The cabinet system (also called a parliamentary system) was later adopted by other countries in Europe and elsewhere around the globe.

The Prime Minister

Over time, the head of the cabinet came to be known as the prime minister. This person was always the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons.

Eventually, the prime minister became the chief official of the British government and the prime minister's power would exceed that of the monarch. From 1721 to 1742, the able Whig leader Robert Walpole molded the cabinet into a unified body by requiring all members to agree on major issues. Although the title was not yet in use, Walpole is often called Britain's first prime minister.

Rule by an Oligarchy

Even as Parliament and the cabinet assumed new powers, British government was far from democratic. Rather, it was an oligarchy—a government in which the ruling power belongs to a few people.

Landowning aristocrats were believed to be the “natural” ruling class. The highest nobles held seats in the House of Lords. Other wealthy landowners and rich business leaders in the cities controlled elections to the House of Commons. The right to vote was limited to a relatively few male property owners, whose votes were often openly bought.

The lives of most people contrasted sharply with those of the ruling elite. The majority made a meager living from the land.

In the 1700s, even that poor existence was threatened. Wealthy landowners, attempting to increase agricultural production, bought up farms and took over common lands, evicting tenant farmers and small landowners. Because they controlled Parliament, they easily passed laws ensuring that their actions were legal. A small but growing middle class included successful merchants and manufacturers. These prosperous and often wealthy people controlled affairs in the towns and cities. Some improved their social standing by marrying into the landed gentry. The middle class also produced talented inventors and entrepreneurs who would soon help usher in the Industrial Revolution.

Illustration of an urban outdoor market of stalls displaying a variety of items, with shop keepers and patrons of varying qualities of dress.

The marketplace brought different classes of people together, but the classes differed widely in terms of political power.


In this painting, how can you tell the different classes apart?


  1. Check Understanding Why was James I resistant to working with Parliament?
  2. Define What was the Long Parliament?
  3. Recall Who was Oliver Cromwell?
  4. Describe What did the English Bill of Rights mean to Parliament?
  5. Identify Central Ideas What is the main feature of a constitutional government?

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments