IV. The House of Commons

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790, ed. L. Namier, J. Brooke., 1964
Available from Boydell and Brewer

More than the aggregate of its individual Members is the House of Commons itself, an institution with a corporate life and personality of its own. The men whose life-stories are related in these volumes are not so many individuals who happen to have flourished at about the same time: their lives are inter-linked, and the highest common factor in their careers is their membership of the House of Commons. From that they derived, or expected to derive, certain advantages: the right to be heard in the great council of the nation, the social prestige which this gave them, preferences in their careers which they might not otherwise have obtained, etc. And to it they severally contributed something which, as far as individuals are concerned, it is difficult to evaluate or even define, but which collectively formed the corporate personality of the House.

The majority of Members in the eighteenth century were not professional politicians, representing their constituents on a party basis and realizing in their party’s assumption of office the culmination of their political efforts. Instead, they claimed to be a representative selection of the upper classes of their time, summoned to Westminster primarily to vote the supplies and to be a check upon the executive power of the state, and in the performance of their duties representative of the nation at large. Their standards of rectitude differed in some respects from ours. To a modern reader it is surprising to learn that in 1767, when the House was inquiring into the affairs of the East India Company, the chancellor of the Exchequer was himself speculating in East India stock. Even Edmund Burke, who carried into public life the highest principles of morality, was not disturbed by the fact that his ‘cousin’, William Burke, engaged in similar speculations, while holding the office of under-secretary of state. Even more reprehensible, if true, is the conduct of Robert Wood, who in 1770 as under-secretary of state and closely concerned in the negotiations with Spain over the Falkland Islands, was reputed to be working for war and speculating in the funds accordingly. Members who were commissaries or paymasters made fortunes during the seven years’ war, and holders of Government balances had golden opportunities to enrich themselves. On this latter practice the attitude of the House changed after 1782, and other forms of dubious conduct became increasingly frowned upon by public opinion. However, in matters touching its own privileges and dignity, or which offended against its code of expected behaviour, the House was characteristically sensitive.

Pride of place among those Members who suffered the displeasure of the House must be given to John Wilkes, though whether he is to be described as a rogue or a political martyr must be left undecided—probably he was a little of both. Wilkes was first expelled the House on 19 January 1764 for publishing a seditious libel against the King in the North Briton; he was expelled a second time on 4 February 1769, for a libel against Lord Weymouth, secretary of state, but the expulsion was strongly opposed, and his subsequent re-election for Middlesex involved the House in prolonged controversy which did not end even when Wilkes’s defeated opponent was declared duly elected. Apart from Wilkes, the only other Member expelled the House during these years was Christopher Atkinson, M.P. for Hedon, expelled on 4 December 1783 after having been found guilty and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment for perjury.

Three Members were imprisoned by the House. On 8 February 1771 Colonel George Onslow, M.P. for Guildford, instigated the House to take action against the printers of the London newspapers who had committed a breach of privilege by publishing reports of debates. When the House sent a messenger to arrest the printer of the London Evening Post, three City magistrates (Wilkes; Brass Crosby, M.P. for Honiton and lord mayor of London; and Richard Oliver, M.P. for London) committed the messenger to prison. For this offence Crosby and Oliver were sent to the Tower for the remainder of the session, but the House refrained from proceeding against Wilkes. Historically the case is important as the last occasion on which the House took action against those who published reports of its debates.

The third Member to be imprisoned by the House was John Roberts, M.P. for Taunton, in 1781. It was the custom during this period, when important business was to be considered, to enforce attendance by means of a call of the House. On the day for which the call was fixed, every Member had to be in his place and answer his name, unless previously excused for reasons of health or private business. Roberts was absent from the call of the House ordered for 31 January 1781; was again absent when ordered to attend on 15 February; and was committed to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms. His imprisonment was short: on 19 February, after apologizing to the House and explaining that it was illness not contempt which had occasioned his absence, he was released.

What changes took place in the House of Commons during this period? Lord North entered the House at the general election of 1754 and remained there without a break until he succeeded to his father’s peerage shortly after the general election of 1790. His career in the House spans the whole of our period. Changes occurred, but possibly not all of them were clearly perceived by North on an intellectual level for they were gradual, their total effect cumulative, and the process of adaptation unspectacular. The eighteenth century was not like the seventeenth a period of great constitutional changes, affecting the authority of the House and its relations with the Crown; nor, like the nineteenth century, was it a period when the composition of the House and its relations with the electorate altered fundamentally. The principal developments during these years may be grouped under three headings: the emergence of a new attitude towards the conduct of elections and the determination of election petitions; a change in the type of legislation coming before the House; and the growth of party. These developments in turn reflect deeper changes in the life and thought of the nation at large which are beyond the province of the parliamentary historian.

At the beginning of this period election disputes were decided by the House as a whole, and the first session of a new Parliament was occupied by little else than voting the supplies and determining election petitions. It was a slow and tedious process, involving much detail which would have been better left to a small committee than to a body of 558 Members; and often the issue was decided with little respect to the merits of the question. One of the most controversial election petitions of 1754 was that from Oxfordshire, where, after an expensive and bitter contest, a double return had been made of two Whigs and two Tories. Sir William Meredith, who at the time was reckoned a Tory, wrote subsequently of the Oxfordshire election case:

39 in 40 of the judges (the Members) knew nothing of the matter, and therefore voted as they liked best. ... Nor, to this hour, can either side tell which had the majority of legal votes, nor any Member of Parliament who voted in that question give any other reason for his vote but as he stood inclined for the old or new interest of Oxfordshire.

The two Members eventually declared duly elected, who had stood on the new or Whig interest, owed their seats in effect not to the freeholders of Oxfordshire but to the Whig majority in the House of Commons. Indeed, had the House been prepared to act as an independent and impartial tribunal, it would have found it difficult to do so: the House as a whole was not the place to examine minutely the qualifications of hundreds of freeholders and decide whether or not they had a legal right to vote.

When no party issue was involved in the trial of an election petition, as was usually the case from 1754 to 1770, it became a matter of lobbying for the support of friends and the friends of friends—again, often with little respect to the merits of the case. Yet it should not be assumed that under the old system of trying election petitions justice was always foiled by the big battalions. In 1768 for instance, Sir James Lowther, a Government supporter, was unseated for Cumberland in favour of Henry Fletcher, a member of the Opposition. Lowther’s case was weak, he himself was personally unpopular, and the Government did not exert itself on his behalf: all these factors contributed to effect a just result. Still, the absence of any one of them might have tipped the scale the other way. The determination of controverted elections by the House of Commons was at best a chancy business.

In 1769, after John Wilkes had been three times elected for Middlesex despite being expelled the House and declared incapable of being re-elected into that Parliament, the Grafton Administration was driven to embrace a desperate expedient for getting rid of him. Henry Lawes Luttrell was induced to stand against Wilkes, and though beaten by an overwhelming majority was declared by the House on petition to be the duly elected Member. The Opposition were not slow to point out that Luttrell owed his seat not to the freeholders of Middlesex but to the Government majority in the House of Commons—exactly as the successful Whig candidates for Oxfordshire had done in 1754. Moreover, argued the Opposition, what was to prevent the Government doing this in other cases, and using their majority to deprive of his seat any member of the Opposition who had made himself peculiarly obnoxious to them? What then became of the rights of electors to choose their Members freely? And what safeguard was there for the independence of Parliament and its claim to speak for the nation at large?

From the controversy over the Middlesex election there emerged a new way of deciding controverted elections. In 1770 George Grenville introduced a bill which provided that each election petition should be referred to a committee of the House chosen by lot. A rather complicated procedure was drawn up for choosing the committee: Members over the age of sixty or who had already served on an election committee that session were excused; from the remainder the Speaker drew forty-nine names by lot; each of the petitioners nominated one Member and then struck off one name alternately until the number was reduced to thirteen. The committee’s decision was by majority vote, and the chairman had the casting vote. The bill was originally introduced as a temporary measure but was made permanent in 1774, despite the opposition of Lord North’s Administration.

Grenville’s Act won great praise from contemporaries, probably more than it deserved. Its supreme virtue was that it made it almost impossible for the Government to determine a controverted election along party lines, for the committee could hardly be packed. But it did nothing to remove the other objection to the trial of election petitions by the House of Commons, namely that Members of Parliament were not in general fit and proper persons to judge the complicated issues involved. After 1770 election petitions received a fairer trial, or at least appeared to do so, but election committees occasionally produced some whimsical verdicts. Here are two examples.

At Helston the right of election was assumed to be in the corporation. The borough was controlled by the Godolphin family, and on the death of Francis, 2nd Earl of Godolphin in 1766 it passed to his grand-son Francis, Marquess of Carmarthen. Then followed disputes in the corporation, which seriously weakened the Godolphin interest, until in 1774 Lord Carmarthen secured a new charter, reserving to the corporation the right to co-opt new members. He then proceeded to oust his opponents and pack the corporation with men on whom he could depend. At the general election of 1774 the anti-Godolphin voters who had been turned out of the corporation put up two candidates to oppose those on Carmarthen’s interest, knowing full well that they would be defeated but resolved to try their luck with a House of Commons election committee. The manoeuvre succeeded, for the committee which tried the petition set aside the new charter and declared that the six voters ousted by Carmarthen in 1774 were the only legal voters of Helston. This decision was confirmed by another committee in 1781, by which time the number of voters at Helson had fallen to three; and it was only in 1790, when the electorate had been further reduced to one old man of over eighty, that the right of election was at last declared to be in the corporation.

