Whips and the origins of Parliamentary Whipping

Earlier this year an Early Day Motion sponsored by a number of former chief whips and signed by a long cast of others who have served as whips marked what is being treated as the centenary of the Government Whips’ office, though it was as much to congratulate the current private secretary to the Government Chief Whip, Sir Roy Stone, for a knighthood that acknowledges his achievement in keeping the show on the road over an exceptionally torrid period. The anniversary is of the appointment in June 1919 of Charles (later Sir Charles) Harris (1901-86) as private secretary to the Conservative Chief Whip, paid out of Treasury funds. There was in fact little sense at the time that Harris’s appointment was an innovation – in some ways it was a reversion to previous practice – but Harris’s long continuity and indispensability in the office (he finally retired in 1961), serving governments of all parties, did ensure that the practice of whipping became a more professional operation, much more connected to the machinery of government than, as had been the case previously, an essentially party function. As always in parliamentary history, the long continuance of a particular individual in office has been crucial in laying down institutional memory and a tradition of practice; but anniversaries such as this one can never adequately express the complex origins and genealogies of such central elements of institutional life.

What does whipping mean?

A blog can’t do justice to a subject which runs through the whole history of parliament, government and party. Indeed, to try to pin down the origin of whips and whipping in Parliament is a bit like trying to pin down the origins of Parliament itself. Enoch Powell is supposed to have said ‘the House of Commons without whips is like a City without sewers’ (John McTernan, in the Telegraph, 17 July 2014 ), although the remark seems apocryphal, for I can’t find an original source, and it is cited in numerous different forms – another version given by Tim (Lord) Renton, attributing it to the 1960s, has it that whips in Parliament are as inevitable as rats in sewers.

The implication is that whips are unavoidable, and that their function is in some way deeply distasteful. The latter is a sentiment certainly reflected in much commentary on the role from the eighteenth century to today; and as for the former, it’s true that just as some form of deliberative assembly which takes or at least legitimises decisions is almost implicit in the nature of government, so, once you have a deliberative assembly of any size, somebody has to do something to try to produce coherence out of multiple voices. That said, political management can take many forms, and is highly dependent on context: its style and even its role has changed drastically over time. And even when we talk about whips and whipping in the House of Commons we might be talking about several different, though intimately related, functions. One is trying to secure the attendance of one’s supporters at the appropriate time and place. Another is the process of building up and confirming that support – ensuring that supporters become and remain loyal through a process of argument, enticement and bullying. A third is the more extensive process of party management, perhaps including a party’s arrangements for elections and challenges to election results. Moreover, when we talk about whipping, we may also be talking about different people. It might be the government; it might be any of the political parties; it might even be individual members when they are trying to secure support for a bill. These will go about the process in very different ways. So even if the function of organization may be inherent in a political assembly, its actual forms are highly dependent on context and can be multifarious and unstable – at least before the development of a tradition of how things are done. The history of whipping is in large part the history of the establishment, development and transmission of that tradition; but it must also encompass a complex prehistory, in which ideas are established and practices tried out which are at least recognisable subsequently. It should also be said that we tend to assume that political organisation is progressive – it gets all the time more complex and more sophisticated. This may not always be the case: innovations are tried out, then abandoned and forgotten, then tried out again and ultimately may or may not be built into the institution.

There is another reason why it is difficult to pin down the origins of parliamentary whipping. Organization within an assembly is usually done on the spot, by word of mouth, without much need for written communication; it is also, by its nature, indeed proverbially, a rather secretive enterprise. It can leave little trace in the written record, and we can often only reconstruct it by the comments of observers, or by noticing patterns of behaviour over a long period. As a result, the history of the day-to-day operation of one of the most important dynamics – perhaps the most important – of parliamentary politics is frustratingly difficult to reconstruct. It also gets mixed up with one of the biggest themes of British political and constitutional history in the seventeenth and eighteenth – the incorporation of the executive within the legislature, or the tendency of government office to become closely linked to parliamentary management. The fact that there is so much constitutional politics in the subject makes it difficult to tease out the day to day operation of a system without becoming entangled in venerable old debates.

This blog can’t hope to provide a comprehensive history of ‘whips’ and ‘whipping’: so here I’ve simply tried to tease out some of the elements of the early history of the process: the involvement of the royal household; the question of specialization; the involvement of the treasury; and the role of political parties.

