Who Were the Whigs?

The Whig Party was originally founded in 1678, at the start of Britain’s modern political history. The key principles of the Whigs were to defend the people against tyranny and to advance human progress. After securing the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688, which established the primacy of Parliament over the Crown, the Whigs founded the Bank of England in 1694, and then crafted the Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707. For the next 150 years, the Whigs laid the foundations for a decent and democratic modern Britain. During this period, there were just two political parties in Britain; the Whigs, who pressed forward, and the Tories, who tried to hold things back.

There were sixteen Whig Prime Ministers, and the main periods of progress in Britain at this time were the Whig Supremacy (1714-60) and the Whig Revival (1806-34). The Whigs passed a number of pro-immigration measures, and laws to enable the full participation of religious minorities in public life. The Whigs abolished the slave trade in 1807, and abolished slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. Perhaps most notably, the Whigs passed the Great Reform Act in 1832, which expanded the electorate, and made Parliament more representative of the country as a whole.

The Whig Party was dissolved in 1868, and the reforming spirit of the Whigs was inherited by the Liberals and the Labour Party. Many of the great reforms of the 20th Century were in the spirit of Whiggery; such as the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave women the vote, the establishment of the NHS and the welfare state by the post-War Labour Government, and the reforms of Roy Jenkins in the 1960s, which decriminalised homosexuality and abolished capital punishment. This Whiggish spirit was reinvigorated by the founding of the Social Democratic Party in 1981 and the launch of New Labour in 1994, but by the early 21st Century both of these movements had ran out of ideas. By the time the global financial crisis hit the UK in 2008, there was no credible progressive response and the Tories were once again able to set the political agenda.

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“I am a Whig, and I am ready to act as the great Whigs did in old times, who never allowed themselves to be seduced by commonplace phrases when great political dangers were to be dealt with.”

Liberal MP Sir William Harcourt