British Prime Ministers: Sir Robert Walpole

J.H. Plumb analyses the career of the man recognised as Britain's first prime minister.


Over the high table at King's College, Cambridge, hanging in the place of honour, is a splendid portrait of Sir Robert Walpole. There he is – short, fat, coarse-featured, jovial, resplendent in the Garter of which he was so proud. But he is not without dignity, nor even without a certain mystery; for his eyes, alert and guarded, hint that his character was not so obvious as, perhaps, he wished it to seem. The same remark may be made of Walpole's career. The lover of peace who carefully avoided sleeping dogs, the cynic who knew the price, of men, the creator of parties, of cabinet government, and of the office of Prime Minister – these nursery and schoolroom myths vanish before the harsh reality: his long pursuit of power: the desperate , calculated risks: his vast appetite for detail: all of which made him for twenty years the colossus of English political life. By his own superhuman endeavours he held in check the aggressive appetites of English merchants who saw in war an opportunity for commercial plunder, men who afterwards found their voice and inspiration in Chatham, to whom they raised the Guildhall monument, with its proud boast that he was the first minister to make trade flourish by war. But Walpole, hard-headed, obstinate, secure in power, would have none of it. He was too conscious of the great burden of debt, created by the long wars of William and Anne, which pressed like peine forte et dure on the owners of land. Above all else, Walpole wished to ease the land-tax; and to achieve this object peace was essential. As for trade, he thought that efficient taxation, improved administration, and common-sense policy were the only real necessaries for the growth and development of English commerce.

In essentials, Walpole's policy was extremely simple – peace which would bring its own prosperity. Few prime ministers have had a policy so simple or so consistently held; but the pursuit of it demanded all his extraordinary qualities as a statesman. This was due to the exceptional intricacy of eighteenth-century politics, where there were no parties in a modern sense and no political programmes. Broad issues about Church and. State might divide men, and make some die-hard whigs and some die-hard tories; but for the majority of politicians the issues were not so simple. Personal factors were more important; loyalty to their family connection or territorial group, personal ambition with its temptations of power, changed men from tories to whigs and back again with such bewildering speed that eighteenth century politics have a cynical air of unreality.

The root of the trouble lay, as Hume understood, in the House of Commons. The vital factor was this: the King chose his ministers: they were his servants, and had to find their majority in the House of Commons, whereas today the leader of an organised party with a majority presents his ministers, to the King. It is true that, even in the eighteenth century, the King's ministers usually had the support of a majority of members of Parliament on the very broadest issues; but, once it became a question of detail – whether Irish yarn should be taxed, or London should have a second bridge – local loyalties, or personal views and idiosyncrasies, might easily predominate. Hence in the eighteenth-century Parliament, there was always a considerable element of uncertainty and the danger of political anarchy. As Hume wisely observed, governments were forced to appeal to individual self-interest to secure constant support for a detailed policy. Coherence of government was maintained by an elaborate system of patronage. Every office in Church or State, to which the Crown had the power to appoint, began to be used for political ends.

As a young man, Walpole had witnessed the first great expansion of the patronage system by Harley. It had taught him that in political circles there was a wolfish appetite for places, partly because of their financial reward, even more, perhaps, because of the social prestige which they carried. And it taught him, also, that any minister who intended to exploit the vast patronage of the Crown must have the complete and loyal support of the King. For, if there were two or three ministers who could give places, the insecurity of politics was merely removed from the Commons to the Court. Hence Walpole's early determination to be sole, supreme minister, to brook no rivals at Court, and to prefer as his colleagues, men of small ability but great loyalty, to able but less reliable men, such as Carteret, Pulteney or Townshend. But neither the absolute support of the Crown, nor the most detailed exploitation of the patronage system, could give Walpole the complete political security for which he longed. It gave him stability no doubt, but not security. To maintain his ascendancy, he added a mastery of the detail of the nation's business that, maybe, only Burleigh has equalled. The nation was still small enough for one man – a man of fantastic industry and efficiency – to comprehend its affairs at a level of detail that made him the unrivalled expert on all questions relating to its welfare. He always knew more about everything than his rivals or his colleagues. This vast competence bred authority and confidence, and his contemporaries hesitated long before they opposed his policy. Always convincing, usually right, the fountain of profit, the channel of promotion, Walpole was irresistible at Court and dominant in the Commons. Perhaps no other prime minister has enjoyed so much power for so long over both men and measures.

