Tory Phylogeny

John Brewer

  • In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party 1714-1760 by Linda Colley
    Cambridge, 383 pp, £25.00, February 1982, ISBN 0 521 23982 6
  • Dynamics of Change: The Crisis of the 1750s and English Party Systems by J.C.D. Clark
    Cambridge, 640 pp, £37.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 521 23830 7

Edmund Burke, who spent most of his life either in the wilderness of Parliamentary opposition or as a champion of lost causes, knew how uncharitably we treat political failure. ‘The conduct of a losing party,’ he wrote, ‘never appears right: at least it never can possess the only infallible criterion of wisdom to vulgar judgments – success.’ Burke might have been speaking of his old enemies, the Hanoverian Tories, who have now been rescued from ignominy by Linda Colley. Her book brilliantly rehabilitates the 18th-century Tory Party and lambastes the ‘vulgar judgments’ of those historians who have dismissed it as an insignificant political presence.

The Hanoverian Tory has usually been depicted as an antediluvian creature, a political dinosaur, whose Jacobite environment had been destroyed by the Hanoverian regime. Struggling to survive in the enervated air of ‘country’ principles or the insalubrious atmosphere of treasonous intrigue, the small-brained and large-bodied Tory slowly asphyxiated in the noxious political climate created by Whig jobbery and court corruption.

As Colley shows, Tory phylogeny was not that simple. The Tory stereotype – the reactionary, rustic squireen, who loathed commerce, banks, the City and the Court – and the party archetype – the squirearchy writ large – are neatly dissected to reveal an altogether more heterogeneous beast, capable of adapting to very different economic and political climates. How else, points out Colley, can we explain the many Tory holders of government stock, such Tory bankers as Henry Hoare, the builder of Stourhead, and the numerous merchants and men of business, including such giants as the ironmaster, Ambrose Crowley, who saw substantial profits and Tory politics as perfectly compatible? Tories, as Colley shows, came from all walks of life, and were just as likely to be found in the crowded streets of the metropolis as in the uncluttered lanes of a country hamlet.

Tories were a numerous and varied species, but most historians have been unwilling to admit that they had much political effect. With the accession of George I, the Tories were ruthlessly driven from the benign habitat of power and place, leaving the lush vegetation of court sinecure and government office to the voracious insects and reptiles – two favourite images of the Tory satirist – of the Whig Party. Colley’s account of this proscription is the most comprehensive to date, and she makes a good case for our having underestimated the extent of Tory exclusion. But were the Tories therefore rendered politically impotent? The usual answer is yes. It is customary to see the Tory response to expulsion in one of two ways: as a flight to the Pretender ‘over the water’ or as a recourse to the ‘country’ belief that administrations should be constrained and checked by principled opposition – in other words, that there was no need for them to try to get back in power. In this view, Tory politics is either thinly disguised Jacobitism or an independent, backbench philosophy indistinguishable from oppositionist Whiggery.

Colley will have none of this. She concedes that there were some Tory Jacobites, especially in the years immediately following the Hanoverian succession, and that many Tories dabbled in intrigue with the Pretender, but she is at pains to emphasise how rarely English Tories laid their Jacobitism on the line – they had no desire to put their heads on the block – and how little support they gave to the ’45 Rebellion. Colley’s conclusion is typically apposite and illuminating: ‘Jacobitism, in short, was not the Tory raison d’etre but one option amongst many, to be considered if and when it became viable.’

Nor, Colley argues, can we dismiss the Tories as a bevy of idealistic and ill-organised backbenchers. The Tories had their own distinctive organisations, in the Parliamentary party, in the constituencies, and in the numerous taverns and coffee-houses in the metropolis. Independence and organisation were not incompatible: rather, they produced a more sensitive and consultative type of leadership. And when the door of the royal closet was left even slightly ajar, as it was on several occasions in the period, the Party showed no reluctance to barge in. It was not, therefore, the Tories’ putative antipathy towards the executive, nor even the Monarch’s hostility towards the Party, which explains their failure to achieve high office, but the presence of a Whig lobby that was determined to keep the Tories from the corridors of power.

Neither wholeheartedly Jacobite nor irredeemably independent, the Tory creed, as Colley shows, was a complex and sometimes contradictory litany of political views. It’s true, the Party defended the royal prerogative, the pre-eminence of the Church of England, and non-resistance to duly constituted authority. Assisted by the minor Anglican clergy who were their most fervent political allies, the Tories hoped to create a strong polity in which rulers and ruled recognised their duties and fulfilled their social obligations. But this did not mean, as Colley emphasises, the pursuit of an atavistic, arcadian ideal. On the contrary, in order to achieve their ends, the Tories were prepared to support increased popular political participation, changes in the nature of representation, and a measure of Parliamentary reform. And they were willing, to a far greater degree than the renegade Whigs with whom they uneasily co-operated in opposition, to mobilise and respond to extra-parliamentary political opinion. Such tactics – as Colley concedes with typical fairness – did not command universal approbation in a party which had its share of borough-mongers and closed seats, but they do help explain both the remarkable extent of popular Toryism and the resilience of the Party during its years of proscription under George I and George II. The Tory, it transpires, was a chameleon and not a dinosaur after all.

