Robert Walpole, who took office on 3 April 1721 and is by convention regarded as the first of the 55 prime ministers to have guided this country’s fortunes over the past three centuries, was at ease with sex and money and self-enrichment at public expense. A famous caricature of him, entitled “Idol-Worship, or The Way to Preferment”, shows his naked arse being kissed by one office-seeker, while another holds a petition and bowls a hoop on which are found the words “Wealth, Pride, Vanity, Folly, Luxury, Want, Dependence, Servility, Venality, Corruption and Prostitution”.
Neither during his 20 years and 314 days in power, nor subsequently, have moralists seen anything to admire in Walpole. Jonathan Swift wrote a poem called “The Character of Sir Robert Walpole”:
With favour and fortune fastidiously blest
He’s loud in his laugh and he’s coarse in his Jest;
Of favour and fortune unmerited vain,
A sharper in trifles, a dupe in the main.
Achieving of nothing, still promising wonders,
By dint of experience improving in Blunders;
Oppressing true merit, exalting the base,
And selling his Country to purchase his peace.
A Jobber of Stocks by retailing false news,
A prater at Court in the Style of the Stews;
Of Virtue and worth by profession a giber,
Of Juries and senates the bully and briber.
Tho’ I name not the wretch you know who I mean,
‘Tis the Cur dog of Britain and spaniel of Spain.
Modern political commentators tend to ignore Walpole, as if he could have nothing to teach us. Peter Oborne, in his recent book The Assault on Truth, tells us the great Victorian reformers constructed a new system “to prevent politicians from enriching themselves and rewarding relations, clients and dependants”. He dismisses the 18th century as a time when “it was normal for ministers to lie, cheat and bribe”, and condemns Boris Johnson as “a compulsive liar” who is leading us back towards those dismal practices.
This strikes me as a hopelessly narrow- minded way in which to try to understand our political tradition, as if only the moralists count, and the rest can be written off as a bunch of scoundrels. Politics is more complicated than that. Walpole got his chance in 1721 because people thought, probably rightly, that he was the only person who could repair the damage caused by the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, the maddest speculative fever ever to grip this country. He had entered the Commons in 1701, had soon emerged as a gifted debater and had developed a profound grasp of how the nation’s finances actually worked.
Walpole took men as they were, not as they ought to be. He was a realist, not a moralist. “All these men have their price,” he once said, indicating some opposition members of parliament. He used patronage to entrench his power: he knew how to buy the parliamentary support he needed by distributing offices of profit to MPs. He and his family carried off many of the plums, leading to bitter attacks on the “Robinocracy”, Robin being one of his nicknames.
Before we get prosy about this, let us recognise that much the same system operates today. The chief way in which any prime minister controls his or her followers is by holding out to them the hope that if they behave themselves, they may obtain some office for which they yearn. The sums of money involved are modest – no politician can now afford, from the spoils of office, to erect a Houghton, the wonderful house Walpole built for himself in north Norfolk – but ambitious MPs still crave promotion.
Walpole had the wit to look like a normal country squire: he munched little red Norfolk apples during Commons debates, and let it be known that he opened letters from his gamekeeper before any to do with government business. He loved hunting, in Richmond Park if he could not get to Norfolk, and said of himself that he was “no saint, no spartan, no reformer”. He took a mistress 25 years younger than himself, the witty and beautiful Molly Skerrett, whom he married after his first wife died.
Polished aristocrats were shocked by Walpole’s coarse wit and loose morals. But for a long time the nation, and the king, accepted Walpole. It was in many ways more relaxing to have someone running the government who was not a moralist. People knew things could go wrong. The bursting of the South Sea Bubble, which ruined so many members of the ruling class, had demonstrated this. And there was a new dynasty on the throne, the Hanoverians, whose future was far from assured. Nor could the Union with Scotland, effected in 1707, be regarded as secure. In 1715 and 1745 there were Jacobite uprisings in favour of the previous Stuart dynasty.
George I (ruling 1714-27) was succeeded by his son George II (1727-60) who, on ascending the throne, dismissed Walpole and replaced him with a nonentity called Spencer Compton. Within a few days, Walpole was back, for it had become clear only he could persuade the Commons to grant a handsome income to the royal couple.
Some supposed the way to win the new king’s favour was by making friends with his mistresses. They were mistaken. Walpole was close to Queen Caroline, and knew she tolerated her husband’s mistresses on the understanding that they exercised no political power. A mischief-maker tried to make trouble between Walpole and Caroline by informing her that he had referred to her as “the fat bitch”. She sent her friend the chief minister the message that “the fat bitch had forgiven him”. Walpole described, to his successor Henry Pelham, the methods needed to steer George II:
Address and management are the weapons you must fight and defend with: plain truths will not be relished at first in opposition to prejudices, conceived and infused in favour of his own partialities; and you must dress up all you offer, with the appearance of no other view or tendency, but to promote his own service in his own way, to the utmost of your power. And the more you can make anything appear to be his own, and agreeable to his declarations and orders… the better you will be heard…
We may smile at how tactfully the king had to be managed, but is it really much different to how an audience of voters, or of party activists, must be managed today?
