‘Party’ in 18th-century English politics

In our own times, most of us are familiar with partisan, party-based politics. That makes it all too easy for us to transfer our own experience with political parties into the political environment of the 18th-century. From all I have read, it’s clear that such ‘parties’ as existed at that time were very different from anything that we know today. Even the terms ‘Whig’ (liberal) and ‘Tory’ (conservative) used today hardly occurred at that time. When they did, they were not liked. Gibbon, in 1790, described such party labels as “foolish and obsolete odious words”. In many ways, national ideologically-based parties such as we have today had yet to evolve. They are more the product of the nineteenth than the eighteenth century.

There were partisan organisations and interests, of course, but these seem mostly to have been based around two approaches. Many consisted of those who supported or opposed powerful political figures. Others were based more on local interests than national ones. These latter groupings tended to support whoever they saw as most favourable to their interests, shifting allegiances radically if necessary. The nearest to national political viewpoints were derived from events in the 17th-century. The conservative Tories, with their emphasis on allegiance to the monarchy and the established church, were branded ‘Jacobites’ by their opponents, a name referring to those who had supported the ousted King James II and his ideas of absolute monarchy. The generally more liberal Whigs derived their heritage from people who had invited the Dutch William of Orange to invade and replace King James and tended to be seen as ‘republican’ in their ideas. This referred to the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, by which Parliament came to be the supreme authority and the power of the monarch was sharply curtailed.

Norwich offers an excellent opportunity to observe 18th-century politics in action, since many of the records have been preserved. It also possessed an unusually large electorate for the time, as well as one that was both independent and volatile. It’s easiest to understand the pattern of allegiances if we label the parties as broadly either supporters or opponents of the government of the day. In the early part of the century, few elections produced much heat or excitement. By the 1760s and after, more of the Norwich elections were contested, some of them quite heatedly.

In the newspapers of the 1780s and after, the broad political groupings or ‘interests’ in Norwich were identified only by the colours of the ribbons worn by their supporters. The more conservative, generally pro-government interest — the supporters of the king, William Pitt the Younger and his administration — were known as the ‘Orange-and-Purples’. The anti-government party — sometimes, but not always, associated with Charles James Foxe and belief in the supremacy of parliament — were called the ‘Free Blues’ or ‘Blue-and-Whites’.

Another factor also complicated the Norwich political landscape. The city contained an unusually large number of Dissenters: people who rejected the teachings of the Established Church in favour of newer, more radical and evangelical alternatives, such as the Independents (Presbyterians and Unitarians), Baptists, Quakers and Methodists. Dissenters did not always vote in a bloc but were much more likely to be anti-establishment than in favour of the kind of ‘Church and King’ outlook of the Tories. Similarly, they often opposed the local municipal government, which tended to be dominated by rich merchants with a decidedly conservative outlook. In simple terms, the ‘Free Blues’ were attracted by reform and the ‘Orange-and-Purples’ by stability and adherence to the status quo.

Even amending our view of political parties in Georgian times to focus more on local, religious and class-based interests than national or ideological ones, is not quite sufficient. It omits the role of patronage in determining people’s political adherence. Those who worked on the great estates, or the merchants who depended on the local aristocracy and gentry, would be very unlikely to vote against their interests — particularly at a time when all votes had to be registered in person and orally. The election clerk asked each elector to name the candidates they wish to vote for. Anybody standing close by could therefore hear how the vote had been cast.

As a final comment, it’s important to note that many counties and boroughs fell well short of Norwich in terms of political independence and sophistication. In England before the Reform Act of 1832, many parliamentary contests were either decided by a handful of electors. Others were in the gift of some local aristocrat. Norwich had an unusually large and varied group of electors, in part because the franchise was based on two criteria, and in part because Norwich was both a city and county in its own right. The bulk of the franchise went to the freemen of the city: men with trades or professions organised somewhat along the lines of the old guilds. A vote could be earned either by becoming a master of your trade, and thus ‘free’ to operate on your own account within the bounds of the city, or by being the son of a freeman. The franchise was also extended to anyone who owned property in the city worth more than forty shillings annually. The ‘freeman vote’ especially was unusually democratic for the time. A freeman might be a grand merchant, but it might also be a relatively lowly cobbler or carpenter. Only the property-based franchise specifically favoured the wealthy.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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1 Response to ‘Party’ in 18th-century English politics

  1. artandarchitecturemainly says:

    Interestingly you note that “These latter groupings tended to support whoever they saw as most favourable to their interests, shifting allegiances radically if necessary”. In the 20th century people were “rusted-on conservatives” or “rusted-on labourites”, views passed on from grandparents, to their children and then their grandchildren. It was said after WW2 in Australia that 42% of the population voted conservatively, 42% voted for Labour and the election was decided by the minor parties and uncertain voters.

    People this decade are much more flexible (or disinterested) apparently, harking perhaps back to the 18th century.

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