The fall-out from Brexit has caused considerable disarray in the British party system, and over the course of this summer four parties either have new leaders or are holding leadership contests. Over the summer we’ll take a look at some past examples of party tensions, and the dramatic splits that they can lead to. First in this series, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow in the House of Lords 1660-1832 section, discusses the Whig Schism of 1717…
In the spring of 1717 the Whig party, which had held sway since the Hanoverian accession, was riven following a series of disagreements. The event has come to be known as the ‘Whig Split’ and endured until reconciliation was achieved three years later. Two features lay at the heart of the division; one, disagreements over policy (in particular foreign policy), the other, personality clashes. Added to these was a fissure within the royal family, where tensions between the king and prince of Wales looked set to provoke a still more spectacular falling out, and divisions over responses to Jacobitism (in particular the fallout from the ‘Gyllenborg Plot’ – see our website for more).
The Whigs had never been a united party in the modern sense, despite the efforts of the Junto Whigs during the 1690s and after to forge a more united front, and there had long been causes which had provoked opposition from within the ranks of the various Whig factions. Some tensions dated back to the reign of Anne, when some ‘moderate Whigs’ had been content to accept office in the ministry of Robert Harley, earl of Oxford. Following the Hanoverian succession new causes of disagreement emerged. One example in policy terms was the passage of the Septennial Act (by which general elections were confined to once every seven years), which was viewed by many Whigs as a betrayal of the principles enshrined in the Triennial Act, which had ensured regular elections every three years and had been secured in the teeth of monarchical opposition.
The divisions of 1716 and 1717 spoke to fundamental issues relating to national sovereignty as well as to more practical concerns driven by rivalries between the Whig leaders. By then several of the great Junto figureheads of the past 20 years (Wharton, Somers, Halifax) had died, leaving a new generation to battle it out for the spoils. Chief among these were two pairs of prominent ministers: Charles Spencer, 3rd earl of Sunderland allied to James Stanhope (future Earl Stanhope), and Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend, linked to his brother-in-law, Sir Robert Walpole. As a soldier of distinction, notable diplomat and one of the secretaries of state, Stanhope was able to forge close relations with the new king and in the summer of 1716 he travelled with George I to Hanover, where he was joined by Sunderland (lord privy seal), who was ostensibly on the continent for his health. Left at home were Townshend (the other secretary) and Walpole, who had by then coupled the posts of chancellor of the exchequer to that of first lord of the treasury.
As had occurred during William III’s reign, the succession of a foreign prince with interests of his own overseas had quickly led to tensions within the British polity. According to the Act of Settlement George I could not employ British forces to further Hanoverian interests. However, George’s efforts to intervene in the Great Northern War (involving Russia, Denmark, Saxony-Poland and Sweden as well as various German principalities) and secure territorial gains for Hanover in the form of Bremen and Verden at Sweden’s expense, meant that this is precisely what he sought to do by employing the Royal Navy against Sweden and in support of his Hanoverian troops. The broader aims, it was argued, were also in Britain’s interests as the result would be an improvement in prospects for Britain’s mercantile fleet operating in the Baltic, but many politicians resolutely opposed Britain’s involvement.
At the very top of the ministry there was disagreement. Stanhope (and Sunderland) came round to backing the king’s plans for involvement in the Great Northern War, while Townshend, in particular, spoke out against. Townshend’s behaviour coupled with both his and Walpole’s perceived closeness to the prince of Wales unsurprisingly irritated the king and led to his dismissal from the post of secretary of state. Instead, he was offered the technically grand but in reality marginal lord lieutenancy of Ireland. Townshend at first demurred, eventually gave way and accepted, only to be put out the following spring for fomenting rebellion against the government in the House of Lords.
Correspondence between Walpole and Stanhope at this time reveals much about the tensions evident between the two sets of ministers, with each side eager to blame the other for ratcheting up the pressure. On 15 December 1716 Stanhope wrote to Walpole from Hanover on the subject of Townshend’s removal insisting, ‘I do in my conscience believe, this was the only measure which could secure the continuance of a whigg [sic] administration with any ease to the king’. His efforts at placating Walpole, though, were unsuccessful, and in response Walpole accused Stanhope of stabbing Townshend in the back. At the beginning of 1717 Stanhope turned his guns on Walpole, warning him of the consequences of failing to help reunite the factions.
No one man in the world can do so much good as yourself; and give me leave to say, no one man will, I think, have more to answer for to his country, if you do not heartily endeavour to make up these breaches. [Coxe, Walpole Mems. i. 307, 310].
By the spring of 1717 the split was all but irreparable and in key divisions in both Houses in April Townshend in the Lords and a number of Walpole’s allies in the Commons voted against the ministry’s demands for supply (even though Walpole himself voted with the ministry on the matter). The result was Townshend’s summary dismissal from the lieutenancy of Ireland, followed soon after by Walpole’s resignation. Out too whether through resignation or sacking went a number of their adherents, many closely allied through family ties. Among them were several treasury ministers, including Walpole’s brother, Horatio. The earl of Orford left his place at the admiralty as did Sir Charles Turner (Walpole’s brother-in-law). William Pulteney resigned as secretary at war, while the duke of Devonshire (a close associate of Orford and Walpole) quit his office of lord president. A solitary (significant) casualty in the royal household was Conyers Darcy, brother of the 3rd earl of Holdernesse, who departed from his post as commissioner for the office of executing the mastership of the horse. As a sign of how confused the times were, the papers seem to have struggled to keep up with the flow of dismissals and resignations. The Weekly Packet of 6-13 April 1717 announced that John Smith and John Aislabie were also to be removed from their places, but in fact both endured with Aislabie actually promoted in the resulting reshuffle.
Perhaps the most significant result of this ministerial carnage was the emergence of the prince of Wales and his court at Leicester House as a serious alternative to the ministry offering to both dissident Whigs and a number of Tories a convenient rallying point from which they were able to coalesce in opposition to the government. It was also to prove a significant opportunity for Walpole to develop his relations with the prince and (maybe more significantly) the princess of Wales, whose later support was to prove of crucial importance in his later emergence as ‘prime minister’.
- Jeremy Black, ‘Parliament and the political and diplomatic crisis of 1717-18’, Parliamentary History 3 (1984)
- J. Murray, George I, the Baltic, and the Whig Split of 1717: a study in diplomacy and propaganda (University of Chicago Press, 1969)
- See also Andrew Hanham’s ‘Explore’ articles on our website: ‘The Whig Schism of 1719-20’ and ‘The Leicester House Faction‘
Title quotation comes from Mems. of the life and administration of Sir Robert Walpole, ed. W. Coxe, (1816), i. 314.
Watch out this summer for more tales of party intrigue!