Robert Walpole, Prime Minister 1721-1742
Robert Walpole was born in Norfolk in 1676, the fifth of the 19 children of Robert and Mary Walpole, members of the local gentry. His father also represented Castle Rising in The House of Commons. Walpole attended Eton and King’s College, Cambridge, but left the latter early after the death of his last brother, to help his aging father administer the family estates. Walpole had intended to become a clergyman, but dropped this idea at this point. Instead, he entered politics, standing for his father’s old seat of Castle Rising in 1701. In 1702, he left Castle Rising for King’s Lynn, a pocket borough where he would remain for the rest of his career. As a member of the Whig Party, Walpole was appointed by Queen Anne (the monarchy still had effective power then) to be a member of her husband’s council. He performed this role well, and was appointed by the Leader of the Cabinet as Secretary at War in 1708. When the Whig Party lost office in 1710 to the Tories, Walpole became one of the leading voices of opposition, even more than the Whig leader, Lord Godolphin. In 1713, he was convicted of corruption and sentenced to six months in the Tower of London. When he was released, he was re-elected for King’s Lynn, and became a Privy Councillor in the new Whig cabinet of 1714. Lord Halifax, the head of the ministry, died after only a year in 1715; Walpole was appointed both Chancellor the Exchequer and First Lord of the Treasury. His success did not last, though. Within a few years, major foreign policy disagreements with the other members of the cabinet and with the king prompted Walpole to resign and join the opposition. When Walpole’s opposition defeated a major initiative of the government, they realised that it was a mistake to have Walpole against them, and re-invited him into the ministry as Paymaster of the Forces. A few years later in 1721, the collapse of the South Sea Bubble caused the end of the political careers of much of the ministry, leaving Walpole in a position of preeminence. That year, he became Chancellor, First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons.
Under the reign of George I, Walpole’s power, and that of the ministers steadily increased at the expense of the king’s. The ministers gradually came to exercise more and more influence on the affairs of the realm, while the king exercised less and less. Notable events of this time include Walpole’s skillful handling of the South Sea collapse crisis, and the discovery and prevention of a Jacobite plot under the Bishop of Rochester. Walpole accrued great wealth and privilege. His long tenure polarised the country, because his ministry and his way of doing things were highly corrupt; on the other hand, there was no denying that he got things done. On multiple occasions, he persuaded the king to not enter wars, thus keeping expenses and taxes low. He also dominated the House of Commons and the politics of Britain until 1737, when Queen Caroline died. She was a strong supporter of his ministry, and her death lessened his influence with George II. A hard core of opposition coalesced around the person of the Prince of Wales, including many future notable names such as George Grenville and William Pitt the Elder. This group, continuing allegations of corruption, and the poor conduct of the War of Jenkins’ Ear led to the appointment of an inquiry in 1742 into the government’s alleged rigging of an election in Chippenham. All knew this to constitute a Vote of No Confidence, including Walpole himself, and he resigned. The king appointed him Lord Orford, and he ascended to the House of Lords. Walpole’s health quickly decline; his last political intervention came in February 1744, and he died the next year, aged 68.
Robert Walpole’s importance in British history is immense. He is almost always regarded as the first Prime Minister, who shaped the powers and roles of the office of First Lord of the Treasury. Although his successors were very weak, by the 19th century, the office of Prime Minister was accepted as the leader of the political field. Fortunately, his successors did not inherit his practice of intense levels of corruption, but his importance in setting out in basic form the office which became Prime Minister is undeniable.