Perspectives on Political Parties in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Since the emergence of the first nation states in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, political parties have become one of the most important and influential actors in Western political systems. It is hard to imagine a functioning Western democracy without the presence of political parties, yet they have always been accompanied by criticism and rejection. As parties developed into elementary components of constitutional states and their tasks and responsibilities expanded, an intense theoretical preoccupation with the potential dangers they posed took place, especially in Britain.1 This debate about parties was marked by conflicting views, but the repetition and recurrence of similar lines of argument by authors at different times throughout the nineteenth century is striking.

My Ph.D. project examines these debates on party theory in Britain from the French Revolution to the Reform Act of 1867. Thanks to a scholarship from the GHIL, I had the opportunity to conduct research in London in November and December 2020. Although the Covid-19 lockdown severely restricted access to archives and libraries, I was able to considerably expand my collection of sources and to discuss my research at the GHIL’s colloquium.

During Britain’s struggle against Revolutionary and later Napoleonic France and in the tense domestic political situation that went with it, the fact that parties influenced the population—something that today is seen as one of their key tasks (participation, interest aggregation, and so on)—was initially perceived by many as potentially dangerous and harmful to the country and the political system. In a paper dating from 1800 on the political parties in Edinburgh, Thomas Smith, baillie of Edinburgh, criticized that parties influenced the population negatively, and thus ‘the public interest lies exposed’.2 The author further argued that the parties’ quarrels distracted the people from the important questions and problems facing the city or the country. Parties, he suggested, should therefore be rejected as harmful actors in the political arena.3

Similar accusations can be found in other texts. In an essay of 1804, William Combe claimed that ‘factions’, used as a synonym for the concept of parties, initiated the decline of France in the Revolution by ‘confusing’ public opinion to the detriment of the government. As a result, he claimed, the government was unable to pursue its business.4 Based on their ability to influence the population and public opinion, Combe concluded that parties should be viewed as unpatriotic, especially in times of crisis when, he suggested, cohesion and unity were necessary for a nation’s success:

[B]ut our success must, depend upon ourselves; upon our own unanimity. . . . In such crisis as this, then, surely to endeavour to embarrass the Government by petty objections to its measures, or to divide the country into parties, cannot be consistent with patriotism or honour.5

A rejection of political parties based on the assumption that they were harmful and divisive similarly motivated William Greg to warn of the danger of factions or parties splitting Parliament in 1852. He argued that they led to a blockade of Parliament and thus to a standstill of the country.6 It is crucial to note that in many cases the harm caused by parties and the danger of splitting Parliament was conjured up in times of crisis. Another author, writing in 1805, pointed to the potential problems that such a split could cause: during the critical situation in Britain sparked by the French Revolution, the nation could not deal with domestic political disputes between opposing parties. While there was nothing wrong with opposition to the government in peacetime, the author believed that systematic opposition—as organized by parties or factions—and the resulting disagreement and division could lead to the collapse of the nation, especially at a time of crisis, and was to be rejected by all society.7

An eighteenth-century depiction of the party struggle between Whigs and Tories during the regency crisis, captioned “The Tories and the Whigs pulling for a crown”, England, 1789, published by J. Aitken. Artwork in the public domain, photograph provided by the Library of Congress.

The link between a crisis and criticism of parties was also made clear in a short section of a book by Irving Brock (1810), where he accused parties of pursuing only their own goals and thereby sacrificing the welfare of the nation. He went so far as to suggest that one party would welcome a ‘catastrophe’ if this kept it in power,8 while another might exploit the people’s fears in order to achieve a revolution. Both parties were described as merely a means of gaining or keeping power and were clearly attacked for this.

But it was not only the influence of the parties on the population that was criticized. Robert Plumer Ward addressed the relationship between parties with an emphasis on the problems arising from competition and disputes.9 While members of opposing parties ought to co-operate and thus ensure that their country developed positively, all their bickering achieved was the exclusion of suitable men from government. ‘Could wishes decide, there should be an end of party.’10 At the same time, however, he acknowledged that this wish was unattainable; a forced toleration of the concept of parties based on an assumed inevitability was the result.

Similarly, in a response to the critical situation triggered by the French Revolution, an article in the 1810 issue of The Edinburgh Review raised the issue of quarrelling parties dividing society and risking the end of the nation. This negative attitude towards parties notwithstanding, the author granted that parties were almost a force of nature: ‘These things have been always; and always must be.’11 However, this natural division of society could only be tolerated if the majority of the people did not take part, and instead adopted a neutral position. If the population were to be radicalized and mobilized, for example, as the result of a crisis, and a large part of the population were to participate in this division, it could, in the worst case, lead to a collapse of the nation. Open competition and struggle between the parties would result in a similarly detrimental outcome for the welfare of the nation. Paradoxically, the author presented the parties themselves as the solution. A third, moderate party—in the article the Whigs are referred to as ‘friends of the constitution’12—should therefore intervene and influence the population for the good of the nation in order to contain its radicalism.

