The British Party System

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The British Party System
George Bernard Shaw 1934-12-06.jpg
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Date premiered unperformed
Original language English
Subject 18th century politicians scheme to secure power by inventing party politics
Genre satire
Setting Althorp

The British Party System (1944) is a "playlet" by George Bernard Shaw satirically analysing the origins of the party system in British politics in the form of a pair of conversations between scheming power-brokers at various points in history, who devise it and adapt it to suit their personal ends.

George Bernard Shaw Irish playwright, critic and polemicist, influential in Western theatre

George Bernard Shaw, known at his insistence simply as Bernard Shaw, was an Irish playwright, critic, polemicist and political activist. His influence on Western theatre, culture and politics extended from the 1880s to his death and beyond. He wrote more than sixty plays, including major works such as Man and Superman (1902), Pygmalion (1912) and Saint Joan (1923). With a range incorporating both contemporary satire and historical allegory, Shaw became the leading dramatist of his generation, and in 1925 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.



The playlet appears in Chapter III of Shaw's 1944 book Everybody's Political What's What?. It was never intended for performance, and is rather an essay in the form of a mini play. A similar previous playlet Arthur and the Acetone had been written in 1936 about the Balfour declaration.

<i>Arthur and the Acetone</i> play written by George Bernard Shaw

Arthur and the Acetone (1936) is a satirical playlet by George Bernard Shaw which dramatises an imaginary conversation between the Zionist Chaim Weizmann and the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, which Shaw presents as the "true" story of how the Balfour Declaration came into being.

Shaw introduces the playlet with as comment about how party politics came into being: "What are the facts? Let me put them in the form of a little historical drama, as that comes easiest to me and is the most amusing." [1] He then goes on to explore the significance of party politics.


Scene: Althorp, the residence of the Spencers, Earls of Sunderland.

Althorp stately home and estate in Daventry District, Northamptonshire, England

Althorp is a Grade I listed stately home and estate in the civil parish of Althorp, in Daventry District, Northamptonshire, England of about 13,000 acres (5,300 ha). By road it is about 6 miles (9.7 km) northwest of the county town of Northampton and about 75 miles (121 km) northwest of central London. It has been held by the prominent aristocratic Spencer family for more than 500 years, and has been owned by Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer since 1992. It was also the home of Lady Diana Spencer from her parents' divorce until her marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales.

King William III and Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland discuss the latter's plan to create government through parties, rather than by choosing ministers on individual merit. Sunderland says that this system will ensure that members of parliament cannot function independently, but will always be under the control of the party in power for fear that the other party will take over. Both parties will have to appeal to the basic prejudices of the voting public to have a chance of power.

William III of England Stadtholder, Prince of Orange and King of England, Scotland and Ireland

William III, also widely known as William of Orange, was sovereign Prince of Orange from birth, Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel in the Dutch Republic from 1672 and King of England, Ireland and Scotland from 1689 until his death in 1702. As King of Scotland, he is known as William II. He is sometimes informally known in Northern Ireland and Scotland as "King Billy".

Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland English nobleman and politician of the Spencer family

Robert Spencer, 2nd Earl of Sunderland, was an English nobleman and politician of the Spencer family. An able and gifted statesman, his caustic temper and belief in absolute monarchy nevertheless made him numerous enemies. He was forced to flee England in 1688, but later established himself with the new regime after the Revolution of that year. Subsequently, he took on a more disinterested role as an adviser to the Crown, seeking neither office nor favour. He evinced no party loyalty, but was devoted to his country's interests, as he saw them. By the notoriously lax standards of the Restoration Court, his private life was remarkably free from scandal, which won him favour in the more sober post-Revolution state.

25 years later, Robert Walpole and Sutherland's son Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, argue about relative power of the King and the House of Lords. Walpole resists Sunderland's plans to restrict the number of peerages in the Upper House.

Robert Walpole British statesman

Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford,, known before 1742 as Sir Robert Walpole, was a British statesman who is generally regarded as the de facto first Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland English statesman and nobleman from the Spencer family

Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland, KG, PC, known as Lord Spencer from 1688 to 1702, was an English statesman and nobleman from the Spencer family. He served as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (1714–1717), Lord Privy Seal (1715–1716), Lord President of the Council (1717–1719) and First Lord of the Treasury (1718–1721). He is the 5th paternal great grandfather of Winston Churchill and the 6th paternal great grandfather of Diana, Princess of Wales.


Shaw follows this playlet with the provocative comment:

This lands us in the unexpected conclusion that government by Parliaments modelled on the British Party System, far from being a guarantee of liberty and enlightened progress, must be ruthlessly discarded in the fullest agreement with Oliver Cromwell, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Adolf Hitler, Pilsudski, Benito Mussolini, Stalin and everyone else who has tried to govern efficiently and incorruptly by it, or who has studied its operation with a knowledge of its history and that of the Industrial Revolution. [2]

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  1. Shaw, Bernard, Complete Plays: With Prefaces, Volume: 5., "Dodd, Mead", New York, 1963 p.819.
  2. J. L. Wisenthal, Shaw's sense of History, Clarendon Press, 1988, p.97.