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  • William Tyler

Politicians don't change!

In an earlier blog concerning the economic crisis of 1706 and the political one of 1714, I mentioned the extraordinary character, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke was a Tory politician who abandoned his commitment to The Hanoverian succession, became a Jacobite, and then abandoned Jacobitism to become an Hanoverian all over again. He was led not by principle but buy naked personal ambition. He is said to have been a libertine where drink and women were concerned, and yet gained a reputation as an eloquent and charismatic speaker in The House of Commons. You could credit him with taking The Tories out of Office for fifty years and thus of guaranteeing progressive moves towards a modern democracy under the Whigs, especially Sir Robert Walpole. As I often say when teaching, take that last sentence and discuss in no fewer than five thousand words!


Bolingbroke was a Wiltshire man, born in 1678. He became a politician. In 1701 he spoke in favour of the Act of Settlement, which decided the succession in favour of The House of Hanover, rather then the exiled House of Stuart. Princess Anne had lost the only child of hers to survive infancy, the Duke of Gloucester, the previous year and William III was dying. It looked as though, unless a miracle was to happen, that there would be a succession question to resolve on the death of (Queen) Anne. That there was great anxiety over this was because of fear of a return to civil war.


The Act also accused James the Old Pretender (James III to his followers) of being guilty of High Treason. The Tories, including Bolingbroke, supported the legislation, the Whigs opposed it. The Whigs opposed partly on the grounds that taking an oath abjuring James's right to the throne should be voluntary and not compulsory. Yet the vote was a reversal of the natural order of things; but both Parties were manoeuvring for power and both recognised that the issue would not go 'live' until the death of Queen Anne. There was plenty of time to keep manoeuvring to obtain the result each Party wanted. A sizeable part of The Tory Party wanted James III to inherit on Anne's death, but they also wished him, as a non-negotiable prerequisite, to embrace The Church of England and reject The Church of Rome. The Whigs believed in the Protestant Hanoverian Succession, believing that James would simply be the tool of France, and better therefore a German Prince than a French one. Confused? You are probably in the same position as most of the population of the day who thought about such matters. Both Parties were biding their time.


William III died the day after the Act became law. Anne was now Queen.


We now fast forward to the year 1714, and the year of Anne's death. The Tories were in power having won an overwhelming victory at the polls the previous year. They were deeply divided still over the succession, but were even more divided at the top of the Party by the personal antagonism between the Earl of Oxford and Viscount Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke summarised the policy of the Tory Government, 'I am afraid that we came to court [power] in the same disposition as all parties have done; that the principal spring of our actions was to have the government of the state in our hands; that our principal views were the conservation of this power, great employment to ourselves, and great opportunities of rewarding those who had helped to raise us'. Almost as an after thought, Bolingbroke adds, 'It is, however, true that with these considerations of private and party interest there were others intermingled which had for their object the public good of the nation - at least, what we took to be such'. Has there ever been a more cynical, but maybe accurate, description of British Politics?


Well a few days before the Queen's death the open rows between Oxford and Bolingbroke hit the fan when Oxford prosecuted Bolingbroke through the courts for corruption, and lost. Bolingbroke managed to persuade the dying Anne to dismiss Oxford but Bolingbroke failed to form a Government and in the end Anne, in one of her last acts, appointed the Whig Shrewsbury. As Sir Charles Petrie said, Bolingbroke simply collapsed under the pressure of the moment and 'seemed temporarily off balance'. He proved himself to be not a man for a crisis. There remains much mystery around these events. Some maintain that in a pack of letters left by Anne was one leaving the throne to her half brother, James. None of this mattered though, and a Council of Regency was established, George of Hanover arrived, and the Whigs sealed a political victory in The General Election of early 1715. The Tories were to be out of office for half a century, Bolingbroke fled to France to the court of James, and the Stuarts were never to recover the throne.


Of course, Bolingbroke cannot be solely held to blame for these events. Had James announced his willingness to become a member of The Church of England there would have been little opposition to his taking the throne, even from the Whigs. The Stuarts in exile were so often to prove to be their own worst enemies. Bolingbroke himself even doubted that James would remain true to his word even if promising to become Anglican, for later in life Bolingbroke wrote, 'The Tories always looked at the restoration of the Stuarts as a sure means to throw the whole power of Government into their hands. I am confident that they would have found themselves deceived'. Of course by the time he penned these words he himself had fled to France to become, for a brief while, James' Secretary of State and earn himself an Earldom, then negotiated his return to England as a born-again Hanoverian. He never got near power again, and died in Battersea in 1751.


PS The Act of Settlement of 1701, as amended, remains on the Statute Book and gives the lie to those who say we have an unwritten constitution. We have an uncodified constitution.


Further Reading: The Jacobite Movement by Sir Charles Petrie, and The King Over The Water by Desmond Seward.


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