Election committees were not bound by precedents, or rather could be led by a clever lawyer to accept as a precedent what had not hitherto been regarded as one. Though they generally began with declaring that they would not hear evidence as to the right of election, in one instance during this period they arbitrarily changed the right of election against all recent precedents. At Pontefract the right of election was in the burgage holders, and though there was a strong party which contended that it should be in the inhabitant householders, the point was decided against them by election committees in 1768 and 1775. In 1783, with parliamentary reform in the air, the party of the householder franchise made their third attempt to get a candidate elected; and this time the House of Commons committee ignored the decisions of 1768 and 1775, ignored also previous determinations of 1699 and 1715 in favour of the burgage holders, and adopted a House of Commons determination of 1624 in favour of the inhabitant householders. In effect the committee declared that for eighty-four years Pontefract had been returning Members on the wrong franchise, and that the decisions of previous committees could not bind their successors. In view of such a resolution, could there be said to be such a thing as law in the determination of election petitions? Similarly in 1787 in the case of Saltash, where the right of voting was assumed to be in the corporation, the House of Commons committee allowed the votes of the freeholders and in effect altered the borough franchise.

The great curse of eighteenth-century elections was their expense. To the average elector the vote was not a trust, not an element in the process of choosing a Government; and it was rarely cast in accordance with a clearly-defined political outlook: it was a privilege attendant upon property or social position and was expected to yield suitable returns. Even the most independent voters expected to be treated by the candidates and in some populous constituencies to receive a token of the candidates’ regard—half a guinea for a single vote or a guinea for a double vote, or tickets exchangeable for drink at public houses. The eighteenth century did not regard this as bribery, any more than it did candidates’ paying municipal expenses or helping to foot the bill for schemes of public welfare. Obviously, the line between treating and bribery was a very fine one, yet there was a distinction between the two: that the voters should receive something by way of expenses was admitted, but the buying and selling of votes was illegal, and if detected was punished.

In individual cases, bribery was hard to prove, but when it was openly practised and extended to the electorate as a whole, the House could take action. It did so twice during this period, in respect of two constituencies: New Shoreham in 1771 and Cricklade in 1782. Each constituency received the same treatment: the delinquent voters were disfranchised, and the right of voting was extended to 40 shilling freeholders in the neighbouring hundreds. Thus Cricklade and New Shoreham became in effect miniature county constituencies, preserves of the country gentlemen, with influence replacing bribery. And there was nothing reprehensible about influence: it was the natural way for property to exert itself, while bribery was the perverse way. Action against bribery was action in defence of property.

The second development, the change which came over the type of legislation introduced into the House, was a gradual one. The second half of the eighteenth century was not a period of violent social changes: rather it was a time when forces were slowly building up beneath the surface, to break through at the turn of the century in both a political and a social direction. The class composition of the House changed little throughout the period, and the impetus to reform came not from new classes entering Parliament but from a heightened social consciousness in the old-established classes.

Two subjects of social legislation had long concerned the House: the poor law and the relief of insolvent debtors; and throughout this period they took up a great deal of parliamentary time. The problem of imprisonment for debt was never tackled as a whole: there was too much opposition from the commercial interests for any attempt at changing the system to stand much chance of success, and all that could be done was to pass periodical acts, often in the teeth of strong opposition, for the relief of insolvent debtors. The poor law was primarily a matter for the local authorities, and almost all the attempts to improve its administration during this period were the work of one man, Thomas Gilbert, M.P. for Newcastle-under-Lyme 1763-1768 and for Lichfield 1768-1794, a protégé of Lord Gower and in politics a member of the Bedford group.

Gilbert’s first poor law bill, which grouped parishes together for purposes of organized relief, passed the Commons in April 1765 but was defeated in the Lords (largely because of the opposition of the Newcastle and Rockingham Whigs, whose principal objection to the bill was that it was a measure of the Bedford party); and it was not until 1782 that Gilbert was able to get his bill on the statute book. It was, wrote Sidney and Beatrice Webb, ‘the most elaborate and perhaps the most influential’ poor law measure of the eighteenth century; and two of its provisions—the union of parishes to build workhouses and the sanctioning of outdoor relief—were of great consequence in the future development of the poor law. Behind poor law legislation were two factors: the desire for increased administrative efficiency and less expense, and sympathy with the hardships of the poor. As might be expected in a Parliament composed mainly of landowners, the first factor counted more than the second; but there were in the House Members who had a real understanding of the hardships of the poorer classes, and who recognized the connexion between poverty and crime. One of them, Robert Nugent, said in a debate of 2 March 1774:

If we do not alter our laws of settlement we shall depopulate this country. This country could contain and maintain twice the number that is in it. The quantity of executions at Tyburn owe part of their origin to our poor laws. There are more executions in our capital than in the capitals of all other kingdoms.

Crime, and the savage measures taken to repress it, were two of the greatest social evils of the age, practically unrecognized by the parties which struggled for supremacy in the House of Commons but increasingly the concern of a few individuals drawn from all quarters of the House. From about 1770 onwards there was a small but vocal movement for penal reform, which, however, achieved little because of the opposition of the House of Lords. In 1770 Sir William Meredith, M.P. for Liverpool, moved for an inquiry into the state of the criminal law, from which there resulted a bill reducing the number of offences punishable by death. Meredith’s speech against capital punishment for minor offences, 13 May 1777, was reprinted in pamphlet form as late as 1831, and is mentioned in the preface to Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge. Others associated with him in this work were Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury, who helped to found the Derby and was the owner of the first winner of the race; Sir George Savile; Reginald Pole Carew, the friend of Bentham; Alexander Popham, who tried to improve conditions in prisons; John Glynn, the friend and colleague of Wilkes; William Eden, who studied the subject of transportation; and Edmund Burke, who, if he had not been diverted by other aims, might have made a great penal reformer.

Horace Walpole once said that every abuse in England was a freehold, and the chief obstacle during the period to any kind of social reform was that there was always an institution or a class which had an interest in the maintenance of the existing system and which cherished that interest as a right of property. From the parliamentary reformers downwards, every reformer had to face this difficulty and few of them managed to overcome it. The conscience of the nation was difficult to arouse, for the circulation of newspapers was small and the urbanized middle class was only just emerging into political consciousness and making its voice heard. In June 1785 Archibald Macdonald, solicitor-general, moved for a bill to reform the police in the London area. Macdonald had realized that an inefficient and corrupt police force was a factor making for the increase of crime, and he proposed to appoint three full-time commissioners of police and establish a system of regular patrols. But his plan was opposed by the City of London, on the ground that it was an infringement of their chartered rights, and Macdonald was forced to withdraw it.

The Parliament of 1784 was occupied with measures of reform in all spheres—political, administrative, and social—a remarkable contrast to the record of previous Parliaments. On almost every subject from weights and measures to Parliament itself, there was some Member ready to press the case for reform. One of the most interesting schemes hatched during this Parliament, but one which was never permitted to grow wings, was put forward on 30 April 1787 by John Rolle, M.P. for Devon. Speaking ‘at the express desire of his constituents’, who felt themselves oppressed by the weight of the poor rates, Rolle proposed something like a scheme of social insurance to be financed by employers and employed. There would be ‘one general club or fund throughout the kingdom, with permanency to the body and security to the capital ... to be raised by obliging the rich in a certain limited proportion to become contributors to the benefit of the poor, and to oblige the poor, whilst young and in health, to contribute towards their own support when disabled by sickness, accident, or age’.

More significant for the immediate future, was the motion of Sir William Dolben, M.P. for Oxford University, on 21 May 1788, for a bill to improve the conditions of negro slaves being transported to the West Indies. Oxford in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is popularly supposed to have been a centre of opposition to reform of all kinds, and it is forgotten that the first move in the British Parliament for regulation of the slave trade came from one of the representatives for Oxford University. Dolben’s motion was followed on 12 May 1789 by Wilberforce’s motion against the slave trade: the first act of a campaign to which he was to devote his parliamentary career.

Throughout the period private legislation continued to occupy a large part of the time of the House. It is amazing how numerous were the actions in life which required a private Act of Parliament before they could be legally performed: divorces, alterations of marriage settlements, schemes for enclosures, for turnpike roads, for paving the streets of towns, for selling entailed property, for building jails and town halls, etc. When the House did get down to public business its main work was financial, not legislative. ‘The first duty of the House’, said Sir John Riggs Miller, M.P. for Newport, in 1788, ‘was to watch over and economize the public expenditure’—a sentiment which might have been repeated at any time during the century. The idea that Parliament should enact a legislative programme each session was completely unknown: legislation, when necessary, was conceived of as supplementing the existing common and statute law and bringing it up to date. Nor was it the purpose of Parliament to supply the King with ministers. Indeed, old-fashioned Members saw a clear distinction between the functions of the executive and the legislature, which could be maintained in theory but no longer corresponded to practice. Welbore Ellis, admittedly a man of rigid mind, conservative and unresponsive to change, said in the House on 25 May 1778: ‘He did not think the House of Commons an assembly calculated for the discussion of state affairs. It was the business of Parliament to raise supplies, not to debate on the measures of Government.’ And George Forster Tufnell, M.P. for Beverley, who generally voted with the Opposition, asserted on 25 April 1780 during a debate on the militia that the House ‘had no right to interfere with the executive power’. For the eighteenth century held that the function of the executive was limited and its power restricted—‘Providence has so ordered the world’, wrote Lord Shelburne in his autobiography, ‘that very little government is necessary.’ Hence the belief could still be entertained and professed that Parliament had nothing to do with state affairs—a theory which always broke down when state affairs touched the pockets or consciences of the Members. This brings us to our third major development, the growth of party.

When Members were sorely troubled in their minds about affairs of state, when there were deep divisions in the nation on issues of principle or policy, they came together to form parties, and the theoretical distinction between the functions of the executive and the legislature was forgotten. The House of Commons did not ask in February 1782 whether it had a right to condemn Lord North’s conduct of the American war: it proceeded to do so as the grand tribunal of the nation, representative of all persons and property in Britain, whose deliberations comprehended the whole range of the nation’s affairs. Its function was not merely to vote supplies but also to redress grievances, which implied an authority to consider the work of any department of the executive. But in the happy days around the beginning of this period the work of the British Government was virtually restricted to preserving the constitution (which meant doing nothing in home affairs) and conducting foreign policy. To the Duke of Newcastle ‘home affairs’ meant patronage, not legislation, and it was over foreign policy (including the conduct or misconduct of war) that political disputes, which must be distinguished from the struggles for power which go on at all times in every institution, arose. It is with the restricted function of Government in mind that any consideration of the state of parties in 1754 must begin.

According to Lord Dupplin’s classification of the Parliament elected in 1754, almost every Member of the House of Commons was either a Whig or a Tory. This happy anticipation of nineteenth century conditions, when every person in the land was said to be either a Liberal or a Conservative, presents the appearance of a two party system which, if viewed superficially, can be deceptive. It is true that on closer examination the 410 Members classed as Whigs in 1754 resolve themselves into followers of the Duke of Newcastle, the Duke of Bedford, the Prince of Wales, and of half a dozen smaller party leaders; and that their political behaviour could never be depended upon even by their own leaders. As for the 106 Tories, they did not profess to acknowledge any leader, but were independent Members, voting according to their own lights whether of principle or prejudice. Still, the words Whig and Tory must have meant something or Dupplin would not have used them, and an examination of the Members individually may help us to uncover their meaning.

But first, a word of warning. When the names Whig and Tory were first used as party labels in English politics in the late seventeenth century they denoted two different attitudes towards a particular set of political circumstances. It by no means follows that in 1754, when political circumstances had changed, that those attitudes remained the same or that the words Whig and Tory meant what they had done in 1679. To give a similar example from current politics: the words Conservative and Labour denote two different attitudes in politics today just as they did at the death of Queen Victoria, but those attitudes have changed a good deal in the intervening sixty years. Two world wars, the social changes resulting from them, scientific and intellectual developments, have brought changes in the political thinking of both parties, and the problems facing them in the 1960’s are entirely different from those of 1901. It is true that the Conservative party remains the party of private enterprise and the Labour party that of public control, but these broad general attitudes have not the same meaning as in 1901. The Conservative does not stand for unrestrained private enterprise nor Labour for complete public control: there are shades of meaning within the parties, there is a large area where neither party applies its principle wholeheartedly, and it is precisely in that area that the most acute political controversies arise. In whatever way historians may regard these controversies, they present themselves to the politicians not as conflicts between abstract principles of government but as attempts to find solutions to current political problems. Political parties do not exist in a void nor are political principles academic intellectual exercises in logical thought. A history of parties is meaningless which does not relate them to the specific political questions they were called upon to solve.

With these considerations in mind, let us return to Dupplin’s list of Tories elected in 1754. To the 106 he names, three more might be added: Valentine Knightley, M.P. for Northamptonshire, omitted apparently through oversight; Julines Beckford, seated after a double return; and Sir John Philipps, who replaced William Beckford at Petersfield (Beckford having been returned for two constituencies). Of these 109 Members, 100 sat for English constituencies, comprising more than one-fifth of the English Members; eight sat for Welsh constituencies—one-third of their representatives; and only one—John Mackye—sat for a Scottish constituency (why Dupplin included Mackye among the list of Tories is by no means clear). Of the 80 English county Members, 38 were classed as Tories; and only one among them was the son of a peer: Lord Harley, M.P. for Herefordshire. The remaining 37 Tory knights of the shire were the élite of the county families: eleven were baronets when first returned; sixteen had been preceded in the representation of their counties by their fathers; and many of their descendants continued to sit for generations. To name but a few of those elected in 1754: an Egerton of Tatton and a Cholmondeley of Vale Royal were returned for Cheshire; a Molesworth of Pencarrow and a Buller of Morval for Cornwall; an Isham of Lamport and a Knightley of Fawsley for Northamptonshire; a Courtenay for Devon, a Long for Wiltshire, a Bagot for Staffordshire, a Noel for Rutland, a Curzon for Derbyshire, a Wodehouse for Norfolk, etc. There was an extraordinary permanency in their tenure of seats; few had ever been to the poll, only one was ever defeated, and only three suffered any interruption in the tenure of their seats. Their average term of service for their counties was 24 years—far longer than the average for other constituencies; and there was none of the shifting about from constituency to constituency so common among Members who owed their seats to the Treasury or to borough-owners.

The remaining Tories sat for large boroughs in their own counties or for complete pocket boroughs owned by themselves or close friends or relatives. Hardly any of the Tories had been in the professions (one was a naval officer and three were at the bar), and only a handful were merchants. None held office in 1754 and most never were in office. In short, the Tories were pre-eminently the landed gentry, unconnected with the court—a social group rather than a political party.

It is possible to compile a similar list of Tories returned at the general election of 1761, and their numbers would be about the same. But from about 1763 onwards it is increasingly difficult to differentiate between Whigs and Tories, for politics were no longer carried on in those terms. Even between 1754 and 1763 the task is not easy; often there is no infallible test and the issue depends on the balance of probabilities. Men who knew the House of Commons well could not always agree. Among those classed as Tories by Dupplin in 1754 was William Edwardes, M.P. for Haverfordwest, who was also classed as a Tory by Henry Fox in February 1755. Yet two years earlier Fox had recommended Edwardes to Henry Pelham as a good Whig, and in 1761 Newcastle treated him as a Whig who was to receive the Treasury whip. In 1761 Newcastle classed Sir Robert Ladbroke, M.P. for London, as a Tory; but in Bute’s list of that Parliament he is marked as ‘elected by [the] Presbyterian interest’—surely a mark of Whiggism. About John Morton, returned for Abingdon in 1754, party managers could never make up their minds: Richard Neville Aldworth, M.P., a Berkshire neighbour, told the Duke of Bedford that Morton was no Tory and was disposed to attach himself to the Bedford party, and Dupplin in 1754 classed him as a Whig. But in the Oxfordshire election of 1754 Morton voted for the Tory candidates and spoke on their side during the hearing of the election petition. Jarrit Smith, M.P. for Bristol 1756-1768, though a foundation member of the Steadfast Society, the group of Bristol Tories, and returned at Bristol on the Tory interest, was summoned to the meeting of Whigs, 2 November 1761, to consider the choice of a Speaker. And many other examples could be added.

The extent to which the words Whig and Tory had lost their political connotations can be seen from the Essex by-election of 1759. The Whigs, having no suitable candidate to propose for the vacancy, hit upon the happy idea of nominating a Tory and calling him a Whig. Sir William Maynard was approached, secured the consent of Lord Maynard, the leader of the Essex Tories, and agreed to stand on the Whig interest. The Duke of Newcastle gave the scheme his hearty approval: ‘Sure the Whigs should give Sir William all the support in their power’, he wrote to Lord Rochford, leader of the Essex Whigs, ‘and make him the Whig candidate.’ And so Maynard, a Tory, was returned unopposed on the Whig interest. As the time of the university boat race approaches, boys at school wear dark blue or light blue cockades, and become fervent partisans of Oxford or Cambridge, without knowing anything about rowing or having any connexion with either university. In the same way, in about 1754 men were either Whigs or Tories with just as much reason for their choice. Oxford or Cambridge, Rangers or Celtic, Tottenham Hotspur or Arsenal, Whig or Tory—taking sides and supporting one’s team is natural in gregarious rivalry; and politics in the eighteenth century absorbed much of the enthusiasm and partisanship which now goes into organized sport.

It was universally recognized around 1754 that the old party denominations of Whig and Tory no longer corresponded to political realities and that the issues which formerly distinguished them were dead. The Tories, who in the earlier part of the century had been excluded from court and office, were making their way back long before George II died. Horace Walpole, in his Memoirs of the reign of King George III, wrote that the ‘moment of his accession was fortunate beyond example. The extinction of parties had not waited for, but preceded the dawn of his reign’; and the King himself admitted in February 1762 that there were no party divisions in the House of Commons. Pitt cultivated the support of the Tories and eased the process of their return to court: he encouraged them to accept commissions in the militia, a substitute for office, and interceded on their behalf for favours and honours. Lord Talbot wrote to Newcastle on 23 January 1758 in favour of William Harvey, Tory M.P. for Essex, ‘that during the time whilst the constellation is in the ascendant under the influence of which the Members of Tory counties may dare to receive marks of ministerial regard ... Mr. William Harvey might receive a favour and the Duke of Newcastle bestow it’. And here is another example, concerning an M.P. of the most undoubted Tory antecedents: Richard Grosvenor, M.P. for Chester 1754-1761, who not only came out strongly in support of Pitt but in November 1758 gave public approbation of the Newcastle-Pitt Administration by seconding the Address at the opening of the session—a Tory Member seconding the Address of a Whig ministry. George III did not set out to abolish party distinctions: they had disappeared, the result of changing political conditions, before he came to the throne.

The durability of parties depends less on the ideas they represent than on the strength and coherence of party organizations. There were no party organizations in 1754, apart from the Treasury, which acted as a kind of party organization for the Whigs, though its influence was limited to those Members whom it provided with seats or who looked to it for favours. The Tories had not even a leader who could command the confidence of the whole: Sir John Philipps, M.P. for Petersfield, formerly prominent in their ranks, now possessed little influence outside Wales, and William Beckford, M.P. for London, though invariably classed as a Tory seems to have considered himself a Whig. The Tories, in so far as any organization at all is to be found in their ranks, grouped themselves on a regional basis, and there was little intercourse between the Tories say of Devon and Cornwall and those of the Midland counties. With such flimsy organizations to support them, it is no wonder the parties crumbled and disintegrated. Yet something intangible remained, unaffected by the dissolution of the two old parties: political ideas survived, without the protection of party organizations, and took root in strange and wonderful places. What these ideas were, and where they finally flowered, may be seen from a glance at some typical Tories of 1754.

