Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Realigning the Tories and Whigs to 1812

The French Revolution transformed British political life. Between 1790 and 1794, tensions within the opposition Whigs led to division and gradually Pitt remodelled his government. The first split was provoked by the publi­cation in November 1790 of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.[1] He challenged the notion of equal natural rights, maintaining that government did not derive its authority from the consent of the governed but from custom, practice and experience. However, Burke was no reactionary, arguing that any state that did not embrace change had lost the means of conserving itself. He laid down principles subsequently identified as central to the ideology not of the Whigs but of Conservatism.

Fox under pressure

In May 1791, Fox who enthusiastically supported the Revolution, and Burke parted company. Burke only took a few supporters with him but the rift within the party widened during the following year. Fox sponsored a Libel Act. In April 1792, a group of radical Whigs formed the Friends of the People to try and commit the party to parliamen­tary reform. The Whigs had to make an uncomfortable choice. Burke had emphasised the dangers of well-meaning reforms leading to revolution and increasingly the debate within the Whig party polarised over whether it should emphasise reform and liberty or order and public security.[2]

Fox did not join the Friends of the People though he sympathised with its aims. He became increasingly convinced that Pitt intended to undermine English liberties and in December 1792, he was driven to a defence of both the French Revolution and parliamentary reform. Fox believed that Britain had more to fear from the influence of George III than from the French Revolution. As a result, thirty conservative Whigs dis­tanced themselves from Fox and Portland and declared their support for the government. The execution of Louis XVI in January 1793 and the out­break of war with France the following month aggravated Whig prob­lems. Fox opposed the outbreak of the war. Portland regarded it as a regrettable necessity. Fox supported Grey’s motion for parliamentary reform in the Commons in May 1793. Portland opposed it. Neither Burke nor Portland still wished to safeguard the Whig constitution, but what separated them from Fox was how this could be done. Fox found it impossible to keep the Whig party together. By late 1793, the conservative Whigs had separated from the party. Portland[3] formed a coalition with Pitt in July 1794, when Portland became Home Secretary and four other conservative Whigs, Fitzwilliam Mansfield, Spencer and William Windham,[4] entered the cabinet, marked a realignment of political forces.

A restructured coalition 1794-1801

The 1784, 1790 and 1796 General Elections confirmed Pitt’s dominance. This is, however, misleading. His control of the Commons came from the support of the 200 MPs in the court and administration group. In the House of Lords, about half the peers were open to royal influence. Pitt’s personal following was only 50 MPs. His cabinet until 1794 was, with the notable exceptions of Henry Dundas and Lord Grenville lightweight.[5] It was his talents and the support of the king that kept him in office. In addition, the only alternative to Pitt was Fox supported by the Prince of Wales, something George III found unthinkable.

Did the formation of the coalition in 1794 mark the birth of the Tory party? Pitt certainly did not see himself as a Tory, considering himself an independent Whig. Portland and the conservative Whigs did not abandon Whig beliefs nor did they lose their long-standing distrust of Pitt. Between 1794 and 1797, Pitt could count on the support of over 500 MPs, consisting of 426 Pittites and 80 Portland Whigs. The Foxite Whigs, numbering about 60MPs stood apart. Between 1794 and 1797, they demonstrated a commitment to peace and reform calling for an end to the war, religious freedom and parliamentary reform. In 1797, Charles Grey’s reform motion was defeated in the Commons and the Foxite Whigs renounced regular parlia­mentary attendance though secession was never complete. Pitt’s resig­nation in 1801 brought them flooding back to Parliament.

The fall of Pitt in 1801 was a matter of conflicting constitutional principles. Pitt saw Catholic Emancipation as a necessary part of the Union with Ireland. George III could not accept this. Pitt, though he promised not to raise the question while the king lived, felt obliged to resign. He had been in power for nearly eighteen years and had fought a hardly successful war for eight. He was physically and mentally exhausted. His management of the cabinet had, since the mid-1790s become increasingly high-handed and he had taken the king’s consent for granted. The king’s refusal to accept Emancipation may have been his way of re-establishing royal influence and the ministerial crisis of 1801 clearly showed the continuing importance of the monarch in politics. It is also important that the king’s attitude reflected the anti-Catholicism of public opinion.

An unstable interlude 1801-1812

Between 1801 and 1812, five weak ministries ruled Britain, none lasting more than 3¼ years. The Pittites were transformed into Tories and the Whigs re-emerged as a credible opposition. Pitt’s large governing coalition was split by his resignation into groupings of Pittites (60), Addingtonians (30-40), Grenvilles (20-30) and Canningites (10-15). Stable government needed the alliance of at least two parts of the old Pittite coalition to lead the Court and Treasury grouping. It took eleven years before three of these groups reunited under Lord Liverpool.


