Robert Walpole, the First Prime Minister
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
Townshend and Walpole were connected by marriage. They had held together through the political vicissitudes of the last ten years, and for ten years more they remained colleagues. Their government was at first a partnership; but neither was content to be second or merely equal to the other; and the partnership developed into a rivalry which was only brought to an end when Townshend made up his mind in 1730 to leave the field to Walpole, since they could not longer work in harness together. But from the outset Walpole rather than Townshend filled the public eye; for practical purposes Walpole controlled British policy from the end of 1720 until 1739, and he remained nominally at the head of affairs for three years more. This long ministry of Walpole inaugurates the era during which the question of primary importance has been not who was king or queen, but who was Prime Minister? Since the days of Charles I and Buckingham it had hardly been possible at any time to name any one person as the minister of the Crown who directed the policy of the state.
The Evolution of the Office of Prime Minister
Before the seventeenth century ministers had been still more palpably the servants of the Crown, holding office at the pleasure of the Crown, and dismissed or disgraced or sent to the block if the Crown so pleased. But from Walpole's time onwards the sovereign has been virtually deprived of choice. He has hardly been able to refuse a minister pressed upon him by the leaders of the party dominant in parliament, still less to dismiss one who enjoys parliament's support or to appoint one whom parliament finds obnoxious. And almost at all times one particular minister has been decisively the chief of the administration, though not always the nominal figurehead for whom the title of Prime Minister has come to be reserved.
The change however was gradual and unconscious. William III, chose his own ministers, merely modifying his selection in order to avoid excessive friction in the machinery of government. It was a practical outcome of the struggle between Crown and parliament that parliament made its voice heard on questions of policy and of administration very much more energetically at the close of the seventeenth century than in the days of Plantagenets or Tudors; the more or less tacit acquiescence of parliament was less easily obtained than in earlier times. Hence to avoid friction it had become necessary to secure correspondingly a greater concord between ministerial action and parliamentary opinion. Theoretically it was not necessary for ministers to be in agreement even with each other, but practically it was becoming very inconvenient that it should not be so. If at any time during the reign of William or Anne all the ministers were taken from one political party, it was merely because such a selection seemed necessary 'at that particular time to prevent a deadlock.
The Role of Royal Whim
The Crown did not as yet recognise, popular opinion did not yet declare, that the power of the Crown to select ministers was restricted, except by the obligation not to choose men who were conspicuously obnoxious. Moreover, the power of the Crown was only slightly restricted even in practice. It is notable that changes of ministry did not usually follow upon general elections. When the Crown and the ministry were in harmony the electors gave a general support to the ministry. When the Duchess of Marlborough thoroughly dominated the queen, Whigs dominated the ministry, and an appeal to the electorate returned a Whig majority. When the queen shook herself free of the Duchess, Whigs were turned out of office, Tories took their places, and when there was a general election the electors returned a Tory majority. Politicians devoted themselves more zealously to capturing the favour of the sovereign than to cultivating the goodwill of the electorate. Both the theory and the practice survived the Hanoverian Succession.
But the change of dynasty produced new conditions. One of the two great parties was shattered. The interests of the whole body of Whigs were bound up with the security of the new dynasty. The interests of the new dynasty were bound up with the predominance of the Whigs; and the Hanoverian Tories, without hopes of themselves forming a dominant party, were rapidly absorbed into the Whig ranks, more especially after the ignominious collapse of the "Fifteen." The Crown had not the will, and would not have had the power, to choose ministers except from among the Whigs. After the passing of the Septennial Act, Whig government was never really in danger; even the South Sea Bubble confirmed a Whig combination instead of shaking it. Instead of a rivalry of parties, there was only a rivalry of Whig factions; and the long ascendency of the Whigs under these conditions made it for ever impossible that a working ministry should be formed independent of party lines. Within the party the king apparently retained the power of selection; but the prestige of the Crown was very much reduced by the fact that it was worn by unattractive and unpopular German princes, while the sentiment of loyalty, wherever it survived at all, was necessarily attracted to the legitimate king "over the water."
Thus if the king was free to choose any Whig ministers he liked, it still remained necessary that he should choose men who would work together; and the personal influence of the king proved to be no longer sufficient to induce ministers to work in political harmony when they were personally antagonistic to each other. Politicians continued to intrigue in order to obtain "royal favour; but the royal favour was wasted on any statesman who could not manage his colleagues or who could not manage parliament. This managing capacity was possessed by Walpole, and after Walpole by Henry Pelham. It was not possessed by their rivals, and therefore between 1720 and 1754 Walpole was for twenty years the inevitable minister and Pelham for ten years. And after Pelham's death government fell into hopeless confusion until there was a coalition between Newcastle and William Pitt. The position of a minister was unstable unless he could secure the royal favour, though the royal favour was not sufficient to keep in power even a brilliant politician who lacked the art of managing his colleagues and parliament.