But first, let us note the fact that one Member only, of the 1,964 who sat in the House from 1754 to 1790, is known to have referred to himself as a Tory. Humphrey Sibthorp, M.P. for Boston 1777-1784, wrote to his friend John Strutt on 4 January 1784, shortly after Pitt had taken office: ‘I am, I freely own it, not so much any man’s friend as I am the King’s, nor do I wish in these times at least to purge off all Tory blood.’ Sibthorp had been a supporter of North’s Administration, and for all his professions of devotion to the King had heartily disliked the King’s intervention against Fox’s East India bill. Nor was he favourably disposed towards Pitt’s Administration; in fact this self-styled Tory was much more inclined to support Charles James Fox, who regarded himself as the leader of the Whigs.

Sir Roger Newdigate, M.P. for Middlesex 1742-1747 and for Oxford University 1751-1780, would in 1754 have been selected as the archetype of the Tories. Devoted to the interests of the Church of England, zealous in defence of its privileges and prerogatives; a constant opposer of what he called ‘Hanoverian measures’, by which he meant continental wars and foreign subsidies; an opponent of standing armies, Government influence over the House of Commons, and Whig measures in general—were not these the hall-marks of the Tory about the middle of the century? Though Newdigate supported the militia (the Tories’ alternative to the regular army) and enthusiastically discharged his duties as a militia officer, he never quite fell for the blandishments of Pitt, the great advocate for the militia, as some other Tories did. On 19 April 1757 he opposed a series of resolutions granting a subsidy to the King of Prussia: ‘Gave my negative to every proposition’, he wrote in his diary, ‘no British measure.’ In the new reign he went to court and kissed the King’s hand (which he had never done under George II), yet still maintained a certain attitude of detachment. ‘I like the King’, he wrote, ‘and shall be with his ministers as long as I think an honest man ought, and believe it best not to lose the country gentleman in the courtier.’ It was an attitude he preserved throughout his parliamentary career.

Newdigate supported North’s American policy, and during at least the early years of North’s Administration regularly received the Treasury whip. During the ’70s his Tory opinions, which he rigidly maintained, led to a curious pattern of cross voting. On the question of religious toleration, he adhered to what might be called the right wing of the Government and opposed all concessions to the Dissenters; yet he regularly voted for shortening the duration of Parliaments, a measure supported only by the extreme left wing of the Opposition. His Toryism, in short, led him to become both an arch-Tory and a radical at the same time. And when in 1780, dejected at the ill conduct of the American war, he decided to leave Parliament, he, who had uniformly supported North’s American policy, denounced North’s Administration in terms which might have been used by a Rockingham Whig. In his letter of resignation to the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, he ascribed the nation’s disasters to ‘majorities implicitly following the dictates of the ministers of the day, changing their opinions as the minister was changed’ (a remarkable, albeit probably unconscious, echo of Burke), and, in the true radical vein, denounced the corruption of both Parliament and Administration—‘the people at large more corrupt than even the representative body, and that more corrupt than even the minister himself’.

George Cooke, M.P. for Middlesex 1750-1768, another of those whom Dupplin classed as a Tory in 1754, was described by Horace Walpole as ‘a pompous Jacobite’. Cooke had been politically connected with Newdigate, but their ways began to diverge during the seven years’ war when Cooke became a fervent adherent of Pitt. The conflict between his Tory principles, which led him to oppose continental warfare, and his support of Pitt, in 1761 the great advocate of the continental war, resulted in contradictions: thus on 9 February 1761 he opposed the payment of a subsidy to Hanover, yet on 13 November spoke for continued British participation in the German war—which could hardly be done without the payment of subsidies. By 1765 the former Jacobite had become entirely devoted to Pitt; and while Newdigate was strongly anti-American, Cooke was one of the few Members who agreed with Pitt’s contention that Great Britain had no right to tax the colonies.

In short, the fact that a Member was classed as a Tory in 1754 or 1761 is no guide to what his subsequent conduct would be or what attitude he would take when the American problem came before Parliament. For the Tories were essentially independents, and once Toryism as a political creed had lost its raison d’être, there was no party organization to keep the Tories together. All the various parties of the late ’60s had a sprinkling of former Tories among them. To give some examples: Marshe Dickinson went with the Bedfords; Edward Kynaston and Thomas Howard with the Grenvilles; William Beckford, George Cooke, and Thomas Prowse with Chatham; Charles Barrow, Sir William Meredith, and Sir William Codrington with the Rockinghams. William Dowdeswell, leader of the Rockingham party in the Commons from 1766 till his death in 1775, was a former Tory. It is ironical that the Rockinghams should have regarded themselves as the heirs of the Whigs and should have labelled their opponents as Tories, when they were led during their formative years by an ex-Tory who had never renounced his Tory principles.

The Rockinghams, as the main Opposition party during the American crisis, inherited much of the political thinking of the Tories. What Professor Butterfield has called the stock Opposition programme of the eighteenth century—a series of measures designed to reduce the influence of the Crown over the House of Commons—could be employed against Lord North as well as against Sir Robert Walpole or Henry Pelham; and the Rockinghams, who carried these measures into effect in 1782, are the true spiritual heirs of the Tories. But indeed Tory principles were not the property of the Tories only: they may be found in the mouths of many Members who by no stretch of the imagination could be labelled as Tories. Lord Fife, a highly independent Scottish Member and a former follower of George Grenville, expressed typical Tory sentiments in a letter to his factor on 20 April 1773: ‘In the present times of low credit, avert war, say I. Stock jobbers, Jews, and contractors make by that, but you and I are out of pocket.’ And Lord Hardwicke wrote to his nephew in 1782 about Sir Henry Peyton, a candidate for the forthcoming by-election in Cambridgeshire: ‘Sir Henry Peyton dislikes many of the things we do, short Parliaments, new modes of election, etc., is no violent American, and shook his head about losing our authority in Ireland.’ Almost all of these sentiments would have been subscribed to by Burke and the Rockingham Whigs, yet Hardwicke ended: ‘I rather take Sir Henry to be a moderate Tory.’ Even the Tory feeling against a standing army was taken up at the end of the period and paraded as a Whig principle. James Martin, M.P. for Tewkesbury, a radical both in politics and religion, said in the House on 27 February 1786, during the debate on the Duke of Richmond’s fortifications plan: ‘The adoption of that system would make an increase of the standing army necessary, a matter he was too much of a Whig to give consent to.’

The Whigs in the late seventeenth century had been the party opposed to the Crown: they had tried to exclude the Duke of York from the succession in 1679 and had opposed the Tory principle of an hereditary, indefeasible right to the Crown. There were still a few Whigs of the old breed left in 1754. One of them was Robert More, M.P. for Shrewsbury, described by Horace Walpole as ‘a Whig of the primitive stamp’, who thought of himself as politically and spiritually descended from the parliamentarians of 1641. Another was Newcastle’s great friend John White, M.P. for East Retford, a Dissenter, described by Walpole as ‘an old republican who governed Newcastle’. Other old-style Whigs, close friends of Newcastle, were John Page, M.P. for Chichester, and John Thornhagh (who later took the name of Hewett), M.P. for Nottinghamshire. But these men never held political office under Newcastle nor joined the crowd of eager, expectant place hunters who thronged his levees. The old Whigs were as jealous of their independence as any Tory, and they supported Newcastle as the representative of an old political tradition, not for what they could get out of him. Page in 1758 told the Duke of Richmond that though he had spent £15,000 on parliamentary elections he had never held ‘any employment under the Crown nor any private pecuniary reward from any minister, though in general a friend to them’. And Newcastle wrote to Hewett on 12 July 1766: ‘You never asked anything of me but such trifles as I should be ashamed to refuse’; to which Hewett replied: ‘Almost all I’ve asked has been with a view to support myself in this county.’

Another old Whig, so independent and disinterested that in Bute’s list of 1761 he was classed as a Tory, was Edward Montagu, M.P. for Huntingdon 1734-1768, husband of the literary lady Mrs. Elizabeth Montagu. On 22 October 1761 Lord Sandwich replied to Newcastle’s request for Montagu’s attendance at the opening of the session: ‘As to my cousin Mr. Montagu, I much fear he never will (as he never yet has) give his countenance to any Administration.’ And when, shortly after the accession of George III, his wife asked if she might go to court, Montagu replied:

The principal reason of my absenting myself ever since I was Member of Parliament was that I did not concur in the measures that were then taking, and the principal members of the Opposition thought they had no business at St. James’s. ... I have for many years lived in a state of independency, though I may truly call it of proscription ...

No wonder Bute mistook him for a Tory! The above passage could well have been written by Newdigate; indeed, something very similar was written by Newdigate at about the same time:

I can’t answer your question what my party is. I am only sure it is neither Cumberland nor Pelham. Landed men must love peace, men proscribed and abused for fifty years together [should] be presented with fools caps if they make ladders for tyrant Whigs to mount by.

It is pertinent to ask, in the light of these passages, what were the differences between the old Whigs and the old Tories? As far as political principles were concerned, there was very little difference: Montagu was a Whig because his ancestors had been Whigs and he sat for a pocket borough under the control of a Whig peer; while Newdigate was a Tory because he came of a Tory family and sat for the traditionally Tory university of Oxford. The real political alignments were on an entirely different basis from those of Whig and Tory.

Lord Waldegrave, governor to George III as Prince of Wales, wrote in his Memoirs, composed about 1757:

When the Hanover succession took place, the Whigs became the possessors of all the great offices and other lucrative employments; since which time, instead of quarrelling with the prerogative, they have been the champions of every Administration.
However, they have not always been united in one body, under one general, like a regular and well-disciplined army; but may be more aptly compared to an alliance of different clans, fighting in the same cause, professing the same principles, but influenced and guided by their different chieftains.

