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The term Whig in politics has its origins in the 17th century English Whig Party, the original liberal opposition to the Tory Party. The Whigs renamed themselves in the 19th century, the Liberal party, and the Tories renamed themselves the Conservative Party.

Whig historiography presents the past as an inevitable movement towards increasing liberalism and "progress". There are associated concepts, such as disliked opponents being labeled as inevitably failing the future, due to being on "the wrong side of history". One criticism is that much of the "progress" that has occurred has been due to advances in science and technology, rather than politics. Furthermore, that this can continue similarly into the future, even if ignoring various negative trends, is questionable, one example being that Moore's law, behind many recent improvements in technology and productivity, is failing or becoming less effective.

Whig Party

The Whigs of 1688 had combined for the preservation of the Constitution and 'in order to give strength and stability to all, for the maintenance of that bulwark of our civil and religious liberties, a national Protestant church'. However, by the 19th century the party was in flux and had taken up a position opposed to that of 1688. In the 1820s the Whig Party had come near to extinction as a party. As late as the 1830s the Whigs in the House of Commons were leaderless and divided, with and absence of all system and concert. Apart from occasional meetings in Lord Althorp's rooms in the Albany, in Piccadilly, there was very little general consultation on the course to be followed in the House. There was much talk of "retrenchment" (removal from office) of older members as well as tax reductions. Althorp wrote that was about all they could unite on and "on all other points we are to continue as much disunited as ever." There seemed to be no effective party, or leader, or policies. Their strength was that they still formed the largest and most compact group in the parties of the Left. Their critics argued that that the Whigs remained aristocratic and even conservative. With the apparent age agenda the party appeared to be moving to a split between old and young, radicals and dissenters. Eventually a large block of the Whigs (called 'reformers') decided that the only way they could retain office was if they reformed Parliament, which represented only about 5 per cent of the population. In addition they proposed making the House of Lords subordinate to the House of Commons, a political revolution. Writing in 1839, Lord John Russell said "I always thought that the Whig Party, as a party, would be destroyed by the Reform Bill" whilst others claimed it gave the Whigs a new lease of life. In the reformed Parliament the facts spoke for themselves: they lost their majority in the English counties in 1835; their majority in the English seats as a whole in 1837; their majority in the United Kingdom in 1841, a year of disaster for them. The Liberal Whigs, however, were getting the upper hand and were calling for a "centre ground" party, although this ultimately failed. It was from about 1834 onwards that the term "Liberal Party" began to be common parlance. A succession of defeats continued to afflict the party, such as the sharp hostility among agriculturalists against Free trade, following the agricultural depression which started in 1849, and the party's anti-Roman Catholicism, etc.[1]

The Whigs merged into a new Liberal Party in the 1850s, though some ex-Whig aristocrats left the Liberal Party in 1885 to form the Liberal Unionist Party, which merged into the Liberals' rival, the Conservative Party, in 1912.


  1. Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics 1832-1852 by Professor Norman Gash, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1965, chapter vi, "Party in Politics: the Liberals".
  • The Whig World by Leslie Mitchell, London, 2005, ISBN 1-85285-456-1
  • Whig Renaissance: Lord Althorpe and the Whig Party 1782-1845, by Ellis Wasson, London, 1987.
  • Born to Rule - British Political Elites by Ellis Wasson, U.K., 2000, ISBN 0-7509-2313-X