Colley’s sophisticated and sensitive account, written with great clarity and elegance, raises, as every good monograph should, a number of general issues about the period. Her first challenge is to the view that the Hanoverian succession was a great political watershed which not only drove the Tories from power but transformed the character of politics. According to this interpretation, the period before 1714 saw a heroic struggle between Whigs and Tories and plenty of opportunity for popular political participation: the period thereafter saw a sharp decline in political activity and the transformation of the Whig-Tory battle into a desultory conflict between an entrenched ‘court’ and a disillusioned ‘country’. Millpond stability superseded turbulent party strife. Colley narrows the great divide not only by demonstrating Tory vitality after the Hanoverian succession but by skilfully questioning the case for extensive participation in the earlier era.

Much of this argument is a critique of the way in which historians have developed the interpretation advanced by Colley’s mentor, Sir John Plumb, in his now classic The Growth of Political Stability. Plumb’s book, which brilliantly delineated the change from the political chaos of the 17th to the political order of the 18th century, was such a tour de force that ever since most historians have adopted some approximation of its original framework. As a result, and through no fault of Plumb’s, a great deal of nonsense has been written using the terms ‘stability’ and ‘instability’. In Plumb’s original formulation, ‘stability’ was a development to be explained: too often it is now treated as if the development itself explained everything. The term has been used by dull practitioners to conceal their own conceptual poverty or to account for historical phenomena which would be more usefully discussed in a different context. Reading recent work in the field, one is sometimes led to think that the only significance of an 18th-century political organisation or event is whether or not it can be deemed to have contributed to or detracted from the conceptual passe-partout of ‘stability’. Colley’s criticisms are a useful indictment of this sort of woolly thinking.

Colley’s book also raises a number of major questions about the history of Parliamentary reform and extra-parliamentary political organisation. Conventional wisdom sees these as late Georgian phenomena, the product of hostility to George III, of the alienation of the Whigs, and of the crowd-pleasing antics of John Wilkes. The earlier period, that of the Tory opposition Colley characterises so acutely, has been written off as ‘pudding time’, an era of well-fed and prosperous contentment only occasionally interrupted by what are seen as incomplete intimations of a future, fully-fledged radicalism. Colley’s description of Tory radicalism exposes the inadequacy of this Whiggish view. Clearly many historians, myself included, have exaggerated the novelty of reformist developments in the 1760s and neglected the extra-parliamentary activities of the Tory opponents of Walpole, Newcastle and Pelham. Though there undoubtedly were important differences between radicalism after 1760 and earlier Tory populism – distinctions that still need clarification and explanation – there can be no question that any history of Parliamentary reform or popular politics which neglects the mid-century Tories will not only incur the legitimate strictures of Dr Colley but will also be woefully incomplete.

Colley has written one of the most illuminating books on 18th-century politics to appear in this generation. Not all her conclusions will command assent, but they will undoubtedly stimulate fruitful controversy and interesting new research. In the history of 18th-century party, a field which seems to lull its practitioners into a sonorous pomposity, it is a pleasure to read a book that displays such lively intelligence and acuity of judgment. Occasionally Colley seems a little too eager to score historiographical points against her colleagues. It is not that her criticisms are not telling – indeed, they are almost invariably on target – but it does mean that her book sometimes gives theimpression of being a series of snapshots whose angle of vision is determined less by the Tories themselves than by the controversies which surround their history. In consequence, it is sometimes difficult to envisage the Party and its members as a whole.

J.C.D. Clark’s work is a larger tome in a narrower compass. It is an account of the protracted struggle of 1754-7, when the Duke of Newcastle – who emerges as the hero of Clark’s account – Henry Fox and the elder William Pitt jockeyed and jostled for political power. The conflict is seen by Clark as a major turning-point in party history, a fulcrum around which politics received a new configuration. The book suffers from an odd disproportion. On the one hand, the bulk of the text consists of a useful and meticulously reconstructed day-to-day narrative of the political process, fascinating to the cognoscenti but hardly accessible to those ignorant of the arcana of Georgian political intrigue. On the other, Clark makes a number of very general and abstract claims about the methodological significance of the narrative technique that he employs. Some of his remarks are banal – we are portentously informed, for example, that politics is about the struggle for power – others are concealed in a prose of such opacity as to render them incomprehensible. It is not at all clear from Clark’s general remarks why his narrative technique is so illuminating. The proof of the pudding must therefore be in the eating. Clark serves up traditional fare and leaves us much to ruminate upon, but what he offers hardly matches Colley’s exquisite nouvelle cuisine.