Party struggles in the last years of George II and the early years of George III were essentially struggles for office, with political principles used as shibboleths, a means of distinguishing friend from foe. The Whig and Tory parties had been destroyed, said Bamber Gascoyne in the House on 11 December 1761, and ‘personal parties [had been] substituted in their stead’. Party existed in the House only, and was rarely found in the constituencies. There were as yet few political issues to grip the imagination of the nation at large and to divide it on a party basis. When such issues do arise, party divisions seem inevitable, and then there is no need to justify the existence of party as Burke tried to do in 1770 in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents. When political issues come home to men’s business and bosoms, party divisions require no justification: the need Burke felt to defend them in 1770 is a proof of their essential artificiality at that time. This was clearly seen by Lord Holland, grandson of Henry Fox and nephew of Charles James Fox, who in his Memoirs of the Whig Party distinguished between the ‘parliamentary cabals’ of the first twelve years of George III’s reign as ‘mere struggles for favour and power’ and the ‘great questions of policy and principle which arose on the American war’. For neither general warrants nor Wilkes’s election for Middlesex in 1769 was a ‘great question of policy and principle’: all parties agreed that the legality of general warrants had never been determined, and the point of dispute about the Middlesex election was one of law rather than of policy. And until 1774 American policy was only occasionally an issue of dispute between the parties.

Some idea of the state of parties under the Chatham Administration can be obtained from three lists of the House of Commons drawn up independently of each other in the winter of 1766-7. One, compiled in November 1766, is among the papers of Lord Rockingham, the leader of the largest Opposition party; the second, which from internal evidence can be assigned to January 1767, is among the papers of Charles Townshend, Chatham’s chancellor of the Exchequer; while the third, dated 2 March 1767, was compiled by the Duke of Newcastle, then closely allied with Rockingham in opposition. The classifications used in these lists are not the same: Rockingham and Newcastle, both highly neurotic personalities fixated on the past, used the old terms of Whigs and Tories, while Townshend attempted a more realistic phraseology and employed the term ‘country gentlemen’ instead of ‘Tories’. The table on p. 191 attempts to compare these three lists.

A schematic analysis of this kind is misleading in so far as it conceals the discrepancies between the different classifications, which tend to cancel each other out and produce uniform results. A more careful examination of the three lists reveals the fact that for a large number of Members the compilers could not agree on a classification. Thus George

State of the parties under the Chatham administration






















Hunt, a thoroughly independent Member, was listed by Rockingham as one of his party; by Townshend as a Government supporter; and by Newcastle as ‘doubtful or absent’. Eight Members were classed by Rockingham as Whigs and by Newcastle as Tories. Of the 121 Members classed by Rockingham as belonging to his own party, Newcastle, his close friend and ally, accepted only 77. I repeat here what I wrote in The Chatham Administration about Rockingham’s and Newcastle’s lists:

Putting these results in another way, more than one-third of Rockingham’s list of friends was rejected by Newcastle, and about a quarter of Newcastle’s list was rejected by Rockingham. Yet the two lists were drawn up within three months of each other. Here, then, are the leaders of a party unable to agree upon who were their followers. What value can be given to their lists of the other parties if they do not know their own? And what kind of a party was it whose leaders did not know their own followers?

Still, certain facts do emerge from this table. The Government party was about 220 strong; the combined Opposition parties about 150; and about 180 Members were attached to neither Government nor Opposition. Rockingham greatly exaggerated the size of his own party and under-estimated that of his most formidable rival, Grenville. Townshend’s list is the most realistic, in frankly admitting that there were nearly 100 Members who could not be classified. And the balance of power in the House is clearly with the independents—whether styled Tory, country gentlemen, or doubtful: the men uncommitted to any party. The picture bears no resemblance to that of the present day House of Commons, but it is similar to that of the present day British electorate: there are two large blocs, always voting in their own ways, and between them a mass of uncommitted voters holding the balance.

What can be learnt from the speeches of Members about party and party divisions? The obvious thing that strikes anyone who reads through the biographical volumes is the number of Members who disclaimed party. It was the favourite gambit on the hustings. Sir Wilfred Lawson at the Cumberland by-election of 1761 declared that he would be the better able to discharge the trust imposed upon him ‘as he did not look upon himself as particularly obliged to any particular party’, and Samuel Eyre in his address to the electors of Devizes in February 1765 promised to be ‘steady, uniform, and independent, not biassed by interest, not attached to party’. Rear-Admiral Lord Hood wrote in 1783 when invited to contest Westminster: ‘I shall ever most carefully and studiously stand clear ... of all suspicion of being a party man; for if once I show myself of that frame of mind ... I must ... expect to lose every degree of consideration in the line of my profession.’ In the constituencies anything which seemed to be a party measure was damned. Henry Duncombe, M.P. for Yorkshire 1780-1796, attended a meeting at York in September 1770 to consider what further steps should be taken to secure redress of grievances arising from the Middlesex election. Though strongly opposed to the Government’s policy, Duncombe refused to concur in the measure suggested by the Rockingham party. ‘I had the misfortune to differ from my associates’, he wrote subsequently to Christopher Wyvill, ‘as things seemed then to me to carry too much the air of a party spirit, which I totally disclaimed.’ The highest compliment which could be paid to a Member of Parliament was to say that he was unconnected with party. The Public Ledger, an Opposition newspaper, wrote in 1779 about Francis Annesley, M.P. for Reading: ‘A very conscientious Member of Parliament, means well, votes with the Opposition, but not attached to any party.’ And the number of Members who in debate disclaimed party connexions is legion. Here is one example, out of hundreds. Richard Wilbraham Bootle, M.P. for Chester, described by the English Chronicle in 1780 as ‘one of the most independent Members in the House’, said in the debate of 21 February 1783, on Shelburne’s peace preliminaries: ‘He had seen so much injustice transacted in that House through the influence of party while he sat in the gallery and before he was a Member, that when he came into the House he had washed his hands of party for ever.’ And Wilberforce in 1785 described party as the evil ‘from which our greatest misfortunes arose’.

Even those Members who were generally considered to belong to parties, denounced party as an unhealthy element in political life. Let us take a few examples from the Rockinghams, perhaps the most party-conscious group in the House. Lord John Cavendish, one of Rockingham’s most trusted advisers, who owed his seat at York to Rockingham’s influence, said in the House on 2 April 1770 that he ‘wished all cursed distinctions of party to be done away’. Charles Turner, Cavendish’s colleague at York and also elected on Rockingham’s recommendation, did not consider himself as belonging to a party: he was, in his own words, ‘a country gentleman who meant to act entirely for the service of his constituents’; and on another occasion he described himself as ‘no party man’ but ‘an old-fashioned Whig’—a curious association of phrases, with the implication that the Whigs were no longer a party. Sir George Savile, M.P. for Yorkshire, to whose friendship and alliance Rockingham was indebted for his supremacy in Yorkshire politics, and of whom Burke wrote in 1773 that ‘much of the strength of our cause has arisen from its having his support’, wrote to his nephew on 12 January 1783, at the close of his political life: ‘What man can say he is conscientiously using the best of his judgment on any great state point, when he is ... sticking to a party in order to ... get ... a reward for his fidelity?’

And here is another example concerning another Member connected with the Rockingham party. Robert Gregory, for many years a director of the East India Company, was a friend of Rockingham who in 1768 had recommended him to Lord Aylesford for a seat at Maidstone. Gregory voted with the Opposition and was specially interested in East India affairs, on which he acted as one of Rockingham’s advisers. It would be natural to class him as belonging to the Rockingham party, were it not for an incident which took place in the House on 9 April 1781, during an East India debate. After Lord North had described the grave situation in India provoked by Hyder Ali’s invasion of the Carnatic, Gregory declared he would support whatever measures the Government should take to meet the crisis. Burke, who followed him, pledged himself, Gregory, and ‘those in opposition with whom he had conversed on the subject’ to support North ‘in everything that should appear to them conducive to the joint interest of the Company and the kingdom’. What followed may be described in the words of the parliamentary reporter:

Mr. Gregory got up again; and with warmth observed that as no man was more ready to support the noble Lord in everything reasonable than he was, yet he requested the honourable Member would only pledge himself and nobody else for the support of the measures that might be proposed; he said he stood connected with no party, nor with the honourable Member who had spoken last; he would give his opinion freely, and his support where he thought it due; but still regardless of the promises of others, he being as independent in his principles and his seat as any man in the House ...
Mr. Burke was hurt ... and observed that as the honourable gentleman thought proper to renounce any connexion with him, he was very welcome to do it.

Clearly, Gregory valued his independence to speak his mind freely, and was not prepared to allow a party to speak for him. Burke, however, who depended on Rockingham for a seat in the House, felt differently. Many years earlier he had outlined the case for party, arguing with reason and irrefutable logic:

How men can proceed without any connexion at all is to me utterly incomprehensible. Of what sort of materials must that man be made ... who can sit whole years in Parliament with five hundred and fifty of his fellow citizens ... without seeing any one sort of men whose character, conduct, or disposition would lead him to associate himself with them, to aid and be aided, in any one system of public utility?

But Burke’s devotion to the Rockingham party satisfied a deep emotional need in his nature, and time after time he sacrificed his own opinion to the judgment of his party leaders. And there is clearly a difference between Members associating together on a voluntary basis, reserving their right to differ from the group if they wish, and Members who have to follow the party line or else find another party which suits them better. The essential basis of party in the eighteenth century was voluntary; party decisions could not bind the individual Members, who preserved their independence as the most dearly cherished privilege of a Member of Parliament.

That this was so can be underlined by citing a few declarations by Members whose political conduct proved their independence. Lord Strange, M.P. for Lancashire, who for nine years held the office of chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster without drawing the salary, said in August 1765, when asked if he would support the newly-appointed Rockingham ministry, ‘that a Whig Administration I should always approve of, and if such a one was appointed I should certainly vote with them whenever I thought them right, and that I would go no further with any Administration.’ About the same time, John Campbell of Calder, M.P. for Corfe Castle, an old Whig who remembered Sir Robert Walpole, wrote to Newcastle:

Though an honest man may often comply with things not quite agreeable to him, rather than give any advantage against an Administration which he approves, yet there are some things in which he must follow his own judgment, such as he has, without regard to persons.