The royal household

There is not much evidence of anything approaching our conception of a formal system of whipping before at least the later seventeenth century. But managing Parliament was still an enormous preoccupation for governments: the process of ensuring that the right people were elected and turned up, and the wrong people were either not elected, or if they were, dissuaded from attending, is well reflected in the sources. There is much evidence of the role in the House of key royal officials – the secretary of state and the comptroller and treasurer of the royal household in particular – in terms of taking the initiative, organising business and liaising with the speaker: much of this has been enumerated for the mid-Tudor period by Alasdair Hawkyard. It’s likely that those who were directly employed by the Crown were expected to attend and assist with government business, though such evidence as there is is difficult to interpret. A letter written to the then Master of the Rolls, Julius Caesar in 1621 has been referred to [by Tim Renton] as an early instance of ‘the whip’ – the routine letter which by the late eighteenth century was being sent to court-supporting Members to ensure their attendance. But the instruction ‘to continue every day as long as this House sits, notwithstanding your term [i.e. law] business, which may well give way to His Majesty’s service in the Parliament rather than be a hindrance there’ was plainly a specific and rather peremptory instruction to a royal servant to prioritise one aspect of his duties rather than the other, and not an example of a letter sent to all government supporters.

There is, in fact, not much evidence of a systematic approach to marshalling Members on a daily, or even sessional basis. This may be simply because any such interactions were not recorded – it would have been easy to communicate with most royal servants in daily attendance on the king by word of mouth. They may have routinely dined together, as Alasdair Hawkyard has suggested, for there’s plenty of evidence from the seventeenth century that the provision of meals at court was regarded as an important element of parliamentary management. It may be partly because governments regarded over-obvious attempts to influence Members as likely to be counter-productive – a view reflected in the few sixteenth- and seventeenth-century sources relating to management that have survived. It may be because systematic whipping is closely associated with voting, and divisions were unusual before the 1640s (there were no recorded divisions in the winter sitting of the 1621 Parliament, the short Oxford sitting of 1625, the 1629 session or the Short Parliament in 1640). And it may be because there was little specialization of roles during mostly short sessions of Parliament: those who worked on behalf of a government were likely to take on multiple responsibilities.

Specialized roles and systematic whipping

Things change in the 1640s. A specialization of roles may have been one product of the polarized politics of 1640-42, and was developed not by courtiers, but by those acting in opposition to them. The historian and statesman, Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, later wrote about how a small group of members developed a sophisticated management operation to take control of the House of Commons. There is an intriguing passage in a pamphlet by the royalist polemicist, Roger L’Estrange, published twenty years later, in which he sketched out how a small faction could seize control of the House of Commons through a sophisticated team operation, clearly with the 1640s in mind. The leaders of the faction, he explained, would assign different roles to their henchmen, appointing

their Contrivers, their Speakers, their Sticklers, their Dividers, their Moderators, and their Blanks: (their I-and-NO-men) by which Method, and Intelligence, all Debates are Managed to the Advantage of the Party, and Occasion. They know when to Move, when to Presse, when to Quit, Divert, Put off, &c. and they are as Skilful in the Manner of Moulding their Business, as they are Watchful for the Season of Timing it.

We can’t assume that this obscure passage is an accurate description of how a parliamentary group worked in the seventeenth century. But it may be that L’Estrange was using the term ‘Dividers’ to mean tellers. The extraordinary prominence of (probably) Denzil Holles as a teller in divisions over 1641-43 is another indication of a tendency to assign specific roles to individual Members during the period. A story about the Presbyterian Walter Long   in the later 1640s also suggests that individual Members were identified with particular jobs: Long was said to have stood close to the door of the chamber in order to bully potential supporters to remain until a vote was taken and to fetch them back if they had left without him noticing – for which he was dubbed the ‘Parliament driver’, and which became an item in the impeachment charges prepared against himself and the other Presbyterian leaders in 1647.

