The lesson of Robert Walpole

Today’s recommended reading is by Dominic Sandbrook at UnHerd,* on the three-hundred-year history of British prime ministers, with particular reference to the incumbent, Boris Johnson, and the first of his acknowledged predecessors, Robert Walpole. It’s well worth your time.

Walpole became First Lord of the Treasury 300 years ago this week, and held the job for more than 20 years, until the beginning of 1742. At some point during that time he eclipsed his colleagues (notably his brother-in-law, Viscount Townshend, who was Secretary of State until 1730) to such an extent that he was seen to have created a new position, that of prime minister – not, of course, with all of the modern powers of that office, but with enough of them for us to recognise a basic continuity.

It was not an unbroken continuity: over the following half century, several of Walpole’s successors as First Lord were unwilling or unable to exercise anything like full control over their governments. But gradually the pre-eminence of a single minister became the rule rather than the exception, and Johnson is its most recent inheritor.

In Sandbrook’s words:

Everything changes, yet the job remains largely the same. The nature of the economy, the structure of international relations, the expectations of the voters, the management of colleagues, the day-to-day business of government, the very warp and weft of political life have been utterly transformed since Walpole’s day. But human nature hasn’t changed. Nor have the arts of making friends and influencing people, of stitching up enemies and rivals, of playing to an audience, of making sure you’re in the right place at the right time.

Walpole was not the first minister to corner the monarch’s favor and make himself the undisputed head of the administration; there had been chief ministers from time to time throughout the country’s history. Nor was he the first to lead from the Treasury: Danby, Godolphin and Harley had done the same in the recent past. And at least some of his predecessors had depended, like him, on a well-disciplined party following in the House of Commons.

But previous politicians who had reached that sort of pre-eminence, even if they started in the Commons, had always taken peerages and moved to the House of Lords, where they were a step removed from the pressure of public opinion. Walpole, however, stayed in the lower house, where he proposed his government’s measures and defended them against critics. Not all of his successors followed his example (as late as 1902 Salisbury was prime minister in the House of Lords), but most of the successful ones did.

That led to another vitally important development. By providing a focal point for government in the Commons for so long, Walpole helped to create the “opposition”: a body of MPs (both Tories and dissident Whigs) who sat opposite the government’s spokesmen and made it their job not only to criticise and attack them, but to hold themselves out as an alternative government ready to take their place.

Although they continued to refer to one another as traitors and criminals, in practice the competing sides came to accept each other’s legitimacy. Britain stopped being a place where members of the political class sought to ruin or kill one another. Although he had been imprisoned himself by the Tory government in the early 1710s, Walpole with his cheerful good humor did much to lower the temperature of political debate; politics became less of a life-and-death struggle and more a game with agreed rules.

The price of that was that many important issues were swept under the carpet. Those who might have benefited from more radical change were not given a hearing; politics was an affair for a narrow land-owning (male) elite. But after a tumultuous century, it’s at least arguable that calm and stability were what was needed most, and that the Walpolian settlement – corrupt and undemocratic as it mostly was – was a precondition for the era of growth and reform that was to follow.

And it’s there, I think, where Sandbrook’s analogy with Johnson (also argued by Andrew Gimson in the New Statesman) breaks down. Stability is not Johnson’s goal: he sees himself as a gadfly, a disruptor. No opponents are likely to be assuaged by having Johnson as the spokesperson of the government; while he may have something of Walpole’s joviality, his leading instinct is to inflame passions, not to cool them.

Jeremy Black at HistoryExtra puts it nicely: “There can … be a tendency to take national survival for granted and to remember instead those who manoeuvred to change the country. That was not a luxury offered Robert Walpole.”

Historians and constitutional scholars mostly rate Walpole highly, but he has often had a bad press among liberals and radicals. Later in the century the leaders of the American Revolution and their supporters in Britain blamed Walpole for having corrupted the political system and betrayed the radical instincts of the Whig Party. The charge is not without substance, but their criticisms were often deeply ahistorical: the Whigs had always been an aristocratic party, and no-one in Walpole’s position was ever going to bring in universal suffrage or break up the landed estates.

What’s more, many of the constitutional ideas of Walpole’s critics would have done more harm than good. Although his methods were corrupt, Walpole’s basic idea was sound: the need for close co-operation between legislature and executive, secured by a cabinet responsible to parliament, presided over by a powerful chief minister who could gradually sideline the influence of the monarch.

