The Whig Schism of 1717-20

In 1717, as a result of growing disunity among senior Whig members of the government, a sizeable association of leading MPs and peers broke away from the ruling Whig administration, and until 1720 acted with the opposition. Historians often refer to this political rupture as the ‘Whig schism’. Since the accession of George I in 1714, the Whigs had enjoyed a near-complete monopoly of governmental office, and in the House of Commons the election of 1715 had given them a substantial majority over the Tories. But these outward appearances of solidarity disguised an underlying struggle for power among the whig leaders.

Most of the original Whig Junto leaders had retired from politics, leaving behind only the comparatively young earl of Sunderland. However, Sunderland was riled by his failure in 1714 to have his seniority within the Whig party recognised with appointment to the leading ministerial position of secretary of state. The appointment went instead to Viscount Townshend, another leading whig, while the southern secretaryship was given to James Stanhope who was expected to lead the ministry in the House of Commons. Almost from the start, however, Stanhope, was outshone by Robert Walpole, particularly in financial business, and in October 1715 Walpole – who was Townshend’s brother-in-law – was effectively appointed over Stanhope’s head as first lord of the treasury.

The roots of jealousy and rivalry were therefore to be found within the very core of the ministry. The opportunity for intrigue was provided by the king’s absence in Hanover during the latter half of 1716. Sunderland had taken pains to work his way into favour with the king’s leading Hanoverian minister, Count Bernstorff, and in 1715 had been brought into the ministerial ‘cabinet’ as lord privy seal. Both Stanhope and Sunderland accompanied the king abroad in 1716, and during the summer became involved in brokering an alliance with France, a new diplomatic venture which marked the abandonment of the very allies with whom Britain had signed peace in 1713. From London, Townshend urged Stanhope to be cautious, knowing how unpopular this would prove among backbench whigs in Parliament.

The king, however, was encouraged by Sunderland and Stanhope to view Townshend’s counsel as a sign of disloyalty, and in December 1716 he demoted Townshend from secretary of state to lord lieutenant of Ireland. Reports had also reached royal ears that Townshend and Walpole had encouraged the prince of Wales in reviling his father for according him only limited powers as regent. When Parliament reassembled in February 1717, many Whigs showed anger at policies that appeared to be more in the interests of Hanover than Britain. The ministry’s majority fell to almost nothing in April, aided by the abstentions of the prince’s servants. Townshend by this stage was opposing the king’s measures in the Lords, and on 20 April he was dismissed altogether from the ministry. The next day, Walpole resigned from the treasury accompanied by a section of the ministry that included William Pulteney (secretary at war), Paul Methuen (who had replaced Townshend as secretary of state), the duke of Devonshire (lord president) and the earl of Orford (first lord of the Admiralty).

The administration was quickly reconstructed, with Sunderland as secretary of state, and Stanhope as first lord of the treasury (and elevated to the Lords in July 1717). In the Commons the other secretaryship was filled by the unconvincing figure of Joseph Addison, better known for his journalism. What had been a well-supported ministry was now suddenly much weakened, with ministers struggling hard to sustain a majority in the Commons.

Townshend, Walpole and their followers lost no time in joining with the Tories, whom only lately they had vilified as Jacobites. Tory numbers were now invaluable in helping to swell the ranks of opposition MPs. In June 1717 Pulteney launched the first combined Whig-Tory attack on the government, charging Lord Cadogan, a chief ally of Sunderland, with fraud and embezzlement of army finances. From December the prince of Wales’s own court at Leicester House became a rallying-point of opposition to his father’s ministers in Parliament.

Walpole’s co-operation with the Tories nevertheless appalled many independent Whigs who preferred not to associate with the factious opposition. Government and opposition Whig leaders consequently vied with each other in demonstrating that they represented the true principles of their party. But this battle for Whig minds was gradually lost by Sunderland and Stanhope. They pursued a controversial series of measures which, though utterly consonant with old Whig principles, did not chime with the opinions of moderate and pragmatically-minded Whigs. Such measures included the 1719 Act repealing measures passed by Lord Oxford’s Tory ministry against dissenters (the Act against Occasional Conformity and the Schism Act); an abortive attempt to break Tory control of the universities; and a bill severely limiting the freedom of the crown to create peers, thus to perpetuate the Whig majority in the House of Lords.

The last, the peerage bill, proved most controversial of all, and was defeated on the second attempt in December 1719. The bill proved too much for MPs, persuaded by Walpole and his cohorts of its profound danger to the constitution. The ministry had been faced, too, with persistent onslaughts on a diplomatic policy which in opposition eyes overtly favoured the king’s electorate of Hanover. Anxious to regain security in their parliamentary majorities, the ministers tried in vain to reach agreement with the Tories.

The ministerial plight encouraged Walpole, through his contacts with the politically adroit princess of Wales and with the king’s mistress the duchess of Kendal, to negotiate in secret for a reconciliation in the royal family. He undertook to agree that the payment of civil list debts would not be opposed by his men in the Commons. Soon after the prince had made his public appearance at the king’s court in April 1720, Walpole and the discontented whigs began drifting back to the government in a reunion of the Whig factions. In June 1720 Walpole and Townshend were readmitted to the government, Townshend as lord president, and Walpole as paymaster-general. Within a few months, however, financial crisis in the form of the ‘South Sea Bubble’ would engulf the ministry and place Walpole on a new, though still by no means certain, political path.

Author: Andrew A. Hanham