A crowded polling station during an election in 1754

The Whig supremacy was a period of British political history from 1714 to 1760 which saw the Whigs become the dominant political party in Great Britain and the Tory Party die out as an active political force due to their association with the treacherous Jacobite rising of 1715.

Background

The power struggle between the monarch and representatives of the general populace has long been a feature of British history. Efforts to curb the king's power were made in medieval times in the Magna Carta. The Tudors tipped the balance the other way by centralizing authority in the sovereign. The Stuarts took this philosophy to extremes, with James I subscribing to the divine right of kings. His son, Charles I, felt so strongly on the subject that he went to war with his Parliament. Charles enngaged in a struggle for power with the Parliament of England, attempting to obtain royal revenue while the Parliament sought to curb his royal prerogative, which Charles believed was divinely ordained. After his execution in 1649, his son, Charles II, regained the throne, which was subsequently snatched away from his younger brother, James II. The real winner in the Glorious Revolution was not William III but Parliament, in co-operation with which he had agreed to rule. Similarly, the defeat of the Stuart pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 was a victory not just for the Hanoverians but for the whole principle of constitutional monarchy.

History

After the Act of Union, the English and Scottish assemblies were dissolved to be replaced by a single British Parliament. The power of the Parliament increased - the Glorious Revolution reaffirmed the importance not only of Protestantism, but of Parliamentary democracy.

The rise of Walpole

Whig politician Robert Walpole was elected to his father's old Norfolk constituency in 1701 and quickly made his mark, being appointed Secretary of War in 1708. Surviving a politically inspired impeachment, he emerged as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor from 1716. He came unscathed and (through no virtue of his own) emerged untainted through the South Sea Bubble crisis of 1720.

As the last man standing in a discredited administration, he assumed unchallenged pre-eminence as First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor, and Leader of the House. Walpole was asked by King George I to sort out the crisis, which he did most effectively. In the decades that followed, he favored peace and prosperity over aggression, inaugurated a sinking fund to reduce the national debt, and helped secure the Hanoverian succession.

Whigs win out

Walpole' ascendancy was good news for the Whig party he led. The Whigs' whole purpose was the defense of constitutional rights, and this period saw a strengthening of the role of Parliament. The Tories were marginalized, with their respect for royal and aristocratic privilege out of favor. The Whig supremacy went on almost without a break until 1756. But the Whigs also generated their own internal opposition groups basedd around particular causes or personalities. Rapidly changing coalitions therefore meant that political power could change hands under the broader banner of Whig power.

The family firm

William Pitt the Elder was the leader of the "Patriot" Whigs. They disapproved of Walpole's non-interventionist line on a series of European conflicts. Coming to the fore during the Seven Years' War (1756-63), Pitt was arguably the real premier in Lord Newcastle's administration from 1758; he took over as Prime Minister in 1766, but was forced out of public life by ill-health.

William Pitt's son - William Pitt the Younger - was Britain's youngest prime minister ever. He was just 24 when he took office in 1783, and served for more than 17 years before resigning in 1801, but was back in power between 1804 and 1806. He tried to clean up public life and (in the aftermath of an expensive American war) sought to increase revenues through taxation. He also clamped down on smuggling, which was practically an industry at the time.

Aftermath

The opposition between Whigs and Tories was to become a foundation of the British political debate, establishing the parameters of parliamentary business for generations. The main point of debate was not the two-party system, but the number of voters who were to have a say in bringing the winning party to power. From the 1890s, the Labour Party threatened what workers had increasingly come to see as a cosy accommodation between different factions of the ruling class. The Whigs - now the Liberals - were marginalized thereafter.

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