300 years ago, Robert Walpole was made First Lord of the Treasury for the second time. Not a particularly impressive event – if Walpole had not retained that office for 21 years and turned himself into the leading British politician of his time. Thereafter, the office of First Lord of the Treasury customarily was given to the monarch’s representative to parliament – the Prime Minister, as the holder became known. As times changed, so did the office: Today, the prime minister is much more responsible to parliament than to the monarch. Yet the office, unofficial at first, has endured these 300 years and been held by dozens of very different men and women. And thus, this post about Walpole will kick off a new irregular series on the blog – Prime Minister Ratings! I’ll assess Walpole (and, in the future, other prime ministers (or even leaders from other places)) by a very general rating system – and I’ll introduce one board game in which the prime minister or the problems they faced feature – this time, Imperial Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games).
The Creation of an Office
First things first: Why did the prime ministry arise with Walpole? After all, before him, there had been strong advisers to the kings of Britain (and England before), but not at all times. There are personal and structural reasons for the change: Personally, Walpole was a politician of force and skill, and his long tenure enabled him to shape the British constitution according to his needs in office. Structurally, the British crown’s powers had been curtailed by the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688/89, so more power rested with parliament, where the monarch now needed a forceful representative. George I, the first Hanoverian king of Britain, was particularly in need of that, as he spoke little English (his native tongue was German) and was often away in his electorate of Hanover. These were the conditions that enabled Walpole to rise so high.
The Rating System
Some caveats ahead: The prime ministers will be rated by the knowledge of their time. If they or their contemporaries could not have known about the effects of something, I will not use my hindsight to mark it as a mistake of theirs. The assessment is focused on their conduct as prime minister, but includes their life after holding the office (in which they will still be regarded in the public eye as (ex-)PMs). And lastly, in the following, “Britain” serves as a shorthand for either Great Britain or United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland as applicable, and “British” as shorthand for the inhabitants of such.
Now, to the system itself: There are three policy field categories (foreign, domestic, and economic policy) and three more general ones (vision, pragmatism, integrity). A prime minister can earn from one to five stars in each category (for a total sum of up to 30). In detail, the prime minister is assessed as follows:
Foreign policy: Did the prime minister increase British influence in the world and the security of the British at home? Did the prime minister wield British power responsibly and with positive results for the regions affected (the latter counting for a greater deal in times of British power being great)?
Domestic policy: Did the prime minister increase the liberty of the British to express themselves and to participate in the political process? Did the prime minister promote domestic security and fair justice dealing with offenses?
Economic policy: Did the prime minister facilitate the prosperity and economic security of the British (including in the mid- and long-term)? Was the prime minister’s economic policy based on mutual benefit of those involved or did it unduly burden one side?
Vision: Did the prime minister have an idea of what Britain and the world (the latter counting for more in times of British influence being great) should look like beyond the immediate future? Did the prime minister’s policies steer Britain (and, if applicable, the world) in this direction?
Pragmatism: Did the prime minister succeed in seeing their policy through from inception to completion? How well did the prime minister manage to gain support from Parliament, the Civil Service, the media, society (the latter two counting for more in more recent years)?
Integrity: Did the prime minister understand the office as a means to benefit themselves, special interest groups, the entire country, or another community? Did the prime minister respect the boundaries of the office?
Robert Walpole (1676—1745) was the son of a Norfolk country squire. When he was only 24, his father died, and Walpole moved quickly to seize the vacant seat in the House of Commons for himself. He enjoyed a steady rise in the ranks of the Whigs, and got his first cabinet appointment as Secretary-at-War in 1708. He spent the next years in government, among the opposition, and even in a Whig faction opposing a Whig government until his appointment as First Lord of the Treasury in April 1721 (following the fall of the Sunderland/Stanhope government over the bursting of the South Sea Bubble).
His primacy in the government was contested in the beginning, but assured no later than 1730, when his last weighty rival (and erstwhile ally, as well as brother-in-law) Charles Townshend left the government. Walpole’s dominance over both Houses of Parliament grew, and he also made himself indispensable to two initially skeptical monarchs (George I, and after his death in 1727, George II). Characterizing himself as “no saint, no Spartan, no reformer”, Walpole aimed to bring “security, stability, and low taxation” by a policy committed to peace. When Walpole’s cabinet colleagues pushed the country into the War of Jenkins’ Ear against Spain (which initially went badly), his authority eroded. He lost his control over parliament and resigned in February 1742. Walpole was made Earl of Orford and died in 1745.
