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June - July 2009
Sir Robert Walpole: Britain’ s First PM
by Anil Mehta
When Queen Anne died without heir in 1714, parliament chose a Hanoverian (German) George I as king of Britain, because he was Anne’s nearest Protestant relative. The new king who could not speak English, had a limited knowledge of Britain, and preferred Hanover to London, was much more dependent on his ministers who could control parliament in his absence. Gradually one minister with more authority than the others emerged who became known as the Prime Minister.
One such person was Robert Walpole, a Whig statesman (Whigs were the predecessors of Liberals who opposed Tories) generally referred to as Britain’s first PM (1721 – 1742) having served as a leader of the Commons and an able first minister to George I and his successor George II. Thus, the accident of George’s ignorance of Britain and its language, and his lack of interest in British politics (blessings in disguise?) gave rise to constitutional developments and to the office of PM.
Robert Walpole (1676 – 1745) was born in Houghton, Norfolk, into a wealthy landowning family and educated at Eton and Cambridge. He entered Parliament in 1703 as a member for Castle Rising, and the following year he stood successfully for King’s Lynn, which he represented, with one short break, for the rest of his career. He quickly made his mark becoming Whig spokesman, earning his reputation as a clear, effective speaker, and an active parliamentarian. Although he was briefly imprisoned for alleged corruption, his political star rose when George I became king and Whigs came to power. He became the First Lord of Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715 but resigned in 1717 after disagreements within party. However, luck was on his side and he regained power through his skilful handling of financial crisis caused by crash of South Sea Company (1720), a business venture in Panama, which ruined many investors (even members of the government were implicated). He restored public confidence, managed to limit the political damage, and maintained the Whigs in office. After South Sea crisis he regained his former office at the Treasury and the Exchequer (1721) and held them until 1742.
Walpole had a great political skill with an unsurpassed ability to unite the members on political issues. His major contribution to politics was the development of the Cabinet system and of the Commons as the centre of parliamentary power. A blunt but cheerful person, he was adept at parliamentary business and was also an effective leader of the opposition. He rewarded supporters with jobs and ruthlessly excluded those who voted against the government. He was an astute businessman too. Although his methods were not always entirely scrupulous and to everyone’s liking (he was accused of bribery and corruption to retain power), but were very effective. He received loyal support from George I, George II and his wife Queen Caroline. This enabled him to use all royal patronage for political ends. In 1735, the grateful George II made him a gift of 10 Downing Street, where he moved while in office and which has remained the residence of British PMs ever since.
Walpole period of office (1721 – 1742) was marked by relative peace, political stability and considerable prosperity. He liked peace and avoided war, and kept taxes low (which pleased his party and parliament). His control of the Treasury, management of the Commons and the confidence he enjoyed of the two monarchs he served, demonstrated the kind of leadership required to govern the nation, and although he rejected the title of PM (which he regarded as a term of abuse) he really was the first PM of Britain in all but name.
Walpole remained in the position of dominance until 1742, when discontent began to grow within his own party and objections were raised against his attempts to impose excise duties and his foreign policy (war with Spain) decreasing his hold on the Commons. Although he won the election of 1741, he resigned in 1742 and was created an earl. He continued to give advice to George II when asked. He built a grand house (Houghton House) in Norfolk and filled it with the finest paintings. One of the most remarkable politicians of Britain, and its first and longest-serving PM, Robert Walpole died in 1745 and was buried at Houghton, Norfolk.