Sir Robert Walpole

1721 - 1742

Sir Robert Walpole

Walpole (1676-1745) invented the office of prime minister – the term was originally used as an insult to him -- and was by a significant margin its longest-serving occupant (20 years 314 days versus a total of 18 years 345 days for William Pitt the younger, the runner-up.)

Walpole faced twenty years that were mostly tranquil, but he made them so. He rose to power by dealing deftly with the financial and political blow-back from the South Sea Bubble’s collapse, imposing rough justice on the company’s management, side-lining several of his rivals who had been more closely involved in the South Sea’s scheming and through his friends at the Bank of England providing enough of a bailout that there was no long-term collapse in investor sentiment.

Once this was done, then provided he kept Royal favour and kept the country at peace Walpole could through judicious use of patronage and outright bribery, side-lining men of real weight like William Pulteney (1684-1764) and John Carteret (1690-1763) and promoting younger, less forceful men like the two Pelham brothers, keep himself in power indefinitely. He was an excellent man of business and prized the virtue of moderation, fashionable at that time in contrast to the “enthusiasm” of the previous century. Through his Sinking Fund and twenty years of peace, he stabilized the government debt, reducing annual interest payments by 27% over his term in office, though a permanent solution to government’s financing needs awaited his successor Henry Pelham. He established an alliance with France, already a non-traditional foreign policy, that proved surprisingly durable, although when war came in 1739, initially with Spain, he proved an ineffective war minister.

On the debit side, with the help of the two monarchs he served, George I and George II, he established Britain as an effective one-party state, with Tories barred from power altogether and dissident Whigs relegated to futile opposition. He used patronage more effectively than his predecessors (though many of his methods had been anticipated by Thomas Osborne, Earl of Danby (1632-1712) under Charles II) but this resulted in a corrupt state with ineffective government institutions and a Church packed with dodgy Whig bishops like Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761).

Walpole’s social legislation tended towards the repressive, as did his tax policy, and the 1723 “Black Act,” introducing capital punishment for more than 50 working-class crimes, was hated until its repeal by Liverpool’s government in 1823. In Scotland and Ireland his corruption and repression were worse than in England, with the “Wood’s Halfpence” swindle a black spot. On the other hand, he used a light touch in regulating the American colonies and his overall Whiggery and tolerance of Dissent were much appreciated there. He died very wealthy and established a norm for ministerial peculation that lasted until the 1780s, again to the detriment of good government.

Overall, nicely self-described as “no saint, no Spartan, no reformer” he deserves to rank barely in the Top Ten of Prime Ministers. He left Britain richer and more stable than he found it, but also more corrupt and less open.

© 2024 Martin Hutchinson