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.)

‘It ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’

Charles James Fox

From 1774 Burke's parliamentary ally was Charles James Fox.  Unlike Burke he came from an aristocratic background, his mother being the sister of the Duke of Richmond and a descendant of Charles II. He had been an MP since 1768 when his father, the politician Henry Fox, had secured for him the pocket borough of Midhurst. He immediately made a name for himself as a parliamentary debater and, ironically in view of his later career, his earliest speeches were attacks on Wilkes. Between February 1770 and March 1774 he served in North’s government – and resigned twice. 

Both resignations were controversial. His first resignation was in February 1772, ostensibly as a protest against the Royal Marriages Act. His second resignation in February 1774 (from the Treasury Board) seems to have been on a point of parliamentary privilege: against North’s wishes he wanted the printer of an opposition pamphlet sent to the Tower. The motive was likely to have been personal animus against North. His conduct was too much for the king, who directed North to send him a note of dismissal: ‘Sir, his Majesty has thought it proper to order a new commission of the Treasury to be made out, in which I do not perceive your name.’ From this time Fox’s hatred of the king became poisonous and was to have far-reaching political consequences.

Between 1774 and 1782 Fox moved over to the Rockingham Whigs. The issue that drew him to them was America. Fox and the Whigs supported the American colonists because they believed that if George III succeeded in imposing a despotism in America he would do the same in Britain. Accordingly Fox provocatively referred to George Washington as ‘my illustrious friend’, and he and his supporters adopted as their colours the blue and buff of Washington’s army. When he debated America, his remarks were often deeply personal – and aimed at North and his ministers.

Even by the standards of his day, Fox’s private life was scandalous. He was caricatured more than any other politician of his day. He was notorious for his huge gambling debts and for his many love affairs. But he had great charm and charisma and even those who disapproved of him on political or personal grounds found it difficult to dislike him.

The Yorkshire Association

The movement for reform was not confined to the parliamentary Whigs. In Yorkshire a grass-roots campaign against political and parliamentary corruption was led by Christopher Wyvill (1740-1822) a wealthy, liberal-minded clergyman. For Wyvill and the Yorkshire gentry, the ultimate cure for corruption in politics was to restore the independence of the Commons from executive influence through a programme of economical (administrative) reform. A large public meeting in York in December 1779 formed a County ‘Association’ of ‘gentlemen, clergy and freeholders’ and a petition was drawn up denouncing the waste of public money, alleging that in this way the crown had built up ‘a great and unconstitutional influence, which, if not checked, may soon prove fatal to the liberties of the country.

The election of 1780

During the summer of 1780 the prospects for reform suddenly worsened when North called a snap election and the Rockinghams, tainted by their association with the Americans, performed indifferently. Burke did not even contest Bristol and was given Rockingham’s seat of Malton, which had a mere three hundred voters. The government kept its majority (though it lost six seats) but its fate depended on the war.

Charles James Fox was returned for Westminster. After twelve years in a pocket borough it was a considerable triumph to be elected for a ‘popular’ constituency.

One prominent new member was William Wilberforce who was elected for Hull (topping the poll with 1126 votes). In a by-election in January 1781 William Pitt the Younger was returned for Lord Lowther’s pocket borough of Appleby (having come bottom of the poll at Cambridge University the previous year). He attached himself to Lord Shelburne, who had been his father’s disciple.

The fall of Lord North

On 25 November 1781 the news of the surrender of Yorktown to the French and Americans reached Britain and broke the morale of the government. Within a fortnight North had come round to the necessity of conceding independence.

'The surrender of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown',
by John Trumbull
Public Domain

In the early months of 1782 the government kept losing votes in the Commons as the opposition MPs – the Rockinghamites and the followers of Lord Shelburne - united in a temporary alliance. On 18 March North told the king that he had lost the support of the independent members. On 20 March the king accepted his resignation. The will of the Commons had prevailed over his wishes. Twelve years of political stability were to be followed by two years of intense instability.

George was very reluctant to contemplate a Rockingham administration. On 21 March he asked Shelburne to form a government, but Shelburne refused, knowing that he did not have enough supporters. He advised the king to send for Rockingham. George reluctantly agreed though he refused to see Rockingham personally and he insisted that Shelburne be in the government as Colonial Secretary, and be in charge of the peace negotiations.

It was one of the king's worst moments. He had to accept a prime minister whom he disliked intensely. 

Fox and the Prince of Wales

From about 1782 Fox and the Prince of Wales, became close friends. Caricaturists portrayed George and Fox as Prince Hal and Falstaff. It gave the king another reason to hate Fox as he believed he was leading his son astray.

Mary Robinson, poet, actress, blackmailer,
by Gainsborough
Public Domain

Fox and the Prince shared a mistress, the actress, Mary Robinson.
The Prince first saw her at a command performance as Perdita in The Winter’s Tale on 3 December 1779. By the summer of 1780 they were lovers. Pressed by the Prince she gave up her theatrical career. When the affair ended, she returned the Prince’s letters in September 1781 in return for £5,000. A year later she had a short affair with Fox.

The new government

In the new government, formed in March 1782, Rockingham was Prime Minister. Lord Shelburne was Secretary of State for Home and Colonial Affairs, with responsibility for negotiating with the Americans. Fox was Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, with responsibility for negotiating with France and Spain. Burke was Paymaster General of the Army (without a cabinet seat). 

The government carried out some important reforms. 
The Crown’s powers of patronage were reduced, the civil list was brought under greater parliamentary regulation, and the Irish parliament was granted greater independence. But the Whigs received a huge blow when Rockingham died on 1 July 1782.


  1. The John Wilkes affair and the debates roused by the American War led to growing demands for political reform.
  2. The Rockingham Whigs began to assume the characteristics of a political party in the modern sense. They were supported by the Prince of Wales and their key parliamentary speakers were Fox and Burke.
  3. Defeat in America threw politics into crisis. It was two years before a stable government could be formed.

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