Walpole served a lengthy apprenticeship. Treasurer of the Navy, and later Secretary of War, in his early thirties he obtained a thorough grounding in financial administration during Godolphin's brilliant period of office as Lord High Treasurer. Accused of corruption on a trumped-up charge, condemned and sent to the Tower, he tasted the rancour and bitterness of eighteenth-century political struggles. Naturally enough, he developed a detestation of Tories, particularly Bolingbroke, which was to last his life. Back in power after the Hanoverian succession, he quickly showed his financial genius by consolidating all the various funds of the National Debt, many of them bearing different interest rates, into one; he also instituted the Sinking Fund, a device to repay the debt, which lifted the dark fear of bankruptcy that the burden of debt had created. Indeed, the cloud more than lifted: a reckless financial optimism resulted which ended in the South Sea Bubble disaster. Walpole, luckily, was in no way responsible. He had gambled not on South Sea stocks, but on his own political future, by resigning offices, with his brother-in-law, Lord Townshend, in 1717, and entering into furious opposition against Sunderland and Stanhope, the other Whig leaders. Restored to office, he saw that the South Sea Bubble had given him his opportunity. With utter disregard of popular rage and the public insults hurled at him, Walpole handled Parliament so skilfully that the Court, which had been deeply implicated in the scandal, was successfully screened, the ministry preserved, the Tory opposition frustrated. His victory was political, not economic; for Walpole's financial arrangements are of little importance. In 1721, he emerged as the dominant political figure. But he still had a rival – Townshend.

It took nine years to resolve the struggle. Townshend was a rash man, who liked a vigorous, active, aggressive foreign policy. At one time he cheerfully envisaged England taking over half of the Austrian Netherlands, and becoming once again a European power. To back his policy, he was willing to enter into an alliance with any monarch with troops for hire; and he did not count the cost. Walpole, on the other hand, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was obliged to think in terms of hard cash. Each year the financial burden mounted; and the landed gentry paid. Yet foreign policy was Townshend's business, not Walpole's. It was an extremely delicate situation, and Walpole got round it by a political manoeuvre of great dexterity which had a lasting effect on English constitutional development. It was essential that opposition to Townshend's policy should not come from Walpole alone; at the same time discussion in the cabinet, which at that period was very large and included the Archbishop of Canterbury and others, might divide it into two warring factions and split the government. So Walpole began to make more formal the informal meetings of the four or six chief ministers of state, which were especially active when the King, with Townshend, was in Hanover. They were easy for Walpole to manage; he could lobby them privately, and be certain of their views before the meeting. Thus Townshend was isolated and finally driven from office. But Walpole kept this small, efficient cabinet going; since it enabled him to retain a firm grasp of the details of foreign affairs. From this small cabinet our modern cabinet is derived; and Townshend's behaviour was accepted as the only correct procedure. If a minister of this inner ring differed violently on policy with the others, it was felt that he ought to resign; and from this belief was gradually evolved the theory of cabinet responsibility. But, of course, Walpole had no idea that he was encouraging important constitutional developments. For him it was a means of getting his way, a convenient and ingenious manoeuvre by which he secured the fullest extension of his power for the sake of his peace policy.

But peace was difficult to secure. Many of his contemporaries genuinely thought that Walpole's policy in foreign affairs was inimical to England's interests, and wished to see a much more truculent and less compromising attitude to both France and Spain, which they regarded as serious obstacles to our commercial growth. Other politicians joined with them, including some whigs, such as Pulteney, whom Walpole would not have at any price, in the hope that a united front of opposition would pull Walpole down. They attacked him on every issue, including his policy of taxation by excise, which had done a great deal to promote the expansion of English commerce. But Walpole ignored torrents of personal, abuse, violent public agitation, gave the growling dogs a sound kick when he had the chance, and persisted obstinately in his foreign policy and financial reforms, until he was faced with a threat of a split at Court, in the ranks of his own supporters. Then he saw the danger-signal. He at once abandoned excise and, later, reluctantly declared war on Spain, telling the Duke of Newcastle bitterly that it was his war, and that he wished him joy of it. In such circumstances a modern prime minister would have resigned immediately; but Walpole did not regard himself as a prime minister, nor did he apply to himself the principles inherent in Townshend's resignation. Walpole regarded himself as the King's first servant; and, while he could carry on the King's business with the King's approval, he was prepared to stay in power and, if necessary, throw his own principles overboard. He continued to transact his master's business till in 1742, only resigning when it was made absolutely clear to him that he could no longer do so.

