Having previously discussed the word Tory, who are the progenitor of the modern Conservative Party, as well as the word Coalition, which defines the current government, it’s now time to look at the other political party currently in the government – the Liberal Democrats. Given, many of us know the platforms of the party, but what about its origins? While the Liberal Democrats were founded in 1988, their founding lineage traces its way from the Parliamentarians of the English Civil War and, in the immediate decades afterwards, the Whigs. Founded in 1678 and being one of the strongest political parties in the UK for nearly the next 200 years before merging with and influencing other parties, the term Whig is definitely worth examining.
Originating in the late 1640s, Whig was a shortened version of whiggamore, meaning cattle driver, that was used to describe “uncivilized” western Scots. With the English Civil War beginning to involve Scotland, the term was soon expanded to include Scottish Presbyterians whom the Scottish monarchy considered to be rebels. In the same manner as the term “Tory,” Whig entered political usage as the idea of James, the Catholic Duke of York, succeeding Charles II was being discussed. Being against a Catholic monarch who was the royalist choice and due to the uncivilized nature of the term and the derogatory association with Scottish rebels, these dissenters were labeled Whigs.
In action, the Whigs have always been reform minded and provided a counterbalance to the conservative ideology. From economic protectionism to social inclusion to eroding and divesting the powers of the Crown, many aspects of modern liberal society bear the hallmark of the Whigs. With the goals of reform mostly met and with growing trade as well as a burgeoning middle class, the Whigs had to merge with other parties.
Mirroring it’s diverse historical application, the word whig has also went through numerous historical nuances. One of the first known uses of the word is from Captain John Gwynne’s Military Memoirs circa 1660, where, describing some men, he states that, “Most of them were no soldiers, but country bumkins, there called Whigs.” Speaking of the Scottish rebels, the London Gazette comments in 1667 that “We were informed that the Whigs had privately in the night stollen down the heads of 4 of the Rebels that were set up in Glasgow.” Fully explaining the differences between both sides in the Exclusion Crisis, Narcissus Luttrell writes in his Diary in 1781 that “The latter party have been called by the former, whigs, fanatics, covenanter, …. protestants, and the former are called by the latter, tories, tantivies, Yorkists, high flown church men.” Regardless of political affiliation, perhaps the best conglomerated definition can be found in the Essays of David Hume, who, in 1741, wrote that, “A Whig may be defined to be a Lover of Liberty, though without renouncing Monarchy; and a Friend to the Settlement in the Protestant Line.”