Henry Brougham and the 1818 Westmorland Election: A Study in Provincial Opinion and the Opening of Constituency Politics

By Hay, William Anthony | Albion, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Henry Brougham and the 1818 Westmorland Election: A Study in Provincial Opinion and the Opening of Constituency Politics


Hay, William Anthony, Albion


An extensive literature that has appeared over the past two decades on the Hanoverian electorate and political culture at the constituency level provides a more sophisticated understanding of party conflict in Britain during the long eighteenth century than earlier work focused on high politics or other subjects. H. T. Dickinson points out that most people experienced politics at the constituency level where negotiations between different political groups within communities and the voters provided a voice for competing interests that an older historiography focused on high politics failed to recognize. (1) These local aspects of Hanoverian politics established the context for two important developments in the early nineteenth century; a greater appreciation for the impact of public opinion on politics at Westminster and the development of a two-party system. The emergence of a self-conscious provincial identity sustained by new economic and institutional forces drove both trends. Christopher Wyvill's Yorkshire Association formed in 1779, the General Chamber of Manufacturers founded in 1785, anti-war petitioning efforts by local groups during the conflict with Napoleon, and the successful campaign in 1812 against the regulatory Orders in Council demonstrated the growing impact of provincial activism. (2) The intersection between new provincial interests focused on issues debated at Westminster and constituency politics with its own rituals and dynamics provides an opening to explore the final decades of the Hanoverian political order. Connections between local and metropolitan drew into sharper focus as party conflict at Westminster extended into national politics.

The 1818 Westmorland Election in which Henry Brougham, a Whig barrister and M.P., challenged the Tory Earl of Lonsdale's control over Westmorland's two parliamentary seats highlights the opening of constituency politics. Religious dissent and new economic interests joined older conflicts among local groups and leading families that shaped county and borough politics in a way that had broader repercussions. Brougham used opposition to monopolies in commerce, religion, and politics to forge an ideological bond between Whigs in Parliament and provincial merchants and manufacturers, and he developed tactics that linked provincial opinion with debates at Westminster as part of a broader project to bring his party to power. Brougham's involvement in Westmorland transformed the situation from an insurgency against a county's dominant interest into perhaps the most spectacular case in which party rivalry shaped an election before 1832. A contest that pitted the Lowther brothers against the star of the Whig front bench drew national attention as a symbolic confrontation between government and opposition. (3)

Born to a Westmorland family and raised in Edinburgh, Brougham entered the House of Commons in 1810 for Camelford and quickly became the government's most formidable critic. He used petition and debate tactics that combined local petitioning efforts with press reports and debates in the Commons to defeat the Orders in Council and proposals in 1816 for a post-war income tax. Connections from legal work on the Northern Circuit and reform movements including the campaign against slavery and the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge helped build support in the country. The Leeds Mercury urged him to stand for Yorkshire in 1812 as William Wilberforce's successor on the slogan "if you will elect me freely, I will serve you faithfully," and Brougham contested Liverpool unsuccessfully against George Canning that year. (4) A man of great presence, Brougham had a depressive personality in which periods of frenetic activity and gaiety alternated with the blackest gloom. Periodic retreats to his Westmorland estate punctuated his busy professional life. Impatience and querulousness spoiled Brougham's charm over time as Whig aristocrats and his fellow intellectuals alike became suspicious of their headstrong colleague. …

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