The transformation of management

Such Civil War innovations in the practice of politics, while disliked, had a lasting impact. After the Restoration of 1660 the king’s pre-eminent minister and lord chancellor the earl of Clarendon, described his attempts to reintroduce the discreet management style of his predecessors:

great and notorious meetings and cabals in parliament had always been odious in parliament: and though they might produce some success in one or two particulars till they were discovered, they had always ended unluckily; until they were introduced in the late ill times by so great a combination, that they could not receive any discontinuance. Yet that they, who compassed all their wicked designs by those cabals, were so jealous that they might be overmatched by the like practices, that when they discovered any three or four of those, who were used to concur with them, to have any private meetings, they accused them to conspire against the parliament. [Edward Hyde, earl of Clarendon, The Life of Edward earl of Clarendon (2 vols., Oxford, 1857), i.618.]

Such informal methods may have been getting more difficult than before because of the decline of court hospitality: cuts in household spending in the 1660s were bemoaned for lessening managers’ ability to dispense goodwill, and also, perhaps, to ensure that supportive Members were kept reasonably closely on hand to be summoned for votes when necessary. But it may also have been more difficult because some of the tighter discipline of Civil War factions survived into Restoration Parliaments. Much comment on politics in the 1660s, including the satirical account of the 1666 debate on the excise in Andrew Marvell’s long mock-epic poem, Last Instructions to a Painter, suggests in particular the effectiveness of a small group of ‘Presbyterians’, containing a number of veterans of the politics of the 1640s.

These facts may have had something to do with the efforts of Clarendon’s rival, secretary of state Henry Bennet, to build up an alternative system of parliamentary management to his own, dependent much more explicitly on finding government roles or pensions for needy Members. Bennet seems to have used the expansion of government offices during the second Dutch War of 1664-7 to reward or retain individual Members. It’s tempting to link this with the passage in Marvell’s Last Instructions that describes how supporters of the court were marshalled into various semi-comic categories by various agents of the government, and led into vote. They are, in effect, whips. One should not assume that Marvell is describing anything new; as we’ve seen, something similar was happening in the 1640s. Nor should one assume that Bennet’s activities represent a sudden transition to a new system: it’s probably significant that Sir Thomas Clifford, who was rapidly recognised as Bennet’s henchman, succeeded Clarendon’s, Sir Hugh Pollard, in the role of Comptroller of the Household on the latter’s death in 1666, and as well as this link with the royal household, many of the other principles of old-fashioned management survived for a long time. But Bennet’s activities and Marvell’s poem do mark the beginning of a phase in which parliamentary management was recognised as more transactional, more about building support through the distribution of tangible incentives, than relying on more the more intangible aura of royal favour and approval and informal persuasion. Clifford became a member of the Treasury Commission in 1667 and soon after gave up his role as comptroller, passing the position on to a peer, initiating a period in which the office was held by peers and no longer had anything to do with managing the Commons. In effect, the link between managing the Commons and the royal household was weakened – although it persisted in, for example, the role of Sir John Lowther   in the 1690s as vice-chamberlain as well as a treasury lord commissioner, and would, from time to time, be further revived.

Whipping and the Treasury

Instead, management would come to be far more closely connected with the Treasury, particularly in the years of lord treasurer Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby (1673-9), though the secretaries of state were always closely involved as well. Danby became notorious for systematic efforts to ensure the loyalty of Members through the distribution of patronage and pensions: from 1669 a series of satires promoted by the court’s opponents (especially those very effective so-called ‘Presbyterians’) exposed the number of court offices held by Members. The ‘secret service money’ – a fund whose main characteristic was that it did not go through usual exchequer audit procedures and was used for a ragbag of miscellaneous expenditure – came to be closely associated with the process of parliamentary management around the same time, administered by Danby’s secretary, his brother in law Charles Bertie , though the suspicion that it was a vast fund deployed to corrupt huge numbers of individual Members was far from the truth. Bertie’s role – a post that would later be detached from personal association with the treasurer, and become one of (eventually) two secretaries to the Treasury – would grow into a central one in government parliamentary management, particularly under a series of Bertie’s successors William Jephson , Henry Guy and William Lowndes , whose nearly fifty year overall career in the Treasury (29 of them as secretary) probably made him into another of those figures who helps to cement office precedent and practice. Danby’s collection of papers is the first collection belonging to a minister to contain lists of Members of Parliament with estimates of how they were inclined towards the government, or how they might vote or did vote in particular divisions or series of divisions, a type of document which would become very common in the eighteenth century (usefully described in the ‘parliamentary career’ section of the ‘Sources’ chapter  of our 1690-1715 introductory survey). Several of Danby’s are attributable in some way to one of his sidekicks, Sir Richard Wiseman, whose lists contained remarks on individual Members such as (of Henry Munson) ‘Mr Cheyny must take care of this gentleman, and that most particularly, for he is very uncertain unless one be at his elbow’; or (of Sir John Cotton) ‘He is a very good man, and rarely misseth in his vote, and then by mistake only. Some person (trusty) should always sit near him’. Such remarks suggest, in theory at least, the existence of a sophisticated and vigilant, if informal, ‘whipping’ operation, similar to that implied by Marvell’s poem of ten years before. The period also provides the first example of a circular letter written in advance of a parliamentary session (that of October 1675), and sent to certain selected Members – though this emanates not from Danby’s office, but that of the secretary of state, Sir Joseph Williamson. Both offices would continue to be closely, and largely collaboratively, involved in the processes of management during the eighteenth century. How exactly that work was distributed probably depended more than anything else on the personalities and networks of those involved – and particularly on their relationships to influential voices within the political blocs or parties that would increasingly dominate parliamentary life from the end of the seventeenth century onwards.