William Fitzherbert, M.P. for Derby, who, from being a partisan of Wilkes had become his enemy, thus defended himself in the House on 14 December 1770: ‘I am a private gentleman in employment, without connexions, without hopes, without fears. I am independent from temper ... I shall never be ashamed to say what I think.’ Nicolson Calvert, M.P. for Tewkesbury, though a follower of Chatham, voted for the Government on the Spanish convention, 13 February 1771, because he thought Great Britain had been the aggressor in the quarrel over the Falkland Islands: ‘I stand a free man. No man shall ever lead me.’ General John Burgoyne, M.P. for Preston, normally a Government supporter, voted with the Opposition over the Spanish convention, and described the rule of his political conduct as ‘to assist Government in my general line of conduct, but that in great national points ... I would ever hold myself at liberty to maintain my own opinion’. Robert Walsingham, who represented the Duke of Devonshire’s borough of Knaresborough, normally voted with the Opposition but refused to concur in their attack on the naval administration of his friend Lord Sandwich: ‘He was an independent man’, he said on 19 April 1779, ‘and was ready to put the smiles or frowns of either side of the House equally at defiance.’

Despite these examples, it may be objected that solemn assertions of independence were often no more than lip-service to an accepted idea. Even if this were so, it would prove, nevertheless, that independence, rather than devotion to a party, was the expected conduct of a Member of Parliament. But the number of real independents will come as a surprise even to some of those best acquainted with the period; and still more so, the number of Members who, though as a rule voting with Government or a party, would deviate from their normal line and act according to their own judgment and conscience. At the very outset of this period, on 3 October 1754, William Pitt wrote about the newly elected House of Commons: ‘They are not disciplined troops, and he must be an able general indeed who can answer for them.’ And almost at the end, when the younger Pitt, despite his brilliant electoral victory of 1784, was running into difficulties with the House, Daniel Pulteney, M.P. for Bramber, wrote to his patron the Duke of Rutland, 4 March 1785:

The explanation to all this is neither more nor less than that the House of Commons, being at present perhaps too independent ... has many whims and caprices, and will decide against any minister, sometimes without ill-will to him in the main.

There it is in a nut-shell: ‘too independent’, ‘whims and caprices’. No wonder that experienced electoral and parliamentary managers were often unable to gauge the attitude of Members, especially when they were mute. And no wonder that Governments were frequently defeated: their majorities depended largely on the support of the independents, and that support could always be withdrawn. Four divisions in which North’s Administration was defeated will serve as examples, none of them concerned with its American policy. (It will be noticed that the Government would have had a clear majority on each occasion if all those who normally supported Government had done so in these divisions.)

Government vote              
Opposition vote                    

Number of normal

Government suppporters

voting with Opposition

9 February 1773

Petition of naval officers

for an increase in half pay

25 February 1774

Motion to make permanent

Grenville’s Act for deciding

controverted elections

12 February 1779

Jennings Clerke’s bill

to debar Government contractors

from sitting in the House

6 April 1780

Dunning’s motion against

the influence of the Crown



We should be clear as to what the eighteenth century meant by independence. An independent Member could act with a party or even hold office under the Crown without thereby forfeiting his independence. The crucial test was the tenure by which he held his seat in the House. If he sat for a Treasury borough, or depended on Government assistance (financial or otherwise), or if he owed his seat to a patron, he could not be truly independent; for his political conduct had necessarily to be acceptable to those who brought him into Parliament, and if it was not he faced the prospect of losing his seat. But if he sat for a county or a populous borough, or for his own pocket borough, or if he had bought his seat, then he was truly independent, responsible only to his constituents (if he had any). Sir George Savile, who represented the 20,000 freeholders of Yorkshire, or Thomas Pitt, who represented the seven burgages of Old Sarum, were both, in eighteenth-century eyes, independent; Edmund Burke, who when he sat for Malton represented nobody but Lord Rockingham, was not.

In the last analysis the real test of independence was an economic one. Sir Gregory Page Turner, M.P. for Thirsk 1784-1805, claimed that ‘whatever his abilities were ... his property rendered him independent, and he always delivered his sincere sentiments according to his conscientious opinion’. When in 1756 Rose Fuller, a rich Jamaica planter, was looking for a seat in the House, a friend wrote to Lord Hardwicke: ‘Mr. Fuller ... is of too much property to desire to be brought in by any interest that should entirely restrain the freedom of his vote.’ A cousin of Ralph Payne thus recommended him to the Duke of Grafton for a seat at the general election of 1768: ‘He has a very strong attachment to Lord Chatham and the present Administration ... but as he is willing to be at a large expense to get into Parliament ... he hopes to be allowed a perfect independency ... and means to act on all occasions on the best convictions of his own understanding only.’ And the English Chronicle wrote about William Plumer, M.P. for Hertfordshire, in 1781: ‘Having little to wish ... and nothing to fear, he is governed by no consideration but his own conviction.’

The connexion between financial security and political independence is clearly stated in the following extract, written in October 1757, from the diary of Sir John Gordon, M.P. for Cromartyshire:

Thank God I still have between £800 and £900 per annum, subject to a debt only of about £7,000, besides the salary of my office ... I am now able to stand against ministerial close fistedness for I am not obliged to be equally dependent as formerly when my situation subjected me to slights at their hands.

A Member might also be restrained in his independence by the circumstances of his family. When Thomas Pelham was elected for Sussex in 1780 the English Chronicle wrote that it was doubtful which way he would give his vote in Parliament. Pelham was strongly inclined to the Opposition and thought Lord North ‘a most abominable minister’, yet he hesitated to vote against Administration lest his father be dismissed from his court sinecure in consequence. He wrote to his father on 8 August 1781: ‘I am sure that with a very large nominal estate, you must at present feel a dependence on your emoluments from Government, and that the least turn in affairs would make your situation very uncomfortable.’ He compromised between his convictions and his interest, by voting against the American war but supporting North on motions of confidence in his Administration. The contrary fate befell Lord Herbert, first returned to Parliament in 1780 for his family’s borough of Wilton, who wished to vote with the Government but was afraid of offending his father Lord Pembroke, a red-hot oppositionist. Three weeks after taking his seat, Herbert wrote to a friend:

I have lately discovered what has long been known, that in this blessed country nobody sits on principle, being all biassed by connexions, either friendly or family interest, etc. For my part I have been on three divisions in the House and out of those three times have only voted once according to my opinions, and did that en cachet for fear my family connexions should get hold of it. And after all this, the world are pleased to call me a free Englishman and a member of a free Parliament!

Few patrons were generous enough to allow their dependants to vote as they pleased in the House. The three line whip already existed during this period, but it was sent by the patron not by the party. On 28 February 1755, when the House was occupied with the struggle over the Mitchell election petition, the Duke of Newcastle wrote to his cousin James Pelham, M.P. for Hastings:

Dear Jemmy,
I should not trouble you with desiring you to attend the Mitchell election this night, if I did not think I had a right to insist with my own family to attend, where my situation as one of the principal ministers is greatly concerned ... and if this is the case what an appearance would it have for you to be absent.

‘Dear Jemmy’ however did not attend, and the tone of the Duke’s next communication changed abruptly:

You will not be surprised that after the letter I wrote you I should be much disappointed and concerned that you did not attend the Mitchell election. I am convinced that it was not your age or infirmities that occasioned your absence, but some attachment separate from and independent of me. Since that is the case I should advise you, for your own sake as well as mine, to quit your seat in Parliament, that I may choose one at Hastings upon whom I may entirely depend.

Pelham managed to pacify the Duke and convince him that ill health alone was the reason for his absence. One of the very few exceptions to the rule that a patron’s politics governed his dependant’s took place in 1787, when Lord Spencer allowed Humphrey Minchin, who sat on his interest at Okehampton, to go over to Pitt; still, at the next general election Minchin felt obliged to obtain a seat elsewhere.

With so many Members independent of Administration, why did the House almost invariably support successive Administrations of different political complexions, which has earned it the reputation of subserviency from historians and contemporaries alike? One reason is that the independents were politically ineffective: not being bound by a community of views, interest, or purpose, they could not form a body capable of political manœuvre—to do that they would have had to become a party. Except on rare occasions, when a powerful wave of public feeling swept the country (as for instance towards the end of the American war) the independents, by dividing more or less evenly between Government and Opposition, cancelled each other out, and thus enabled a comparatively small but compact Treasury group to tip the balance decisively in favour of Administration. Moreover, the attendance of placemen, mostly resident in or near London, or even of those closely identified with political parties, was more regular than that of the independents, who were not professional politicians.

A second reason is that on controversial issues there was a tendency on the part of the independents to give the Government the benefit of the doubt. To vote with the Opposition smacked of faction, and the independent Member would not do so unless the issue touched his conscience. Herbert Mackworth, M.P. for Cardiff Boroughs, declared during the debate on the expulsion of Wilkes, 3 February 1769: ‘My mind is distressed to give a vote ... I shall go against his Majesty’s ministers, but my principle is to support them.’ And Sir Thomas Clavering, M.P. for Durham county, said on 19 March 1770, when attacked for changing his mind on the Middlesex election: ‘I think Administration acted wrong, but when the majority of this House thought otherwise it was my duty to submit to it.’ The principle of giving the Government the benefit of the doubt was expressed by Sir Gregory Page Turner, M.P. for Thirsk, when he said in the debate on Pitt’s commercial propositions, 12 May 1785, that ‘he did not understand the resolutions, but could vote with a clear conscience from his confidence in the right honourable gentleman’.

Burke and other Opposition politicians frequently denounced those Members who were prepared to vote with every Administration, whatever its political complexion; but the existence of a court party followed logically from the fact that the Government, through the Treasury and the Admiralty, controlled a number of pocket boroughs, and was able to secure the nomination to many more under private patronage. A court party existed, not through deliberate intent, but by the force of electoral circumstances; and what might be called a court political philosophy also existed. The Crown, the head of the executive, naturally attracted those who were ambitious of office, especially if they had no parliamentary interest of their own. Here was another factor which retarded the growth of party in the political sense.

It has been shown in an earlier section that the electoral influence of the Crown decreased during this period. The fundamental cause of that decrease seems to have been the growth of party feeling in the House of Commons, which was itself a consequence of the emergence of political questions which deeply divided the House and the politically conscious part of the nation. The history of the House of Commons can only be understood as part of the political history of Great Britain; still, it is beyond the scope of this survey to tell the story of the political developments of these years. All that can be done is to show their effect upon the House of Commons, and the changes in the party composition of the House between 1754 and 1790.

In 1754, according to Lord Dupplin’s calculations, the Government party, under the leadership of the Duke of Newcastle, numbered 368 Members. But most of those Members owed allegiance to Newcastle not as party leader but as first lord of the Treasury, and did not follow him when he went into opposition in 1762. Bute had as big a majority as ever Newcastle had, and in December 1762, after Bute’s victory on the peace preliminaries, it seemed that a new stability had been reached in terms of the new reign. There was a new King and there was a new minister, but essentially the political system remained unchanged.

The period of short-lived ministries, from 1762 to 1770, was pre-eminently a period of personal politics. Each successive minister—Bute, Grenville, Rockingham, Chatham—was able in office to build up his own party and to lead it into opposition after he had left office, but the longer he remained in opposition the smaller his following grew. Grenville, when he became first lord of the Treasury in April 1763, had no followers in the House of Commons; when he left office in July 1765 there was a group of about 70 Members who looked to him as their political leader. By July 1766, when Chatham took office, this group had been reduced to about 30, and when Grenville died in November 1770 the number of his followers in the House did not exceed 20. Shortly after his death his two principal lieutenants, Lord Suffolk and Alexander Wedderburn, made overtures to the court, and in January 1771 most of Grenville’s friends rejoined Administration. Parties which were essentially personal in their nature could not survive the natural or political death of their leader. Bute’s group broke up after his retirement from politics in 1766; the Duke of Bedford’s group merged into the Government party after the Duke’s death in January 1771; while Chatham, who did not bother to cultivate a party, had never more than a handful of followers in the House.

Personal parties grew in size at the expense of the Government party. However much Members in office or who aspired to office might protest that their political allegiance was to the sovereign alone, and however much they might deplore the growth of party, they were nearly all sooner or later engulfed by the parties: they could not for ever swim against the current of the age. Welbore Ellis, who had held office continuously from 1747 to 1765 and from 1770 to 1782, protested to the King in March 1783: ‘I have been in Parliament forty-two years, and in this long course of service I can say what few can, that I never was a part of any concerted system of Opposition.’ Yet he was in opposition to Pitt from 1783 to 1794, and like a fish out of water: Sir Gilbert Elliot in 1787 described him as ‘out of his place in a hopeless opposition’. Lord Granby, on his return from Germany in February 1763, declared to the King that he would in future support Bute as he had hitherto supported Newcastle. ‘Lord Granby’s language to me was full of duty and attachment’, wrote the King to Bute, ‘saying ... his inclination as well as duty would make him ever attached to my person, and subsequently support my measures and ministry as at present composed or however I should form it.’ For the next three years Granby’s conduct conformed to his profession, but in July 1765, when the King dismissed Grenville and gave the Treasury to Rockingham, his language began to change. ‘If your Majesty orders me to continue in office’, he told the King, ‘I have only to obey, but, Sir, I hope you will permit me to continue unconnected with your ministers.’ Granby was now much more the politician and much less the servant of the Crown, and five years later he resigned his offices and went with Chatham into opposition. Despite all his professions of political allegiance to the Crown, he had become a party man.

The era of personal parties came to an end about 1770. Bute had retired; Chatham was in the House of Lords; Grenville and Bedford were shortly to die. With Lord North as first lord of the Treasury the court party had again a leader in the House of Commons, and as the agitation over the Middlesex election died away a new stability was achieved in the House, not to be disturbed until the disasters of the American war.

One party only survived the era of personal parties: that led by Lord Rockingham. When Rockingham left office in July 1766 he had about 70 Members in his party. Their numbers probably increased during the following three years, years of weak leadership by Administration and of increasing party conflict in the House. By January 1770, when North took office, Rockingham had about 100 followers and was the only party leader in the Opposition with any considerable following. Chatham and Shelburne, his rivals in the Opposition, disclaimed the idea of party and drew their support mainly from the independent Members; while the handful of radicals in the House were as yet unorganized. These years saw a certain hardening of party lines, an acceptance of party as a normal element in the life of the House of Commons, which is symbolized by the fact that in the Parliament of 1768-1774 Members are noted as taking their seats according to their political inclinations. There had long been a Treasury bench; now there began to be an Opposition front bench; and the practice of sitting regularly on one or the other side of the House spread to the back benches. It was by no means universal: Richard Rigby, paymaster general from 1768 to 1782, always sat on the Opposition side of the House. Still, the fact that Rigby was thought to be eccentric in this, indicates what was coming to be the accepted custom; and in 1778 George Johnstone used the expression ‘cross the floor’ in the sense of changing one’s political allegiance. Yet party allegiance, as contrasted with political inclination, was confined to a minority of Members only. Chatham told the Duke of Richmond in 1771 that ‘there were many eccentric men who would not belong to a party’ and that they were ‘the real strength of Opposition’. It could not be otherwise so long as the majority of Members were returned independent of party organizations.

The Rockinghams were pre-eminently an aristocratic party. Lord George Cavendish was speaking Rockingham’s sentiments when he told Horace Walpole in February 1783 that ‘he liked an aristocracy and thought it right that great families with great connexions should govern’. They had no roots in the nation at large: no follower of Rockingham ever sat for London or Westminster (Charles James Fox was a political leader in his own right), and Burke’s attempt to capture Bristol for the Rockinghams proved a failure. Their belief that ‘great families with great connexions should govern’ was alien to the spirit of urban radicalism. They looked back to an imaginary golden age of Whig rule and lacked inspiration for the future. Rockingham wrote on 20 December 1772 to one of his followers, James Murray, who was contemplating leaving Parliament: ‘I cannot wonder that you and others should be tired out with the drudgery of Parliament and in continuing a system of politics which affords little prospect of success.’ And even after fighting had broken out in America, when Burke was trying to rouse the party to face the greatest political crisis of their time, Rockingham thought nothing could be done until ‘a degree of experience of the evils’ had brought about ‘a right judgment in the public at large’. Burke, in despair at the sloth and procrastination of his leaders, wrote to Charles Fox on 8 October 1777: ‘A great deal of activity and enterprise can scarcely ever be expected from such men, unless some horrible calamity is just over their heads or unless they suffer some gross personal insults from power.’ The failure of the Rockinghams to appeal to the nation at large, to develop a positive political faith, was a brake on the development of party in the constituencies.

The era of political parties, as contrasted with personal parties, dates from about 1775, though the two types overlap: personal parties had political questions thrust upon them and had to adapt themselves accordingly. Parties were shaped by the great issues of the American war and of reform, and from 1775 to 1782 five groups can be distinguished in the House of Commons, each differentiated on a political basis.

First was the Government party, led by Lord North, which stood for the prosecution of the American war and was opposed to both economical and parliamentary reform. Its numbers were between 150 and 200: it was at its highest in 1775 and 1776 when enthusiasm for the war was at its greatest, and began slowly to decrease from 1780 as it became clear that the aims for which the war had been begun were not to be attained. Allied to the Government party was a group of independent Members, who supported North on the American war but opposed him over reform. In John Robinson’s survey for the general election of 1780 above twenty Members are noted as voting with the Government on the American war but with the Opposition on economical reform. Here are Robinson’s comments on some of them:

I put Lord Ongley [M.P. for Bedfordshire] down for, because he generally is so except in some of the questions of economy and reformation ...
Mr. Hungerford [M.P. for Leicestershire] most generally with, except upon very popular questions.
Sir Horace Mann [M.P. for Maidstone] is canvassed against, because on the popular questions he has gone against, but he is often for, and inclines to support Government and the present constitution.
Mr. Daniel Lascelles [M.P. for Northallerton] is only put hopeful, because in these late popular questions he has gone against, but he is a friend to Government ...
Sir H. P. St. John [M.P. for Hampshire] is often with us, but in the late questions was against or shirked.

All the Members classed by Robinson under this heading sat for large open constituencies (nearly half of them for counties) or for pocket boroughs entirely under their own control: they were as a group closely in touch with their constituents and responsive to public opinion. From the evidence of division lists it would appear that Robinson under-estimated their number, and that the group comprised at least 50 Members.

Looked at quantitatively, the Opposition consisted of one large party, a number of smaller groups, and a mass of independent Members. Rockingham’s party did not exceed a hundred in number; and the smaller Opposition groups—those of Lord Shelburne, the Duke of Rutland, and Sir James Lowther—contained only a handful of Members. The number of independent Members who voted with Opposition was increasing after 1779 and by the time of North’s fall probably numbered about 100. Split as it was into a number of groups, it was difficult for the Opposition to formulate a policy which would reconcile them all. In fact, there were at least three different policies in the Opposition, which frequently produced discord and led after 1782 to a complete re-alignment of parties.

The Rockingham group favoured an immediate end to the American war by acknowledging the independence of the United States; it advocated economical reform, but was opposed to parliamentary reform. What might be called the Shelburne policy, in which he was supported in varying degrees by Rutland, Lowther, and many independents, was also opposed to the American war but desired if possible to preserve the sovereignty of Great Britain over the colonies and disliked the idea of unconditional recognition of American independence. Shelburne laid much less emphasis on economical reform than Rockingham: he was more interested in overhauling the antiquated administrative system than in reducing the influence of the Crown, and he was more sympathetic towards parliamentary reform. Lastly, there were the radicals, whose ideas cut sharply across those of the other parties.

