First Lord of the Treasury 1721 - 42
Robert Walpole, who dominated Parliament from 1721 to 1742, is sometimes called Britain's first prime minister. If Walpole was ever called "prime minister" during his time in Parliament it was only ever in an abusive sense, to describe a member of His Majesty's Government who had ideas above their station. The proper title for Walpole, and indeed for all prime ministers up until the beginning of the twentieth century was First Lord of the Treasury, and it was as First Lord that Robert Walpole presided over Parliament for twenty years. In some ways he had more power than a modern prime minister, since as well as leading government he also had responsibility for the job now called chancellor. But whatever his title, and the nature of his job, Walpole's long term domination of Parliament was unprecedented.
Opinions vary about Robert Walpole. Judgments range from the positive view of his biographer B.W. Hill, who talks of a master manipulator of political realities of his time, to the opinion of former cabinet minister and writer Ian Gilmour, who sees Walpole as a high class criminal. Perhaps the answer to this puzzle of varying judgments is to consider the type of politician we are talking about. Walpole was not a leader in the mould required of American leaders, who are generally obliged to have a dream, a vision of a shining city on a hill. Walpole would have laughed at that. He distrusted great schemes, and tried to create what B.W. Hill called a "calculatedly uneventful administration" (Sir Robert Walpole P135). Many people instinctively want to see history as a story of progress, a path moving upward from darkness to light. The problem with this view of history lies in the way events rarely follow such a pattern. Plutarch is supposed to have said of politics: "They are wrong who think that politics is like an ocean voyage, or a military campaign, something to be done with a particular end in view, something which leaves off as soon as that end is reached. It is not a public chore to be got over with. It is a way of life" (attributed to Plutarch in The Great Quotations by Georges Seldes P 570). This describes Walpole's philosophy. He did not typically work towards any end. Instead his aim was usually to just keep life bumbling uneventfully along. Perhaps many would censure him for this. But then again Walpole lived in a political world where there was no end, no final judgment. In this sense it is fitting that there seems to be no final definitive view of him. Perhaps it is surprising that we are not more willing to accept Walpole's pragmatic vision of life now that the religious sense of the world playing out some divine plan has diminished. Once you're sitting in your shining city on a hill wondering what to do next, Walpole might not seem so bad.
Eton College Chapel
Robert Walpole was born on 26th August 1676 at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, where the Walpole family had lived for four hundred years. At age six Robert went to school in Great Durham. Charles II was on the throne. By the time Robert was at Eton in 1690, Charles had died, and his Catholic brother James II had been clumsily deposed by Parliament in what was later called The Glorious Revolution. This term suggests much more control of circumstances than Parliament actually enjoyed, but nevertheless the power of Parliament was growing. Young Robert's father, Colonel Robert Walpole was an MP in the newly empowered Parliament of William III, the monarch Parliament brought in to replace James II. Meanwhile young Robert Walpole finished his time at Eton, and moved on in 1696 to King's College Cambridge. He only stayed two years, before the death of a brother obliged him to return to Houghton to help run the estate. Preparations were now being made for Robert's inheritance of the Colonel's position in life, and his seat in Parliament. As part of this preparation Colonel Walpole arranged a marriage in July 1700 to Catherine Shorter, daughter of a wealthy London merchant. The young couple did not have long to wait to acquire their inheritance. Following his father's death, Robert Walpole entered the House of Commons as MP for Castle Rising in 1701.
In the long career that Robert Walpole was now embarking upon, much controversy would surround ideas of corruption. In June 1705 Walpole became a member of the council advising Prince George, husband of Queen Anne, on naval affairs. This wasn't a demanding job but it did allow Walpole to become a partner to Josiah Burchett, secretary of the Admiralty, in a scheme to smuggle wine from Holland. This was an extension of Walpole's existing smuggling business in East Anglia. The great eighteenth century economist Adam Smith wrote of the contradictions of trade and smuggling, feeling that in different circumstances smugglers would be successful merchants enriching themselves and their nation. In Smith's book Wealth of Nations a smuggler is portrayed as "a person who, though no doubt highly blameable for violating the laws of the country, is frequently incapable of violating those of natural justice, and would have been in every respect an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant so" (quoted in The Life of Adam Smith by Ian Simpson Ross P23). Walpole illustrates Smith's point, as a vigorous businessman who found his trading activities at odds with the laws of his time. According to Adam Smith, his behaviour was not right or wrong, so much as ambivalent. Where things become murkier is in government treatment of smugglers who did not have social class, and powerful contacts to help them. They led a much more dangerous life, and there was little in Walpole's attitude to show that he appreciated the contradiction of men being hung for the same activities on which his own fortune was largely based. It would require writers such as Jonathon Swift, John Gay and Alexander Pope to point out those ironies.
Walpole's career continued to gain momentum. William III died in February 1702, and he was succeeded by James II's youngest daughter Anne. But Queen Anne suffered from poor health and could not impose herself as William III had done. This allowed leading ministers in Parliament to gain more power. Godolphin and Harley became highly influential, and acted as almost prime ministerial figures. Against this background of increasing power for ministers, Walpole was made secretary for war in February 1708. In 1712 career progress seemed to stall when Walpole's opposition to terms of peace with Spain landed him in the Tower of London. His enemies in the Tory Party used allegations of corruption to justify what was actually a political imprisonment. But this reversal of fortune was only temporary. After six months in the Tower, he was released on 8th July 1712, and allowed back into Parliament after 1713's general election. Walpole's chance to get his career back on track came only a year later, when Queen Anne died and was succeeded by George I. George saw the traditional Tory Party as his enemy, fearing their support for the deposed son of James II. Walpole helped King George use the electoral system to pack Parliament with Whigs. Ian Gilmour describes the use of such parliamentary tricks in Riots, Risings and Revolutions. Eighty seats of the English counties had an electorate numbering 160,000, and the Tory Party had an easy majority here. But one hundred and forty six seats of the smaller boroughs had an electorate of only 3,500, a small number of people who could be easily bribed into submission by someone with adequate resources. With the support of George I, Walpole now had those resources, and a firm Whig majority was the result. Real power was now within reach, but in many ways it was based on trickery. Support for the Tory Party was much more widespread than the result of 1715's manipulated election allowed. Inevitably there was a reaction, and in response to significant unrest the Riot Act was passed, which allowed violent suppression of shows of opposition. The muscle of Walpole's government was now in place.
View from the balcony at Houghton Hall
The final piece of the puzzle required for Walpole's ascent to power was provided by the South Sea Bubble disaster of 1720. This was a speculative failure in which many thousands of people lost money invested in a company created to manage government debt, and to exploit a monopoly of trade with South America. Walpole came out of it well by working to shield aristocratic directors of companies involved. This brought him popular odium, but powerful friends. On balance it was better to have powerful friends than widespread popularity. Once again Walpole's actions regarding the South Sea Bubble have been attacked by modern writers, such as Gilmour. But once again it is hard to judge these actions. As always in affairs of finance public confidence is all-important, since share prices rest on nothing but confidence. As the biographer of George I, John Van Der Kiste points out, Walpole in his actions following the South Sea collapse aimed "to allow public confidence to recover by minimising the directors' errors" (King George II and Queen Caroline P77). His actions are actually very similar to those taken in response to the credit crash of 2008, where banks were shielded from the error of their excessive lending by massive injections of public money. People argued the rights and wrongs of this, but in reality the idea of letting justice take its course, and allowing the banks and their directors to pay for their error could arguably have brought a wider disaster. Once again the actions of Walpole are not easily judged as right or wrong. They are simply, for the want of a better word, "politic". It was as a result of his handling of the South Sea Bubble crisis that in 1721 Walpole was made First Lord of the Treasury, the most senior position in government. The following year a Tory conspiracy to restore to the throne the son of James II, known as the Old Pretender, was discovered by Walpole's counter espionage network, and suppressed. George I was grateful, and the First Lord's power was now unassailable. Physical evidence of this power remains at his home of Houghton Hall, rebuilt lavishly at this time. The foundation stone to Walpole's enlarged mansion at Houghton was laid in 1722, a symbolic event which marked the beginning of a decade which saw Walpole at the peak of his power. As already noted Walpole did not now use his power in the pursuit of any grand scheme. He worked instead to maintain stability, creating an administration in which ritual became more important. We might today condemn this approach, but in comparison with other leaders who did have grand schemes, you do have to wonder whether Walpole's decision to just rub along had a lot going for it. This approach, for example tended to avoid war. There was no great crusading fervour, no desire to send men off to fight for some principle. This was a turbulent age which needed continuity, and in the last analysis it was the stability of Walpole's government which was revolutionary. In 1727, George I died, and it is a reflection of the new power of Parliament that there was no change of First Lord of the Treasury on the succession of George II. Usually a change of monarch meant a change of ministers, but the fact that Walpole maintained his position was, in the words of B.W. Hill "a key precedent for the future" (Sir Robert Walpole P144). Walpole's uneventful administration, had ironically contributed to a revolution in government, existing independent of a monarch.