One of the many objections raised about Boris Johnson is that, as Prime Minister and indeed during his ascent to that office, he has seldom told people the hard truths they did not want to hear. In this and in several other respects, he is a true heir to Walpole. Johnson too was brought in to sort out a crisis, the Brexit fiasco, which had discredited a large part of the ruling class and with which, after years of mismanagement, maybe only he could cope. He “lives in sin” with a woman 24 years younger than himself whom he intends to marry. He was educated, as Walpole was, as a King’s Scholar at Eton, but wears his learning lightly. He drives moralists like the journalist Oborne mad with rage, but has developed a rapport with the wider public based in part on his disinclination to preach at them.
Johnson may at any moment be overthrown. The same was true of Walpole. It is true of any prime minister. That is one reason why we can claim convincingly to live in a free country: that we have the right, at any moment, to send the occupant of 10 Downing Street packing. Lord North, Neville Chamberlain and Tony Blair were men of ability, but continue to be blamed, respectively, for losing America, failing to stop Hitler, and invading Iraq.
For a long time, Walpole managed to keep out of foreign wars. George II yearned to show what a brave soldier he was by fighting a land war in Europe, while the City of London demanded a naval war in order to grab Spain’s trade in the Caribbean. Walpole wanted peace and prosperity. He nearly sank himself in 1733 by introducing the Excise Bill, a reform of customs duties on wine and tobacco which threatened to put every smuggler in the land out of business; he only saved himself by backing down.
In 1739, he was obliged, reluctantly, to take Britain into the War of Jenkins’ Ear against Spain. The war started badly, as is usual with Britain’s wars, and the prime minister took the blame, as is also usual. He lost control of the Commons in the 1741 election, resigned in February 1742 and was elevated to the House of Lords, where he remarked with wry amusement to another newly created peer: “My Lord Bath, you and I are now as insignificant men as any in England.”
The point of this essay is not merely to remark on the similarities between Walpole and Johnson. It is also to ask whether we still live in an 18th-century country, a mixture of elegant civilisation and extreme rudeness; earthy, passionate, drunken, reckless, and certainly not in thrall to Victorian values. Anyone who reads about the 18th century cannot help but be struck by the spirit of liberty that pervaded it. Johnson has never, so far as I know, written a word about Walpole, but he has composed a kind of love letter to a slightly later figure, John Wilkes, who leapt to prominence in the 1760s as a writer who was staggeringly rude about George III, was threatened with dire legal penalties, but upheld the right of the electors of Middlesex to send him to parliament. Johnson writes:
It is not just that I have come to admire Wilkes for his courage and his dynamism and his boundless animal spirits. Any sober assessment of his work confirms that he really was as his adoring crowds saw him – the father of civil liberty. He not only secured the right of newspapers to report the proceedings of the House of Commons, he was the first man to stand up in parliament and urge explicitly that all adult males – rich or poor – should be allowed to vote.
That passage is found in Johnson’s Life of London, published in 2011, as is this striking account of Wilkes’s education at Leiden University in Holland:
At university he learned the habits of debauchery that were to last him a lifetime. It is not that he wasted his time at Leiden. He sharpened his mastery of Latin and French; he loved the classics. He first met some of the intellectuals who were to welcome him during his exile into the circle of the philosophes. But he was a firm believer in what you might call a rounded education. As he later said, “I was always among women at Leiden. My father gave me as much money as I pleased, so I had three or four whores and got drunk every night. I woke up with a sore head in the morning, and then I read.” For the first time since the fall of the Roman empire, it was now acceptable to discuss fornication in this way, as the supreme recreation of a civilised society. Wilkes associated sex with intellectual creativity.
Not long before Michael Foot died, I was lucky enough to meet him at an event in Hampstead, London, and asked him what I should read about Wilkes. He recommended The Early History of Charles James Fox by George Otto Trevelyan, from 1880, which is indeed a wonderful book. In it we read:
Wilkism, as has been well remarked, was a half-unconscious protest on the part of the nation against the corruption and oppression of its oligarchical rulers, and the misery and despair which their iniquitous laws entailed.
Liberty was stirring in ways that burst the bounds of good taste and Christian morals. We find ourselves with a Prime Minister who likewise transgresses those boundaries. He will not be there as long as Walpole was – no subsequent prime minister has equalled that stint – but for Johnson to get there at all, and win a general election, suggests the electors of this country are not quite as the strict moralists who denounce him might wish them to be.
Andrew Gimson is the author of “Gimson’s Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to Johnson” (Square Peg)
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold