Tuesday, 3 February 2015

The king and his prime minister

George I
reigned 1714-27
Public Domain

George I

George Louis, Elector of Hanover, owed his accession not to divine hereditary right, but to the Act of Settlement of 1701. He was the son of the Electress Sophia, the most direct Protestant descendant of James I.

He finally arrived at Greenwich on 18 September, having been delayed by contrary winds and by his own lack of urgency. Although he had known since 1701 that he was likely to be king, he had not troubled to learn to speak English with any proficiency.

The limits of George’s power were defined by the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement. He had to be a Protestant, he was forbidden to give office, title or estate to a foreigner without Parliament’s consent, he could appoint but could not dismiss a judge, he could appoint and dismiss ministers and dictate foreign policy. He controlled a vast amount of patronage. But he needed Parliament (a) for money and (b) because no minister could survive long without its support.

The Whig supremacy

On 10 April 1716 the Whigs passed the Septennial Act, on the grounds that the Triennial Act of 1694 had fomented feuds and party strife and occasioned ruinous expense. But the Scottish Whig, Lord Islay, gave the game away: frequent elections rendered ‘government dependent on the caprice of the multitude and very precarious’. The Whigs had moved a long way from their radical origins in the reign of Charles II and were now firmly oligarchical.

Robert Walpole

Robert Walpole
prime minister 1721-42
Public Domain
The financial collapse occasioned by the South Sea Bubble led to the appointment of the Norfolk squire Robert Walpole as First Lord of the Treasury. This was not seen at the time as a particularly momentous move. The king disliked Walpole, as did most politicians, who resented his obvious love of power and lack of scruple. He came to be unofficially referred to as Prime Minister – a term of abuse. In 1735 he moved into 10 Downing Street (then no 5), the residence of a Mr Chicken, and he secured the property as a residence for all future First Lords of the Treasury.
George II, r. 1727-60
When he became king, 

he kept on Walpole
as prime minister.

Public Domain
After twenty-one years in power, Walpole lost office, not because he had lost an election, or because he had lost the favour of the king (George II from 1727) but because he had lost the support of the Commons. This was therefore an event of great constitutional significance. To survive, an eighteenth-century prime minister needed both the support of the monarch and a majority in the Commons.

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