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July 27, 2006

Whig Milieux: The Whig World, 1760-1837 - Leslie Mitchell

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Whig World, 1760-1837
by Leslie Mitchell
Pp. 222. London: Hambledon, 2005
Hardback, 19.99; Paperback, 12.99

Leslie Mitchell is an accomplished guide to the Whig world, and he writes about it with great affection, sympathy and knowledge. In an approach that is instructive for modern counterparts, he argues that Whigs could only operate in a system where parliamentary life was firmly separated from most democratic considerations, and that the moment between autocracy and democracy was the Whig moment.

Mitchell skilfully discusses circles of acquaintance, Whig milieux, particular ideas, enemies, and the eventual disappearance of the Whigs. It would be fair to say, however, that by beginning in 1760 earlier strands of Whiggery are neglected. For example Mitchell states that (p. 135):

Whig politics rested on the simple proposition that property was king.
This is overly bald and underrates the legacy of seventeenth-century constitutional disputes. Nevertheless, the mental world of the Whigs of Mitchell's period is skilfully depicted.

In particular, there is a very fine account of how Whiggery was historically rooted. This again could have benefited from a discussion of the pre-1760 situation, but, nevertheless, as Mitchell points out, in their subsequent long years of opposition, which lasted until 1830, Whigs wrote history as a vindication and as a point of catharsis, with every contemporary situation placed in an historical context. Mitchell aptly points out that (p. 150):

the Whig account is a penny-dreadful story with virtue wrestling with wickedness, cliff-hanging crises and the ultimate triumph of good.
In this neo-Gothic panorama, the Stuarts were to the fore among the villains, while Whigs could find heroes among their ancestors.

Furthermore, the present was coined into historical myth, as with Charles James Fox, who, as soon as he died in 1806, gained iconic status. This was seen in christening names as well as annual dinners, and offers an interesting counterpoint to modern historical cults. Liberty was thus asserted and carefully grafted onto Whig family trees. Visually, the Whigs placed themselves before visitors in appropriate settings. In the sixth Duke of Bedford's Temple of Worthies at Woburn, Fox was present with the fifth and sixth Dukes as well as the Elder and Younger Brutus, as remembrances of heroic virtue, while a pediment by Flaxman depicted Liberty and a frieze by Westmacott the march of Progress.

Such claims invited satire, but Whiggery was also criticised by radicals, Tories and others for a host of reasons, including the international context. Earlier, under Georges I and II (1714-60), Whigs were criticised for being pro-Hanoverian, their later counterparts being seen as pro-French, either the France of the Enlightenment or that of the Revolution. Whig social politics was deplored, Whig confidence in the future mocked, and Whig morals condemned, not least in the person of Fox.

To both radicals and Tories, Whigs were the exponents of oligarchy, while, to Tories, they were the allies of radicalism. The latter was ironic, because the Whigs had little time for radicalism. Criticism, however, is seen by Mitchell as leading to a Whig sense of being under siege.

In assessing the fate of Whiggery, Mitchell suggests that the two world wars destroyed the Whig programme, as there was no longer the possibility of a gentle drift towards democracy, with more and more people becoming electors on Whig terms. Instead, the exigencies of wartime politics could only be contained by opening up the political process. Mitchell moreover points out that the acquisition of great purchasing power by the bulk of the population also acted as a solvent. A thoughtful, reflective and interesting book on part of the Whig period and legacy in British history.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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