Tuesday, 31 January 2017

George III and the politicians (2): the Whig opposition

Charles James Fox, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Public Domain

The movement for reform

John Wilkes was not really a radical, but his career energised those who were critical of the political system. The demand grew for shorter parliaments and a redistribution of seats away from the boroughs that could be managed by powerful patrons and towards the more ‘independent’ counties. Opposition politicians were increasingly appropriating the name ‘Whig’ and pursuing an agenda of limiting the power of the Crown. Their parliamentary leader was the Marquess of Rockingham, who had been briefly Prime Minister 1765-6. 

Edmund Burke

The Irishman, Edmund Burke, emerged as the most eloquent spokesman for the Whigs. Unlike most of his fellow-Whigs he came from a middle-class background, and this made him something of an outsider. He had come to London to study for the bar, but he wanted a political career. In July 1765 he became private secretary to Lord Rockingham. In 1766, thanks to the influence of Lord Verney, he was elected for the borough of Wendover. 

Edmund Burke, by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Public Domain

In May 1770, with Lord North now Prime Minister, Burke published Thoughts on the Cause of the Present DiscontentsIt was a defence of the Whigs and an attack on the growth of a court party which undermined successive ministries. In contrast to the prevailing view that party was ‘faction’, Burke saw it as the means of restoring integrity to public life because it would allow policy to be moulded by convictions and ideals:

‘Party is a body of men united for promoting by their joining endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle on which they are all agreed.’
He also declared, in a now frequently misquoted statement: ‘
When bad men combine, the good men must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’
In 1774 Burke was elected MP for Bristol, a freeman borough and the Empire’s second city. The Tories were in disarray, the Whigs were looking for a candidate, and Burke fitted the bill. His ‘Address to the Electors of Bristol’, delivered in November after he had been elected, expounded the now widely quoted principle of representative government. (This principle was to be tested to destruction when he fell out with his constituents over America.)

Monday, 23 January 2017

George III and the politicians (1): John Wilkes

The new king

George III in his coronation robes
by Allan Ramsay
Public domain

George III succeeded his grandfather, George II, on 25 October 1760, aged twenty-two. Politics immediately took a new turn. George had hated his grandfather and was determined to reverse his policies. His grandfather’s ministers were invited and the proscriptions on the Tories were lifted. In one of his first public announcements, he stated that ‘he gloried in the name of Briton’ (meaning wasn't a German!) and was determined to be a ‘Patriot King’.  By this he meant that he wished to govern above party - unlike his grandfather who (he believed) had been a prisoner of the Whigs.

Since 1714 the Tories had been the opposition party. Now that they had lost this role, they seemed to lack purpose. Furthermore, there was no adult heir to the throne to be the focus of opposition to the monarch and his ministers. Faced with these new circumstances, the Tory party disintegrated. Politics became factionalised and everything depended on the King’s choice of minister. This inevitably put a new emphasis on this aspect of the royal prerogative.

The old guard gone

George III succeeded to the throne during the Seven Years’ War with France. He saw the war as his grandfather's war, and he wished to end it as quickly as possible. In 1761 Pitt the Elder, the Secretary of State, resigned from the government. In May 1762 the Prime Minister, the Duke of Newcastle, was forced to resign. George had got rid of the administration that had seen the greatest series of victories in British history. He could now be his own man. Or could he?

Friday, 20 January 2017

Coming soon from the Royal Archives

The digitisation of historical documents is changing the way we teach and study history. I envy the students at King's College, London, who'll be studying digital images from the reign of George III that are being released by the Royal Archives at Windsor. See here for the details of this exciting project.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Politics, Georgian style

Karl Anton Hickel William Pitt the Younger addressing the
House of Commons on the outbreak of war with France
Wikimedia Commons

The multi-volume and very comprehensive History of Parliament is now online and this post is very much indebted to its research.

'The King in Parliament'

Eighteenth-century Britain was not a democracy. Power rested with the landed elites who controlled Parliament and local government. The monarch had considerable prerogative powers. He summoned and dissolved Parliament and appointed ministers, peers and bishops. No prime minister could remain long in office without the support of the King.

However, following the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9, the King could not rule without Parliament, which, after 1716 had to be summoned every seven years. He could not hold on to a Prime Minister who did not have the support of the Commons. The great mass of the public did not have the right to vote, but public opinion could not be ignored.  The press was (largely) free and the judiciary was independent. The building-blocks of democracy had been put in place. 

Local government was in the hands of the aristocracy (200 families) and the country gentry (12, 00-13, 00 families). The nobility sat in the Lords and controlled many Commons seats. The upper gentry were knights of the shire; the middling gentry were JPs. National politics was controlled by the great political families, who filled government posts and had considerable powers of patronage. 

Because the monarch retained the right to appoint ministers, no government could be stable without his approval. Stable ministers required the support of both king and Parliament. Because the Commons controlled finance and taxation, it had an ultimate sanction over ministers and the Crown.