The year 1721 has many splendours, but there are also thirteen
public hanging days a year, drunkenness is endemic and organised
crime rampages through the streets. Only a generation earlier James
II, suspected of conspiring to enforce Roman Catholicism and
subordinate England to France, was driven out by the Whigs. In 1715
his son, the Pretender, failed to take the Crown by armed force.
The new King, George I, an intelligent, moderate man, is cursed
everywhere as a damned foreigner. James followers, the Jacobites,
conspire and are persecuted. In 1720, the South Sea Bubble, an
attempt to finance state debt by runaway speculation, collapses.
Ruined people mass in Westminster. "The South Sea" directors, says
an MP, should be thrown into the sea. The Pretender could take over
any day. Robert Walpole, once imprisoned for financial chicanery,
assumes political control. When the rage subsides he becomes chief
minister - or, a new title, "Prime Minister". He personally detects
a Jacobite plot. Digging in, he buys parliamentary seats wholesale
with secret service money. In a runaway theatrical success, "The
Beggar's Opera", Walpole is compared with the criminal mastermind
Jonathan Wild. But he will dominate King, Parliament and Government
until 1742. Dismissed in 1727 on the death of George I, he recruits
the new King's clever wife, Caroline, and bounces cheerfully back.
Coarse, corrupt and cynical, Walpole sits on the Treasury Bench
munching little Norfolk apples sent from the estate he is enlarging
with political profit. This is Mr Worldlywiseman, keeping England
out of war for twenty years and setting up a stable and growing
economy. All politics of a kind we can recognise begin with Robert
Walpole. And here, in Edward Pearce's elegant book, he is brought
vividly back to life.
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