Parliaments, Politics and People seminar: Alex Middleton, ‘The idea of Whiggism in mid-Victorian politics’

In an excellent conclusion to this term’s seminar programme, Dr. Alex Middleton of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, discussed Whiggism in nineteenth century British politics. He blogs for us about his paper…

This paper examined how the mid-Victorians understood Whiggism and the Whigs. It started from the premise that despite Whiggism being one of the defining creeds in British political history, little attention has been paid to its decline – and virtually nothing has been written on how that decline was handled intellectually, and in public political debate. The paper dealt specifically with the period between the collapse of the last ‘Whig’ government in 1852, and the Home Rule crisis of 1886. It argued that Whiggism, and its cognate terms Whiggery and Whig, remained vitally important parts of the later-nineteenth-century political lexicon, and had a much more complex history as political words than the existing literature indicates.

Charles James Fox
Charles James Fox

The first part of the paper introduced the basic discursive frameworks within which mid-Victorian debates about Whiggism and Whigs were set. It suggested that the dominant narratives attached to Whiggism in this period were about anachronism and exhaustion, and looked at how contemporaries sought to account for Whig decline. It noted the absence of any significant international context for the discussion of Whiggism, and highlighted the profound significance of the British political past in arguments about the nature and future of the Whigs. Commentators did not forget 1688, but in these decades Whiggism was seen to be defined rather by events in the age of Edmund Burke, Charles James Fox, and Earl Grey.

Earl Grey
Earl Grey

The second part of the paper sought to draw out the main conceptions of what ‘Whiggism’ actually meant in this period – while recognising that different conceptions were not mutually exclusive, that some were considerably more partisan and politically charged than others, and that the categories presented could be extensively finessed and subdivided. It discussed in turn the ways in which Whiggism was presented as a distinct, defined, positive political creed; as an essentially pragmatic political middle ground; as a politics of oligarchy and/or property; and as a synonym for Liberalism, or at least as Liberalism’s main progenitor.

The last part of the paper examined how contemporaries saw the Whigs as a parliamentary force within the mid-Victorian political order. Both Conservatives and Radicals increasingly sought to assert that there were fundamental distinctions between the Whigs and the rest of the Liberal party. Conservatives endeavoured to prove that the Whigs’ natural home, as defenders of the constitution, was with the Conservatives; Radicals and advanced Liberals tried to show that modern Liberalism left no room for the apparently effete, aristocratic, short-sighted Whigs of the present day. Yet the counter-argument was also made that Whiggism remained a distinctive creed, that it belonged in the present, and that it belonged in the Liberal party – and furthermore that Whigs remained the natural and necessary leaders of the Liberal party. All these different positions were backed up by distinctive readings of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century British political history. The paper concluded by suggesting that paying more systematic attention to mid-Victorian conceptions of Whigs and Whiggism can help us with specific questions about the Home Rule crisis and the foundation of Liberal Unionism, and with broader debates about the mutation of political language, the structures of party politics and partisan debate, and the nature of British political modernity.

The discussion which followed raised important issues about the significance of religious questions, about leadership and leaders, about Irish policy, and about when precisely we should see Whig decline as having become terminal. Electoral politics, and especially electoral geography, were identified as crucial areas for investigation as the research progresses.

Thanks to Alex and to all the speakers who have contributed such a variety of interesting papers to our 2014-15 programme. The ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ seminar will return in the autumn term.

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