Parliaments, 1715-1754


Politics remained extremely partisan in the immediate aftermath of the accession of George I, with a large number of contests at the general election of 1715 (and an even higher proportion in 1722). Yet, following the arrival in England of the new monarch, the proscription of most Tories from central and local offices, and the defeat of the Jacobite invasion of Scotland (‘the ’15’), the Court Whig regime quickly entrenched itself on a stable basis. The 1st Earl Stanhope’s peerage bill, a blatant attempt to consolidate the power of the aristocracy by capping the size of the House of Lords, was defeated in the Commons in 1719; even so, there was no significant increase in the number of peers until the 1780s.

The main beneficiary of the internal Whig rivalry of the late 1710s, Robert Walpole, a former Junto Whig and junior minister, effectively became head of the government on the death of the 3rd earl of Sunderland in 1722. Under him, the office of prime minister, as a position of ‘first among equals’ within a now much smaller and ‘efficient’ cabinet, became a de facto part of the constitution (though not formally recognized as such for nearly two centuries). A ‘House of Commons man’ – he was so much at home that he ate Norfolk apples in the chamber – Walpole dominated through his unrivalled administrative competence and the distribution of political patronage.

The country opposition, which united Country Whigs (like William Pulteney) and Tories (for example, Sir William Wyndham, 3rd bt.), opposed his authoritarian style of government and urged such policies as the removal of placemen from the Commons. Having overcome previous threats to his majority, notably over the excise crisis in 1733 (in the Commons) and over the Quaker tithes bill in 1736 (in the Lords), he eventually fell from office in 1742, after losing support in the 1741 Parliament over the war with Spain. His 20 years in office remains the record for the longest serving premiership.

Walpole’s survival in office had been partly due to his ability to win over George II, after his succession in 1727, and to remain in favour with Queen Caroline. Likewise Henry Pelham, who was prime minister from 1744 to 1754, owed his position to royal approval; this he won, in conjunction with his brother, the duke of Newcastle, and Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, over their Whig rival Lord Carteret (2nd Earl Granville) in 1744 and again, after their resignations had forced the king’s hand, in 1746. One of the permanently flurried Newcastle’s major preoccupations was electioneering, particularly in Sussex, which Pelham represented, and Nottinghamshire.

Also like Walpole, under whom he had served his political apprenticeship, Pelham had the ability to inspire confidence in the Commons, where his plans for peace and reducing the national debt were well received. The death in 1751 of Frederick, prince of Wales, whose Leicester House residence was the centre of an opposition reversionary interest, was another factor in the government’s favour. Pelham, an honest and underrated premier, died just before the 1754 general election.