The political arena

Before discussing the composition of English political parties in the beginning of the 18th century it is useful to clearly state the difference between the nowadays House of Commons and House of Lords, and these houses as they were at the time. Nowadays the house of Lords is at most times a gentlemen's club with membership restricted to the nobility of the United Kingdom. The House of Commons is a parliament just like one can find in any other Western democracy, except that it has a lot of odd traditions, among which is that the nobility cannot be elected to it.

The house of Commons of the early 1700's was definitely not a parliament to which any citizen of England could be elected. Together with the House of Lords it formed a kind of provincial 'etat' just like the ones Languedoc, Frisia, Catalunia or Bohemia had. The odd things about it were the circumstance that it covered the whole kingdom, and that the first two classes (nobility and clergy) sat in a chamber separate from the third class. Furthermore: as regards the house of Commons the third class did not consist of everybody that was not in the first or second classes, but only of the men of substance not belonging to those. While both parties would have agreed that only men of substance were eligible for election to the Commons they differed greatly on the definition of men of substance.

English political parties in general

Originally the Commons was mainly composed of the country gentry. The gentry were the lesser nobility e.g. country squires, that had no place in the House of Lords. Prior to 1688 the gentry was divided over the court and country parties. The gentry that depended on royal favor was called the court party and was therefore for small franchises, so that they and the crown could control access to the Commons, and thus keep privilege and benefits for themselves. The part of the gentry that formed the country party was for wide franchises, in order that the crown could not control the Commons (and could not tax them).

J.H. Plumb pointed out that the Whig and Tory party as they were in 1700 had come about by a realignment of party forces in the preceding decade especially in 1690-1694. The Glorious Revolution had definitely changed the political landscape. The Common's existence was now secure because it was fixed that it would meet regularly, and elections would be held regularly. That meant that power had shifted from the king to parliament, or to be more precise that parliament now ultimately and therefore directly controlled the executive in stead of the king. The Whig aristocracy (more precisely the part that became to be called Whig) and big business then began to think differently about parliament, and began to opt for a narrow franchise in order that they might control who was in parliament. The gentry rallied in the new Tory party that defended gentry interests.

A few years after the Glorious Revolution the English party system had crystallized in a way that 'at least from the middle 1690's Englishmen had no difficulty in distinguishing Whig from Tory' (J.H. Plumb). These parties were not the solid organizations of the twentieth century, but every politician's party-membership was clear to everyone. The organizations were however much looser, and members would mostly vote on party-lines, but were certainly not obliged to do so.


The Tories were the gentry party and were the natural majority in parliament. Because the land tax was the main source of income for the state, the gentry was also the class paying most of the taxes. Therefore the gentry thought it just that only they should be in parliament. This up to the point that if the laws they voted for had survived the Lord's vetoes and royal vetoes and seriously been carried out, membership would have been limited to their class. Meaning only people of the Anglican faith possessing a certain amount of land and class could be in parliament. J.H. Plumb Justly pointed out that (I Paraphrase here) this would have led to the legalized chaos of a Polish Diet full of Backwoodsmen. (This just to unnerve any ideas that the Tories were somehow more democratic than the Whigs.)

Its basic program points were:

Taxes:a different method of taxation
Membership of parliament:restricted to landowners.
Placemen: holders of government office or posts to be excluded from parliament.
Church of England:Exclude non-Anglicans from power and office.
The executive: A weak executive that cannot control access to parliament.

Inside the Tory party there were however some divisions. First there were the High Tories or radical Tories later on to be led by St. John. These were the M.P.'s that were very serious about e.g. excluding dissenters from office (meaning any and all public employment) and in general about a policy solely in the interest of their class. In 1710 the radical Tories formed the 'October club'. From about that time till the death of Queen Anne these High Tories made serious work of creating a one party state that would fulfill their program. However, the Jacobites that openly or covertly supported the restoration of the pretender were also a part of this group. It was their and especially St. John's support for the pretender that would destroy the Tory party and get the Whigs into power for about 50 years.

The moderate Tories were the other major (perhaps smaller) part of the party. The moderates consisted of men generally adhering to the same principles as the High Tories, but taking a far more moderate view on them. Examples of these are: Marlborough, Godolphin and Harley. These men also leaned on the crown, and saw themselves primarily as 'servants of the crown'. Till about 1708/10 they succeeded in having a government that included members of both parties and was reasonably effective. They however came under increasing attack by the extremists. Thus Godolphin was harassed by the Whig Junto and Harley by the October Club. This finally led to Marlborough and Godolphin in fact becoming Whigs, while Harley came under the influence of the High Tories.


The Whig party was mainly midde-class (meaning very well to do). It included the puritans and dissenters, but also the majority of the wealthy aristocracy that was interested in finance commerce, and the big traders. Its basic programm points included:

Taxes:a different method of taxation
Membership of parliament:open to all men of substance.
Placemen: holders of government office or posts are eligible.
Religious denominations:It supported Dissenters, Puritans etc.
The executive: It was for a strong executive

The Whig party was by nature smaller than the Tories and perhaps therefore far better organized. It did not suffer from internal divisions. The party leadership was united in the 'Junto', consisting of Somers baron of Evesham, Montagu earl of Halifax, Wharton and Russel.