Henry Addington


Addington 1801-1804

Henry Addington formed his administration in 1801. Pitt had readily agreed not to oppose the ministry as Addington’s condition for accepting office. Canning refused to serve and, although Portland remained in office, Windham and Spencer left. In 1802, Grenville went into opposition against the Treaty of Amiens and, with Windham, formed a separ­ate war party of about thirty MPs. Despite Pitt’s neutrality, Addington’s ineffectiveness and the renewal of war in 1803 could not delay the inevitable. In April 1804, he resigned and Pitt returned for a second time.

Pitt returns 1804-1806

Pitt could not reunite his old supporters between 1804 and his death in January 1806. The Fox-Grenville group deprived him of support and he did not enjoy assistance from Addington. His ministry was unstable and narrow. However, initially the opposition was disunited. The Grenvilles did not understand the personal animosity between Pitt and Fox and the two opposition groups took time to work together effectively. By late 1805, however, the opposition coalition was performing well and there was little doubt that an effective opposition existed for the first time since 1791.

‘All the Talents’ 1806-1807

George III had no alternative after Pitt’s death but to turn to Grenville and, with reluctance, Fox. The ‘Ministry of All the Talents’, as it was widely dubbed, was led by Grenville, with Fox as Foreign Secretary and, though Whig-dominated, was a coalition of politicians including the group round Addington, who became Viscount Sidmouth in 1805. No action was taken on religious concessions to Ireland or parliamentary reform, both of which were unacceptable to the Addington. Fox’s death in September removed the ministry’s most talented member and the 1806 General Election added little to its popular support. The war was going badly, the king was lukewarm in his support and the ministry lingered until dismissed in March 1807.

Portland 1807-1809

Grenville’s refusal to give the king a written promise that he would not raise the Catholic question was the cause of the dismissal of the Talents. Many people believed that the king had acted in an unconstitutional way but as in 1783-1784, reactions to his actions in the form of petitions and the result of the 1807 General Election showed that his intervention was generally approved. Public opinion was vehemently anti-Catholic. The electorate was given a clear choice between Whigs and Tories, denoting opposition or support for the king’s position on religion. The 1807 election was a clear victory for the Tories. Portland could count on the support of about 370 MPs while the opposition could only muster about 290. The Whigs did not to hold office again until 1830.


Spencer Perceval

Perceval 1809-1812

The development of Toryism between 1807 and 1812 was far from smooth. Personal rivalries, which went so far as a duel between Castlereagh and Canning in 1809, and the final mental collapse of the king with the estab­lishment of the Regency in 1810-1811, were obstacles to stable government. So too was the erratic progress of the war, resulting in increased taxation, commercial disruption and the revival of extra-Parliamentary radicalism. Portland retired in 1809 and his successor, Spencer Perceval, could not hold the Pittites together. Canning refused to serve and Perceval was unable to gain the support of the Whig opposition, which believed that the advent of the Regency would enable them to take office indepen­dently. Whigs divisions in September 1809, early in 1811 and February 1812 allowed Perceval to remain in power. His government was not secure until March 1812 with the return to Sid­mouth and Castlereagh to strengthen its anti-reformist base. After his assassination in May 1812, the appointment of Lord Liverpool, despite the eventual length of his administration, was neither immediate nor inevi­table.


[1] Edmund Burke (1729-1797) was an Irish lawyer who came to England in 1750 to advance his fortune. He became private secretary to Rockingham and entered Parliament in 1766. He opposed the American war but drifted away from a central position in the Whig opposition from the mid-1780s.
[2] The Libel Act 1791 gave juries rather than judges the responsibility of determining whether a libel had been committed. Fox believed that the power of the executive had been significantly reduced by this measure
[3] William, Lord Portland (1738-1809): Prime Minister 1783 and again 1807-1809; Home Secretary 1794-1801 and Lord President of the Council 1801-1805; leading conservative Whig.
[4] William Windham (1750-1810), a friend of Edmund Burke and MP for Norwich 1784-1802. He was a conservative Whig who sided with Burke against Fox in 1792-1793 and was Secretary at War 1794-1801.
[5] William Wyndham, Lord Grenville (1759-1834) was Speaker of the House of Commons 1789, Home Secretary 1789-1794 and Foreign Secretary 1794-1801; leader of the war party in the government and its leading spokesman in the House of Lords.



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