Sir Robert Walpole (Britain’s first Prime Minister)
Posted: 6 February 2009 in Politicians
Tags: britain, british politics, duke of marlborough, queen anne, representative democracy, robert walpole, whig politician
Sir Robert Walpole

Sir Robert Walpole

Robert Walpole was born in Houghton, Norfolk on 26 August 1676, the son of a Whig politician and MP, also named Robert Walpole. He was educated, between 1690 and 1698, first at Eton College and then King’s College, Cambridge. As the youngest son of an English aristocrat he would have had little expectation of inheriting much of the family estate when his father died, and it would have been normal, at that time, for a junior member of the aristocracy to forestall any future financial embarrassment by entering the Church. However his brothers died whilst still young, and he became heir to a substantial estate.

King Charles I had been executed in 1649. From then until the restoration of Charles II in 1660 Britain had been ruled first by a Council of State, then by Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, and then, for the two years prior to the restoration, by his son. At the time of Walpole’s birth Britain was still far from being a representative democracy, but the Civil War earlier in the century had initiated a gradual transfer of power away from the monarchy. Within his lifetime the process progressed far enough for Walpole to later be regarded as Britain’s first de facto Prime Minister.

Following the death of his father in 1700, Walpole stood for election to Parliament, and was returned as member for Castle Rising in January 1701. He obtained his first government post when, in 1705, he was appointed to the Council of the Lord High Admiral, and subsequently to the position of Secretary at War in 1708. For a brief period in 1710 he was also Treasurer of the Navy. At the time Britain was at war with France in a (successful) attempt to prevent the monarchies of France and Spain becoming one in the person of Louis XIV. These twin responsibilities brought Walpole into close contact with Queen Anne and with the commander of British Forces, the Duke of Marlborough (who was himself a Whig and a major force in British Politics). In spite of his growing influence, however, he was unable to prevent the leader of the Government (Lord Godolphin) from launching an incautious prosecution of Henry Sacheverell, a clergyman who had dared to preach against the Whig government’s policy of religious toleration. The war with France, had made the Whig government was rather less popular than Henry Sacheverell, and, although he received only a light sentence, Sacheverell’s subsequent conviction led to riots and the downfall of the Whig administration.

In the general election of 1710, the Whigs paid dearly for Godolphin’s actions, with the Tories gaining a substantial majority in the new House of Commons. Tory Robert Harley was made Chancellor of the Exchequer, possibly through the agency of his cousin Abigail Masham (a favourite of the Queen), and he used his influence through her to have all of the senior Whigs removed from government. Harley tried to persuade Walpole to take part in his new government, but he declined, and proved to be a more than adequate opponent in Parliament. This led Harley to embark upon a course of action every bit as foolhardy as Godolphin’s. In 1712 Walpole was put on trial, before the overwhelmingly Tory House of Lords, on trumped up charges of corruption. He was found guilty, and spent six months in the Tower of London. He was also expelled from the House of Commons. The move badly backfired on the Tories. Nobody was in any doubt that the charges were a fabrication, and the opprobrium which Harley had hoped to bring down upon the Whigs instead descended upon the Tories. Walpole was reelected to the Commons in 1713.

Queen Anne died in 1714, and, according to the Act of Settlement 1701, no Catholic could ascend the English throne. Anne’s nearest living Protestant relative was the Prince Elector of Hanover. Consequently on 1st August 1714 George I became the first Hanoverian monarch of the United Kingdom (Scotland having joined England and Wales in the Union seven years earlier). George did not trust the Tories, whom he suspected (rightly) would have preferred a Stuart, the son of James II, to ascend to the throne. As a result, his accession saw a revival in the fortunes of the Whig Party.

