The term Whig was initially a term of political abuse used by the Tories. It was meant to discredit those who held different beliefs to the Tories and roughly translated it meant ‘Scottish Presbyterian rebels’. First used in the reign of Charles II, by the time of the Exclusion Crisis (1679 to 1681) it had become an accepted political label. The first Whig ‘leader’ was Shaftsbury and his opponent in the Tories was Danby.


The first Whigs were a difficult group to summarise in terms of their wholesale beliefs. However, such a disparate group all shared one value at this time – that the future James II should be excluded from the throne as a result of his Catholicism.


The first Whigs were curious political bedfellows. They included former Roundheads who were opposed to the Royal Court on ideological grounds; former Cavaliers who had become disillusioned with Charles II; Presbyterians who disliked the Restoration religious settlement; backbench gentry who opposed the Royal Court for its licentious behaviour and extravagance and career politicians who saw the Whigs as their best passport to political advancement. Such an interesting group proved difficult to manage but the fact that they covered so many different parts of society was also a strength.


What were the ideological beliefs of the Whigs?


They believed that the consent of the people was the source of political power and authority and that monarchs were in power only as a result of a contract with the community. If the community believed that the reigning monarch had failed them, they had the right to resist him/her.


Their other main belief was that Dissenters should be tolerated.


In the reign of James II this was clearly an issue when it became clear that the king wanted nothing more or less than a Catholic society – history would have informed the Whigs that a fervent Catholic was highly unlikely to tolerate Dissenters. The Whigs played a fundamental role in the 1688 Revolution that removed James from the throne and placed on it the more tolerant William and Mary.


In the reign of William and Mary, the Whigs split in two. Two separate groups were formed: the Court Whigs and the Country Whigs. Their titles give away their allegiance and it was to the Country Whigs that the more radical elements of the party drifted. The Country Whigs aligned with the Country Tories to form the New Country Party led by Robert Harley.


The Court Whigs took office under William III and between 1694 and 1698 they developed a series of traits that stayed with them for over a century. The Whigs were seen to be the party of privilege where money counted. They were the richer gentry, noblemen who had made fortunes out of the financial revolution. They were keen supporters of patronage as a means of ensuring that ‘their men’ were in high places both centrally and in the localities. Even at the end of Queen Anne’s reign they maintained their link to the monarchy by effectively organising the accession of George I in 1714. Their association with the crown became, for them, an accepted right and it was during the reign of George I that they managed to discredit the Tories with Jacobitism – a charge that kept the Tories out of political power for most of the C18th. For many people in power, the Whigs were considered to be the established party of order.

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