Political parties and whipping

Though there’s much to suggest a more active approach to parliamentary management by both the government and its opponents by 1689, it’s clear that some of the old principles persisted. In 1690 Thomas Coningsby and Lord Sidney provided advice to the Duke of Portland on parliamentary management:

It is without all question impossible, for a king of England to do any considerable thing in a house of commons, without a formed management; & by that we mean, a number of men on whom the king may confidently rely, joined with the Speaker (who now is most certainly yours) and they to meet privately every night, and there to resolve how and by what methods, they will oppose any thing which may obstruct his majesty’s affairs, or propose any thing that will further his interest the next day, amongst these there ought to be had at any rate, two or three men who have fair reputations in the house, such as Sacheverell, Leveson Gower & Sir Thomas Clarges, who must by no means have any employment during the session but be rewarded afterwards, & we look upon these three to be those that have the greatest influence over the three parties of the house that are not for king James; [William] Sacheverel of the Whigs, Leveson Gower  of the middle party and Sir Thomas Clarges  of the high Church; the first of these is so full of himself, that we believe it may be a matter difficult enough to secure him, but the other two may most certainly be had, the one by honour, the other by the same way, or otherwise by giving a promise of some considerable employment either to himself or son together with an assurance of the kings supporting the church to which he is the greatest of all bigots; but no body living is better able to give you characters of men fit to serve the king in the house of commons and the ways of gaining them, than the Speaker and he will undoubtedly tell you, that whilst your enemies lay [i.e. pre-arrange] everything they bring there, and your friends only by accident and unpreparedly oppose them, they must in great measure bring their designs to pass, especially when obstructing is only their business.

This suggests that it was still regarded as critical for planning to be relatively informal and discreet, rather than to have any form of official visibility. But it also indicates that management was now necessarily associated with influential leaders of opinion within the House: that despite the involvement of the royal household and treasury patronage, the House could only now be effectively managed by collaborating with those who were regarded as party leaders – particularly those with influence over the ‘Whigs’, the ‘high church’ or Tory party.

As with the 1640s, the polarized and highly competitive politics of the quarter century after the 1689 Revolution naturally had an enormous impact on political organization within the House, though as ever, pinning down exactly how it operated is far from simple. More evidence survives in the case of the early eighteenth century Tories than of the Whigs, enough for Geoffrey Holmes, in his classic British Politics in the Age of Anne, to describe their elaboration of a network of regional ‘whips’, committed to ensuring the attendance of Members within their area. Holmes quotes an example of a circular sent round to a leading tory in Warwickshire:

Its desired that you will take care to engage all in your county to be in Town some time before the choice of the Speaker which will certainly be the 25th of October, for its found upon the straitest calculation that there is a majority sufficient to place Mr Bromley in the chair if those in the interest of the Church will give their early attendance. (p. 302, n.)

