book-reviews

The Emergence of the British Two-Party System, 1760-1832

by Frank O'Gorman

Rating: ★★★

Very much a specialist text, with a treatment of the subject of political parties that is unforgiving for the reader that is only vaguely familiar with the cast and events of the period. Gorman does present a narrative treatment, which makes it possible to understand developments, but I was conscious that I was missing context on several of the important issues.

So far as my central interest, the development of party politics, the picture is complex and not simple to summarise in fewer words than Gorman gives. It is far too easy to project modern party politics backwards onto this formative era, in which more temperamental factions ruled a more independent Commons, and reach incorrect conclusions about what was going on. The development of party could be said to have been foremost a development of Whiggish opposition -- despite the fact that the government which it opposed was for much of the period itself Whig in nature. The Tories as a proscribed group did not form into something like a party, and in government they acted more like the traditional government alliance than a party that happened to be in power -- it was only once they were ousted and took over the mantle of opposition that both the 'legitimate opposition' of modern constitution and parties themselves could be considered accepted.

While party was developed as a tool for politicians whose general and apparently sincere aims were sympathetic -- defence of liberty and humanitarianism -- it is hard to say that the instinctive distaste of the politicians of the day was wrong. Party is a corrupting system, lending itself to the automatic support of ministers (in turn now dependent entirely on the Prime Minister) by a servile or crippled Parliament. The Government's party rarely dare rebel, and the Opposition rages in a petty and factional manner against things it does not truly oppose. It is sad to read of the behaviour of elected representatives from 200 years ago and find yourself doubting that any modern politicians would hold to the same constitutional standard. Though we can observe some progress, too -- modern politicians would be far more averse to voting in their own naked self-interest, as with the Corn Laws.