Following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ the brief Convention Parliament of 1689-90 and the enactment of the Bill of Rights initiated a period of political experiment. The balance of power had shifted significantly towards Parliament, but much remained uncertain with new sets of relationships still to be evolved between legislators and the king’s ministers. The most pressing problem was money. No carefully thought-out schemes or procedures had been laid down for raising the vast sums required to finance the armies now engaged in Ireland and in the Low Countries. It fell to William III’s second Parliament elected in 1690 to originate ways of fulfilling the greatly enhanced role in government that had been given to Parliament.
The bitter party feuds seen in the Convention were carried into the election campaign during February-March 1690 where partisan rivalry was fuelled by the circulation of ‘black lists’ of MPs thought or known to be ‘Jacobites’ and ‘Commonwealthsmen’. Contests occurred in 103 (38 per cent) of the 269 English and Welsh constituencies. The new Parliament was an almost equal balance of 243 Tories and 241 Whigs, with 28 more MPs unclassified. This represented a shift towards the Tories who in counties and boroughs where there were contests, did generally better than the Whigs. The Whig dissenting threat to the established church was the main issue in many, if not most local contests, and it was clear that the Whigs were regarded as a source of instability.
The King remained unwilling to opt for ‘party’ government and retained a mixed ministry, but with the Tory leaders in greater control overall. The Marquess of Carmarthen was its nominal head, with Lord Nottingham as secretary of state. Lord Godolphin returned to the ministry as head of the Treasury towards the end of 1690. In the Commons government leadership was in the hands of Sir John Lowther, 2nd Bt. II and Sir Henry Goodricke, followers of Carmarthen. Immediate financial needs were provided for in the first brief session, but it was clear that more than short-term measures were needed if financial crisis were to be avoided in the near future.
During the next session, 1690-91, a ‘country opposition’ consisting of prominent men of both parties began making its presence felt. On the Whig side it was headed by Paul Foley I and Robert Harley, and on the Tory side by Sir Thomas Clarges and Sir Christopher Musgrave, 4th Bt. Together they secured legislation establishing a commission of accounts, consisting of themselves and several other non-ministerial MPs, to examine all aspects of public expenditure. The evidence gathered enabled the commissioners to lead an effective opposition to the ministry. Not only did they demand cuts in estimates, but they also tabled their own proposals for raising funds which, they maintained, would exceed the effectiveness of schemes advocated by the courtiers. Many of these proposals were successfully embodied in a whole series of supply measures during 1691-4, including Paul Foley’s innovative ‘Million Fund’ scheme approved early in 1693. This introduced the practice of ‘deficit financing’ and an institutionalized ‘National Debt’, which allowed much larger sums to be raised for the annual supplies.
As the war in Europe lurched from failure to failure the court party, under constant hammering from the country opponents, began to buckle in its ability to manage the Commons. Additional strain within the party resulted from the actions of a knot of young, talented and ambitious court whigs. These were the emerging ‘Junto’ whigs: Edward Russell, Thomas Wharton, John Somers and Charles Montagu. During the stormy 1692-3 session they joined with the country opposition in condemning the foreign generals who led the army, and harassing Tory ministers for recent naval setbacks, while at the same time showing their support for the King’s interests and objectives.
The King, resorting to advice from Lord Sunderland, began taking more whigs into the ministry. By March 1694 a mainly Whig government had emerged led by the Junto men, with just a few senior tories – such as Carmarthen and Godolphin – still in office. Much of the 1693-4 session was taken up in haggling over means to raise an impossibly high £5 million voted for the army and navy. Financial crisis began to loom closer until in the spring of 1694 Charles Montagu, the recently appointed chancellor of the Exchequer, was able to carry two bold new expedients for raising supply. The ‘Million Lottery’ scheme and the foundation of the Bank of England exceeded all expectations of success and greatly helped the government to prop up its creditworthiness and avert crisis.
The next session began in November 1694 with ‘Country’ party leaders Foley and Harley co-operating with the Junto ministers over the supply. However, the death of Queen Mary in December destabilized the political atmosphere and brought the Tories, largely quiescent since their displacement, on to the attack. The harmony between the Treasury and the ‘country’ leaders in working out a fiscal programme also ruptured and opened up a general opposition attack on excises, which in turn led to fierce criticism about the burden of taxation and England’s continuing involvement in a fearfully expensive war.
From February 1695 revelations of corruption provided the opportunity for Whig ministers, egged on by angry country MPs, to target several prominent Tories. These included Henry Guy, the Treasury secretary and ‘creature’ of the King’s ‘minister behind the curtain’ Lord Sunderland, and the Speaker, Sir John Trevor, who was found to have accepted hefty bribes from the City for smoothing the passage of legislation concerning the London orphans’ funds. Trevor was immediately replaced in the Chair by Paul Foley I and expelled. Impeachment proceedings were also commenced against the Duke of Leeds (the former Lord Carmarthen) for accepting bribes from the East India Company. It was chiefly to prevent the revival of these inquiries and Leeds’s impeachment that the King chose on returning from the continent in October to call a new Parliament.
H. Horwitz, Parliament, Policy and Politics in the reign of William III (Manchester, 1977)