Magazine article History Today

Broad Bottom Politics: Coalition Governments Became Common in 18th-Century Britain, but Tended to Fail at Times of Crisis. Jeremy Black Draws Some Parallels with the Present Day

Magazine article History Today

Broad Bottom Politics: Coalition Governments Became Common in 18th-Century Britain, but Tended to Fail at Times of Crisis. Jeremy Black Draws Some Parallels with the Present Day

Article excerpt

In recent weeks commentators have argued over the strengths and weaknesses of coalition governments, usually employing the recent past in order to support their wishes for the present. There has been far less interest in the tensions between politics and government in the 18th and 19th centuries, yet they provide an arresting parallel with the situation today.

In the 18th century a new political settlement emerged following the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. Ministerial roles attained greater clarity and accountability because of Parliament's urgent need to secure the financial system at a time of unprecedented national debt and political parties became more structured as a result.

Party leadership and organisation developed throughout the 18th century, though the pull of alternative loyalties, notably to the constituency or to crown and country, remained strong. Party politics were still widely decried as factionalism, yet the strength of the Whig party during the reigns of George I (1714-27) and George II (1727-60) helped ensure that the executive and legislature could cooperate effectively.

In the 18th century, as now, the emphasis on political parties was accompanied by a contrary aspiration for a politics based on a wider unity and patriotism. Strife between parties threatened to destabilise the new politics. In the 1740s the language of political consensus included the phrase 'broad bottom' to describe mixed ministries. The idea of a contrast between a corrupt governing party and a broad coalition of the rest of the society recurred, whether this coalition was described in terms of the 'Country Party', as in the 1720s and early 1730s, or by the 'Patriots', as in the late 1730s and early 1740s.

Henry St John's, Viscount Bolingbroke, idea of an incorruptible coalition led by a virtuous prince was taken up in the 1740s by supporters of Frederick, Prince of Wales, and then, after his death in 1751, by his son George III. George sought to break the Whig monopoly of high office and to encourage a new politics based on talent from across the spectrum.

Nowadays, the alternatives for government are not divided between independent parliamentarians and parties as in the 18th century, but between whether to rely on one party alone to govern or on a coalition. The compromises required for the latter to work are harder to achieve in a democratic age because, in election campaigns, parties define themselves in terms of aspirations and policies presented in idealistic terms and a moralistic tone. To campaign on the basis of compromise and prudence does not readily accord with the modern assumption that political parties ought to promise improvement.

Though such promises induce a degree of public scepticism about politicians, they also seem to be what much of the electorate expect. …

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