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February 05, 2007

Walpole and Corruption: The Great Man: The Life and Times of Sir Robert Walpole - Edward Pearce

Posted by Jeremy Black

The Great Man: The Life and Times of Sir Robert Walpole
by Edward Pearce
London: Jonathan Cape, 2007
Hardback, 25

There is not an evening that there is not some paper cried about the street, good or bad, of Robert hatch, Robert hangman, Robert the coachman etc. or something of this kind, which shows what a spirit he has to defend himself against.
The Dowager Countess of Portland correctly captured in 1730 the extent to which Robert Walpole was exposed to savage criticism during his period as leading minister, when he was First Lord of the Treasury and the leader of the Whig party in the House of Commons. The Knight and the Prelate, a ballad of 1734, more bluntly claimed,
he judged of Men's Worth by the Weight of their Fee.
Walpole bestrode the age as the leading minister of the Crown from 1721 until 1742 without a break. The longevity of his ministry is inextricably involved with the question of the stability of Britain then and thus with the long-term development of Britain as state, society and economy.

Walpole was subsequently to be overshadowed by other politicians, beginning with a savage critic, William Pitt the Elder, but he has received quite a lot of treatment of late. Aside from plentiful coverage by those working on diverse subjects such as the politics of culture, there is a thorough account in the new Dictionary of National Biography and my own Walpole in Power (2001). Edward Pearce's readable treatment is welcome as an effective biography that is sensitive to the nuances of politics in this most interesting of periods. Pearce is largely favourable in his judgment of the minister. He correctly draws attention to Walpole's contempt for the game of war and presents him as a formidable and great man.

More critically, Pearce argues that Walpole was essentially about power, that

the fibre was always coarse, the vision low
and that he turned corruption
into a public company [with a]systematic rottenness.
These are familiar charges that capture the practice of power but fail to locate it in its context. Indeed, Walpole's ability to use secret service funds and other aspects of government patronage ensured that he was under great pressure to do so. Corruption and patronage were not readily separable (no more than they are under the current or any other government), and patronage was an integral part of the social system, rather than simply a political mechanism. Indeed, eighteenth-century opposition complaints of corruption and political manipulation require a measure of qualification in terms of prevailing social norms and pressures. Arguably the situation is far more serious today when, largely as a result of administrative, political and cultural changes in the nineteenth and twentieth century, not least the rise of merit as both means and goal, there are norms of political behaviour and governmental integrity that have been violated by New Labour.

Pearce's claim that Walpole created the politics of the next hundred years -

the rotten boroughs, the bought and sold MPs,
- rests on a failure to understand both the practice of politics prior to Walpole's ascendancy and the extent to which his great skill was to help anchor the Revolution Settlement of 1688-9 in a measure of stability. He did so not so much by corruption, but by following the politics of compromise. Whereas the previous Whig ministry (that of Stanhope and Sunderland - which Walpole had opposed) had been very polarising, with its partisan legislation in favour of religious Nonconformity, its aggressive foreign policy and its high taxation, Walpole was a Whig keen on keeping a monopoly of power for the Whigs but also willing to embrace policies attractive to Tories: peace, low taxes, and the end of further measures in favour of Nonconformity. In some respects, he prefigured Melbourne in the late 1830s.

Walpole's willingness to compromise had a venal side, one that is ably brought out by Pearce, but it was the policies that helped ensure a measure of stability. In contrast, after Walpole fell the 1740s saw failure in war, a Jacobite revival and a widespread sense of national anxiety. Walpole's understanding of the situation helps refute the charge that his vision was "low". Personal probity and political perception are not always bedfellows.

Jeremy Black has recently written George III: America's Last King (Yale UP, 2006). He is also the author of the just published The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).


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