The House of Commons and Foreign Policy: Lord North and Yorktown

During this afternoon’s Prime Minister’s Questions the fall-out from last Thursday’s dramatic Commons vote on Syria continued. David Cameron admitted that he regretted the outcome of the vote but, once again, ruled out any British military involvement in Syria against the expressed will of the House.  The consequences of the vote, and whether it has fundamentally changed how the UK government takes decisions about military action, are still unclear. All commentators agree, however, that it is extremely rare for the government to lose a vote on matters of war and peace.  The last time it happened, as many have noted this week, was in 1782, when then Prime Minister Lord North lost a vote over whether to continue fighting the US War of Independence.

Frederick, Lord North by Nathaniel Dance (later Sir Nathaniel Holland, Bt), (C) National Portrait Gallery, London,
Frederick, Lord North by Nathaniel Dance (later Sir Nathaniel Holland, Bt), © National Portrait Gallery, London,

The circumstances of the vote in 1782 were very different than those of last week, and had dire consequences for North’s Premiership. The British had been fighting against the 13 American colonies who desired independence since 1775, but by this time the Americans had been joined by the French, Spanish and Dutch. Funding the war was becoming increasingly difficult and voices of opposition were growing. It was not until the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, however, that the war appeared completely lost. Over 7000 British soldiers were captured along with their commander, Earl Cornwallis.

The news of the defeat arrived in Britain on 25 November. North is said to have cried out ‘Oh God! It is all over’ on hearing the news. After this he, along with most of his cabinet, seems to have acknowledged the need to make peace with the American colonies, even if that meant recognising their independence. This was not yet accepted by the King, George III, however, and saying so in public would have presented political difficulties for the government.

Yet it is on this issue that the North government lost the decisive Commons vote. The opposition parties and factions now united against the government.  On 22 February 1782 General Henry Seymour-Conway, who had opposed the war from the beginning, put forward a motion against ‘further prosecution of offensive warfare on the continent of North America’. North’s government defeated this motion (by just one vote), but a second, similar, motion a week later the government lost by 234 to 215.

North tried to resign; yet, as he had many times previously, George III prevented him from doing so. The King neither wanted to give up the American colonies nor appoint an opposition figure to the Premiership. However, a month later the situation became untenable. On 8 March North’s government narrowly survived a motion of no confidence, put forward by Lord John Cavendish. On 15 March he survived a motion of censure against the Government, moved by Sir John Rous, by 236 to 227. North’s government was surviving thanks to a group of independent MPs who were against the war but did not want North replaced. When it became clear that a number of this group would no longer support him, on 18 March North again offered his resignation to the King:

Your Majesty is well apprized that in this country the prince on the throne cannot with prudence oppose the deliberate resolution of the House of Commons.

This time the King was forced to accept, and on 27 March North resigned.


For more on the politics of this period, see our Survey volume, 1754-90.

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