The document, signed in Runnymead, laid down important restrictions on the power of the king and ensured the privileges of the barons were protected. In the 20th century Lord Denning described Magna Carta as, ‘The greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’.
Charles Townshend succeeded his father as 2nd Viscount Townshend in 1687. Initially a Tory, he soon adhered to the Whigs and gained office with the fall of the Tories following the accession of King George I. Townshend served as Secretary of State under Robert Walpole for 10 years and the two men formed an effective partnership which was central to the early success of the government. This political alliance became a personal one when Townshend married Walpole’s sister Dorothy. Differences arose over foreign policy in particular Britain’s relations with Austria which led to Townshend’s resignation in May 1730. This led to a second career in agriculture which earned him the nickname of ‘Turnip Townshend’ by which he is often remembered. His work saw him pioneer a number of important and lasting farming reforms.
Elected Whig MP for Castle Rising 1701-02 and King’s Lynn 1702-12 & 1713-42, Robert Walpole came from a strong Whig family and first achieved office under Lord Godolphin during the reign of Queen Anne. Following the formation of a Tory ministry, Walpole found himself impeached and expelled from the House of Commons. Re-elected on a wave of public sympathy Walpole and the Whigs returned to power with the accession of George I. In 1720 the collapse of the South Sea Bubble lead to the disgrace of many leading Whigs and led to Walpole’s appointment as First Lord of the Treasury. As Prime Minister Walpole consolidated Whig power through use of Royal patronage and pursued a policy of avoiding war, low taxes and reducing the national debt. Ironically it was Britain’s involvement in the War of Jenkin’s Ear that lead to his downfall. On his resignation, Walpole was appointed to the House of Lords as Earl of Orford.
William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, was Whig MP for Hedon 1705-34 and Middlesex 1734-42. Along with Walpole, he played a prominent part in the struggles with the Tories during the reign of Queen Anne. When Walpole was sent to the Tower in 1712 Pulteney championed his cause in the House of Commons. With the Tories out of office following the accession of George I, Pulteney served as Secretary of State at War from 1714 to 17. When Walpole became Prime Minister Pulteney expected high office from his friend but no offers came, other than a peerage. Snubbed, Pulteney went into opposition forming the Patriot Whigs and in 1726 joined with Tory Lord Bolingbroke to publish a periodical The Craftsman which ran constant denunciations of Walpole. When Walpole’s ministry collapsed Pulteney was charged with forming a ministry but offered the premiership to the Earl of Wilmington. Pulteney agreed to go to the House of Lords following which his influence rapidly declined and when Wilmington died a little over a year later, Pulteney found himself passed over for Henry Pelham. After this Pulteney’s political activity dwindled and he died in July 1764.
Member of a prominent Whig family (his son William also became Prime Minister), George Grenville was Whig MP for Buckingham 1741-70. An early supporter, along with his brother-in-law William Pitt the Elder, of the “Boy Patriot” group lead by Lord Cobham which opposed Sir Robert Walpole, Grenville joined the administration of Henry Pelham as a Lord of the Admiralty and served in a succession of Whig governments. Later estranged from Pitt, Grenville served Tory Lord Bute eventually succeeding him as Prime Minister. Grenville prosecuted John Wilkes for seditious libel and introduced the Sugar and Stamp Acts which caused great resentment in the American Colonies. Never on good terms with George III, Grenville fell out with the King over who should rule in the event of the King’s becoming mentally unfit which led to Grenville’s dismissal never to return to high office.
Smith was a key figure of the Scottish enlightenment and his works such as the 1776 magnum opus An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations led to him being considered the father of economics and modern capitalism. His approach to free trade, open markets and the importance of the skill and ingenuity of the individual, guided by the invisible hand, exerted a strong influence on Victorian Liberal theorists and is still relevant and influential today.
Born in 1669 Henry Boyle came from aristocratic Anglo-Irish stock related to the Tory Hyde family but themselves of Whig views. Boyle was commissioned in the army but deserted James II for William of Orange and in May 1689 entered parliament as the Whig MP for Tamworth, which his father had also represented. Losing in 1690 he went to Ireland to manage his family estates and served in the Irish Parliament before returning to England and becoming MP for Cambridge University and later for Westminster. In the fluid politics of the time Boyle was Chancellor of the Exchequer of England under Godolphin but always retained his Whig associations. He was created the 1st Baron Carleton and died at his London home Carleton House, leaving estates in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, and Surrey.
