Lord Orford Robert Walpole

(1676—1745) prime minister

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Traditionally known as Britain's first prime minister. From a Norfolk gentry family, Walpole was the Whig MP for Castle Rising (1701–2) and King's Lynn (1702–12, 1713–42). His first posts were as secretary at war (1708) and treasurer of the navy (1710). His part in the administration of the War of the Spanish Succession and his management of the trial of Dr Sacheverell earned him the hatred of the Tory Party and he was dismissed in 1710, impeached for corruption, sent to the Tower (1711), and expelled from Parliament (1712). At the Hanoverian succession he rejoined the government, along with his brother‐in‐law Viscount Townshend, as paymaster‐general, being promoted to 1st lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715. In 1717 he, Townshend, and several followers left the Sunderland/*Stanhope ministry. During the ensuing Whig schism Walpole opposed the repeal of the Occasional Conformity and Schism Acts (1718), and successfully defeated the Peerage Bill in the Commons (1719). In April 1720, with most of the schismatic Whigs, he rejoined the government in the office of paymaster‐general, resuming in 1721 as chancellor of the Exchequer and 1st lord of the Treasury.

Despite his financial acumen, which saved the administration and the dynasty in 1720–1 from the disaster of the South Sea bubble, he did not yet dominate the ministry. Both Stanhope (who died prematurely in 1721), and more particularly Sunderland (who also died unexpectedly in April 1722), retained the confidence of George I until their deaths. Until 1724, when he was manœuvred into the lord‐lieutenancy of Ireland, Carteret was a potential rival. Further, from the very beginning of the reconciliation of the Whigs in 1720, Townshend was a major force to be reckoned with, particularly through his control of foreign policy after 1721. Townshend remained in office until his resignation in 1730, and for most of the 1720s the ministry should be seen as a duumvirate. Only in the late 1720s did Walpole become the unquestioned prime minister, partly through forcing the most talented of his Whig opponents, led by Pulteney, into opposition.

Walpole's major contribution to politics was his development of the cabinet system, of the ‘party of the crown’ (which he based on the work of Harley) through extensive use of patronage, and of the Commons as the centre of parliamentary power. Following the South Sea crisis, Walpole's establishment of the Whig hegemony was largely accomplished as a result of his handling of the Atterbury plot in 1722–3, which he used to drive home the fear of Jacobitism, a label he had great success in attaching to his Tory opponents.

His sure grip on politics occasionally wavered. One such occasion was the Excise scheme in 1733, which aroused so much opposition that Walpole was forced into dropping the proposal before the second reading. Another was his opposition to war with Spain in 1739, to which he was forced to agree by both the patriot opposition and members of his own government. The poor handling of the war eventually led to his downfall in February 1742.


Subjects: British History.

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