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Tuesday, 19 May, 1998, 20:59 GMT 21:59 UK
Parties and Prime Ministers
Once Parliament secured its supremacy over the monarch in the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century saw the growth and development of three of the key aspects of current parliamentary and political life: the office of prime minister, Cabinet government and political parties.

The first prime minister

Britain's first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, held office for a still unbeaten 21 years, (1721-1742). Walpole is generally acknowledged as the first prime minister although he disliked the term, which was occasionally used mockingly and was not yet an official title.

George I
George I
Walpole was appointed by George I as the head of his Cabinet of ministers. The German-born King declined to do the task himself as he spoke little English, which forced him to communicate with his ministers as best he could in French.

Prior to George's reign the monarch had attended the meetings of Cabinet, or its predecessor, the Privy Council. But George ended this tradition, leaving the first minister, or prime minister, to chair and direct these meetings in the King's absence as the first among equals.

George's decision was to have dramatic consequences over the coming years as the office of prime minister slowly absorbed many powers that had previously been in the possession of the Crown.


Walpole at Cabinet
As the first Prime Minister, Walpole set important precedents for the future of Cabinet government.

He established the guiding principle of collective responsibility which is still observed today.

Under this procedure the Cabinet makes its policy decisions in secret, and although ministers may disagree with each other privately, once the decision is taken all members of the government are bound by it and may not dissent from it unless they resign.

The members of the Cabinet are drawn from Parliament itself, thereby creating a link between the nation's executive and legislative branches not always found in other systems of government.


Walpole was a supreme political manager who quickly realised that control of Parliament, and the Commons inparticular, was essential for effective government. By his time it was impossible to manage Parliament without the consent of the largest political party in the House.

The Whigs and the Tories were the two main parties of the day, both of which had begun their evolution around the close of the seventeenth century.

The Whigs were the forerunners of the Liberal Party, while the Tories were the ancestors of today's Conservatives. Strangely enough both names have their origins in terms of abuse.

Whig derives from "Whiggamore", a term used to describe Scottish presbyterians, while Tory was an Irish word for a bandit.

The main purpose of political parties, now as well as then, was to take power by winning enough seats in Parliament to form a government. But in the eighteenth century political parties were not the sophisticated electoral machines they are now.

There existed little permanent party structure outside parliament and party organisations were often only formed during the bursts of activity provided by general elections, which were held every seven years.

Throughout the eighteenth century political corruption was rife and patronage played a major role in the nation's politics. Some parliamentary seats were considered the property of local gentry while others were simply sold to the highest bidder.

Seats were not just for sale to the wealthy and ambitious, companies bought them too. One seat, Bishop's Castle, was bought by the East India Company, one of the 'multinationals' of the day.

In 1827 it was estimated that 276 MPs were returned by patrons alone. It was a situation that had to change.

Links to more Talking Politics stories are at the foot of the page.

Links to more Talking Politics stories