George’s new government was effectively led by Lord Townshend (Walpole’s brother-in-law) and by James Stanhope, an MP originally elected in the same year as Walpole. Appointed as Paymaster General, Walpole also found himself appointed as chairman of a committee set up to investigate the misdemeanours of the previous Tory administration. The two Tories most responsible for Walpole’s show trial now found themselves under investigation. Harley was impeached, and Lord Bolingbrooke, a well known supporter of the Stuart dynasty had fled to France. He had all his property confiscated through an act of attainder. In 1715 Walpole was appointed as both First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, but two years later saw his close ally Lord Townshend being dismissed at the instigation of political enemies, and resigned in protest.

Soon after his resignation, an acrimonious row erupted between the Prince of Wales and his father, George I. As a result he was excluded from the royal residence (St James’ Palace), and became a rallying point for Walpole and anybody else opposed to George I’s government. In addition, it led to Walpole becoming a close friend of the Prince of Wales’ wife, the future Queen Caroline.

The two people primarily responsible for instigating Townshend’s sacking, and causing Walpole to resign, would, in the course of the years 1717-19, learn the lesson which Harley had learned some years earlier – namely that Walpole was not somebody you wanted to have opposing you in Parliament. So in 1719 he and Townshend were invited to rejoin the government, where they would cause less trouble. Walpole did so, but in so doing he fell out of favour with the Prince of Wales (the future George II), who had no time for his father’s Government.

In 1720 Walpole’s reputation was advanced when he turned out to be one of the few politicians not adversely affected when the famous South Sea Bubble burst. People had been persuaded into believing that enormous returns were to be had from investment in the South Sea Company, which had been created some years earlier, when Harley had piloted the relevant bill through Parliament. Shares in the company were being bought as quickly as they could be issued. Speculation reached fever pitch when the Company offered to loan the government enough money to pay off the entire national debt in exchange for 5% interest. The money was to be raised, naturally, by issuing yet more shares. At some point it seems to have occurred to the directors of the Company that its very modest trading profits could not possibly justify the enormous ¬†capital which had been pumped into it, and they tried to sell their shares without anybody else being aware of it. Naturally, news of what they had done leaked out, and panic selling set in. Within a few weeks the shares went from being worth ¬£320 each (at 1720′s prices!) to being worth nothing, and huge numbers of people were financially ruined.

In 1721 a committee was set up to investigate the scandal, and many in the Government were found to be guilty of corruption. One of the exceptions was Robert Walpole. He was made both First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and given the job of trying to extricate Britain from the crisis. By 1725 he had largely succeeded in doing so. Although 1721 is sometimes identified as the year in which he effectively became Britain’s first Prime Minister, Walpole didn’t yet quite have the power of a modern prime minister; not least because he was still sharing power with his former ally, Townshend.

In 1727 George II came to the throne, and Walpole having lost favour with the then Prince of Wales in 1719, it looked for a moment as if his luck might have run out. However, George II was a weak monarch, and Walpole was still on good terms with the real power behind the throne, Queen Caroline. So he survived. During the subsequent years his reputation continued to grow, and with the resignation of Townsend in 1730 his position as “Prime Minister” became uncontested. For the first time in history a British politician could effectively appoint the people he wanted to the cabinet, and leave the king to rubber stamp his decisions.

But then his luck changed. Walpole’s popularity had largely been built upon a policy of avoiding military conflicts, and therefore avoiding the need to finance them by raising extra taxes. By the late 1730′s trade disputes with Spain had led to a growing consensus amongst the political classes that war with Spain was going to be unavoidable. So in 1739 Walpole bowed to the inevitable, and Britain declared war on Spain. After the 1741 General Election¬† the Whig majority in Parliament was down to less than twenty, and many in his own party were beginning to think Walpole’s glory days were behind him. In 1742 he lost a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, and resigned.

After his resignation some of the power which had attached itself to his office reverted to the monarchy, and it would be perhaps another ninety years before the transfer of power from the monarchy to cabinet government became permanent and irreversible. The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 was the last time anybody seriously entertained the idea that a British monarch might veto an Act of Parliament (or dispute a Prime Minister’s choice of people to serve in his government).


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