The radicals never numbered more than a dozen Members, most of them sitting for the metropolitan constituencies. They did not form a coherent group in the House, but were mixed with and permeated all parties. Wilkes had a little following of his own; James Townsend and John Sawbridge adhered in the main to Shelburne; while others, such as Sir Joseph Mawbey and James Martin, remained aloof from close party connexions. There could as yet be no radical party in the House, for it was a firm article of the radical creed that a Member must vote according to the wishes of his constituents. Radicals elected for London took a pledge to this effect, and in the metropolitan constituencies it was the practice to hold meetings at frequent intervals to vote instructions to the Members. To such an extent did some Members carry this principle, that in March 1790 James Martin declared in the House that he would vote against the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, contrary to his own convictions, because it was the wish of his constituents. But by the time Pitt had taken office, even the metropolitan radicals were beginning to withdraw from this position. Nathaniel Newnham, M.P. for London, said in the House on 18 June 1784:

Upon all local questions, upon all oppressive internal taxes, and every case that related to them in particular, the constituents’ instructions ought ... to be implicitly obeyed; but where the character, talents, and views of ministers were matters under consideration, where measures affecting the general interests of the nation at large were to be discussed and decided upon, there he thought the representative ought to be left to himself to act as his own judgment ... should direct him.

Some idea of the radical programme can be seen from the election address issued at the general election of 1774 by the four radical candidates for London—John Sawbridge, Frederick Bull, Brass Crosby, and George Hayley. They pledged themselves to work for shorter Parliaments, a place bill, an oath against bribery to be taken by all candidates for Parliament, parliamentary reform, the annulment of the Commons’ resolutions on the Middlesex election of 1769, and measures for conciliation in America. Some of this was common to the ideas of the Tories about 1754, and it is easy to see how an old Tory like Sir Roger Newdigate came to vote for radical measures. On social questions the radicals were lukewarm, if not reactionary, and none of the great social reform movements of this period—penal reform or the abolition of the slave trade—owed anything to them. They were also strongly opposed to the extension of religious toleration to Roman Catholics. Nathaniel Polhill, returned for Southwark as a Wilkite radical in 1774, was a leading member of Lord George Gordon’s Protestant Association, and his only speech in the House, 26 May 1780, was in support of the Association’s protest against the Catholic Relief Act of 1778. Frederick Bull, M.P. for London 1773-1784, a follower of Wilkes, was another radical who belonged to the Protestant Association. Such was the feeling amongst the radicals against the Roman Catholics, that at the general election of 1780 John Sawbridge had to issue an assurance that he had opposed the Catholic Relief Act.

The news of Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown, received in England in December 1781, united all the Opposition parties on the practical issue of putting an end to the war in America, and won for them the support of so many independent Members as to make Lord North’s position precarious and eventually untenable. His fall was heralded by General Conway’s motion on 22 February 1782 against the further prosecution of the war, which the Government survived by a majority of only one vote; on a second motion in similar terms on 27 February the Government was beaten by 234 to 215. The Opposition then moved in for the kill, and on 8 March Lord John Cavendish proposed a motion of no confidence in the Government. This, however, was defeated by 226 to 216; and on 15 March a motion of censure against the Government, moved by Sir John Rous, M.P. for Suffolk, was also beaten, by 236 votes to 227.

An extraordinary situation resulted from these divisions. The House of Commons had repudiated the American war yet had expressed its confidence in the minister; it had condemned his policy yet had supported his continuance in office. In part this was the result of North’s declaration that he would re-shape his policy in accordance with the successful motion of 27 February, and his introduction the following day of a bill to enable the Government to make peace with the colonies. In part also it resulted from a feeling among the independent Members, which can be summed up in a remark by Philip Yorke, M.P. for Cambridgeshire, who had voted with the Opposition against the continuance of the war: ‘I should be sorry that it should be attended with the consequences of putting Mr. Fox in Lord North’s situation, to which I by no means wish to be an accessory, and yet I could not avoid voting for the address.’ Yorke, and others like him, did not consider it to be the duty of the House of Commons to prescribe to the King who his ministers should be.

An analysis of the division lists for the last weeks of North’s Administration shows that there were 241 Members who supported Government, 237 who voted with the Opposition, and 31 who concurred with the Opposition on the American war yet opposed any censure of North’s Administration. It was the Members of this latter group who enabled North to retain office, despite the condemnation of his policy by the House of Commons, and it was when a number of them intimated to North that they would no longer oppose what seemed to be the sense of the House that he determined to resign. Thus a relatively small body of Members held the balance in the House, just as today a relatively small number of voters holds the balance in the electorate.

The part public opinion played in the downfall of North can to some extent be measured from the following table. This analyses the voting of Members from different types of constituencies, first on Dunning’s motion against the influence of the Crown (6 April 1780) and next on Rous’s motion of censure against the Government (15 March 1782). Members who paired are included.

Type of Constituency                     
(6 April 1780)
(15 March 1782)

English counties10581456
Large English borough12411345
Medium English boroughs21182422
Small English boroughs1379514794


The biggest constituencies (the English counties and the large boroughs), the ones least amenable to the influence of patrons, voted overwhelmingly against the Government, whose main support came from the Members for the small English boroughs and Scotland (the constituencies with the smallest electorates).

In the two years which followed North’s resignation there were four Administrations: those of Rockingham, Shelburne, the Fox-North coalition, and the younger Pitt. On Rockingham’s death, the bulk of his followers joined with the bulk of North’s followers to form a party under the nominal leadership of the Duke of Portland but really directed by Charles James Fox. After the general election of 1784, when Pitt had consolidated his power, the House settled down on something like a two-party basis, superficially resembling the House of today. On the one side was Pitt, holding a position like that of a modern prime minister; on the other was Fox, holding the position of a modern leader of the Opposition. Between 1780 and 1784 there had been a consolidation of parties; the smaller groups had disappeared; and every Member of the House appeared to have taken sides, either for Pitt or for Fox. The names of Whig and Tory had long since ceased to have any meaning, or rather were in the process of acquiring entirely different meanings from those they had held in 1754; and the speculative historian can see in Pitt the founder of the modern Conservative party, and in Fox the inspirer of the Liberal party of the 19th century. Moreover, this consolidation into two parties had affected the whole of the nation—Scotland as well as England. Are we then to conclude that by 1784 party had become an established part of the British political scene?

To this conclusion certain qualifications must be made. In 1784, just as in 1754, the politicians professed to decry party and to wish for an Administration formed from the best of all parties. Lord John Cavendish, when moving the motion of censure against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries, 21 February 1783, defended the coalition between Fox and North by comparing it with the Pitt-Newcastle coalition of 1757—‘Nothing but a union of great and able men could save the country’, he said. Benjamin Hammett, M.P. for Taunton, spoke for many independent Members when he told the House on 19 December 1783, the day Pitt assumed office, that ‘he liked those ministers who were gone out, and those who were coming in’, ‘was really sorry that such divisions prevailed in the House’, and wished that ‘a coalition, taking in the abilities of all parts of the House, might take place’. Such also was the wish of the seventy Members who gathered at the St. Alban’s Tavern to forward the idea of a union between Pitt and Fox; and Pitt and Fox, however sceptical they might feel about the possibilities of such a union, had at the least to profess to take it seriously. The difficulty was that there could be only one leader of the House of Commons, and neither Pitt nor Fox was prepared to yield this place to the other; and also that the King had shown his decided preference for Pitt. Had there been any essential change since 1754 when Henry Fox and the elder Pitt had contended for the position which was now the object of their sons’ ambition? Was it not still the basic problem of politics to find a minister who could command the confidence of the Crown and of the House of Commons? Parties had been consolidated but the problem remained.

Nor had the political structure of the House changed much by the end of the period. A computation undertaken in 1788 on behalf of a group of independent Members gave Pitt’s Administration 281 supporters (186 of whom were described as the party of the Crown ‘who would probably support his Majesty’s Government under any minister not peculiarly unpopular’), the Opposition 155 votes, and classed 108 Members as ‘independent’ or ‘unconnected’. Thus the independents still formed a large group between two opposing parties, although their numbers had decreased since Lord North’s day. And independence, rather than allegiance to a party, was still the proudest boast of a Member of Parliament. Even Pitt did not regard himself as the leader of a party but rather as the servant of the House. On four occasions during the Parliament of 1784-1790 he brought forward measures which were rejected by the House (the Westminster scrutiny, parliamentary reform, the Irish commercial propositions, and the plan for fortifying the dockyards at Plymouth and Portsmouth), and on each occasion he accepted the decision of the House without feeling that it indicated a lack of confidence in himself. And some of the most momentous questions which came before the House during this Parliament—the impeachment of Warren Hastings, parliamentary reform, the abolition of the slave trade, the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts—were not party issues. They indicate a heightened social consciousness in the British political nation, a different standard of social and political morality from that prevailing about 1754; but their appearance as issues of political controversy was not the result of the growth of party feeling, nor was there anything which might be regarded as a party line regarding them. A Member of Parliament still sought the approval of his constituents (or the patron of the borough which he represented—in Gibbon’s words his ‘great constituent’) not of his party, for it was to his constituents not to his party that he owed his seat.

It was also true at the end of the period, as at the beginning, that the influence of the Crown was greater than the influence of party in the choice of a leader of the House of Commons. The younger Pitt, who depended on the Crown, triumphed over Fox, who relied upon party; and Fox’s only chance of obtaining office after 1784 was when the King’s illness seemed about to place the authority of the Crown in hands more favourable to him. Pitt held the double post of minister for the Crown in the House of Commons and minister for the House of Commons in the King’s Closet: the post held by all great 18th century statesmen, the key office in politics. Government was a partnership between the Crown and the House of Commons, and it was fortunate for Great Britain that on the American problem, the most intractable political question of the period, the Crown did not attempt to find a solution independent of the House of Commons. By identifying himself with the will of the House, George III preserved intact the system of mixed government which was ultimately to develop into the system of constitutional government. For that, he deserved well of his people; but the price the nation had to pay for the preservation of its system of government was the loss of the American colonies.

Ref Volumes: 1754-1790

Author: John Brooke

End Notes

  • 1. Newcastle did not distinguish between the Grenville and Bedford parties.