Development of Great Britain’s Office of Prime Minister Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The modern concept of the prime minister functioning as the head of Britain’s government evolved between 1721 and 1742, with Robert Walpole serving as the first such prime minister.

Summary of Event

Even before the eighteenth century, there were English prime ministers. Close advisers to the monarchs were occasionally called “prime ministers” in negative or derisory terms, referring to one who had excessive and unreasonable power over his colleagues in the government. However, it was Robert Walpole, the dominant figure in the British government between 1721 and 1742, who was recognized as the first prime minister in the modern sense. [kw]Development of Great Britain’s office of Prime Minister (1721-1742) [kw]Minister, Development of Great Britain’s office of Prime (1721-1742) [kw]Prime Minister, Development of Great Britain’s office of (1721-1742) [kw]Britain’s office of Prime Minister, Development of Great (1721-1742) [kw]Great Britain’s office of Prime Minister, Development of (1721-1742) Prime ministers (England) [g]England;1721-1742: Development of Great Britain’s Office of Prime Minister[0590] [g]Scotland;1721-1742: Development of Great Britain’s Office of Prime Minister[0590] [g]Wales;1721-1742: Development of Great Britain’s Office of Prime Minister[0590] [c]Government and politics;1721-1742: Development of Great Britain’s Office of Prime Minister[0590] Walpole, Sir Robert George I George II Frederick Louis Townshend, Charles Newcastle, first duke of

In the early eighteenth century, the two major parties or factions in the British parliament Parliament;British were the Whigs Whig Party and Tories. Tory Party There was also a division between the court (the monarch and the government ministers) and the country, mostly the landed gentry, who were often suspicious of the machinations of the ministers. While never fully in ascendancy, the Tories fell from power completely when the 1715 rebellion of James Edward James Edward (the “Old Pretender”) failed to overthrow King George I. Prominent Tories who had supported James Edward were impeached or fled into exile. However, the Whigs themselves split into two factions, one led by the earls of Sunderland and Stanhope and the other led by Charles Townshend and Robert Walpole. The latter two men, who were brothers-in-law, left the government in 1717.

The royal family was also divided, with bitter quarrels between George I and Prince George, the heir to the throne. The prince set up a rival court at Leicester House in London, which became the center of political opposition to the government. Out of office, Townshend and Walpole were welcomed at Leicester House but returned to the government after a temporary reconciliation between the king and the prince.

The South Sea Company South Sea Bubble scandal brought Walpole to power. An investment scheme to assist in reducing the government debt, the South Sea Company shares peaked in the summer of 1720 and the “bubble” burst, creating a financial panic. It led to a political crisis for Sunderland and Stanhope, who had backed the scheme and had benefited personally. Back in office, Walpole, from his position in the House of Commons, protected the major figures from punishment, but he was reviled in the country as “the Skreen Master General” because he had screened or shielded the cabinet ministers from retribution.

Stanhope died in 1721, but because of his past association with Prince George, Walpole did not rank high in the king’s favor. In the government that formed in April, 1721, Walpole became the first lord of the treasury as well as chancellor of the exchequer, remaining in the House of Commons, and Townshend replaced the deceased Stanhope as secretary of state in charge of foreign affairs. George intended to return Sunderland to primacy, but in the interim Walpole had proved himself the master of the House of Commons and thus indispensable to the king.

Realizing the political importance of prosperity and stability, in 1723 Walpole led in the establishment of bonded warehouses where imported tea, coffee, and cocoa beans were stored. If they were reshipped out of Britain, no tariffs were imposed on their importers, and if they were sold in the country, excise taxes would be levied when they were removed from the warehouses. The warehouses encouraged trade, discouraged illegal smuggling, increased tax receipts to the government, paid down the national debt, and allowed Walpole to reduce the land tax, which was largely paid by members of Parliament, who owned most of the land.

Robert Walpole, Great Britain’s first prime minister.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

By 1723, the first duke of Newcastle, a master of political patronage who controlled numerous seats in the House of Commons, joined Walpole and Townshend, solidifying their hold on Parliament. Parliament;British Walpole claimed that he was no saint or reformer, and most of the members of Parliament preferred Walpole’s policy of stability over dealing with controversial social issues. Believing that all men had their price, the government made extensive use of patronage, distributing offices and honors in exchange for support in Parliament. Walpole used the resources of the Crown to gather support in the country, and his support from the country strengthened his position at court. By 1725, George I had become a friend and admirer of his “prime minister.”

