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Updated: Oct 5, 2020


  • The origin of political parties in England can be traced as far back as the Stuart period.

  • In the time of Charles I there was struggle for power between the King and the Parliament.

  • Those who supported the King were called Royalists or Cavaliers.

  • Those who supported the parliament were known as Parliamentarians.

  • Most of the supporters of the parliament were Puritans.

  • They cut their hair very short so they were also called as Roundheads.

  • In the scramble for power, the Civil War broke out and ended with the execution of King Charles I in 1649.

  • The commonwealth set up after the Civil War collapsed and monarchy was restored in 1660.

  • Towards the end of his life Charles II showed leanings towards Roman Catholicism.


  • After the death of the King his brother James, Duke of York, a professed Catholic, was to succeed him.

  • This was too much for some people to endure and so to prevent James from succeeding to the throne they brought a Bill called the Exclusion Bill.

  • Those who supported the bill were called Whigs.

  • Those who opposed the bill came to be known as Tories.

  • The brain behind the bill was Anthony Ashley Cooper whom the King had made Earl of Shaftesbury.

  • Thus the Earl of Shaftesbury became the father of the party system in England.

  • It was the combined efforts of these two parties which brought about the event which Englishmen called the Glorious Revolution.

  • This great event took place in 1688.

  • The Tories, who were far more numerous than the Whigs, represented the landed interests.

  • The Whigs were a minority of land-owning men in close connection with commercial men and commercial interests.

  • In religion the Tories were members of the Anglican Church but the Whigs were Dissenters of Puritans.

  • As far as politics was concerned, Tories were Royalists or supporters of the King, but the Whigs stood for the rights and privileges, of the Parliament.

  • In the early part of the eighteenth century party spirits ran rampant (widespread).

  • This is evident from the account which Addison gives in two of his Spectator essays. (In his inimitable style, which is affine blend of humour and gentle satire, the writer recounts how as a child he had difficulty in finding St. Anne’ Street.)

  • When we speak of the Troy party and the, Whig party it must be remembered that for the most part of the eighteenth century the word “party” implied no political organization.

  • From 1714 to 1784 Great Britain had only a kind of group system and not a party system.

  • Since there was no party organization and discipline, many of the members of the House of Commons did not belong to any of these two political parties, they were mostly independents.

  • Not all members attended the Parliament, and even those who attended did not attend all the sessions.

  • As a matter of fact, the chamber itself was not big enough to accommodate all the members.

  • The famous House of Commons was destroyed during World War II in 1941 and rebuilt in 1950 retaining the traditional features including the inadequacy to seat more than about half the total membership of the House.


  • One of the great political figures of the early part of the eighteenth century was the Whig statesman Robert Walpole, who remained in power as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister for nearly twenty years.

  • He is usually considered to be the first Prime minister.

  • By following a policy of non-interference he gave England peace and a chance for economic growth.

  • His motto was “Let sleeping dogs lie”.

  • To keep himself in power he did not hesitate to purchase votes and support of important men like the squires.(In those days of public polling of votes, in the country elections, the support of the squires meant much because the number of voters in each country was small and they would almost automatically vote for the leading man of the place or for the man in whom the squire or parson was interested.)

  • It should also be borne in mind that those were days when, elections, in boroughs could be won by anyone who could spend enough money on bribery and eating and drinking or other kinds of election propaganda.

  • It was an election of that type which Charles Dickens had in mind when he described the Eatanswill scene in his famous novel Pickwick Papers.

  • The name is three words run into one “eat and swill”.

  • Another great politician of the latter half of the eighteenth century was William Pitt, afterwards Earl of Chatham, the greatest of the Tories.

  • He was an imperialist to the core and as such wanted to reduce the French power in America to a minimum.

  • For this purpose he along with Edmund Burke, the orator, advocated a policy of conciliation with the Americans.


  • An event which made the party division clearly marked out in England was the French Revolution.

  • Most of the Tories considered the initial Revolution objectionable, as it deprived the French King and the aristocracy of their rights.

  • Most of the Whigs, on the other hand, welcomed it as a belated decision to adopt the principles of the English Revolution in 1688.

  • These opposing attitudes kept England wavering for some time.

  • But when the Revolutionary Government of France offered to help any country which was willing to imitate their example, there was a hardening of party lines.

  • By that time there were only fewer independents, and it became not very difficult to decide who was for the Government and who was against.

  • Thus it was easy for the younger William Pitt, the Tory leader, to declare war against France in 1794.

  • After that event better attention was paid to electioneering, but even then the party organization as such had not become a regular feature.

  • It was after 1832 that most of the local party organization were established.


  • After the passing of the Reform Bill in 1832 the political parties were renamed Conservatives and Liberals.

  • For the passing of the Reform Bill the Whigs played a prominent part.

  • The Tories felt it was time for them to change the name of their party.

  • The name Conservative was adopted apparently by way of consensus of opinion to indicate that the British Constitution was in danger from “Reformers” and had to be conserved or protected.

  • The Whigs made use of the opportunity to call themselves “Liberals” as they posed to be more liberal minded people.


  • In 1841 the Conservatives won a majority and Robert Peel became Prime Minister.

  • He was a manufacturer’s son and therefore interested in promoting business interests.

  • The majority of his supporters were the landed gentry who disliked the new factory system.

  • The conflict came to a crisis over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

  • After the Napoleonic Wars, to protect the interests of the English agriculturalists the Corn Law had been passed.

  • But it had the adverse effect of raising the prices of corn and the wages of factory workers.

  • The Anti-Corn Law League, supported by the Whigs who were opposed to a rise in wages, agitated for the repeal of the Corn Law.

  • The great potato famine in Ireland in 1845-46 forced peel to repeal the Corn Law Act.

  • This made him unpopular among the Conservatives.

  • It gave occasion for British politics to be divided into two clear groups.

  • By the middle of the nineteenth century the party that stood for the landed interests were called the Conservatives.

  • The other party consisting of Whigs, Radicals or liberal Conservatives stood for manufacturers, businessmen and free trade.

  • Again, towards the end of the century there was a further change in policy and thus the conservative party represented “property” and the Liberals represented all those who lived on "salaries and wages."


  • The liberals failed to represent effectively the interests of the wage-earning class.

  • So, the Labour Party representing the interests of the workers of all kinds entered the arena of politics by the beginning of this century.

  • They rallied such quick and wide support that within a period of twenty-five years they were able to supplant the Liberals.

  • At present the two powerful parties in England are the Labour Party and the Conservatives.


  • The party system in England brought to the forefront of politics quite a good number of men of extraordinary caliber.

  • Some of them served as Prime Minister in the time of Queen Victoria.

  • They were Robert Peel, Palmerston, Disraeli and Gladstone who became Prime Minister not less than four times.

  • The man who bestrode British politics like a colossus in the twentieth century was Winston Churchill, the arch-imperialist.

  • But the one who expedited Indian Independence was the Labour Prime Minister, Clement Attlee.


Social History of England by Louise Creighton

An Introduction to the Social History of England by A.G.Xavier

A Short History of Social Life in England by M B Synge

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