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Robert Walpole's Political Style Stabilized Great Britain in the 18th Century

By: Daniel

Robert Walpole was a British Statesman whose was one of the central figures of 18th Century Great Britain. He is considered as the first Prime Minister of Great Britain. He has headed various government offices, played so many roles and finally attained the status of the first ‘Prime Minister’ of Great Britain. He became the First Lord of the Treasury and the Chancellor of Exchequer. He was a strong and undisputed leader of the Cabinet. His governance period was a powerful era in British history. He held various posts from 1721-1742 and his administration was the longest administration.

Walpole started his political career in the year 1701, winning the General Election from Castle Rising. Soon he left Castle Rising and moved to the crucial borough of King’s Lynn, where he enjoyed victory consecutively for forty years. Robert Walpole was an enthusiastic member of Whig Party (which was stronger than the opposing Tory Party, then). Walpole became a part of Council of Lord High Admiral in 1705, the Council which took care of the Naval matters. He had excellent administrative skills and was promoted as the Secretary at War (1708) by Lord Godolphin. He managed the post of Navy Treasurer also. These experiences helped him to become an advisor of Duke of Marlborough. Robert Walpole very soon became an important member in the Cabinet. In spite of having such an influence, he could not prevent Lord Godolphin and the Whigs from forcing the prosecution of Henry Sacheverell, who popularized anti-Whig ideas. This attempt was very unpopular and resulted in the fall of Whig Party and Duke of Marlborough in the 1710 Election. The new rule under Tory Robert Harley no longer allowed Walpole to be the Secretary at War, but permitted him to continue as the Treasurer of Navy. Harley’s attempt to influence Walpole to make him join the Tories did not succeed. Walpole denied the offer and played an important role in Whig Opposition as its most outspoken member. He spoke for Lord Godolphin in Parliamentary debates as well as in press, defending him from Troy attacks. Tories were not happy with him and wanted to discredit both him and the Duke of Marlborough. They came up with a wrong allegation that he had done corruption during his tenure as Secretary at War. The origin of this blame was nothing but political hatred. He had to undergo impeachment in the House of Commons, and the House of the Lords also charged him. He had to suffer six months imprisonment (in the Tower of London) and was banished from the Parliament. But the public supported Walpole telling that the trial was an unjust one, and the move was backfired against Tories itself. He got re-elected from the same constituency even though he was expelled from the House of Commons. Heavy hatred grew in Walpole’s mind against Robert Harley and Henry St John, who made the conspiracy.
George I came to power (after Queen Anne) according to the Act of Settlement 1701. George I was not happy with Tories whom he thought opposed his way to Power. George came to power in 1714 and brought back Whigs to the show; he remained in power for the next forty years. Walpole came up as the Privy Councillor and soon became the Paymaster of the forces in the Cabinet. Cabinet was lead by Lord Halifax, for nominal sake, but was actually dominated by Lord Townshend (Walpole’s brother-in-law), and James Stanhope. Walpole became the Chairman of a Secret Committee that was supposed to examine the decisions and works of the previous Tory rule. The people who attacked and impeached Walpole came to similar but real troubles (that came out of political reasons). Lord Oxford had to undergo impeachment; Lord Bolingbroke had to suffer from an act of attainder.

When Lord Halifax (the Administration Head) passed away in 1715, Walpole (who had a big recognition) was posted as the First Lord of the Treasury and also as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. During that time he brought the Sinking Fund, a method to decrease the national debt. The Cabinet that time had certain opinion differences; Lord Townshend and Walpole on one side and Lord Sunderland and Stanhope on the other side. Disputes were mainly about the foreign policies. The former pair was of the opinion that George I was making decisions about foreign affairs according to the interests and opinion of his German territories. They believed that he is ignoring the interests of Great Britain. King supported Stanhope-Sunderland group. Townshend lost the position of Northern Secretary and was degraded to an inferior office. Townshend later got dismissed from the post of Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland also (April 1717). Walpole resigned from his office the very next day to support Townshend in the opposition. Later in the year 1720, Walpole contributed for bringing peace between King and Prince of Wales who did not had a better fellowship.