George I died in 1727, and the new king, George II, resented Walpole for serving his father. Inasmuch as the government depended upon the support of the monarch as well as of Parliament, many predicted that Walpole’s days of power were numbered. However, within a few weeks, Walpole’s position of authority was assured, in part because of Queen Caroline’s backing. George II shortly became and remained Walpole’s strong supporter.

During the 1720’s, foreign policy issues were left to Townshend. Toward the end of the decade, Britain became involved in a conflict with Spain that was due to Townshend’s pro-French policies. British merchants supported an activist foreign policy against Spain for economic reasons, but Walpole opposed foreign adventures that led to war because the costs would be borne by the landed gentry, his major supporters in Parliament. In 1729, Walpole initiated the Treaty of Seville Seville, Treaty of (1729, 1732) with Spain. Townshend resigned the following year. Another treaty in 1731 with Austria seemed to guarantee a permanent European peace, allowing Walpole to focus again on domestic matters.

Expanding the earlier bonded warehouse scheme, in 1733 Walpole introduced a bill treating tobacco in a similar matter, to be followed by wine. Political opposition was immediate. More excise taxes meant more tax collectors, and that meant more possibilities for patronage and corruption. Most of the opposition was motivated by political ambition rather than political philosophy: The aim was simply to bring down Walpole. Knowing when to bend, Walpole abandoned the tobacco and wine excise scheme, and he continued in power, still the master of Parliament.

Opposition to the government was building, however. The weakened Tories were no threat, but by the 1730’s, disgruntled Whigs were ready to take power if Walpole faltered in Parliament or lost the support of George II. Ultimately, it was foreign policy that brought Walpole down. By the late 1730’s, French prestige was on the rise, and Walpole’s policy of isolation from most continental matters appeared to be unpatriotic. His majority in the House of Commons sank to about fifty. The heir apparent, Prince Frederick, after quarreling with his parents, established a rival court at Leicester House, and in 1737, Queen Caroline, always supportive of Walpole, died. When Walpole attempted to negotiate differences with Spain over trade in the New World, young patriots such as William Pitt, supported by London merchants, denounced it as a national disgrace, demanding policies to advance British glory as well as British trade. Walpole gave way, and war with Spain resulted. In 1740, the Europe-wide War of the Austrian Succession began. It was no longer Walpole’s world, and in 1742 he resigned, dying in 1745.

Significance

Robert Walpole became the model of the British prime minister, even though not all of his successors in the eighteenth century were willing to be known by that title. Walpole was perfectly suited to his times. More a politician than a statesman, he understood Britain’s political processes and the fears and ambitions of his contemporaries, dominating them through patronage and honors, and he knew how to make himself indispensable to the monarchs. His decision to remain in the House of Commons was crucial, and most of his successors also governed from the House of Commons. He held the important financial offices of chancellor of the exchequer and first lord of the treasury. Walpole was also the first prime minister to inhabit 10 Downing Street, 10 Downing Street, London[Ten Downing Street] and he was the longest-serving prime minister, but when political opinion and passions began to flow in the direction of empire and trade, Walpole was left behind.

Despite his reputation, in several ways Walpole was not yet a modern prime minister. His success and survival depended not only upon having a majority in Parliament, particularly the House of Commons, but also upon the support of the monarch, unlike those of later prime ministers who served when the monarchy no longer had any political power. Finally, although political factions did exist, there was no defined party system in the early eighteenth century; in the 1730’s, Walpole’s major opponents were all Whigs. Disciplined parties would not emerge until the later nineteenth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Black, Jeremy, ed. Britain in the Age of Walpole. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. A series of essays discussing politics and government during the era of Walpole.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Englefield, Dermon, et al. Facts About the British Prime Ministers. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1995. A compilation of historical material regarding the office of prime minister.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kemp, Betty. Sir Robert Walpole. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976. An excellent analysis of Walpole, including a comparison of the office of prime minister in the eighteenth century and in the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marshall, Dorothy. English People in the Eighteenth Century. Temecula, Calif.: Textbook Publishers, 2003. Classic study of English society in the eighteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Plumb, J. H. Sir Robert Walpole. 2 vols. London: Cresset Press, 1956-1960. The classic biography of Walpole by one of Britain’s most respected historians.

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Collapse of the South Sea Bubble

Gentleman’s Magazine Initiates Parliamentary Reporting

War of Jenkins’s Ear

War of the Austrian Succession

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