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French Revolution

Parliament and the French Revolution

This lecture considers the impact of the French Revolution on parliamentary politics in the 18th century – the broader context will be evaluated in the next lecture.

  • On the eve of the French Revolution parliamentary politics was again entering an unstable phase following North's relatively successful spell in government: failure to subdue or defeat the American colonists; growing impact of the ideas of freedom, representation and liberty; problems in Ireland; war with France. From late 1779-1780 there were a number of crises in the government and discontent culminated with a number of motions in Parliament hostile to the government, including one claiming that 'the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished'. Thus the government was forced to dissolve Parliament and call for an election to try and regain the initiative. The election gave the government a notional majority of 23 seats but the Rockingham led opposition group had greatly increased its ranks, further decisive setbacks in the American war and the defeat of the government on a number of motions in the Commons led to North being swept from office in March 1782. From then until April 1784 there followed a constitutional crisis, a crisis.
  • The immediate result of the fall of North was a ministry composed of Rockighamites in a ueasy alliance with a group around Shelburne, who could best be described as a Chathamite who concurred with the king's view on party and the monarchs prerogative to select ministers. The king treated Shelburne and Rockingham as co-equal first ministers. The ministry was divided on every major issue: America independence, parliamentary and economic reform, India. Rockingham died on 1 July 1782.
  • On the same day the king received the news of Rockinghams death the king offered the post of first lord of the treasury to Shelburne. The Rockinghamites, regrouped under their new leader Fox. Shelburne's ministry although it had the support of the king inherited all the unsolved problems of Rockingham's administration. Shelburne was defeated in the Commons in Feb 1783 over the terms for peace with America by 224 votes to 208. The remarkable feature of the voting was the extent to which party lines stood firm. 104/120 Northites voted against the government; 72/80-90 Foxites and the government was supported by 126/130-140 Shelburnites.
  • Replaced by the Fox-North coalition. The King was forced to give way and had to agree to Portland's list of cabinet ministers and agree that the cabinet should appoint to the junior positions in the government. The point at issue was of fundamental constitutional importance - the king's prerogative to choose his own ministers. It was said of Fox that 'It had been argued again and again that the king had the right to choose his own ministers. On that particular he rested the spirit of the constitution and not on the letter of it... He (Fox) ever would mention that His Majesty in his choice of ministers ought not to be influenced by his personal favour alone, but by the public voice, by the sense of his parliament and the sense of his people.'
  • The ministry's immediate needs were in the area of finance Lord John Cavendish, the chancellor introduced a budget designed to raise £250,000 a year by taxation and negotiated a £12m loan. They also faced a challenge by Pitt, who was the effective leader of the opposition in the Commons, on the issue of Parliamentary reform. The ministry also faced controversy over the question of an establishment for the Prince of Wales who would come of age in August 1783 and with whom Fox had allied whilst in opposition as both were against the king. However the major crisis of the coalitions short term in office was that of India. The previous reorganisation of the East India Company's affairs that had been undertaken by North's Regulating bill of 1773 had proved in practice to be seriously defective. The Governor-General, Warren Hastings had defied the kings council and ignored attempts to recall him. Any efforts to control the company from London were countermanded by directors on the spot. Burke drew up a plan of action. Political control was to be vested in seven commissioners, MPs appointed by parliament and holding office for 3-5 years. Commercial control was to be exercised by nine assistant commissioners. Burke tried to include measures of public accountability and to tke into ccount the welfare of the subject people. The India bill passed through the commons comfortably receiving strong support from independent members and those who had interests in India but was defeated in the Lords by 8 votes
  • The ministers were in an odd position living on borrowed time. They were determined not to resign and thus the king was forced to ask them for their seals of office without granting them an audience. Pitt, the younger was therefore able to enter office at the age of 24. The 1784 election took place amid a publicity campaign umprecedented since the excise election of 1734. The country was split beween Pitts appeals to loyalty and Fox's claims that the liberties of parliament were in danger. Pitt made a net gain of 70 seats. The opposition were routed . Only 83 out of 130 Foxites and 69/112 Northites were returned again.
  • After 1784 issues quietened down in parliament as Pitt consolidated his control over parliament. It is possible to see some developments in the growth of a distinct Whig party during this period. One major advance for the Whigs in terms of the techniques and structures of party was in the development of a rudimentary party organisation under William Adam. Early in 1789 a central office was in existence with full time paid staff which received an annual allocation from the party fund. Adam also manipulated the routine and practices of parliament to accommodate party. But party was not allowed to dominate politics. Traditional forces still exercised strong pressures on MPs.
  • For the embryonic Tories, still Pittites in the parliaments of 1784-1806, this was a period of consolidation and triumph. Any defeats in the commons were transient. Pitt had the complete support of the king. But this served to weaken his power in the long run he was unable to prevent Pitts economic reforms which stemmed from recommendations of committees in North's time. He greatly reduced the use of sinecure offices, leases of crown land, governemnt contracting and other forms of patronage to eliminae the influence of the crown by the early years of the nineteenth century. The effect of Pitt's desire to clean up politics was to have the result of removing the crown's influence and replacing it with dependence upon ministers. Pitt’s lasting legacy to the Tory/Conservative party was his association with popular loyalism.
  • The French Revolution is of cataclysmic importance in the history of parliament. The initial reactions in England to the fall of the Bastille on July 14 1789 and the early years of the revolution varied in the Whig party to enthusiastic support for the revolutionaries to cynical satisfaction at the humbling of the house of Bourbon. Fox's reaction is often quoted, 'How much the greatest Event that is ever happened in the world, and how much the best.' It was hoped that France was following the example of an aristocratic revolution set by England in 1688. However, there was increasing concern and even fear as the revolution continued along its path. The split that had been present in the 1780s between the conservative and radical wings of the party deepened with the ideological problems presented by the revolution.
  • It is possible to see several stages in the disintegration of the Whig party: the final alienation of Burke with the publication of his pamphlet 'Reflections on the Revolution in France' in November 1790; the formation of the Association of the Friends of the People in October 1792; the September massacres of aristocrats and priests in France which led to the loss of 30 MPs and the execution of Louis XVI and the declaration of war which initiated the withdrawal of another large group of Whigs clustered around the leadership of Portland. Following the declaration of war Fox had launched an attack on the government in the belief that the threat from France was less than that from George III and Pitt but as O'Gorman puts it 'to demand peace with a regicide republic which was proclaiming revolution throughout Europe was, to say the least, an unpopular step for Fox to take'.
  • The two parties thus emerged from the trials and tribulations of the 1790s and the pressures of the French revolution with all the elements that were to characterise parliamentary politics during the nineteenth century. Both the Whigs and the Tories, entered the age of reform already having undergone major changes in their ideology, institutions and policies.