Friday, September 29, 2006

Robert Walpole: the first prime minister

The accession of George II in 1727 June did not bring about the fall of Walpole, as many had expected (and hoped). Walpole did not lose power even though George had frequently expressed his dislike of him because of the terms he had negotiated over the new king’s reconciliation with his father in 1720. But over the years Walpole had safeguarded himself against dismissal by cultivating Caroline, the new queen, and scrupulously avoiding Henrietta Howard, George’s mistress. As he put it, 'I got the right sow by the ear'. Caroline, ‘the most powerful queen consort of the Hanoverian period’ (New Dictionary of National Biography) was determined to keep him. On 15 June the king and Walpole had a long and fruitful talk about the civil list – the most generous treatment ever accorded a sovereign. The king had £800,000 pa, the queen £100,000. Only Walpole could have got such grants through the Commons. It was becoming clear that he would continue in office – but on what footing?

The ‘Robinocracy’
Walpole’s survival as the king's minister appeared to be a remarkable demonstration of his political dominance. It became a commonplace to describe him as 'the great man'. He was immensely powerful even though he faced constant opposition in parliament, the press, the nation at large. Townshend was a possible focus. He was no longer his brother-in-law (Walpole’s sister, Dolly, Townshend’s wife, had died in 1726) and there was increasing coolness between them. Lacking some important political friends, he had to cultivate the king and to build up a powerful patronage network.

This patronage stood the administration in good stead in the election of 1727. Walpole’s agent in the South-West wrote to him: ‘Every town has been tampered with [by the opposition] … if you don’t send money here beforehand, you may miss your views in more towns than one.’ However, the opposition published anti-government pamphlets and The Craftsman coined the phrase the ‘Robinocracy’ to describe the regime. Ballads were published with refrains such as ‘Robin will be out at last’. The opposition won two London seats.

Walpole and the Arts
On 29 January 1728 John Gay's The Beggar's Opera opened in London and ran for an unprecedented 62 nights. The political satire of this work was much more pointed and personal than anything in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Audiences found it easy to draw parallels between the highwayman Macheath and the thief-taker Peachum on the one hand and Walpole on the other. Henceforth the link between the thief and the corrupt statesman became a familiar trope in opposition literature, drawing especially on the popular accounts of the life of Jonathan Wild, the notorious mastermind of the London underworld executed in 1725 and the model for Gay's Peachum.

As delayed retaliation, in 1737 Walpole carried a bill through Parliament – the Licensing Act – which subjected plays to scrutiny by the Lord Chamberlain, making it impossible to produce a play that did not carry the government’s approval. For the rest of the eighteenth century, the theatre was politically bland.

Prime Minister
Walpole’s official title was First Lord of the Treasury, but he was also unofficially referred to as Prime Minister – a term of abuse. In 1735 he moved into 10 Downing Street (then no 5), the residence of a Mr Chicken, and he secured the property as a residence for all future First Lords of the Treasury.

The Excise Crisis
While the opposition were complaining that parliament was a mere rubber stamp for the executive, the government was threatened by a crisis of its own making in the 1733 session. This was the defeat of the Tobacco Excise Bill, a major plank in his fiscal strategy. In outline, Walpole's proposals were simple and broadly similar to the legislation introduced for tea, coffee, and chocolate in 1723.
1. All tobacco and wine (the legislation relating to wine was never introduced) were to be placed in the king's warehouse until all duties had been paid.
2. The existing customs duties, payable on import, were to be replaced for the most part by excise duties, payable when the goods were removed from the warehouse for consumption.
Walpole clearly saw this as an essentially technical measure that would increase government revenue, perhaps by as much as £300,000 a year, by curbing fraud and smuggling. He himself had considerable experience of smuggling – when Secretary at War he had smuggled his wines up the Thames; customs officers at Lynn once confiscated the brandy he was running in. In her old age his mother wrote him a letter telling him how she had foxed the customs officers at Wells. But Walpole the public man wanted to clean up the system. The sum saved would assist him in his aim of keeping the unpopular land tax low – an important consideration as a general election was due the following year.

But the measure was a political blunder and the proposals provoked massive opposition. Some of this came from retailers and traders who were concerned that the legislation would subject them to inspection by excise officers. Far more important, however, was the hostility of the wine and tobacco merchants, both in London and in the major provincial ports, many of whom were heavily implicated in fraud; the legislation represented an attack on a powerful pressure group with a vested interest in the existing system. Opposition propaganda made much of fears that the Tobacco Bill was merely the first step towards a ‘general excise’, a charge denied by Walpole. But underlying this was a concern about the expansion of the excise service, whose ‘arbitrary’ powers of search were seen as a threat to English liberties. Walpole's proposals, far from appealing to the country gentlemen by reducing their tax burden, appeared to be an attempt to concentrate power still further in the hands of an already over-mighty, and possibly corrupt, state.

In March 1733 he introduced the proposals in the Commons against the background of large demonstrations in Westminster. At first he secured relatively comfortable majorities, but when parliament resumed in April after the Easter recess, his majority collapsed. On 10 April it fell to just seventeen on a motion to receive the City of London's petition against the bill. That evening he told a meeting of his supporters,
‘This dance it will no farther go, and tomorrow I intend to sound a retreat’.
On the following day he announced the withdrawal of the excise scheme. During the celebrations in the City that night Walpole was burnt in effigy by the mob. On 23 April he rallied his dispirited supporters when he delivered an impassioned speech in the Cockpit denouncing the crisis as the malicious work of discredited Tories and professing his life-long devotion to Whig principles.

He survived the crisis because he had the support of the king, who had showed his support by dismissing his opponents, Chesterfield and Clinton, from their court offices. In the following year he was returned to power but with a reduced majority. He was not as powerful as the opposition believed.