggism were distinct and opposed political philosophies. Clearly, something momentous had occurred between 1714 and 1760 to apparently wipe out party ideology. The Namierite explanation is that the end of the Stuart dynasty on the death of Queen Anne and the beginning of the Hanoverian with the accession of George o radically altered the political climate.

The accession of George I to the throne in 1715 was not universally popular. He was German spoke little English and was only accepted because he promised to maintain the Anglican religion. Furthermore, for those Tory members to government under Anne, he was nemesis , for his enthronement finally broke the hereditary principle central to Troy philosophy, confirming the right of parliament to depose or select a monarch. Moreover, he was aware that leading Tories had been in constant communication with the Stuart court in exile, hoping to return the banished King James ll. As a result, all Tories were expelled from government, some being forced to escape to France to avoid execution for treason.

The failure of the subsequent Jacobite rebellion of 1715, where certain Tory magnates tried to replace George with his cousin James, a Stuart, albeit a catholic, was used by the Whig administration to identify the world ‘Troy’ with reason. This was compounded by the Septennial Act of 1716, limited election to once every seven years, which further entrenched the Whig’s power base at the heart of government focused around the crown. With the eradication of one of the fundamental tenets of their philosophy, alongside the systematic replacement of all Tory positions by Whig counterparts, Tory opposite was effectively annihilated. There was however, a grouping of Whigs in parliament who were not part of the government.

The MPs now generally referred to as the ‘Independent Whigs’ inherently distrusted the power of the administration, dominated as it was by those called ‘Court Whigs’. The Independent Whig was almost invariably a country gentleman, and thus resisted the growth in power of those whose wealth was being made on the embryonic stick market. For them the permanency of land meant patriotism, a direct interest in one’s nation, whilst shares easily transferable, could not be trusted. They saw their role as a check on the administration, a permanent guard against political corruption, the last line of defense of the mixed constitution of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. The reaction against the growing mercantile class was shared by the Tories, also generally landed country gentlemen. It is thus Namier’s contention. And that of those who follow his work, that by the 1730s the Tories and the independent Whigs had fused to form a country opposite to the court administration, thus explaining why voting records in 1760 do not follow standard party lines.

If must be recognized that this view is not universally espoused. Revisionist historians such as Linda Colley dispute that the Tory party was destroyed during this period and assert the continuation of the Tories as a discrete and persistent group in opposition, allied to the Independent Whigs but separate. Colley’s thesis is persuasive as it is clear that some, at least, regarded themselves as Tories rather than Whigs. She is not so successful in proving the persistence either of beyond family connection or of ideology, beyond tradition. Furthermore, while the terms ‘Troy’ and ‘Whig’ were used frequently in the political press, it was a device of the administration rather than the opposite. As Harris notes in his analysis of the ‘patriot’ press of the 1740s, there is hardly any discernible difference between Troy and Whig opposite pamphlets, both preferring to describe themselves as the ‘country interest’, and attacking ‘the court’.

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