The Rise of the Party System
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In Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta HMS Pinafore, which opened before enthusiastic London audiences in 1878, Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, sings:
W. S. Gilbert’s satirical lines touched a nerve of contemporary sensibility. The supplanting of parliamentary government by a more rigid party system appeared to be imposing on MPs the increasingly powerful dictates of cabinet and electorate. In his book Popular Government, published in 1885, a forum far removed from the Savoy operas, Sir Henry Maine, anxious at the advance of democracy, saw MPs being demoted from unfettered representatives to instructed delegates.1 Two comparisons readily illustrate the transition highlighted by Gilbert and Maine: first, the contrast between those differing parliamentary processes which produced the Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884; secondly, a comparison of those two great crises of party dislocation, 1846 and 1886.
I always voted at my party’s call,
And never thought of thinking for myself at all.
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© Angus Hawkins 1998