Parliament and Politics from George I to the Reform Act of 1832

The accession of George I in 1714 marked a change in the ruling house of Great Britain, bringing to the throne the elector of the north German state of Hanover. This transition, the Hanoverian succession, caused a collapse in the political fortunes of the Tory government of Lord Oxford and a revival for their opponents, the Whigs. The Court Whigs, as the ruling oligarchy was known, dominated successive administrations for most of the next century. But Parliament, which had met in annual session uninterruptedly for the previous 25 years, continued to play an authoritative role under the Hanoverian kings.

Under Robert Walpole and Henry Pelham, who occupied the position of first or ‘prime’ minister for a total of 30 years between 1722 and 1754, Britain enjoyed a long period of internal stability and economic prosperity, in marked contrast to the partisan politics and European wars of the 30 years to 1715. Apart from the bursting of the South Sea bubble, a speculative financial crisis, in 1720, the economy expanded, with the development of a national market and the expansion of overseas trade. Foreign entanglements could not be entirely avoided, and Walpole’s fall from power (losing the confidence of the 1741 Parliament) was largely owing to war with Spain, while the Jacobite invasion of 1745 demonstrated that the Stuart threat had not been entirely eradicated. Yet Britain now became a major power in international politics.

Ministerial instability was a feature of the last years of George II and of the first decade of the reign of his grandson George III, who became king in 1760. The government headed by the elder Pitt claimed the credit for military and naval victories in the Seven Years War (1756-63), especially in North America, but he and the duke of Newcastle’s ‘old corps’ Whigs fell from office in the early 1760s, the victims of the new king’s determination to choose his own ministers. It was not until 1770 that he found a premier, in the form of Lord North, who could both retain his trust and remain in control of the Commons.

By then colonial issues were coming to dominate parliamentary debates: the military defeat by America (in conjunction with France and Spain) led to North’s eventual resignation in 1782; the India bill crisis was the means by which George III freed himself from the Fox-North coalition late the following year. The long first administration of William Pitt the younger, whose oratorical authority in the Commons was rivalled only by Charles James Fox, failed to yield the benefits of his mildly reformist ambitions, not least because of the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in 1793 and the perceived threat of domestic radicalism. Following the Irish rebellion in 1798, Ireland was incorporated with Britain in the United Kingdom from 1 January 1801.

By the early 19th century, Britain had been transformed by the effects of population growth, industrialization and the expansion of urban society. The Napoleonic Wars, which took a heavy toll in economic and social terms, ended in 1815 and, although the slave trade had been made illegal by the ‘Talents’ ministry in 1807, few popular demands for reforms had been met. As prince regent (during the 1810s) and as king (from 1820), George IV stood by Pitt’s Tory successors, of whom Lord Liverpool, appointed after the assassination of Spencer Perceval, was another long serving prime minister. The re-emergence of party politics after the revolutionary crisis of the mid-1790s (when the Portland Whigs joined Pitt’s wartime government) gave greater impetus to Whig calls for key constitutional changes and, following the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 and the granting of Catholic emancipation in 1829, it was Lord Grey’s Whig government which carried the Great Reform Act in 1832. This act was a watershed in the representative history of the United Kingdom.

Author: Stephen Farrell