The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Political Parties

Category: 18th century

The earliest political parties in Britain were infor­mal groups supporting powerful men in Parliament. By the time of the English Civil War (in the 1640′s) there were two parties in the country. The party sup­porting King Charles I was known as the Cavaliers, while their political opponents, the supporters of Par­liament, were called the Roundheads. By the late 17th century these groups had evolved into two definite parties, the Royalists and those supporting parliamen­tary supremacy. The Royalists were called Tories by their opponents. It was a term of abuse, the original Tories being Irish bandits. The Tories retorted by call­ing the Parliamentarians Whigs after a group of Scot­tish cattle thieves. These parties, later known as the Conservatives and the Liberals, played the unique role in the British political history and remained the only olitical parties in the country till 1900, when the La­bour Party was formed by the trade unions.

After 1689 some Whigs liked to boast that they had turned the king out and would do the same again. But in a small island ruled by a king, who, like William III, was used to real power and was determined to exercise it in protecting Europe from the domination of the French monarchy, there could be no policy of continuous revolution. The revolution of 1689 could be justified by necessity, but it could give no ground for a right of revolution in general. Kings might not be by God appointed, but the chaos in the country was a warning that men could invite destruction by a pur­suit of perfection.

The Whig party was a party of new men and new in­terests. Its leaders were drawn from the great landed fam­ilies who had gathered territory and influence during the 17th century. They were for limited monarchy and the su­premacy of Parliament, the Toleration Act and the Protes­tant succession, hostility to France, the development of commerce, and the security of property.

Their political allies were the Dissenters, the mem­bers of a religious union who did not accept the ornate complexities of the Church of England as the only pos­sible house of God. Their religious organization was a standing criticism of a hierarchical society. They an­ticipated in the life of the spirit the methods which would later move through the industrial and commer­cial life of the 19th century England. By 1714 a politi­cal alliance of the Dissenters and the greater landown­ers against the smaller landed gentry was the backbone of the Whig party. The Whig party actively supported the new moneyed men who understood the growing importance of trade and industry.

After the Glorious Revolution of 1689 it was im­possible for the Tory party to support the Hanoverians without splitting their ranks. It was also impossible for them to support the Stuarts without denying their church. In the course of William Ill’s reign the Tories abandoned for the most part the theories of divine right and nonresistance.

To kill a king was a poor way of making him re­sponsible for his policies. But so long as he had politi­cal initiative, his ministers could shelter themselves under the cloak of his royal command. The problem was solved by extending the lawyers’ fiction — that the king could do no wrong — to matters of state.

A fictive innocence of the king was postulated in order to secure the responsibility of his ministers. As this responsibility could only be enforced by impeach­ment, this Whig doctrine implied the regular meetings of Parliament. The measure of royal innocence was the measure of ministerial guilt. It was realized that it might be as wasteful to behead a minister as to be­head a king.

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