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Books

300 years of hating party politics

3 December 2012

9:37 AM

3 December 2012

9:37 AM

‘Whig and Tory Scratch and Bite’, by Aaron Hill

Whig and Tory scratch and bite,
Just as hungry dogs we see:
Toss a bone ‘twixt two, they fight,
Throw a couple, they agree.

Tribal party politics are three-hundred years old in Britain. So is the fashion for satire which aspires to rise above it all. The British people have been dealing with political parties since the 1670s. It was then that a faction led by the Earl of Shaftesbury tried to have Parliament pass a law to prevent Charles II’s brother James from succeeding to the throne. Charles had no legitimate children so James was next in line. He was also a Catholic and Shaftesbury’s supporters argued that, because of this, he would be likely to create an authoritarian form of monarchy like those in France and Spain. Their opponents named them Whigs after a Scottish group of radical Protestant insurgents who had marched on Edinburgh in 1648. They in turn began to call James’s supporter Tories – a name given to bands of Irish outlaws who targeted English settlers and soldiers.

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The Tories triumphed in the Exclusion Crisis (as the affair was known) and James II became king in 1685. But three years later he was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution. With James out, so were the Tories. William III became the new king, officially ruling as an equal partner with his wife Mary (James’ daughter). Whigs who had opposed James ten years earlier were rewarded with offices and power. But when William was succeeded by Mary’s younger sister Anne, the situation was turned on its head. Now the Tories were in. And a few years later it was all change again when George I brought the Whigs back. No wonder some wanted to be able to step outside it all. With so much depending on the whims of successive monarchs, power changed hands according to processes that most people could only dimly grasp. Court intrigue was at least as important as electoral politics. To many observers it must have seemed obvious that one of two little cliques was always in charge, and that whoever was in charge did very nicely out of it.

The speaker of Hill’s poem is one of these observers – a cynic who sees party politics as a scramble for reward. The comparison of both parties to dogs is more cutting because of the implicit contrast with the elevated rhetoric of rights, duties, and patriotism which they used to described themselves. Hill’s poem is having none of it, and reduces their motives to a petty squabble for the fruits of office. These motives are further belittled by likening them to dogs’ bones. Only degraded people would fight over such trash. We are invited to share his opinion that party politics is a hypocritical scuffle in the gutter which we readers and the poem’s speaker are all the better for not being involved in.

This is an appealing invitation. Who doesn’t like to be told that they know how things really are and that they are morally superior? But as an approach to politics, it’s just as much an attempt to wish away the realities of party politics as to see them clearly. First it ignores the real ideological questions that divided Whigs and Tories. Whigs, for instance, generally favoured freedom of worship for all Protestants whereas Tories wanted to preserve the privileges of the Church of England. Britain really was deeply split on these issues. Much as people like the speaker of Hill’s poem might have wished it to be so, pretending that those divisions didn’t exist wouldn’t make them go away.

Secondly, believing that the worldly wealth which Whigs and Tories competed for was worthless dross might have been very healthy for readers’ souls. But that didn’t change the fact that fabulous wealth brought fabulous power in eighteenth century Britain. Power in turn begat even more wealth, and Britain became a place of fantastic inequality. That mattered. Politics might be filthy as a pig-sty, but if you’re not prepared to muddy yourself a bit, expect to be ruled by pigs.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.


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