There is other evidence of the network in the biographies of Peter Shakerly ; Sir George Beaumont (who earned the sobriquet ‘the sergeant’ for being particularly assiduous in ensuring the attendance of his flock);  Sir Richard Myddleton; Sir Roger Mostyn ; George Granville; Sir Thomas Hanmer; and Thomas Mansel .  Several of these men were also routinely acting as tellers; and Mansel’s appointment as comptroller of the household in 1704-8 and 1711-12 suggests the revival of a link between that office and parliamentary management. Most of them were also closely associated with Robert Harley, the political wheeler-dealer par excellence of the reign of Queen Anne, whose election as Speaker in 1701 indicated his status as one of the leaders of the Tories, and whose appointment in 1704 as secretary of state at the behest of the lord treasurer, Lord Godolphin, was designed to support the parliamentary capacity of the ministry. A series of management lists, with much evidence of their constant use and revision, shows the intense attention that Harley devoted to parliamentary management, collaborating apparently with a team of others to compile them: perhaps the same men as formed part of his network of regional whips.

It was probably also at this time, and perhaps also as a result of the work of Harley, that the practice began of holding large party assemblies at the beginning of each session to gather party supporters. At the government’s meetings the king’s speech would be read, and a proposer and a seconder for the address appointed; and, if it was at the beginning of a Parliament, a candidate for Speaker would be approved. By 1722, a description of the meetings provided in the diary of Samuel Sandys suggests that it was normal to hold two meetings: one, two evenings before the opening of the session, of the key figures; a second, bigger, meeting usually referred to as at the ‘Cockpit’, the following evening, to which a much larger group was invited. (The old Whitehall Cockpit – adapted in the early seventeenth century for a theatre – had been demolished around 1675: the name was transferred to a new building on the site created for the earl of Danby when he was Lord Treasurer, which was occupied by the Treasury offices after the Whitehall fire of 1698. The meetings seem later to have been held in Kent’s new Treasury building, now at the back of No. 10 Downing Street.) But pre-sessional meetings were certainly being held by the Tories from 1703, if not 1701, albeit in a pub – frequently the Fountain Tavern in the Strand, which became a traditional Tory stronghold. There are certainly reports of various meetings of government supporters in the Cockpit before 1722. But when it became an annual event – with the implication that Members were being written to to invite them to attend – is unknown. The association of these meetings with whipping was a close one, because attendance was often taken to mean a commitment to support the government’s proposals for the rest of the session. Some Members would avoid them for that reason.

A system of party whipping was therefore certainly in operation before 1715, though given the unreliability of most Members, and their casualness about attending anything other than business that was either exciting and particularly interesting, or else of specific importance to them personally, it was not able to deliver a government consistent and infallible support. Particular importance in the development of whipping is often attributed to the premiership of Sir Robert Walpole, from 1721 to 1742, though it is not clear why. No lists of the sort compiled by Harley and his colleagues survive from the period: it’s quite possible that such things existed, but have been lost – many scholars have remarked on how Walpole’s own papers (the Cholmondeley MSS at Cambridge University Library) seem to have been comprehensively weeded.

It is likely, though, that it was during Walpole’s time that the term started to be used. The phrase ‘whipper-in’ seems first to appear in print in Thomas Frantz’s A Tour through France, Flanders, and Germany in 1735. One of the earliest writers to use it was Henry Fielding, in Joseph Andrews in 1742: ‘He was soon transplanted from the Fields into the Dog-kennel, where he was placed under the Huntsman, and made what Sportsmen term a Whipper-in’. Fielding may in fact have been responsible for the popularising of an analogy between hunting and politics on which the parliamentary use of the term depends, and which itself depended on Walpole’s well-known predilection for the chase.  Fielding was probably the author of a piece published in 1730 in the anti-government satirical magazine The Craftsman, purportedly written by a Norfolk squire, a neighbour of Walpole’s, in which he tried to draw a parallel between Walpole and the story of Actaeon, who was torn apart by his deerhounds. That piece doesn’t mention whips; but by 1742 the phrase was certainly in political circulation, when Henry Finch referred to the Whigs as having ‘whipped in better than the Tories’. It’s clear that the function at least was by now well recognized. But while the word and the function certainly existed, there would be a long way to go before it looked like a modern system of whipping. And since this blog is already five times longer than it should be, that will need to wait for another day.


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