Sir Robert Walpole: Britain’s first Prime Minister

On 3 April 1721, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745) became the First Lord of the Treasury and, in effect, Britain’s first Prime Minister. He remains the longest holder of this office, serving 21 years, and left a lasting impression on the role he helped to shape and secure to the British constitution. It was to Walpole that the Downing Street premises (originally three houses) were first offered by George II, and Walpole only accepted on the condition that they be a gift to the office of First Lord of the Treasury – ensuring that he would not be personally liable to pay for repairs! And so No. 10 became attached to the premiership forever.

A classic painted portrait of Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, in robes and wig in the studio of Jean Baptiste van Loo in 1740.
Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, studio of Jean Baptiste van Loo, 1740 – NPG 70 © National Portrait Gallery, London

It is very interesting to reflect on the fact that Walpole actually denied being Prime Minister. In the House of Commons in 1741 he stated ‘I unequivocally deny that I am sole and prime minister’. During the first half of the 18th century, the term ‘prime minister’ had unfortunate connotations of an over-powerful figure, associated with foreign tyranny. But as Andrew Blick has written, ‘while he might have wished to avoid such a label attached to him, Walpole knew he was the most important person in the King’s government of the day, as did everyone else’ 1.

But how did he achieve this status?

Walpole was born into a wealthy political gentry family in north Norfolk, son of the landowner and MP, Robert Walpole (1650-1700). He went to Eton and then Cambridge and, when his elder brothers died, was swiftly diverted from an intended career in the church to manage the family estate, marry, and enter politics. He obtained his father’s seat at Castle Rising, Norfolk through family connections and was elected to Parliament in 1701.

This was a very interesting time to enter the Commons. It has become known as the ‘Age of Party’, when a two-party parliamentary system emerged following the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, when the Catholic James II was removed from the throne and replaced with his niece, the Protestant Mary II and her husband, the Dutch prince William of Orange. The Whig Party supported this new constitutional form of monarchy, and generally promoted intellectual liberalism and commerce, while the Tories tended to be more royalist and concerned with protecting the interests of the landed elites. Public debate between the two parties was fierce, and it was during this period that the electorate became a powerful force in the political system.

In this painting we see Speaker Arthur Onslow calling upon Sir Robert Walpole to speak in the House of Commons in 1730.
James Thornhill and William Hogarth, Speaker Arthur Onslow calling upon Sir Robert Walpole to speak in the House of Commons (1730), Wikimedia Commons, Clandon Park © National Trust 1441463

Skilful operator

Walpole – a member of the infamous ‘Kit-Kat Club’ of young, aristocratic Whigs – proved to be very well-suited to this new political climate. He was intelligent, eloquent and highly persuasive in his performance at the Commons and rose swiftly through its ranks. He was also extremely skilled at the difficult business of government, with an incredible grasp on administrative detail, and his early work for the Admiralty board saw him named first Secretary at War and then Treasurer of the Navy.

He was also, crucially, a consummate moderate, concerned with managing all factions of the government while defending Whig constitutional principles, such as the right of resistance. Nevertheless, Walpole’s involvement in the prosecution of the Tory preacher Henry Sacheverell saw him become a target for the Tory government, and he was expelled from Parliament for corruption and briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1712. This only strengthened his reputation as a Whig martyr, and he returned to favour with the accession of the Hanoverian King George I in 1714.

But these accusations of corruption and cronyism followed Walpole around for his entire career. It is difficult for historians to separate what was normal political practice for the period (such as the dispensation of patronage) and what were illicit and unfair dealings (such as bribery and fraud). But it is undeniable that many of Walpole’s contemporaries characterised him as manipulative.

He became known as the ‘Screen-Master General’ who was skilful at pulling political strings. Thanks to his deft handling of the financial and political crisis that followed the bursting of the South Sea Bubble in 1720 and the extensive corruption it had exposed, Walpole was largely able to shield the government and the South Sea Company from much of the fall out 2. The writer Jonathan Swift satirised Walpole and the rest of his government in his 1726 work, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’: the Lilliputian Treasurer, the paranoid and powerful Flimnap, is portrayed as the most dexterous rope-dancer, ‘allowed to cut a caper on the straight rope, at least an inch higher than any other lord in the whole empire. I have seen him do the summerset several times together.’ Samuel Johnson, meanwhile, decried Walpole’s tax-friendly Whig government and its dedication to the Hanoverian royal family in his 1738 poem ‘London’:

Propose your schemes, ye senatorian band,
Whose ways and means support the sinking land;
Lest ropes be wanting in the tempting spring,
To rig another convoy for the king.

""
The London Merchants Triumphant, 1733, Wikimedia Commons, © The Trustees of the British Museum, BM 1880,1113.3697

As time went on, however, Walpole’s political instincts began to fail him. In 1733, keen to keep taxes low for landowners to gain their votes (something several members in his own party resented), Walpole drove through an Excise bill that would shift the tax burden for the government to trading communities. There was a huge backlash from retailers and merchants, who resented the loss of money and the encroachment of government. When Walpole forged ahead, ignoring this opposition, petitions and instructions to MPs flooded in from around the country. The bill was eventually dropped with high embarrassment, and the public celebrated by rioting and burning effigies of Walpole and his supporter, Queen Caroline.

In the late 1730s, Spain became a subject of debate in press and Parliament partly due to the refusal of the South Sea Company to pay its debts to the Spanish government in exchange for its right to trade in enslaved Africans with the American colonies (‘the asiento’). The Tory opposition united under a banner of expansionist, imperial patriotism, which they claimed was standing up for mercantile and commercial interests. Walpole was committed to avoiding war, but unable to effectively manoeuvre thanks to a hostile press whipped up by this jingoistic sentiment. The War of Jenkins’ Ear – or Guerra del Asiento, as it was known in Spain – lasted from 1739 to 1748, and its results are widely understood as a loss for Britain. It was certainly a loss for Walpole, who suffered a vote of no confidence in 1742 and retired from politics.

Longevity in Office

Walpole’s career demonstrates how, in a parliamentary government that was built on the principle of checks and balances, an effective prime minister needed to be attentive and articulate, able to connect and curate a broad range of public and political interests while keeping a firm grasp on the minute details of government work. In this way, Walpole’s ascent within government and his time as First Lord of the Treasury shaped the role and its requirements to his image. His skill set, as a highly effective Parliamentarian; his prudent approach to public finances; his self-confidence, vitality and determination: these were all factors which help to explain his longevity in Office.

Different standards of government applied in Walpole’s time. However, the way he responded to the challenges of his time in Office makes for an illuminating story and in some respects, he created a template for the role of Prime Minister.  

Notes:

  1. The Prime Ministers (ed. Iain Dale, Hodder & Stoughton, 2020) xix.
  2. /the-south-sea-bubble-of-1720/

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