Walpole's career is extremely difficult to assess. He had none of Chatham's uncanny power of intuitively sensing the future destiny of England and, by his unrivalled rhetoric, inspiring the country to strive to attain it. It was a future of imperial grandeur, but also of endless war and indebtedness which Walpole would have deplored. He had none of the moral stature of a Gladstone. Though he did not invent corruption or the exploitation of the self-interest of avaricious politicians, which were well on the way by the time he entered politics, he was more ruthless in his use of patronage, and more obvious, than his predecessors, and brought to the question involved his infinite capacity for detail. Tidewaiters' places at Berwick-on-Tweed, the promotion of an ensign in a regiment of foot, a scholarship for a Wykehamist going on to New College, the foundation of a school in the Bermudas – all applications were studied, docketed, filed, and made to pay their dividends in terms of political allegiance. Knowing well the importance of family connections, he did not hesitate to endow his Norfolk cousinage with the best of places in the very centre of government. This was common knowledge and bandied about in the press; and it is undeniable that his brazen use of places brought the institutions of government into disrepute and helped to foster the middle class radicalism of the later eighteenth century. Such is the case against him. Yet, although one must discount his contribution to constitutional development – for that was largely fortuitous and arose out of his methods, not his intentions – there is much to his credit. His reorganization of taxation and of financial administration gave English government funds, throughout the eighteenth century, a buoyancy and strength that no other European country could rival. It drew to us the Dutch capital which enabled us to win a vast commercial empire; and this made possible the Industrial Revolution. His policy of peace, prosperity, stability, security, moreover, was surely in every way admirable, and well worth the occasional injuries inflicted on our national pride. Walpole's instinctive attitude to politics was much nearer to the common aspirations of mankind than the majority of our prime ministers. His vision of a secure, orderly, prosperous world, in which the ordinary human story could be lived out according to its own strange necessities, is one that must still command respect. Hence his bitterness towards those who would casually jeopardise peace for the sake of Gibraltar or for the alleged Spanish ill-treatment of Captain Jenkins, a mere smuggler-merchant. Hence, in Walpole's mouth, the term 'patriot' was to become a term of abuse; for this was the patriotism of self-seeking greed and not of solid human common sense. Walpole's view was too sophisticated, too urbane, to prevail. And yet, although the scales were weighted against him, he secured a longer period of peace than England had enjoyed since the reign of Elizabeth or was to enjoy until the nineteenth century; and in that, possibly, lies his greatest achievement.

It was only achieved thanks to his inhuman energy and his quite exceptional insight into political tactics. We like to think of the eighteenth century as a leisured world; but Walpole worked as hard as, or harder than, any modern minister. At the Treasury before eight in the morning, prepared to conduct his first interviews, during the sessions of Parliament he was almost continuously in the House. On his way to Houghton, we hear of him up at six o'clock at Newmarket, in order to deal with his letters. Wherever he goes, bundles of paper follow him; and, even if he makes time for hunting or drinking or his mistress, work goes on remorselessly. Treasury procedure, taxation yields, foreign despatches, electioneering, regimental promotion, the tribulations of dissenters or colonists, the difficulties of Eton College over a public house belonging to the Crown, everything great or small received his detailed attention.

This knowledge, coupled with his formidable powers of argument, made him difficult to dislodge. And yet, he always had time to spare. He would devote hours to the King and Queen, to ensure their absolute support. No minister can have been easier of access; for his papers are full of letters of thanks for the trouble he has taken over cousins and younger sons up from the country in search of a career. He appears to have seen them all personally. Walpole's wide human contacts, coupled with patience and foresight, gave him an unrivalled knowledge of the shifting personal aspect of politics, from which he derived his superb certainty of decision in times of crisis. He seemed always to know whom he could disgrace with impunity, whom he must flatter and cajole back into alliance. No prime minister ever weathered so skilfully, or so often, the danger of a break-up of his ministry. Again and again the political world confidently expected his fall; but until 1742 he confidently rode through all storms. With his rare combination of detailed knowledge and subtlety in human relations, backed by a prodigious memory and an obstinate faith in his attitude to life, he knew exactly what he wanted – power for himself, to bring peace and prosperity to his country. After Walpole's defeat, England embarked on a race for wealth through aggressive war which was to last for nearly a century of tribulation and heroism, and at length called into being the industrial revolution, destined to destroy forever the world which he had struggled to maintain. Time has not served him well. His use of patronage and corruption, his worldliness and cynicism, are remembered in our text books; but his capacity, his wisdom, his aspirations are frequently neglected. Even more neglected is another aspect of his personality. None of our British prime ministers can compare with Sir Robert Walpole in appreciation of the fine arts. He personally supervised the building of Houghton, the design of the superb furniture by Kent, and the magnificent collection of pictures afterwards sold to Catherine of Russia. To questions of taste he brought the same confident certainty of judgment that made him a political master.