May 9, 2021

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How Sir Robert Walpole became the first British prime minister

This Easter weekend will mark 300 years since Sir Robert Walpole became what is widely considered to be Britain’s first prime minister – although the role as we think of it today was yet to exist.

Who was Sir Robert Walpole?

Walpole was born on 26 August 1676 at Houghton in Norfolk. The son of Colonel Robert Walpole, an MP and member of the gentry, he was educated at Eton (1690–96) before going on to King’s College, Cambridge (1696–98) as a King’s scholar, according to Gov.uk’s history of the government. 

He had “impressive scholarly credentials”, says Historic UK, and was set on becoming a clergyman, but his ambitions were cut short by the death of his eldest brother and he became heir to his family estates. 

Walpole returned home to help manage them, but his father died just two years later, leaving him as successor to the entire Walpole estate: one manor house in Suffolk and nine in Norfolk. 


How did he get to become prime minister? 

Walpole held many senior roles throughout his long and distinguished political career, but his power reached new heights in 1721 when he simultaneously held the roles of lord of the Treasury, chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the Commons.

This consolidation of the so-called “great offices” effectively made him our first prime minister, a role he held for more than 20 years, until 1742 – “an unusually long tenure by any standard”, writes Gov.uk.

His parliamentary career began in 1701 with his election to the seat of Castle Rising in Norfolk, which his father had held until his death the year before. He also inherited his father’s politics. Walpole senior had been a Whig and “a supporter of the 1688 to 1689 ‘Glorious Revolution’ which gave Britain a constitutional monarchy”, says Gov.uk.

In 1702 he was elected MP for King’s Lynn, a seat he was to hold, with a short intermission in 1712, until 1742. On entering parliament he earned the reputation of “being a clear, forceful speaker, a firm but not fanatical Whig, and an active parliamentarian”, says Britannica

His political rise was swift, becoming secretary of war in 1708 and treasurer of the Navy in 1710 to 1711, but was dismissed from this position when the Tories came to power. He was briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London on corruption charges and was expelled from the Commons, for which his political allies proclaimed him a Whig martyr. 

But in 1714 George I came to the throne. “George distrusted the Tories, whom he believed opposed his right to the throne, and as a result the Whigs were in the ascendant again,” says BBC History. Walpole was appointed first lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the exchequer, briefly leaving the ministry in 1717 when the Whig party split, before resuming the roles in 1721. 


What kind of leader was he? 

Walpole was nicknamed “Screen-Master General” by his opponents, an allusion to his ability to pull political strings and shield allies from scandal. 

He cultivated a “frank, hearty manner”, says Britannica, but possessed a “political subtlety that has scarcely been equalled”. His “noteworthy” ability to hold on to power, even at the death of George I in 1727 when a new administration would usually be favoured, relied on “careful management of the House of Commons and a tendency to avoid confrontation where possible”, says Gov.uk

“His legislation was not particularly revolutionary and continued to maintain the status quo, a feature for which he was criticised by some,” says Historic UK, such as future prime minister William Pitt. Ultimately, the key to his long-maintained success lay in his refusal to underestimate the powers of the Commons, “and no minister, before or since, has shown such skill in its management”, says Britannica.

His legacy includes No. 10 Downing Street. George II presented the Westminster townhouse to Walpole as a gift, but the politician refused to accept it. 

“Instead, he asked the king to make it available to him as an official residence, thus starting the tradition that continues today,” says Historic UK.