As the election results were declared in each constituency at this month’s general election, they were swiftly collated by the media to give an assessment of the overall balance of power within the new House of Commons. With each candidate’s party affiliation listed on the ballot paper, there could be little doubt about the number of MPs returned from each of the major political parties.
In the Parliaments of the 1832-1868 period, however, the attachment of party labels to MPs could be a much more complicated affair. MPs themselves were often reluctant to commit themselves firmly to a particular party, priding themselves on their ‘independence’. As we have indicated in several of our previous blogs, party identities could often be rather fluid, not only for MPs, but also for electors, who in double-member constituencies had the opportunity to split their votes to support candidates of differing political hues.
Contemporary parliamentary guides such as Dod’s parliamentary companion sought to classify MPs on the basis of their political opinions – for example, the 1841 guide pitched ‘Conservatives’ against a collection of ‘Whigs’, ‘Liberals’, ‘Reformers’, ‘Radical Reformers’ and ‘Repealers’, along with those ‘not clearly denominated’. Despite some inaccuracies, they have provided an invaluable resource for historians of this period. However, for the nineteenth-century public, a more immediate indication of the shifting composition of Parliament in the aftermath of a general election was provided in the election results recorded by newspapers and journals. This blog provides an overview of how the party labels assigned to MPs by the press fluctuated in the period between the first two Reform Acts, which can tell us a great deal about the ways in which the idea of party was popularly understood.
The paramount importance of parliamentary reform in the early 1830s led The Times to divide MPs returned at the 1832 general election simply into Reformers and Conservatives. The Spectator elaborated by describing the two parties as ‘Reformers and Ministerialists’ and ‘Conservatives and Anti-Reformers’, while also acknowledging that a binary approach inevitably brought in ‘unconscious errors’. The paper also indicated which Irish Reformers were ‘Repealers’ or ‘Conditional Repealers’, and the Freeman’s Journal further divided them into ‘Repealers’, ‘Tithe Extinguishers’ and ‘Government Supporters’. James Silk Buckingham’s Parliamentary Review adopted for ‘general convenience’ the well-worn terms Conservative and Whig, but also gave the name ‘Liberal’ to MPs whose desire for further reforms went ‘almost as much beyond the Whigs as the Whigs do beyond the Conservatives’.
When Lord Melbourne’s ministry was dismissed in November 1834 The Times adopted Albion’s partisan description of parliamentary candidates as Conservatives and ‘Moderates’, who were prepared to give Sir Robert Peel’s ministry a ‘fair trial’, and ‘Ultras’ or ‘unfair trial’ men who wished to oppose them. The Spectator designated the latter party as ‘Real Reformers’ and ‘Old Whigs’, and labelled Peel’s supporters ‘Anti-Reformers’. A third category of ‘Doubtfuls’ was also introduced containing about 50 ‘wayward’ independents and ‘noted trimmers’, who could not be depended upon to vote either way.
By the time of the 1837 general election, with Melbourne back in power, The Times simply divided MPs into Conservatives and ‘Ministerialists’, but also dubbed the latter the ‘Whig-Radical’ party. The Spectator made a clear distinction between the Liberal and ‘Tory’ parties, but continued to acknowledge a small number of Doubtfuls. With reform of the duties on corn, sugar and timber on the agenda at the 1841 general election the Examiner divided candidates into ‘Monopolists’ and ‘Anti-Monopolists’, while The Times stuck to Conservatives and Whigs, although by now the latter term had become interchangeable with that of Liberal. The Spectator again opted for a clear-cut division between Liberals and Tories, but acknowledged that Dod’s guide had developed into the best source on the precise political affiliations of individual MPs.
After the Conservative party split over Peel’s repeal of the corn laws, The Times divided MPs returned to the 1847 parliament into Liberals, ‘Peelites’ and ‘Protectionists’. The Spectator, however, concluded that it was now impossible to classify MPs satisfactorily and dropped party labels altogether, arguing that the old ‘nicknames’ had lost their significance because Whigs and Tories now represented only ‘very small and unadvanced sections’ of the ‘two great parties’, and the terms Liberal and Conservative could easily be applied ‘to any of the leading politicians’.
When Lord Derby’s minority government faced the electorate in 1852 both the Spectator and The Times simply labelled MPs as ‘Ministerialists’ and ‘Non-Ministerialists’, the former including about 35 ‘supposed neutrals’. The Morning Herald classified Lord Derby’s opponents as ‘Free Traders and Liberals’, but these categorisations largely failed to take into account around 50 Irish Liberals who had mostly withdrawn their support from the Whig opposition because of Lord John Russell’s 1851 ecclesiastical titles bill.
Lord Palmerston’s subsequent elevation to the premiership led the Standard to describe candidates at the 1857 election as Liberal, Conservative and ‘Liberal-Conservative’, a term which had been in vogue since Lord Derby’s effective abandonment of agricultural protection some years earlier. The Times initially grouped MPs into ‘Ministerial’ and ‘Opposition’ camps, according to whether or not they had supported the motion criticising Britain’s treatment of China which had precipitated the election. However, they subsequently adopted the terms Conservative and Liberal – ‘whether Whig, Moderate Liberal, or Radical’.
By this time it was widely believed that the parties were in a state of ‘decomposition’ and ‘fusion’, and the Belfast News-letter insisted that, strictly speaking, Lord Palmerston had ‘no party at all’, as his ministerial benches were filled by ‘numerous little coteries … each with its little great man’. Accordingly, the Spectator again declined to employ party labels and concluded that ‘the dislocation of party distinctions, and the many crossings and divergencies’ defied broad demarcation. At the 1859 general election, however, The Times felt able to label all MPs either Liberal or Conservative, although the Spectator still believed that ‘the very vague professions’ of some members on both sides allowed for only ‘an arbitrary guess’ at the relative numbers of each party.
Reports about the demise of parties proved exaggerated, however, and by 1862 some newspapers were observing an exact balance between Conservatives and Liberals. At the 1865 general election even the Spectator was prepared to employ these labels, although it still allowed for the uncertain position taken by a few Irish ‘independents’. Therefore by the time that Gladstone and Disraeli assumed leadership of the two parties of state, popular understanding of party affiliations had become polarised and simple. It would be another twenty years before the schism over Irish home rule again interrupted the development of Britain’s two-party system.
A. Hawkins, Victorian Political Culture: ‘Habits of Heart and Mind’ (2015), esp. 99-102
J. Coohill, Ideas of the Liberal Party: Perceptions, Agendas and Liberal Politics in the House of Commons, 1832-52 (2011), esp. 13-45
J. Coohill, ‘Parliamentary Guides, Political Identity and the Presentation of Modern Politics, 1832-1846’, Parliamentary History, xxii (2003), 263-284
I. Newbould, ‘The emergence of a two-party system in England from 1830 to 1841: roll call and reconsideration’, Parliaments, Estates and Representation, v (1985), 25-31