3 April 1721

Robert Walpole becomes, in effect, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, though he himself denied that title.

Robert Walpole is widely considered to be the first Prime Minister of Great Britain, although the term “Prime Minister” wasn’t formally used during his time. He served as de facto head of government from 1721 to 1742. Born on August 26, 1676, in Norfolk, England, Walpole came from a wealthy landowning family.

Walpole entered politics in the early 18th century, rising through the ranks of the Whig Party. He became a Member of Parliament (MP) in 1701, and his political acumen and skillful management of relationships helped him ascend to prominence. Walpole served in various ministerial positions before being appointed as First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1721, effectively making him the most powerful figure in the British government.

During his time in office, Walpole implemented various economic reforms, including policies aimed at reducing the national debt and promoting trade. He also pursued a pragmatic foreign policy that sought to maintain peace and stability in Europe, particularly in relation to the ongoing conflicts between Britain and its European rivals.

One of Walpole’s most notable achievements was his ability to navigate the complex political landscape of his time, which included managing the relationship between the monarchy and Parliament. He cultivated support among MPs through patronage and skillful negotiation, earning him the nickname “the Great Manager.”

However, Walpole’s tenure was not without controversy. He faced criticism for his handling of issues such as government corruption and the South Sea Bubble financial crisis of 1720. Despite this, he managed to maintain a firm grip on power for over two decades, earning a reputation as a skilled politician and administrator.

Walpole’s dominance in British politics eventually waned, and he resigned from office in 1742 following a series of political defeats. He was later created the Earl of Orford in recognition of his service to the country. Robert Walpole died on March 18, 1745, but his legacy as the first de facto Prime Minister of Great Britain remains significant, marking a crucial development in the evolution of the British political system.

6 January 1721

The Committee of Inquiry on the South Sea Bubble publishes its findings.

The South Sea Bubble of 1720 was one of the first but by no means the last or the worst of capitalism’s great bubbles. As with all the others, it made some rich and impoverished many. In a single year, obsessive trading in the stocks of Britain’s South Sea Company increased the price from just over £100 to almost £1,000 per share. Before 1720 was out, the price had plunged to well below its starting-point.

The South Sea Company, founded to consolidate and reduce state debt and to have a monopoly trade in the South Seas – the Spanish-controlled territory of Latin America had managed to disguise the fact that it could not turn a profit on either venture. The former because the dividend returns promised to investors outstripped the interest the Crown was prepared to pay. The latter because, for most of the life of the South Sea Company, Britain was at war with Spain and – consequently – the chances that Spain would grant extensive trade rights within its own sphere of influence to a British company were, shall we say, remote. The bubble brought share trading into disrepute. Traders and investors alike were seen as venal and corrupt, seeking something for nothing – the solid something reflected in the bubble’s shimmering surface.