Thursday, September 28, 2006

The fall of Walpole

The Fall of Walpole
In 1737 the opposition acquired a new leader in the person of Frederick Prince of Wales, who represented a ‘reversionary interest’ – a recurrent problem for the Hanoverians. In Leicester House, Frederick gathered round him a group of opposition politicians and writers, all waiting for the new king to put them in power. In the same year he lost a powerful ally with the death of Queen Caroline.

In 1738 Britain’s relations with Spain deteriorated dramatically. British possession of Gibraltar, the establishment of the new colony of Georgia, and the depredations committed by Spanish coastguards against British merchants trading with South America and the Caribbean combined to turn government policy towards Spain into a major subject of debate in both press and parliament. Satirical prints provided a particularly vivid summary of the opposition's case; in one, Walpole was portrayed standing by while a Spaniard removed the claws from the British lion. In March 1738 the Commons mounted a detailed investigation of Spanish depredations against British shipping and became extremely worked up over the 1731 mutilation of the merchant seaman Captain Robert Jenkins.

When parliament reassembled in February 1739, however, the opposition immediately attacked what it saw as the unsatisfactory provisions of the convention of El Pardo signed in the previous year and in particular the continued assertion by the Spanish of a right of search of British vessels. The ministry's majority collapsed in the Commons. In the Lords the Prince of Wales had voted against the administration for the first time, and the opposition had mustered seventy-four votes in the biggest Lords division of the Walpole period. Britain declared war on Spain. Walpole told the duke of Newcastle: ‘It is your war and I wish you well of it’.

In its early stages the war saw British victories, notably Vernon’s capture of Puerto Bello, which inspired a wave of popular enthusiasm. But Vernon was an opposition Whig and his victories did Walpole no good. In 1740 a land war broke out over the Austrian succession. Again, Walpole was reluctant, but his foreign policy had been to back the empire and he had pledged Britain by treaty to support the claim of Maria Theresa to the Habsburg inheritance.

In the 1741 general election the government lost seats in Cornwall and Scotland. The two great Scottish borough-mongers, Argyll and his brother Islay, were resentful over the harsh treatment of Edinburgh after the Porteous riots. In Cornwall the Prince of Wales had extensive electoral interests. Vernon put up in seven constituencies and was returned in 3. Walpole’s majority was reduced from 42 to 19. At the same time his health was deteriorating and his will for political survival becoming more fragile.8

On 28 January 1742 the government lost a division on the electoral petition from Chippenham. (The hearing of electoral petitions was a means by which a government increased its majority.) 1 February 1742 Walpole resigned; this was reluctantly accepted by the king. On 11 February he was promoted to the Lords as earl of Orford.

Walpole’s fall was an event of great constitutional importance. He fell because he had lost the support of the Commons – not the Crown. It was not until 1746 that Henry Pelham had the confidence of both king and Commons and was able to form a stable ministry. This stability lasted until 1754.