The alternative that the Americans established – ministers excluded from the legislature, and an executive headed by an official with an independent mandate (the descendant of Bolingbroke’s “Patriot King”) – has not worn well. Despite Johnson’s foibles, Britain’s constitutional structure has proved its worth and has been copied in most of the democratic world. For that, Robert Walpole deserves a substantial share of the credit.

* Thanks to Christian Kerr for drawing it to my attention.

5 thoughts on “The lesson of Robert Walpole

  1. One cannot but admire the Ruritanian absurdity of a small-c constitution where the “First Lord of the Treasury” must sit in the Commons, not the Lords. (And, as GK Chesterton noted, where the “Speaker” is the one MP who does not speak in debate).

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    1. That’s a very interesting point. Originally there was a Lord Treasurer, who ran the treasury & often other things as well (that’s the job that Danby & the others held); when there wasn’t anyone who was trusted to do it on their own, the office was put “into commission”, i.e. entrusted to a board of officials, who were known as the Lords of the Treasury (officially, the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury), altho there was no requirement for them to be peers. The chair of the board, therefore, was the First Lord of the Treasury. No Lord Treasurer has been appointed since 1714, so the First Lord became the pre-eminent office; since the mid-1800s the First Lord hasn’t in reality been responsible for the finances, which is the job of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (who is Second Lord, and also, of course, not a peer).

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      1. No weirder, I suppose, than voters in Brisbane directly electing a “Lord Mayor”, or judges in many Commonwealth countries outside Australia being addressed as “My Lord” (eg, even republican South Africa). Female holders of these offices are still “Lord Mayor” in Brisbane (which Sallyanne Atkinson used to joke about) by “My Lady” on the bench.
        And in the republican United States, titles like “Governor” and “Senator” seem to be held for life, whereas Jim Soorley has not been “Lord” anything since 2003, nor Campbell Newman since 2012.
        The Board of Trade had a similar structure – its Presidents (eg, Lloyd George) served as de facto Trade Minister but legally they were primus inter pares.
        On the other hand, mediaeval monarchs originally began with “the” (sole) Secretary of State as a sort of vizier, then split the roles in two between northern/ Scotland/ Ireland vs southern and Europe, then eventually something like the modern version with a Secretary of State for each major portfolio area.
        Many became one with the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, and with the Board of Trade, whereas one became many with Secretaries of State.

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  2. As far as I can tell, Dominic Sandbrook’s point appears to be this: sometimes people who behave very badly win elections and have long terms as Prime Minister.

    Well, that’s true as far as it goes, but what applicability does it have?

    We might conclude that the fact that Boris Johnson sometimes behaves very badly is not enough to prevent him from winning elections and being Prime Minister for a long time, and that also is true as far as it goes.

    It is, however, worth pointing out that Dominic gives no examples whatever of people (badly behaved or otherwise) using the power of the Prime Ministership in beneficial ways. It seems he can’t think of anything that makes a Prime Minister great except winning elections and holding office for a long time: and even that might not count if you don’t become and remain famous for having done so–otherwise you’re ‘underrated’ like HH Asquith or ‘underestimated’ like Stanley Baldwin and Robert Walpole. Indeed, Dominic uses the expression ‘criminally underestimated’ as if we are at fault for not celebrating a Prime Minister’s personal political victories, even though, on his own showing, he can’t imagine any purpose to them except to be celebrated:
    ‘What’s it all for, though? That’s a more difficult question. Few Prime Ministers make an indelible mark on history; most end up largely forgotten. …
    ‘This, I think, is the unacknowledged truth about the life of a Prime Minister. By and large, it’s awful. Contrary to our adolescent fantasies, fame and success are no defence against the tragedies of the human condition. …’

    It doesn’t seem to occur to Dominic to give any credit to Charles Grey for the Great Reform Act, or to John Russell for the ten hour day, or to Henry Campbell-Bannerman for the right to strike, or to Clement Attlee for the National Health Service, or to Harold Wilson for the Open University. Of course, none of those things was achieved by a Prime Minister alone, but in each case the Prime Minister made a contribution, and in each case it was worth doing, even if it’s rare for people today to continue praising the people responsible (Prime Ministers among others). The important question about Boris Johnson is not whether he will be lauded down the ages for similar achievements, but whether he will use his power to contribute to anything as good. So far it seems unlikely.

    If Dominic can imagine nothing worthwhile except victory, power, and fame for their own sake, then it is not to his credit, and the same is true of Boris.

    Liked by 1 person

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