May 15th

On this day in 1730, Robert Walpole effectively becomes the first Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford, Knight of the Order of the Garter, Knight of Bath, and member of the Privy Council, born on the 26th August 1676, dying on the 18th March 1745, known before 1742 as Sir Robert Walpole, was a British statesman who is generally regarded as the de facto first Prime Minister of Great Britain. Although the exact dates of his dominance are a matter of scholarly debate, 1721–42 are often used. He dominated the Walpole–Townshend ministry and the Walpole ministry and holds the record as the longest-serving Prime Minister in British history. Speck says that Walpole’s uninterrupted run of 20 years as Prime Minister is rightly regarded as one of the major feats of British political history. Explanations are usually offered in terms of his expert handling of the political system after 1720, and his unique blending of the surviving powers of the crown with the increasing influence of the Commons.

He was a Whig from the gentry class, who was first elected to Parliament in 1701, and held many senior positions. He was a country squire and looked to country gentlemen for his political base. Historian Frank O’Gorman says his leadership in Parliament reflected his “reasonable and persuasive oratory, his ability to move both the emotions as well as the minds of men, and, above all, his extraordinary self-confidence.” Hoppit says Walpole’s policies sought moderation: he worked for peace, lower taxes, growing exports, and allowed a little more tolerance for Protestant Dissenters. He avoided controversy and high-intensity disputes, as his middle way attracted moderates from both the Whig and Tory camps.

He was First Lord of the Treasury for over twenty years, an unusually long period in office by any standard. During this time he played an important role in restoring government credit after the the South Sea Bubble financial crisis.

Walpole lived in 10 Downing Street from 1735 having insisted that it become the residence of the First Lord of the Treasury, rather than being given to him personally. Which is now well known to be the home of the Prime Minister – the role Walpole effectively took on.

His political rise was swift. He became Secretary at War in 1708 and Treasurer of the Navy in 1710 to 1711. However, his involvement in the prosecution of Tory preacher Henry Sacheverell had consequences. The Tory government elected in 1710 targeted Walpole: he was found guilty of corruption and briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1712, becoming a Whig martyr in the process.

The accession of the Hanoverian King George I in 1714 returned the Whigs to power. Walpole was appointed First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1715, but followed his brother-in-law and political mentor, Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend, into opposition in 1717 when the Whigs split.

Royal support had helped Walpole survive a serious crisis over his tax plans in 1733, but in 1742 a combination of opposition from the Prince of Wales and a deteriorating foreign political situation forced his resignation.

Walpole was then succeeded by Spencer Compton, the 1st Earl of Wilmington, who lived a short tenure as British Prime Minister, lasting only a year from 1742-1743 when he died.


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