The struggle between the Opposition and Government depicted in a political cartoon, captioned “Blowing up the new opposition”, Great Britain, 1806, published by Walker. Artwork in the public domain, photograph provided by the Library of Congress.

In contrast to the positions presented earlier, this source reveals a more complex concept of parties and their role in political decision-making. Although parties were still regarded as an—albeit natural—threat to the cohesion of a nation, at the same time, they were presented as the solution.13 Constitutional parties, identified by the author as the Whigs, assumed the role of mediators between extreme positions in society. They thus offered the possibility of responding to a radicalized population, moderating it, and thereby preventing a conflict from escalating.14 This differentiated position, which acknowledged the possible dangers of a political stage dominated by parties, but at the same time allowed for positive influences opened up by them, can be found time and time again in debates on political parties during the nineteenth century.

Certainly, the sources I discuss in this blog show that the party concept was still highly contested in the nineteenth century and that a wide variety of positions were adopted. But my early findings also suggest a surprising consistency in the arguments used by the various authors over time. It is the way in which these different lines of the argument about parties conflicted and diverged that my doctoral research will classify and analyse.

The featured image reuses public domain material from The Fortnightly Review (1900), 922, provided by the Internet Archive.

  1. See, for example, Arthur Aspinall, ‘English Party Organization in the Early Nineteenth Century’, English Historical Review, 41 (1926), 389–411; J. A. W. Gunn, ‘Party before Burke: Shute Barrington’, Government and Opposition, 3/2 (1968), 223–40; id., Factions No More: Attitudes to Party in Government and Opposition in Eighteenth-Century England. Extracts from Contemporary Sources (London, 1972); Paul Webb, ‘Political Partiesand Democracy:The Ambiguous Crisis’, Democratization, 12/5 (2005), 633–50, at 633–4. []
  2. Thomas Smith, Strictures Upon the Political Parties in the City of Edinburgh: Together with a Statement of Authenticated Circumstances and Facts, which Merit the Particular and Immediate Attention, Both of the Honourable Magistrates, and All the Inhabitants of that City (Edinburgh, 1800), 3. []
  3. Ibid., 4. []
  4. William Combe, The Letters of Valerius, on the State of Parties, the War, the Volunteer System, and Most of the Political Topics which have Lately been under Public Discussion (London, 1804), 57. []
  5. Ibid., 5. []
  6. William Rathbone Greg, ‘Crisis of Political Parties: The Grand Desideratum’, North British Review, 17 (1852), 559–82, at 561. []
  7. Anon., Political Sketches in 1805: [nos. 1–2] (London, 1805), 4–5. []
  8. Irving Brock, The Patriots and the Whigs, the Most Dangerous Enemies of the State (London, 1810), 5–6. []
  9. Robert Plumer Ward, A View of the Relative Situations of Mr. Pitt and Mr. Addington, Previous to, and on the Night of, Mr. Patten’s Motion (London, 1804), 125. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. Anon., ‘Art. XV. Short Remarks on the State of Parties at the Close of the Year 1809, The Edinburgh Review, or The Critical Journal, 15 (1810), 504–21, at 505–6. []
  12. Ibid., 505. []
  13. Thomas Erskine May, The Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third, 1760–1860. With a New Supplementary Chapter, 1861–71, 30 vols. (London, 1878), ii, 242; William Cobbett, Elements of Reform, or, An Account of the Motives and Intentions of the Advocates for Parliamentary Reformation (London, 1809); William Samuel Lilly, ‘Price of Party Government, Fortnightly Review, 67 (1900), 922–32; Anon., The Late Elections: An Impartial Statement of all Proceedings Connected with the Progress and Result of the Late Elections (London, 1818), 142; Anon., ‘Short Remarks’. []
  14. Anon., ‘Short Remarks, 505. []

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Vicente Pons Martí

Vicente Pons Martí is a researcher in the Department of Political Sociology and Theory of the State at the Goethe University Frankfurt, where he is working on a DFG funded project on the perception of political parties in Great Britain, Germany, and the USA in the nineteenth century. He is also writing a Ph.D. supervised by Professor Andreas Fahrmeir (Department of History) at the Goethe University Frankfurt.

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