Was William Wilberforce a Tory?

5th Aug 2019


William Wilberforce, the MP who campaigned to abolish slavery, was a Tory.


Wilberforce was an independent MP, though he was fairly loyal to the Tory Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger.

“186 years ago today the Houses of Parliament passed the Abolition of Slavery Act, that was the culmination of a 46 year campaign by a Tory MP from Yorkshire called William Wilberforce.”

James Cleverly MP, 1 August 2019

Conservative party chairman James Cleverly misleadingly claimed last week that the anti-slavery campaigner and MP William Wilberforce was a “Tory”.

Wilberforce sat as an independent MP for his entire parliamentary career from 1780 to 1825, during which he campaigned against slavery. While he was relatively close to the Tory faction in parliament, this does not mean he was a Tory MP. The Tory faction slowly evolved into the modern Conservative party from the 1830s onwards.  

In fact, party labels aren’t that helpful to use here anyway. In the period when Wilberforce became an MP, party structures were less stable than they once were—with earlier Parliaments being more clearly divided between ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ factions.

As Wilberforce’s biographer and former Conservative leader William Hague wrote:

“Wilberforce’s own election was a good illustration of why many seats were not within the control of any one faction. The terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ had lost much of the meaning which, decades earlier, divisions over the Glorious Revolution and the Hanoverian succession had given them.

“The whole notion of faction or ‘party’ was thought by many to be wrong and unpatriotic: for an independent MP to arrive at the House of Commons, speak up for his constituency, vary his vote and mix with all of the parties was therefore perfectly normal. Wilberforce set out on his Westminster career as just such an MP."

Wilberforce was more closely aligned with the Tory faction than the Whig faction, being good friends with and fairly loyal to the Tory Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (though Pitt is said never to have described himself as a Tory).

Professor John Oldfield, director of the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull, told Channel 4 FactCheck in 2015:

“Pitt, who was the nearest thing to a Conservative in this early period, had early supported abolition but refused or was unable to commit himself to the idea.

“But Wilberforce wasn’t a Conservative with a capital ‘C’, even if his politics were conservative with a small ‘c’. İn fact, in party terms he remained an independent, even if he was loyal to Pitt.”

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