“Wrest the power of government, if you can, out of the hands that employed it weakly and wickedly.” If that sounds an attractive manifesto for a new political party, one that intends to govern for the many not the few – for the country as a whole rather than for and by a metropolitan elite – take note: this is how the two-party system began, and it contained a fundamental flaw. It assumed that the new party would retain its virtue on achieving power.
The words are Henry St John’s (Viscount Bolingbroke), from his Letter on the Spirit of Patriotism written in 1736 after a turbulent political career in early Georgian England. The sentiment echoed that of the Roundheads, but it only became an issue of ‘party’ towards the end of the Restoration period. In January 1679, King Charles II dissolved the “Cavalier Parliament”, so-called because he had first summoned it in 1661 when it had been overwhelmingly Royalist. Since then it had become troublesome.
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A loose grouping of members of both houses – known as the ‘Country party’ – had increasingly opposed the Court’s influence in Parliament, particularly its bribes and patronage, as well as the King’s pro-Catholic foreign policy (or, at least, pro-French). The word Country signified, rather high-mindedly, the interests of the country as a whole rather than of the Court. The word “party” was used in the sense of a grouping on one side of a dispute, rather than in its modern sense of a structured political party.
The new parliament of 1679 consisted of many more of the Country persuasion than before, and began to divide further on religious lines. Those of the Country Party who fought most vigorously against the Court Party’s jobbery and expensive foreign policy also strongly opposed the Established (Anglican) Church’s persecution of Protestant non-conformists.
Even more controversially, with Charles having no legitimate heir, they opposed the presumptive succession of the King’s Catholic brother, James. As a result the party was dubbed “Whiggamore”1 – shortened to “Whig” – a term of abuse originating in the Scots Lowlands. The Court party, meanwhile, through their support of James’s claim to the throne (and the supremacy of the Anglican church) were dubbed “Tories”, a term of abuse originating in Ireland.2
The “Tories” temporarily prevailed, and the Catholic James succeeded to the throne in 1685, but just three short years later he was deposed by the Whigs. Fiercely Protestant William of Orange and his Anglican wife, James’s daughter Mary, were proclaimed joint monarchs in his place – the episode that came to be known as the “Glorious Revolution”. The Whig tendency thus came to be the power in the land.
William’s foreign policy – war with France and several other Catholic polities, which continued with the rein of Queen Anne – soon proved even more expensive than had Charles’s. The former anti-Establishment party had become the new Establishment.
The political tables were therefore turned once again with a new Country Party emerging as a form of opposition, this time consisting mainly of Tories, but also disaffected Whigs. Its manifesto will sound familiar: the government should be frugal and efficient, taxes should be low, personal liberty should be protected, and the local militia should substitute for a dangerous and expensive standing army. (No army meant there could be no war; a somewhat simplistic formula). The Country Party leaders stressed the civic duty of the gentry and aristocracy to engage in politics in the national, rather than narrow factional, interest.
Anne favoured the Tories rather more than had her brother-in-law and sister (William and Mary) – they identified more with her beloved Church of England – but her ministries were mixed. After her death in 1714, with the accession of the George I of Hanover, the Whig Party once again gained ascendancy, for the Tories were never quite free of the taint of Jacobitism (support for the old, Catholic, Stuart line).
Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, who had served as one of Anne’s ministers, became the new Country Party’s informal leader. In 1709 he had written, “We have now been twenty years engaged in the two most expensive wars that Europe ever saw. The whole burden of this change has laid on the landed interest this whole time.”
After the Viscount’s fall from grace with the accession of George I, he came increasingly to speak for a section of society that felt beleaguered and disempowered by the transformation of finance and government brought about by the Glorious Revolution. In this respect, we can see parallels with the rise of Corbyn’s opposition party. While Jeremy Corbyn is no Bolingbroke – for a start “the landed interest” is hardly his concern – his party of protest against New Labour’s own Blairite “Glorious Revolution” echoes that same sense of frustration that the many were paying for the few.
The inherent contradiction in the Country Party, however, was that it was protesting against the mechanisms that, principally through investment and the protection of overseas trade routes, had actually made its supporters richer and more powerful. They enjoyed the advantages of public debt but were not prepared to concede its price: central government’s ability to tax, regulate, and spend. And while on behalf of small farmers, merchants, and landholders – the “middling classes” – Bolingbroke railed against corrupt, unrepresentative political institutions, his real loyalty lay with the rural elites whence he himself came and whose old power was being sapped by London.
Mixed motives are not necessarily bad motives, but they can lead to confusion over a party’s identity. The gradual expulsion of “Old Labour” men from Blair’s government made for exactly this confusion. When just about the whole of the Don Valley and adjacent seats in South Yorkshire were taken over by Oxford PPEs, for example, having previously been held by members of the National Union of Mineworkers, the party’s instinctive empathy for the core Labour voter diminished – and with it the core Labour voter’s instinctive trust in the party. Unsurprisingly, UKIP, posing as a rather different sort of “Country Party”, made great gains, and South Yorkshire delivered one of the strongest votes for Brexit in the UK.
In the end, the Country Party withered away because of its inherent contradictions: it was impossible to change a system of which its members were already a part. Although in the first half of the Eighteenth Century there were a number of serious financial crises (most notoriously, the “South Sea Bubble”), giving the Country Party’s arguments renewed appeal, by the 1760s it was clear that public debt was the unavoidable price of running a modern state. Meanwhile the gradual professionalising of the bureaucracy and curbing of the worst forms of jobbery and corruption lessened the middling classes’ moral outrage.
For a time, the difference between Whig and Tory was more of personalities than policy, although it seemed to grow over the question of parliamentary reform in the 1830s. Often the differences boiled down to the pace of change: the Tories were generally sceptical, whereas the Whigs tended more to embrace change.
The concern of the elites of both parties, however, was principally the preservation of their own power, the rate of change being therefore that which was necessary to preserve it. Only with the growth of Socialism in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century did a real challenge to the Whig and Tory Establishments develop. After 1920, as Labour gained strength in parliament, Tories and Whigs once against morphed into a single bloc, for there has never been room for three strong parties.
History would suggest that big government, with all its vexations, is an inescapable corollary of the successful modern state, and that parties formed to tilt against specific abuses do not have a long shelf life. The (radical) party of opposition very quickly becomes the mainstream Establishment party once in power.
History shows us that wresting the power of government out of the hands “that employed it weakly and wickedly” is the easy bit. Making that power pleasing to the many who helped wrest it is far harder. Otherwise – as with Blair’s New Labour – it is mere substitution. As some observed at the time of the 1832 Reform Bill, the Whigs simply wanted to replace the “Divine Right of Kings” (as the Tories were characterised) by the Divine Right of Whigs.
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