A common quiz question is: “Who was Britain's first Prime Minister?”
Answer: “Sir Robert Walpole, 1721-42”
In actual fact, the question and answer are somewhat meaningless. To give Walpole the title of "Prime Minister" is actually to give a description of his supposed overarching power in the government of the day, since there was no such official position as Prime Minister until the 19th century. There were periods in the 18th century when no political leader merited this description, and indeed the very notion of having a Prime Minister was viewed as being constitutionally questionable. This is illustrated by a motion critical of Walpole that was put before the House of Lords in 1741; almost certainly drafted by Lord Bolingbroke, Walpole’s most intelligent and implacable opponent:-
“Because we are persuaded that a sole, or even a first Minister is an Officer unknown to the Laws of Britain, inconsistent with the Constitution of this Country, and destructive of Liberty in any Government whatsoever; and it plainly appearing to us that Sir Robert Walpole has for many Years acted as such, by taking upon himself the chief, if not the sole Direction of Affairs, in the different Branches of the Administration, we could not but esteem it to be our indispensable Duty to offer our most humble Advice to his Majesty, for the Removal of a Minister so dangerous to the King and the Kingdoms.”
(Walpole managed to have the motion heavily defeated.)
The constitutional point that this motion was trying to make was essentially a backward-looking one. Walpole, it suggested, was dominating all aspects of government: finance, foreign policy, defence etc, and had made all other ministers subordinate to himself; and by doing this, he had taken upon himself a role which properly belonged to the King alone. He could thus even be accused of usurping the prerogatives of monarchy. The parallel Walpole’s opponents had in mind was Cardinal Richelieu, who had run the government of France under Louis XIII, and they could also look back to Buckingham and Strafford in England under Charles I. They could say, with some justice, that the British constitution had no place for a Richelieu. It is therefore no surprise that Walpole was at pains to deny the accusation (for accusation it was) that he was “Prime Minister”.
What was Walpole’s actual position? He was, for 21 years, First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer; and thus personally in charge of the nation’s finances. He was also, effectively (though such positions did not exist officially) leader of the House of Commons and of the Whig party. He was also on very good terms with the King. He had made himself indispensable to George I in the great financial scandal of the "South Sea Bubble" in 1720-21, which threatened to engulf the court. When George II succeeded his father on the throne in 1727, Walpole fully expected to be sacked and replaced by some new favourite, but he managed to stay in office and quickly made himself indispensable to the new King too. It must be remembered that the first two Georges were Germans; they neither liked nor understood British Parliamentary politics, and spent half their reigns back in their homeland of Hanover. They would have been very pleased to leave Walpole to run things while they were away on holiday! These frequent royal absences led to the emergence in the Walpole period of a Cabinet of half-a-dozen leading ministers who met without the King being present. No official minutes of the discussions of these early Cabinets were taken, but we can be confident that Walpole dominated the proceedings, and it was certainly he who then told the King what the Cabinet had decided. Naturally both George I and George II wanted to get their own way in matters of high policy; but Walpole privately told Lord Hervey that George II was “as great a coward as ever wore a crown”, and that he could always win the King round to his point of view. Walpole was never directly in charge of foreign policy, and indeed had little knowledge of the subject, but was able use his domination of the Cabinet and links to the monarch to force out two Secretaries of State, Carteret and Townshend, who embarked on policies of which he did not approve. He replaced them with lesser men more likely to do his bidding. His son, Horace Walpole, noted that he was always at pains to keep potential rivals away from close contact with the King. This all gives substance to the opposition’s charge.
In early 1742 Walpole was defeated in a vote in the House of Commons. The issue was only a minor one, but he realized he had lost control of the House after dominating it for more than twenty years. He resigned all his offices and took a peerage as Earl of Orford. But he had not lost the confidence of the King, who continued to consult Walpole on government business until his death three years later.
In 1775, just as the American war was starting, Dr Johnson complained, "There is now no Prime Minister. There is only an agent for government in the House of Commons. We are governed by a Cabinet, but there is no one head there, as in Sir Robert Walpole's time". The man who currently held all Walpole's offices and was close to the King, but was failing to provide any leadership was, of course, Lord North.