The Parliament of 1747 was far more settled then its predecessor, with much less acrimony between government and opposition. The comparative quiet of proceedings in the 1751 session was remarked on by Henry Fox who said that ‘a bird might build her nest in the Speaker’s chair, or in his peruke’, and never be disturbed. Many historians agree that these years of Henry Pelham’s administration were similar to the halcyon days Walpolian stability. Pelham, however, was arguably a more successful minister, and in particular was much more adept than Walpole at defusing opposition in parliament and dissension within the ministry.
The general election was held during late June and July 1747. There were contests in only 62 out of the 314 English, Welsh and Scottish constituencies. After consideration of disputed elections, the new parliament consisted of 443 Whigs and 115 Tories. Of the Whigs, 351 were accounted government supporters (including a small handful of Tory defectors), while 92 were deemed opponents. The result gave the government a healthy overall majority of 144.
The king’s minister Henry Pelham remarked that the elections had cost the government less than at any time since the Revolution. The ministry succeeded in recovering much of the ground lost in Cornwall and Scotland in 1741. There were significant ministerial advances, too, in the constituencies of the London area. Middlesex’s county and urban electorate discarded its sitting Tory MP Sir Roger Newdigate for having failed to support the loyal county association during the ’45. Owing largely to the impact of the Jacobite Rebellion the Tories were reduced to their lowest number ever. By holding the election a year earlier than expected, Pelham consolidated his parliamentary strength and reunited the Whigs as the ruling party.
Britain’s costly involvement in war against France and Prussia ended with the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in October 1748. Pelham was determined to retain the upper hand in the Commons and lost no time in initiating drastic cuts in the army and the navy. Over the next few sessions he obtained parliamentary approval for other areas of financial reconstruction and retrenchment. He reduced annual expenditure, eased the burden of direct taxation on the gentry, and cut the annual cost of financing the national debt which had soared from £46 million in 1739 to £77 million in 1748.
In pursuing his ambitious financial measures through parliament Pelham was fortunate that the opposition was ill-led and ineffectual. The Tories were by now at a low ebb and without a capable leader, while the main Whig element was focussed on Prince Frederick’s 28 followers. There were also the remnants of other groups such as the Pulteneyites. The Tories completed an alliance with the prince in 1748, encouraged by the prince’s pledge to end Tory proscription when he was able, but it was a disparate group to manage. During 1749-51, however, the prince’s party provided the only significant focus of opposition. It drew comfort from signs that the ministry might not last, as during the tensions which arose in 1750 between the duke of Newcastle and his fellow secretary of state, the duke of Bedford. The party attracted a growing number of supporters, reaching 60 by 1751, but after the prince’s sudden death on 20 March 1751 it quickly melted away.
Several noteworthy items of reforming legislation were passed in this parliament. The 1751 Calendar Act (24 Geo. II c. 23) brought the British calendar into line with general European practice, and achieved this leap by eliminating the days between the 2 and 14 September 1752. ‘Give us back our eleven days’ became a popular cry of protest and caused several riots. The Gin Act, also of 1751 (24 Geo. II c. 40), helped greatly to reduce drunkenness, which was regarded as the chief cause of crime and disorder in London. Sales of gin had reached nearly 8.5 million gallons by 1751, but fell to just under 6 million in 1752, and to 2.1 million gallons by 1760.
The Marriage Act of 1753 (26 Geo. II, c. 38), promoted by Lord Chancellor Hardwicke, illegalised the scandal of ‘clandestine’ or ‘secret’ marriages that were conducted without parental consent or because they were bigamous. The issue provoked a furious outburst in the Commons from Henry Fox, one of Hardwicke’s ministerial colleagues, who himself had eloped with a daughter of the 2nd duke of Richmond when she was still a minor. The Jewish Naturalisation Act (26 Geo. II, c. 26) was promoted by Pelham to acknowledge the assistance given to the government by the Jewish financial community. A storm of protest resulted, much of it incited in the City by Tories who saw the Act as an attack on the Church of England. It made Pelham apprehensive of the possible effect on the approaching general election, and in December 1753 the Act was repealed.
Pelham died on 6 March 1754, a few weeks before Parliament was due to be dissolved. He was succeeded as first lord of the treasury by his brother, the duke of Newcastle.
Bob Harris, Politics and the nation: Britain in the mid-eighteenth century (Oxford, 2002)