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Marquis Of Rockingham

First Lord of the Treasury 1765 - 1766, and 27th March 1782 until his death on 1st July the same year.

Charles Watson Wentworth, second Marquis of Rockingham, was born on 13th May 1730. He was educated at Westminster School, and St John's College Cambridge, and took his seat in the House of Lords in May 1751. He then went on to a political career which made him a hero to Victorian historians. Rockingham it seemed was a voice for Parliamentary reform, and for the use of party discipline, long before these two things came to pass. He was often presented as a pioneer, and was popular in histories which presented events with a sense of development from the benighted to the enlightened. In reality it might actually be argued that Rockingham's career led nowhere. Rockingham may have been ahead of his time, but you could say that this only left him marooned. Rockingham is rather like the clever car designer Amedee Bollee who designed and built a road going vehicle called the Rapide, in 1881, which was capable of travelling at a speed of 37mph, sixteen years ahead of any other vehicle. But the design of tyres lagged behind the Rapide, and with the design of rubber tyres not yet perfected, Bollee's incredible car could not fulfill its potential. In the circumstances of its time the Rapide represented not so much a development as a brilliant cul de sac. Progress depends on many factors coming together, and for Rockingham the time for his forward looking ideas had not yet come.

Paul Langford in The Prime Ministers portrays the administration of Rockingham as insubstantial. He was only first lord for fifteen months, from 1765 - 1766, and from March 1782, until his death the following July. Rockingham became first lord in 1765 because he was a good friend of George III's cousin the Duke of Cumberland. Following the collapse of George Grenville's administration, Rockingham was appointed reluctantly by the king, mainly because no one else could be found to do the job. The new first lord immediately caused bemusement in the loyalty he showed to his Whig Party. Parties existed at the time as loose coalitions, with equally loose policies to give a temporary and fluctuating sense of identity. But the idea of being dedicated to party interest was generally considered ridiculous. Rockingham was acting in a very unusual way when the positions he took in opposition were carried over unmodified into government. William Knox said in 1789: "When an opposition gets into office and the king trusts him with the exercise of his power, the farce is at an end, and after a few awkward apologies, and a few ineffectual votes with old connections by way of consistency, the business of government is expected to be taken up and carried on in the usual way." (Quoted by Paul Langford in The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P 134)

Rockingham, instead, identified his positions as those of his party, and maintained them. He was also, bizarrely it seemed, interested in public opinion. Once again this modern preoccupation was out of place in the eighteenth century.

Governments at this time were held together by patronage, that is the careful use of persuasion, bribery, and the control of constituencies. Royal support was also vital. Government was still the king's government. Without the monarch's symbolic power, no administration could hope to maintain any semblance of unity in Parliament for long. One day party unity would allow governments to exist independent of the monarch,and reduce the need for bribery and corruption. But that time was still to come. Similarly a time would come when governments would stand or fall by public opinion. In the eighteenth century public opinion did have influence, as the career of William Pitt, for example, showed. But generally speaking this was a period when the opinion of a few well placed power brokers was far more relevant. Rockingham just happened to have views that later generations would see as enlightened, and he was therefore seized upon as a pioneer. In reality he was nothing of the kind. He came to office in 1765 because the previous first lord, George Grenville, upset the king, and Rockingham was the first replacement who could be quickly found. In 1782, military disaster in America led to the fall of Lord North's administration, and once again Rockingham stepped in as a stop gap for the few months before his death. And that was that. It is not easy to be ahead of your time. You simply get left behind. The story of Rockingham seems to illustrate the fact that things in history only happen when they are ready. People we call geniuses just seem to catch the right moment.

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