How did Britain’s two-party system come about?

I’m doing a six-week evening class at London’s City Literary Institute entitled: “The Making Of The United Kingdom 1603-1801: Restoration, Revolution, and Political Unions”. This week’s session – the second – was all about the reign of King Charles II, a period which saw the emergence of the two-party system of politics in Britain.

The political division in Parliament came about as a result of the Exclusion Crisis of 1679-1681. This saw an attempt – ultimately unsuccessful – to prevent the Catholic James VIII of Scotland and James II of England from coming to the British throne following the imposition of Protestantism in Britain and Ireland.

Those who supported the exclusion were called Whigs. Originally they went by the fuller name ‘whiggamore’, a term applied to the Scots Covenantators who wanted to keep Catholics out of the monarchy. Key values of the Whigs were civil and political liberty.

Those who opposed the exclusion were called Tories. The nomenclature comes from the Irish word for bandit, outlaw or cattle thief and was originally intended as a term of abuse against those who were content to see a Catholic on the throne. Subsequently the name was applied to those whose main loyalties were to ‘Church and King’. Hence they were the party of the Establishment.

By the end of the 1850s, the Whigs had been replaced by the Liberals. Then, in turn. in 1922, the Labour Party overtook the Liberals in the number of seats held in the House of Commons.

Meanwhile we still have the Tories and the Conservative Party is widely held to be the most successful in the democratic world in terms of winning national elections. They think that they’re heading for another victory in the current General Election. Let’s see …


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