The rise of Walpole
Walpole was the third son of a Norfolk squire. Born in 1676, he had been destined for the Church, but the deaths of his brothers propelled him into politics. In 1699 he married Catherine Shorter, the daughter of a Baltic timber merchant. From 1702 he had been MP for Kings Lynn, identifying himself as a Whig. In 1706 he became a member of Prince George’s Council of Admiralty, where he showed himself prepared to work with the Tories. When the Whigs fell from power in 1710 he remained in office for another year as Treasurer of the Navy. He showed an immense capacity for hard work (in his office at 6 am) and immense ambition. However he was sent to the Tower in 1712, which made him a Whig hero. His period of imprisonment had been short and comfortable, and he was able to write a pamphlet answering Swift. With the return of the Whigs to power in 1714-15 he was made first Paymaster of the Forces. This was a junior position, but his dominance of the Commons made him a high-profile politician.
The first Whig schism
Political resentments were deepened by divisions within the royal family. In the summer of 1716 Stanhope accompanied the king to Hanover leaving the Prince of Wales as regent. During the king’s absence, encouraged by Walpole and Townshend, the prince flaunted his position. The clear implication was that the opposition Whigs were encouraging the accusation that Stanhope was neglecting Britain for Hanover.
This was to be a common theme of the reigns of George I and George II. The European situation in 1716 was very tense. Since 1700 Sweden and Russia had been involved in the Great Northern War. In 1715 George I in his capacity as Elector of Hanover, allied with Russia, Prussia and Denmark against Sweden.
Stanhope saw the war as a chance to make Britain a major player in European diplomacy. In Hanover he negotiated secretly with the French government which secured Britain’s support for France against Spain. This was a far-reaching diplomatic revolution, secured in the Triple and Quadruple Alliances (1717, 1718).
In December 1716 the king dismissed Townshend as Secretary of State and demoted him to the lord lieutenancy of Ireland. This caused the Prince of Wales to quarrel openly with his father. In April 1717 Townshend was dismissed from the government and on 10 April Walpole resigned his own office. Stanhope became First Lord of the Treasury.
There was now a concentrated parliamentary opposition in which Walpole was opportunistically prepared to ally with the Tories. The figurehead was the Prince of Wales, who in December 1717 set up his own court at Leicester House. Walpole was the chief politician attached to this court, and he enjoyed a long and enduring friendship with Princess Caroline.
However, opposition was not a fruitful tactic. Though the opposition could rally their troops in the commons, the government had a majority in the Lords. So long as the ministry had the king’s confidence there was no reason why Stanhope should not remain in power and Walpole be excluded from it.
In April 1720 a reconciliation of sorts took place between the king and Prince of Wales. In June Townshend became Lord President of the Council and Walpole returned to his post of Paymaster General. But these were junior positions. It would need something else to restore Walpole to his former position.
The South Sea Bubble
This was the first great stock-market crash in England. It became a symbol of sleaze and the 'get-rich quick' mentality of the age.
The South Sea Company had been founded by Queen Anne's minister, Robert Harley in 1711, as a counter to the Whig dominated Bank of England, and, with a capital base of £9.2 million and the prospect of a lucrative trade to Spanish America, it immediately became one of the leading commercial enterprises of the age though Britain’s cool relationship with Spain always made it a dangerous project.
At the beginning of 1720 the price of South Sea stock rose dramatically, fed by bluff and lies from the Company. By June it had reached an unsustainable price; by September it was sinking fast and many were ruined. There were spectacular bankruptcies; Lord Londonderry lost £59,000, the dukes of Bolton and Wharton were in a similar plight. ‘It was a defining moment of early financial capitalism’ (Hoppit, 2000, p. 338). Walpole showed no more foresight than anyone else – like many others, he lost heavily. But the fact that he was in Norfolk in September and October at the height of the panic gave him the air of being above the fray.
November 1720 saw the publication of the first of Cato’s Letters by the radical Whigs, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, ‘to call for public justice upon the wicked managers of the South Sea Scheme’ and to attack corruption in general. In December the governors of the Company were arrested and their assets confiscated.
In February 1721 with attacks on the government intensifying, Stanhope defended himself so vigorously in the Lords that he burst a blood vessel and died. In March John Aislabie, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was voted guilty of fraud by the Commons and sent to the Tower.
The next victim was Sunderland. If he fell, the ministry would crash, and if that happened, the king would be forced to turn to the Tories.11 On 15 March he was tried in the Lords for corruption, but was acquitted by 233 votes to 172. A few weeks later he resigned and was replaced by Walpole as First Lord. (He died in April 1722.)
This was not seen at the time as a particularly momentous move as the office of Prime Minister did not really exist. The king disliked Walpole, as did most politicians, who resented his obvious love of power and lack of scruple. The Opposition was still out for the government’s blood and accusing Walpole of covering up for his colleagues’ misdemeanours. At this time he acquired the nickname, the Skreen-Master. Few Prime Ministers can have obtained office already so unpopular! But he was to hold the post for 20 years.
The 1722 Election
The election of March 1722 was the most hotly contested in the 18th century. 138 constituencies in England and Wales went to the polls, 20 in Scotland. If it had been decided by the votes of those counties and cities and boroughs with over 500 voters, or had it been determined by the total votes cast, the Tories would have won (and they would also have won the elections of 1734 and 1741). But in the mass of smaller boroughs, in many of which magnate influence or venality (or both) were pronounced, the Tories were totally crushed. The Whigs increased their majority to c. 200 even before hearing petitions.
As the results were coming in, Sunderland died of pleurisy (19 April), thus removing the one prominent Whig who might have posed a challenge to Walpole.
The Atterbury Plot
In May the public was informed of a Jacobite plot by Francis Atterbury, bishop of Rochester. In August Atterbury was arrested and was refused release under habeas corpus. When Parliament met in October, they agreed to suspend habeas corpus. In January 1723 both Houses passed a Bill of Pains and Penalties against Atterbury with huge majorities. In June he went into exile. With his departure went many of the last hopes of the High Church and the Tories.
By this time Walpole was supreme - hated and despised though unassailable. It was the beginning of an uninterrupted run of twenty years as Prime Minister (the ‘Robinocracy’, the ‘Venetian Oligarchy’) that, according to J. H. Plumb, gave the country a stability of government it had not known for a hundred years. But this was only possible because the Whigs had created one-party rule and because Europe was at peace.