Walpole was an influential and popular member in the House of Commons and opposed some of the government proposals like the Peerage Bill. Walpole’s attempt resulted in the bill abandonment and its rejection in the House of Commons the very next year. Stanhope-Sunderland group had to give up and reconcile with their opposition. Walpole could come back as the Paymaster of the Forces and Townshend became the Lord President of the Council.

After Walpole came back to the Cabinet, England saw the big South Sea Bubble issue which brought a financial ruin to the whole nation. England was swept in the tide of the problem and the committee that examined the scandal found corruption form the part of Cabinet members. Even Stanhope and Sunderland were found guilty, and it was the intervention of Walpole that saved them from further troubles. This attempt of Walpole that prevented others from being punished, gave him the nickname the ‘Screenmaster-General’. In the turmoil (following by the financial chaos), Walpole was found successful in keeping proper control over the Whig party and the Parliament. The resignation of Sunderland along with Stanhope’s death (in 1721) made Walpole the leader of the show, the most powerful person in the administration. Thus in 1721 he came to the positions of First Lord of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Leader in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister tenure (de facto) of Walpole is calculated from the date of his appointment as the First Lord in 1721. Lord Townshend also shared power with Walpole and managed the foreign affairs of the nation. Parliament started solving the financial crisis under the leadership of Walpole. Properties (estates) were confiscated and diverted towards helping the victims of the financial break down. Resources of South Sea Company were shared among East India Company and Bank of England. The crisis demolished the status of Whig party, but Walpole maintained his status in the House of Commons through his skilful oratory.

In the first year of Walpole’s tenure as Prime Minister, came up the Jacobite plot (a brain child of Francis Atterbury, who was the Bishop of Rochester). The establishment of the policy destroyed the expectations of Jacobites (whose attempts at rebellion met failure). The Tory Party also met with the same fate. Walpole’s progress continued during the reign of George I. The authority and powers of the Ministers started rising up and the rights and powers of monarch started degrading. Walpole and Townshend gradually became the supreme authorities in the ministry. They tried to maintain peace in Great Britain. They made a treaty signed between France and Prussia in the year 1725. Great Britain started getting relieved from the problems of war, Jacobite threats, and from various financial threats. The nation started prospering in every aspects; peace was established. Walpole got favour in the eyes of George I. He was ascended as a Knight of the Bath and a Knight of the Garter in the years 1725 and 1726 respectively. His position as Knight of the Garter gave him the nickname Sir Blustering.

Walpole’s authority and position had a threat when George II came to power after the death of George I in the year 1727. He was in the danger of dismissal even, but was retained by the King even though he disliked him. Townshed shared power with Walpole for few years, but the latter came up gradually in power and authority and became an important part of government. They had clashes regarding the foreign affairs of the nation (particularly in the policy concerning Prussia). Walpole found victory at last, with Townshed retiring in May 1730. This date is often considered as the starting of Walpole’s Prime Minister Tenure (unofficial). Walpole was strong in his rule during the following years more than any other time in his administration. Walpole made use of his royal patronage and had the support of Queen Caroline and George II. He used to make appointments for political gain and used to grant honours. Walpole himself used to select his Cabinet members and was very particular about their coordination and unity, during certain occasions. He was the most powerful and Administration Head that Great Britain has ever seen and was regarded as its first Prime Minister. Robert Walpole, however, had so many opponents (political enemies); Lord Bolingbroke being the most prominent one. William Pulteney, Alexander Pope, Jonathan swift and Dr Samuel Johnson were also included in the enemies list of Robert Walpole. In spite of having heavy opposition, Walpole got excellent public support and support from House of Commons. His policy of avoiding war (establishing peace) and reducing taxes made him very popular in the nation. He influenced George II and prevented him from getting into the European conflict in 1733 (during the War of the Polish Succession). But later in the year, Walpole’s influence and popularity got reduced because of a controversial taxation scheme that he introduced. During that time, the nation’s revenue reduced as a result of severe smuggling. Walpole came up with a proposal that tariff imposed on tobacco and wine could be cancelled and excise tax could be imposed, for compensating for the loss. In order to check the smuggling threat, tax had to be collected from warehouses and not from ports. The idea was very unpopular and invited opposition from merchants throughout the nation. Walpole after seeing the opposition consented to cancel the bill before it was put to vote. Walpole, but, dismissed the members who opposed the bill in the beginning. This made him lose many Whig Party members to the opposition party.