Foreign policy: Walpole, a Whig, adopted the traditional Tory policy of peace with France. He stuck to it for almost the entirety of his tenure as prime minister. His “peace at any price” policy saved British lives and money, most notably when he kept the country neutral during the War of the Polish Succession (which ended in a draw anyway, with the candidate Britain preferred ending up on the throne, but French and Spanish territorial gains). At the end of his tenure, the policy of peaceful isolation could not hold anymore, and war with Spain (and then France) erupted against Walpole’s wishes.
Domestic policy: Walpole’s domestic agenda was limited – which was likely a success in itself in a country which had a recent history of religious strife, revolution, and regicide. He made small improvements for the situation of Protestant dissenters (that is, non-members of the Anglican Church). Most significantly, Britain was much more stable and unified at the end of his long rule than at the beginning, and could thus easily deal with the 1745 Jacobite uprising.
Economic policy: Prosperity was Walpole’s key promise. He restored economic stability after the South Sea Bubble. His policy of peace gave the country a respite from the immense expenses in the wars before and after his tenure. Thus, Walpole reduced overall taxation and cut back on the national debt, which would give Britain more financial flexibility in the future. Not everyone benefitted from Walpole’s economic policy, though: His shift from direct taxation (especially on land) to indirect taxation (especially on consumption) favored rich landowners (like himself) at the expense of the non-propertied classes.
Vision: Walpole declared peace to be his main means to attain “security, stability, and low taxation”. In that, he succeeded, and he did so for a remarkable long time without major adjustments. His vision and the policies he used to achieve it strengthened Britain in the long run.
Pragmatism: Walpole used a variety of means to attract backing for himself and his policies. He was a Whig (and would always rest on his strength among the Whigs), but cooperated with the Tories on several occasions from his early career on. His support for beleaguered men of influence after the South Sea Bubble won him their loyalty for a long time to come. Walpole did not only control the House of Commons, of which he was a member, but also the House of Lords – chiefly through his ecclesiastical appointments, whose beneficiaries would prove thankful to him. Even though the heir to the crown, the future George II, was not a friend of Walpole’s, he did not remove him from office upon his succession: Walpole had gained favor with George’s wife Caroline (unlike most other men of note, who courted George’s mistress, from whom the king would not accept policy suggestions). And when the new king attempted to install Sir Spencer Compton as his new chief minister, Walpole proved indispensable to Compton even in the most basic tasks. Compton’s candidacy floundered, and Walpole remained in charge – for a never-again reached 21 years in total.
Integrity: Walpole lived in an age different from ours. Back then, Members of Parliament and ministers did not receive a salary for their offices, and thus usually saw no problem in using their political career to enrich themselves. That drove Walpole both personally and in the ways he would gain political supporters: “All these men have their price”, he remarked about a group of Members of Parliament. As one of his recent biographers put it: Walpole “operated a species of private interest/public expenditure mini-welfare state for anyone able to elect a Member or persuade one to vote right” (Pearce, p. 383). Even in comparison to the men of his age, Walpole made tremendous use of practices which were based on personal rather than common welfare, and the leading writers of his time lambasted the “Robinocracy” (based on the nickname Robin for Robert) as hopelessly corrupt.
Overall: Walpole was a forceful politician whose control over parliament and (neither weak-willed nor too-trusting) monarchs was extraordinary. His policy of “security, stability, and low taxation” based on peace was mostly successful and held up for a very long time. With 24 out of 30 stars, his rating will be a high hurdle to overcome for any future leader rated here.
An excellent overview with portraits of all prime ministers is Leonard, Dick: A History of British Prime Ministers, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2014.
The standard scholarly biography remains Plumb, John Harold: Sir Robert Walpole, 2 volumes, Cresset Press, London 1956/1960.
For a more recent biography, see Pearce, Edward: The Great Man. Robert Walpole: Scoundrel, Genius, and Britain’s First Prime Minister, Pimlico, London 2007.