The Whig party, whose heyday was in the 18th century, has been reborn in 21st-century Britain. Its leader Waleed Ghani appeared on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (listen to the clip here). The 18th-century Whigs were opposed to absolute rule and to the idea of a Roman Catholic Stuart being on the throne. Robert Walpole, considered the first prime minister of Great Britain, was a Whig; he was in office from 1721 to 1742.
As words often do, Whig began as a contemptuous term (Suffragette is another example – the Daily Mail first used that word in 1906, when it was meant to belittle the women, -ette being a diminutive suffix). According to the OED, Whig is short for whiggamore, defined in the Dictionary as ‘Originally, one of a body of insurgents of the West of Scotland who in 1648 marched on Edinburgh, their expedition being called the ‘whiggamore raid, road, or inroad’. It also referred to Scottish Presbyterians, and Whigland was slang for Scotland. By the late 1770s the term Whigs was applied to the so-called Exclusioners, who wanted to prevent Charles II’s brother James, Duke of York, a Catholic, from succeeding his brother (he did, in fact, become James II in 1685, but was overthrown in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688). In the 1680s the word Whig came to mean any rebel and from 1689 it referred to ‘an adherent of one of the two great parliamentary and political parties in England, and (at length) in Great Britain’ (from OED). The other big party of the time were the Tories.
In the late 18th century, the term Whig gained currency in the United States, being, according to the OED definition, ‘An American colonist who supported the American Revolution’. In the 19th century, a Whig was ‘member of a party formed in 1834 from a fusion of the National Republicans and other elements opposed to the Democrats.....It was succeeded in 1856 by the Republican Party’. After the mid-19th-century in Britain Whigs were more likely to be called Liberals.
Listen to the short discussion about modern-day Whigs that was broadcast on Radio 4 this morning here.