Political Parties in England

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POLITICAL PARTIES IN ENGLAND. There has been considerable debate over when political parties came into existence in Englandwhether it was during the Exclusion Crisis (16791681), when the terms Whig and Tory were first used as party labels, or not until after the Glorious Revolution (16881689)as well as over the nature of the relationship between court and country identities and partisan political loyalties.

In England, rival political grouping, reflecting an intensifying conflict between court and country interests, can be detected from the mid-1660s through the 1670s, although these are normally thought of as factions rather than parties. Although the court experimented with new forms of parliamentary management, political organization remained rudimentary and the unity of the court interest fragile; likewise, the country interest, although beginning to cohere around an ideological platform of opposition to the growth of popery and arbitrary government (especially from the mid-1670s, when Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first earl of Shaftesbury [16211683], emerged as the leading country spokesman), is best seen as a series of coalitions of place-seekers, back-benchers, and separate politician-connections with discrete political agendas who were temporarily united by a desire to bring down the ministry of the day.

The first age of political parties is usually dated to the Exclusion Crisis and the struggle between the Whigswho sought to exclude the Catholic heir, the future James II (ruled 16851688), from succession on the grounds of his religionand the Tories, who championed divine right monarchy and indefeasible hereditary right. However, some would maintain that while the first Whigs were a party, the Tories were not; others insist that neither grouping was a true party, since they lacked a recognizable leader and ideological coherence, and because political allegiances remained fluid throughout this period. The old view of a monolithic Whig party with Shaftesbury as its leader has long been discredited: The Whigs incorporated a number of discrete interests (Shaftesbury's being just one) and reflected a spectrum of belief from supporters of a strong, albeit Protestant, monarchy to those who wanted to reform the powers of the monarch to bring England nearer to a republic (some of whom preferred limitations on a popish successor to Exclusion). However, the Whigs did evince a degree of political organization that was impressive by the standards of the day: they had political clubs, to coordinate tactics and strategy; they employed electoral agents; they orchestrated a highly sophisticated propaganda campaign, deploying a wide range of visual, aural, and printed media; and they sought to mobilize the populace nationwide to support their platform through mass petition campaigns and political rallies. Although they might have differed over England's ideal constitutional settlement, all Whigs would have agreed that government existed to protect people's lives, liberties, and estates; they were also united in their condemnation of the religious intolerance of the high Anglican establishment. To counter the Whig challenge, the Tories mimicked many of the Whigs' organizational and propaganda techniques, but rallied around a platform of commitment to the existing settlement in church and state (as established by law) and opposition to Protestant Nonconformists. If political parties are understood as organized groupings of people, with mass followings, that are united in the promotion of a series of principles that were intended for the public good, then both the Whigs and the Tories of that time would qualify.

Party identities were temporarily blurred in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution. The dethroning of James II and his replacement by William III (ruled 16891702) seemed to have solved the issue that had given rise to party strife in the first place; moreover, the Whigs, who had started as a party in opposition to the executive, now found themselves in power, whereas the Tories, who had been the court interest, were now disfavored. Indeed, during the first half of the 1690s it is more accurate to see politics as dividing once more along court-versus-country lines. Historian Robert Walcott has even denied that parties existed during the reign of Queen Anne (ruled 17021714), insisting instead that political connections based on family ties were more important, though his views have been discredited. Division lists show that from the mid-1690s through the reign of Anne, most peers and members of Parliament voted consistently along party lines. Likewise, poll books reveal that the parliamentary electorate voted for party tickets (voters rarely split their votes between rival Whig and Tory candidates), while local research has demonstrated how many communities throughout the land were divided by partisan rivalries. From the mid-1690s through the end of Queen Anne's reign in 1714, the two parties had developed fairly sophisticated organizational structures to ensure unity: regular planning meetings, political clubs, circular letters and regional whips, electoral organizations, and extensive propaganda campaigns. Ideologically, the parties were divided over a series of issues. One was the conduct of foreign policy, specifically how to fight the wars against France (16891697 and 17021713) that England had become involved in as a result of the Glorious Revolution; the Whigs favored an all-out commitment to the Continental theater, and the Tories a blue-water campaign with an emphasis on maritime and colonial operations. Another divisive issue concerned religious policy: The Whigs remained the party of the "Low Church," sympathetic to the plight of dissenters, whereas the Tories were the High Church party, convinced that the Anglican establishment was in danger of being undermined by the growth of Protestant heresy and the practice of occasional conformity, which had flourished in the wake of the Toleration Act of 1689. A third issue centered on the parties' respective attitudes toward the Glorious Revolution, with the Whigs believing that James II had been overthrown for breaking his contract, the Tories that the king had deserted and left the throne vacant, and therefore that no resistance had taken place in 1688. Although a few Tories remained loyal to the exiled Stuarts, the Tory party was not, on a whole, a Jacobite party, and most Tories were prepared to accept the Hanoverian succession in 1714. The implication of some leading Tory politicians in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715, however, split the Tory party and permanently discredited them in the eyes of the new Hanoverian monarchs, leading to Tory political proscription and the rise of Whig oligarchy under the first two Georges.

See also Anne (England) ; Church of England ; England ; Exclusion Crisis ; Glorious Revolution (Britain) ; James II (England) ; Parliament ; William and Mary .


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Tim Harris

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Political Parties in England

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