SIR ROBERT WALPOLE
Sir Robert Walpole, was a younger son of Sir Robert Walpole. M.P. for Castle Rising, born in 1676 . He was educated at Eton, and at King's College, Cambridge; succeeded to the paternal estate in 1700, and entered parliament as member for Castle Rising. In 1702 he was elected for King's Lynn, becoming an active member of the Whig party.
As a young man, Walpole witnessed the first great expansion of the patronage system by Harley. It 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. In his early thirties, he was secretary of war and leader in the Commons in 1708, paymaster of the forces in 1714 and 1720.He obtained a grounding in financial administration during Godolphin's period of office as first lord of the treasury and chancellor of the exchequer in 1715, and again in 1721.
He was 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 bandied Parliament so skillfully 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.
From 1721-1742 he held with out interruption the highest office in the state, he emerged as the dominant political figure. 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.
During his long administration the Hanoverian succession,
became firmly established, a result to which his prudence arid political sagacity contributed. Few prime ministers
have had a policy so simple or so consistently held; Eighteenth century politics has a cynical air of unreality,
there were no parties in a modern sense broad issues about Church and State divided men. For the majority of politicians
personal factors were far more important, ambition with its temptations of power, changed men from Tories to Whigs,
and back again, with bewildering speed .
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 organized 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.
Walpole preferred his own colleagues, men of small ability but great loyalty, to 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. In 1724 he was made a Knight of the Bath, in 1726 a Knight of the Garter, his use of the patronage system, and capacity for detail brought the institutions of government into disrepute and helped to foster the middle class radicalism of the later eighteenth century. 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 cousin age with the best of places in the very centre of government. This was common knowledge and bandied about in the press ; and is the undeniable case against him .
It may have given him stability, but not security. To maintain his ascendancy, he added a mastery of the detail of the nation's business that, maybe, only Burleigh has equaled. Walpole was irresistible at Court and dominant in the Commons he always knew more about everything than his rivals or his colleagues. Perhaps no other prime minister has enjoyed so much power .
His rival 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, 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 modem 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.
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 jeopardize peace
for the sake of Gibralter 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 commonsense. 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.
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 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. ( No one can fully appreciate Walpole's capacity for detail who has not seen his papers, preserved by the Marquis and Marchioness of Cholmondeley at Houghton.. )
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 unrivaled 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 affiance.
No prime minister ever weathered so skillfully, or so often, the danger of a break-up of his ministry. Again and again the political world confidently expected his fall ; 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, 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. On 9th February 1742, two days before his resignation, he was crested Earl of Orford.
After Walpole's resignation, 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 Walpole 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. In an age famous for venality and lax morals he was the least corrupted, the soberest, and the hardest working of the leaders of both factions. He died in 1745.