From Walpole's Bottom to Major's Underpants

Kenneth Baker argues that cartoonists have let recent Prime Ministers off lightly compared with their eighteenth-century predecessors.

Political cartoons and the office of Prime Minister both became established in the 1720s. They grew alongside each other and established a strange relationship which was to show itself in mutual interdependence. Michael Cummings, the contemporary cartoonist, has said that a Prime Minister to a cartoonist is as bricks to a builder – 'Without Prime Ministers we'd all be redundant'. It was so from the very start. Similarly, politicians need cartoonists, for to be caricatured is a sign that they have arrived.

Sir Robert Walpole was Prime Minister for twenty-one years – a record not yet surpassed – and he was the first to get it in the neck from cartoonists. He dominated the political scene and revelled in the title of 'The Big Man'. His power depended upon the manipulation of corruption through the sale of government jobs. One print shows Walpole's great naked bottom straddling the Treasury, for if you wanted to get on in the early 18th Century, you had to kiss Walpole's bottom. In a way, it was rather flattering because a Big Man had a big bottom. Walpole did not like the cartoons and he had some of the printsellers imprisoned for a few days. But, rather more subtly, he commissioned flattering prints of himself: this was the first salvo in the first media campaign.

Even at that early stage it was clear that cartoonists need a big target. To draw well they need a William Pitt, a Disraeli, a Churchill or a Thatcher, and these were political giants. The lesser figures that follow them are not so interesting. In 1801, Addington followed Pitt – 'Pitt is to Addington as London is to Paddington'. In 1846, little John Russell followed the great Victorian Prime Minister, Robert Peel, and Bonar Law followed Lloyd George in 1923. All were portrayed as little men who could not fill their predecessors shoes.

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