Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Queen Anne: 2 The 'rage of party'

Party politics as an integral and persistent feature of government was established for the first time in this era, yet under William and Anne party alignments were sometimes blurred and ephemeral. Both parties had their own separate reasons to criticise the post-Revolution regime, the Whigs because they were keen to establish a legislative counter-balance to monarchy, the Tories because of their guilt over their betrayal of James II. Under Anne the Whigs were staunch supporters of the Hanoverians. The Tories were more ambivalent.

Smart London society polarized into separate Whig and Tory social circles. A group of elite Whigs formed the Kit-Kat Club (formed in 1696) and immortalized in Knellerā€™s portraits. Congreve and Addison were members. Tories frequented the Cocoa Tree Chocolate House (founded 1698).

Party strife was exacerbated by the explosion in partisan political journalism and the frequency of elections. Between the Glorious Revolution and the Septennial Act general elections took place on average every two years. Frequent elections were joined by more frequent contests, though the majority of seats were still uncontested. In the 15 general elections between 1689 and 1727 an average of 37% of constituencies were contested (23% in 1689, 53% 1722). The absence of a contest does not mean the absence of fierce political debate. There were always question of who was to take the two seats.

The electorate was growing in numbers and in independence. By the reign of William III it numbered at least 200,000 and by 1722 at least 330,000 (out of a population of c. 5m). This meant 4.3% of the population. The numbers were growing and the voters were becoming better informed.

Analysis of division lists in both Houses and poll books has shown that an overwhelming majority of peers, MPs and electors divided consistently along party lines. Coffee houses also divided along party lines. The Tories argued that no Whig could really be a loyal supporter of the monarchy or the Church of England. The Whigs believed that the Tories were not fundamentally loyal to the Revolution, Toleration or the Protestant Succession.

The leading politicians tried to avoid party labels. The queen, too, was reluctant to be seen as the prisoner of one party, and Godolphin and Marlborough shared her wish to stand above party.
Yet party divisions hindered the progress of the war.