However, Walpole could form majority in the House of Commons in the 1734 General Elections, though the total strength of his group was very less compared to his previous state. Though his supremacy in Parliament was not affected by any issue, his popularity started withering. Later, the tax increase in gin (riots in London), Porteous Riots (Edinburgh) and other similar events affected Walpole’s name, though he preserved his majority in the Parliament. Walpole succeeded in getting the Licensing Act (London theatres were regulated based on this act) passed in 1737 by compelling the Parliament. Queen Caroline, Walpole’s close friend died in the year 1737, but, it did not upset Walpole’s fellowship with George II (who was found to be loyal to Walpole). His authority and power in the government started declining gradually in these years. Walpole’s opponent, Prince of Wales and several other young politicians gathered and started playing against him.

Robert Walpole failed to maintain a peaceful military (without conflict), which resulted in his downfall. Various disputes and problems occurred in the State during this time. Walpole tried his best to prevent war but House of Commons, King and a particular group in the Cabinet opposed him. Walpole, in 1739, stopped his attempts to prevent war and came up with the War of Jenkin’s Ear. Walpole’s status went down dramatically even after the starting of the war. Supporters of Walpole could get a general increase in the number of votes in some constituencies but could not win the crucial pocket boroughs. Government improved its status in Wales and England but could not overturn the failures of 1734 Election. Walpole’s new majority (simple majority) was also not secure because of the uncertain attitudes of the new members. Many Whigs in the Parliament was of the belief that the ageing Prime Minister would be unable to pilot their military campaign. Moreover Walpole did not have a strong majority as he used to have. He had more opponents than supporters. In the year 1742, House of Commons planned to check the validity of a by-Election (allegedly rigged) in Chippenham. Walpole and his companion, but, treated the case as a Motion of No Confidence. Walpole could not see victory in the issue and planned to resign. King decided to elevate Walpole to the post of Earl of Oxford (House of the Lords) in the year 1742 as a part of Walpole’s resignation. Walpole withdrew from the posts and surrendered the office seals within few days.

The influence of Robert Walpole in eighteenth century politics was tremendous. He was successful in making Whig party an unrivalled and dominant political party. Tories had their toughest time during his reign and became a powerless, unimportant, trivial faction. Walpole’s policy of maintaining peace resulted in the overall prosperity of the nation. Robert Walpole could sell his ideas leaving a big imprint, and keeping his hands clean politically. He remained in those posts till 1742 and managed to develop a powerful personal control upon the British Political set up that prevailed at that time. He was rejecting the Prime Minister’s post but was the first British politician who occupied that post. Walpole was very particular about loyalty, faithfulness and regular attendance from his placemen in the House of Commons. He wanted to keep House of Hanover on rule against the Jacobite opposition and wished to maintain prosperity that can establish peace and contentment with Hanoverians as well as Whigs. He tried hard to achieve his motives like increasing trade, decreasing taxation and so forth. Later but in his rule, he could not prevent the war of Britain with Spain in 1739 (after the eventful Jenkin’s Ear happening). However, in the development of Great Britain’s Uncodified Constitution, the attempts of Walpole was less momentous. He depended upon King’s support rather than depending upon the favour of House of Commons. His self confidence and his personal influences were the secret of his success but not the support or influence of his office.

Walpole’s strategies were successful in maintaining peace in Great Britain, which can be considered as his greatest success. He was one of the intelligent politicians that the whole world has ever seen. His political style brought stability to 18th Great Britain. His influence in the Cabinet was fantastic. He was a great Orator too. 10 Downing Street was another significant legacy of the First Lord of the Treasury. George II gifted 10 Downing Street to Walpole (in 1732), which he considered only as an office residence. The house has been considered as the official residence of the Prime Minister. He had a treasured collection of art, which was one of the best collections in Europe.

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