Robert Walpole: Britain's first prime minister
Britain was desperate for a steady hand on the tiller following the turbulence of the 17th century. In its first prime minister, writes Jeremy Black, the nation found the right man for the job
When evaluating contributions to national life, we tend to have short memories, considering only recent history. There can also be a tendency to take national survival for granted and to remember instead those who manoeuvred to change the country. That was not a luxury offered Robert Walpole. During his two decades in power (he was in office from 1721–42) he delivered the stability Britain craved after a stormy period in its history.
Born in 1676, Walpole’s life encompassed the revolution that swept aside King James VII and II in 1688–89, the subsequent civil war in the British Isles, and repeated Jacobite conspiracies. War with France in 1689–97 and 1702–13, a conflict in which Walpole had served as secretary at war and treasurer of the navy, had been hazardous – although ultimately successful. And then the country had known the financial crash of the bursting of the South Sea Bubble.
Surviving these crises was difficult enough, but it was also necessary to prevent Britain from being the failed state it had repeatedly appeared to be in the 17th century. For that, a stable, efficient and robust system of government was required.
This was where Walpole came in. His adroit management during the turbulent period of 1689–1722 helped ground the political system. And, once George I had appointed him First Lord of the Treasury, chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons – making him, in effect, Britain’s first prime minister – Walpole stabilised the finances after the South Sea Bubble and kept Britain at peace until 1739.
Peace meant low taxation. This eased political tensions and helped reconcile the Tories to Whig rule. So also did an abandonment of the radical government-directed Whiggism of the late 1710s, notably the moves against the Church of England.
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Walpole delivered a series of general election victories. A master of parliamentary business, he skilfully aligned patronage and policy to limit Whig defections and contain Tory opposition. He also kept a close eye on Jacobite schemes. His managerialism was important in lessening political strife and thus keeping the political temperature low.
Jeremy Black is a historian and author, whose books include Walpole in Power: Britain’s First Prime Minister (Sutton, 2001)
Who was Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister? Listen to episode 1: Robert Walpole
This content first appeared in the April 2021 issue of BBC History Magazine
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