Charles Watson Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham was arguably the first leader of a political party, when in 1762 a group of young Whigs formed an opposition club in reaction to the actions of King George III and his favourite the Earl of Bute. In 1765 Rockingham employed Edmund Burke as his secretary. Burke proved an excellent propagandist for the Rockingham Whigs. Rockingham’s two periods as Prime Minister were short but eventful. He worked hard to avoid conflict with America, including repeal of the unpopular Stamp Act. During his second ministry Rockingham attempted to improve Anglo-Irish relations with the repeal of the Irish Declaratory Act and Poyning’s Law, giving the Irish Parliament more freedom than it had had for over 300 years.
Grafton was Whig MP for Boroughbridge 1756 and Bury St Edmunds 1756-57 and first entered government in 1765 as Secretary of State for the Northern Department in Lord Rockingham’s first ministry, later serving as First Lord of the Treasury under the Earl of Chatham. Chatham’s illness in late 1767 resulted in Grafton becoming the government’s effective leader. When Chatham resigned, Grafton became Prime Minister at the age of only 33. His government was not a success. The cabinet largely inherited from the previous ministry lacked a common purpose and had been held together by the force of Chatham’s personality. Grafton was distracted by the activities of John Wilkes, pilloried in the press in the Letters of Junius and his attempts at conciliation with the American colonies overruled by the cabinet. Hit by a series of resignations the government fell apart and Grafton resigned after less than two years. He returned to office as Lord Privy Seal 1771-75 and again in 1782 after which he retired from public life.
Born in Thetford, Norfolk, Paine became one of the foremost political thinkers of his age. His pamphlet Common Sense which made the intellectual case for American independence was one of the most significant documents of the American Revolution. Paine’s advocacy of republicanism, utopianism, a commitment to free markets and individual liberty and a belief in scientific and social advance continues to influence Liberal thought to the present day. Paine was a supporter of the French Revolution and his response was in sharp variance to Edmund Burke, one of the other key liberal figures of the period. Both wrote important and contrasting books – Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France of 1790 and Paine’s response Rights of Man, published the following year, highlighting the divergence of liberal thought in the 1780s and 90s. From 1774 Paine lived mostly in the USA and France, settling permanently in America after 1802, where he died, aged 72, in 1809.
An intellectual, the 2nd Earl of Shelburne numbered Jeremy Bentham, Samuel Johnson and Benjamin Franklin amongst his friends. He was one of the first politicians to advocate free trade, a position he put down to debating with Adam Smith. Prior to his entry into politics, Shelburne had a distinguished military career, serving during the Seven Year’s War. In parliament Shelburne served briefly as MP for Wycombe 1760-61 and joined George Grenville’s government as First Lord of Trade, later serving as the first Home Secretary. He succeeded the Marquess of Rockingham as Prime Minister following the latter’s sudden death in July 1782. Shelburne’s hold on power was tenuous and his government lasted only 266 days. His main achievement was to conclude a peace treaty with the US. Although he was only 45 when he lost power, he never returned to government and ceased to play an active political role.
Walpole’s pre-eminence had been in decline for some time. Britain was involved in the War of Austrian Succession, which Walpole opposed but he was still attacked by the opposition following British military failures. The general election in the summer of 1741 saw government losses in Cornwall and Scotland and its majority fell to around 14. Rumours abounded that senior Whig grandees were negotiating with members of the opposition to reconstruct the ministry without Walpole. When parliament met the ministry held off an opposition motion to investigate the conduct of the war by 253 votes to 250. With the government defeat on an election petition two weeks later, it was clear that to retain a majority in the Commons the ministry would have to be reconstructed and Walpole agreed to resign and went to the House of Lords as Earl of Orford.
Although nominally head of the ministry, Wilmington was 69 and increasingly infirm and the de facto head of the government was Lord Cartaret the Secretary of State for the Northern Department. Foreign policy dominated the agenda with Britain’s continuing participation in the War of Austrian Succession and the administration’s domestic achievements were meagre but included the Place Act of 1742 which attempted to reduce corruption by excluding MPs from holding a range of public offices and the Spirituous Liquors Act of 1743 which increased the duties on spirits in an attempt to combat public drunkenness. Wilmington’s health deteriorated rapidly in June 1743 and he died in office on 2nd July.