If Walpole had continued his policy of carefully trying to do as little as possible, it is likely that his ministry would have continued for longer than it did. But in 1732 he tried to change the tax system in an attempt to make it "fairer". It was decided to reduce tax on land to one shilling, while imposing a tax on salt. A land tax, so the argument ran, meant that only a small number of people paid tax. Rich merchants with little or no land paid nothing. There was also a plan to widen tax to include wine and tobacco, which at the time were only taxed by customs as it entered the country. Ian Gilmour makes much of these policies. Land was owned by the rich, while everyone used salt, tobacco and wine. In Gilmour's opinion, this was simply an attempt to shift England's tax burden away from the rich towards the poor. Walpole "believed in taxing the poor to make them work harder... He believed in grinding the poor as a good in itself" (Riots, Risings and Revolutions P85). No doubt there is something in what Gilmour says. But it should also be bourne in mind that the taxes Walpole tried to impose in 1732 are now widely accepted. VAT imposes tax on all kinds of goods that people use, and is the successor of the hated Salt Tax. Taxes on alcohol and cigarettes earn the modern British government huge amounts of money; and as cigarette smoking is an activity primarily indulged in by people with lower incomes, this could also be viewed as a tax on the poor. This, however, is not how modern taxation policy in this area is perceived. Modern tobacco and alcohol tax is viewed almost as an extension of health education, encouraging people not to indulge in unhealthy activities. And while no one particularly likes paying VAT it is hardly a major issue over which political careers can be won or lost. In 1732, however, the story was very different. Walpole's opponents realised that taxation policy was an issue that could be used to damage the First Lord. The Tories were not natural supporters of the common man, and did not oppose tax on salt, wine and tobacco for humanitarian reasons. They simply wanted to see their own influence increase. Morality was used as a political weapon. By March 1733 Walpole had been forced to back away from his tax plans, and he was vulnerable. But in 1734's election, voting chicanery once again allowed Walpole to win another seven year term, and Walpole's set of amoral tricksters was able to win out over an opposing group of amoral tricksters.
Downing Street - this photo is copyright free
By now Robert Walpole was living in a house at 10 Downing Street, donated by King George II for use by the First Lord of the Treasury. Number 10 Downing Street continues as the prime minister's residence today, where the title on a plaque outside still refers to the "First Lord of the Treasury". Ironically it was while he was living in the future home of British premiers that Walpole's position finally began to weaken. Walpole had exercised influence over George II through his clever wife Caroline, who had been carefully charmed and cultivated. But in November 1737 Caroline died. Enemies had also been made in sackings which had followed opposition to 1732's tax plans. In Scotland support had declined as a result of an incident known as the Porteus Affair. An army officer named John Porteus had ordered his men to fire into a mob, killing a number of people. Porteus had been charged, and imprisoned, but this was not enough for the people of Edinburgh, who dragged Porteus from his prison and hanged him. The city of Edinburgh was obliged to pay compensation to Porteus' widow, which lost Walpole the support of the Duke of Argyll, the most powerful man in Scotland.
In 1738 Robert Walpole lost his second wife Maria, a long term mistress he had married following the death of his first wife Catherine in 1737. Walpole never fully recovered. Personal loss coincided with a worsening political situation. In October 1739 Britain declared war on Spain, against Walpole's inclinations. Walpole never liked war. It was bad for business. But after a period of peace, people simply seemed to want a war, and Spain's insistence on the right to search British ships seemed good grounds. Walpole could not resist general pressure to begin fighting. The war that followed did not go well. There was only one notable victory, Admiral Vernon's capture of Porto Bello, commemorated today in the name of Notting Hill's Portobello Road. Unfortunately Vernon was a critic of Walpole's, and the admiral's victory made him a formidable opponent for the embattled First Lord. Walpole defended himself valiantly, particularly in a famous debate on foreign policy held on 21st January 1739, which Walpole managed to win by three votes. But on January 28th the government was defeated by a single vote after a debate on Chippenham's election result. Another defeat followed on 2nd February. Walpole resigned the same day, and his unprecedented ministry was over.
Robert Walpole lived on for another three years following his fall. In the background he advised George II, and helped guide Henry Pelham into the post of First Lord. Then kidney problems which had plagued him for years became progressively more severe. Walpole spent his last months unconscious for around twenty hours a day under the influence of a sedative. He died on 18th March 1745, aged sixty eight. In the years that followed, Robert Walpole has been variously described as hero and villain. He was seen as making a revolutionary step towards modern parliamentary government, when he was actually a man who tried to do as little as possible. He followed the Plutarch view of government with no end in view. He did not try to right social wrongs, did not see the irony of poor smugglers being hanged while rich smugglers had knighthoods and seats in Parliament. He did nothing to stop the slave trade, over which Britain had a virtual monopoly. For Walpole there was no better place which he had to reach. There was no endless searching after a shining city on a hill. Problematic as that may have been in certain respects, we should remember that many disastrous politicians have searched for a shining city on a hill. They have used their search to impose all sorts of terrible things on people. Walpole was full of energy and cleverness, which he generally used in trying not to do anything. He was a hail fellow well met sort of chap, who had friends in all political parties. At a time when MPs were not paid, he used his position to make money, as all politicians did. He used the techniques of power that everyone used, and some of the measures he was hated for during his ministry are accepted now. He existed to survive in office, and did so for a long time. To complete the quote from Plutarch which I used at the beginning of this article, politics "is not a public chore to be got over with. It is a way of life. It is the life of a domesticated political and social creature who is born with a love of public life, with a desire for honour, with a feeling for his fellows; and it lasts as long as it needs be."