The Whig Revival, 1808–1830
by William Anthony Hay.
Palgrave-Macmillan (New York and London) 256pp., $69.95 cloth, 2005.
Educated at Sewanee and the University of Virginia, William Anthony Hay has been close terms with the disciples of Herbert Butterfield, once grouped around Butterfield’s Peterhouse College in Cambridge. In January 2005 he published in Historically Speaking, a highly readable tribute (actually a vindication against his detractors) of the British intellectual historian and critic of the Whig progressive view of history. Like his model Butterfield, Hay never tips his hand entirely, and his study of Whig powerbroker Henry Brougham is entirely typical of his understated style of exposition.
In this densely detailed monograph Hay outlines a takeoff point in the history of modern party politics. Although the Liberal ascendancy was in full swing by the 1830s and lasted through most of the nineteenth century, the Whig party, out of which the Liberals would eventually spring, had been in wilderness for decades before. In the 1790s Whig leader Charles James Fox, whom Edmund Burke and the Old Whigs had angrily abandoned, proclaimed his enthusiasm for the French Revolution and together with his followers devised obstructionist tactics to impede English participation in the Napoleonic Wars. Fox’s occasional ally William Wyndham Grenville directed the Whigs toward a more productive course by combining outcries against the continental war with resistance to governmental restriction on trade enacted against France andits allies. For the most part, however the Whigs expended their capital by sniping at the energetic Tory Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. In the first decade of the nineteenth century Pitt remained the unrelenting adversary of the Napoleonic Empire until he died from a burst ulcer caused by drink in1806. Although the Whigs established their own cabinet in 1807, they lost within a few months both parliamentary votes and royal confidence. They went back into opposition until, thanks to a broadened electoral base, they came to power as the Liberals in the 1830s.
Hay examines the parliamentary innovations that the resourceful Brougham, a barrister from the North Country with Scottish relatives, embraced, to turn the Whigs into a potent electoral force. Brougham organized rallies before elections and petitions to the House of Commons centered on what are today called wedge-issues. Extending the franchise to Catholics, abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire, opposing a Tory-backed income tax that had been originally enacted to pay for the continental war, and calling for the rescinding of trade barriers imposed on commercial dealings with those not allied to Britain in that struggle were four such issues that the Brougham-Whigs made to work to their electoral advantage.
Hay by no means underestimates the skill of Brougham and his associates in creating and exacerbating crises: for example, fanning the already intense animosity between Viscount Robert Castlereagh and George Canning that divided the Tories during the Napoleonic Wars, and expressing loud concern about the declining health of Tory Primie Minister Lord Liverpool in the late 1820s. Brougham’s proclivity for fights caused Whig leaders of the 1830s, Charles Grey and John Russell, to keep Brougham at a distance. Although his exclusion from councils and cabinets also contributed to party squabbling, the Liberals held on to their majority position while dealing with the effects of Broughgam’s frustration. Clearly his strength was building an electoral base and discomfiting his opponents, but not running a party in power. In this regard he resembled the Tory opponent of Irish Home Rule F. E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead. A flamboyant debater, Smith threw away his political ambitions when he became Lord Chancellor in 1919, a position that Brougham also briefly occupied.
Hay is telling a story that goes beyond filling a slot in British parliamentary history for the Palgrave series in which his book appears. (Note that the period he treats has generally and unjustifiably received short shrift from parliamentary historians.) He is documenting the way a major political party was born, one that reflected the aspirations of the English commercial class across the Midlands and North Country in the nineteenth century. Brougham was someone who got the nascent Liberals to move beyond the mere “ludicrous terms” that James Boswell had called British parties in the preceding century. This contentious barrister made his party stand for something beyond family interests or the kin-based goals that Lewis Namier presents as the essence of British politics at the time of the ascension of George III. By the mid-nineteenth century, British parties had gained distinctive class bases, and this would occur because of several interrelated developments: a reform act in 1832 that created a more proportionate system of parliamentary representation favoring the rising middle class, the sharing of political power with municipalities, and the articulation of a Tory worldview that stressed the Crown, established church, and the landed class as the three pillars of the nation. Political parties came to embody classical conservative and classical liberal ideals as the corresponding classes rallied around them.
But this was only possible after party apparatus were erected and after a meaningful division between them had become apparent to the nation as a whole. And though Brougham emerges from Hay’s narrative as a sometimes unpalatable wheeler-dealer, he is also shown to have been a true party-builder. Without his pivotal work, the transition from those eccentric squires and London publicists grouped around Fox and Grenville to the broad bourgeois Liberal Party of the 1830s would have been harder. It is difficult to discern this particular development in the Rockingham Whigs, for example, the protégés of the Marquis of Rockingham for whom Burke went to work as a pamphleteer in the 1770s. Although Rockingham’s partisans both inside and outside of the House of Commons rallied against the colonial and mercantile policies of the Tory Lord North, they were building a parliamentary faction, not a national party.
It is no exaggeration to say that Hay exhibits reservations about the subject of this book and might have felt temporarily far more at ease writing about one of Brougham’s Tory opponents, say Canning. But it was not Canning (who died young in 1827) but the M. P. from Yorkshire who practiced politics in a new key and assumed a role that the equally frenetic Disraeli would later play for the Tories. Looking at the historical significance of this function, one can understand Hay’s lively interest in Brougham.
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College and author most recently of Conservatism in America: Making Sense of the American Right (Palgrave Macmillan).