Key members of the government included the two Secretaries of State, Lord Carteret and Pelham’s brother the Duke of Newcastle. Pelham held the post until his death on 6 March 1754, combining the job with that of Chancellor of the Exchequer from December 1743. He was succeeded by Newcastle.
The dominant politician of his age, Robert Walpole came from a strong Whig family and served as MP for Castle Rising 1701-02 and King’s Lynn 1702-12 and 1713-42. He first achieved office under Lord Godolphin during the reign of Queen Anne. Following the formation of a Tory ministry, Walpole found himself impeached and expelled from the House of Commons. Re-elected on a wave of public sympathy Walpole and the Whigs returned to power with the accession of George I. In 1720 the collapse of the South Sea Bubble lead to the disgrace of many leading Whigs and led to Walpole’s appointment as First Lord of the Treasury. As Prime Minister Walpole consolidated Whig power through use of Royal patronage and pursued a policy of avoiding war, low taxes and reducing the national debt. Ironically it was Britain’s involvement in the War of Jenkins’ Ear that lead to his downfall.
Born in London in the heart of the establishment – his mother was a great grand-granddaughter of Charles II and his father was part of the Walpole ministry. First elected to parliament for Midhurst, Sussex in 1768 when he was only 21 Charles James Fox was initially a Tory, opposing the radical John Wilkes and calling for curbs on the press. In 1770 he joined Lord North’s government as a Lord of the Admiralty. However, opposition to the Royal Marriage Bill and the conduct of the American War of Independence led him to resign and join the opposition, working with the Rockingham Whigs and calling for greater powers for parliament in opposition to King George III. In the shifting alliances of the period, Fox returned to government in 1782 as Foreign Secretary in Rockingham’s second ministry but was back in opposition in a few months following Rockingham’s death where he teamed up with Lord North and was back at the Foreign Office the following year as part of the Fox/North Coalition. Out of office by the end of the year thanks to the opposition of King George and outmanoeuvred by William Pitt, Fox had to wait until Pitt’s death before he returned to government in 1806 for his third spell as Foreign Secretary in Lord Grenville’s ‘Ministry of All the Talents’, where he put in motion measures to abolish the slave trade. Sadly, he did not live to see abolition enacted as he died in September 1806 after little more than six months in office.
A strong supporter of Robert Walpole, Pelham represented Seaford 1717-22 and Sussex 1722-54. He served as Secretary at War and Paymaster General before succeeding the Earl of Wilmington as Prime Minister in 1743. Pelham’s skill in uniting the various Whig factions earned his administration the nickname ‘The Broad Bottomed Ministry’ and ushered in a period of relative tranquillity in British politics. In office Pelham brought an end to the War of Austrian Succession and introduced major financial reforms, scaling down government expenditure and reducing the national debt. Pelham died in office after a short illness aged 59 and was succeeded by his brother the Duke of Newcastle.
Newcastle took over from the Duke of Devonshire, who’s government had collapsed after less than eight months in office. The new government was an effective partnership between Newcastle and William Pitt, with Pitt directing Britain’s successful prosecution of the Seven Year’s War and Newcastle using his patronage to secure government majorities in both houses and raising money to finance the war.
The government had been in trouble since October of the previous year when a major cabinet row broke out over conduct of the Seven Year’s War in which Britain was involved, leading to the resignation of William Pitt. The loss of Pitt was a serious blow and undermined Newcastle’s position. In early 1762 a further row broke out over the war, this time over how to finance the conflict. George Grenville as leader of the House of Commons refused to present Newcastle’s proposals to the Commons and without Pitt’s support Newcastle was forced to back down. Faced with this humiliation, Newcastle tendered his resignation to King George III who, no fan of the Duke, immediately accepted and replaced him with his favourite the Tory Earl of Bute.
Chiefly remembered for the 1832 Reform Act and the tea that bears his name, Grey was a leading figure in the Whig Party for over 40 years, serving as Whig MP for Northumberland 1786-1807, Appleby 1807 and Tavistock 1807. He joined Lord Grenville’s ‘Ministry of all the Talents’ as First Lord of the Admiralty and succeeded Charles James Fox as Foreign Secretary in 1806. Out of office he held the Whigs together during the long period of opposition from 1809 to 1830. As Prime Minister, Grey led a talented government which, apart from the First Reform Act, abolished slavery in the British Empire, limited the working hours of children, ushered in factory inspection and reformed local government in Scotland. After he resigned in July 1834, Grey retired to his estates in Northumberland, refusing all attempts to lure him back into public life.