Last year we observed the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the first parliamentary assembly in the Americas. In 1619 the Virginia General Assembly was convened, thereby setting a precedent for the development of representative constitutional government in the English-speaking colonies. This year we celebrate another anniversary that contributed especially to our Westminster form of government. This was no grand constitutional assembly or victory won on a battlefield. It was in fact a scandal which politically incapacitated the king and led to the rise of the first prime minister.
King George I had become king after the death of the last Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, in 1714. Anne’s only surviving son had died at age 11, and thus she left no heir. Because the 1701 Act of Settlement required a protestant monarch, Parliament had to go to Germany to locate Anne’s closest protestant relative. This they found in the person of the Elector of Hanover, who became King George I of Great Britain and Ireland.
George had several strikes against him from the start. First, his grasp of the English language was deficient, although he appears to have improved later in his reign. Second, his heart was in Germany, where he continued to spend much of his time. Because he regarded Great Britain and Ireland as peripheral to his interests, parliamentary leadership had to fill the void created by his frequent absences. Third, he was not at ease in public venues and did little to endear himself to his British subjects.
With these obvious deficiencies handicapping him from the start, George’s reign saw the continual diminution of the British monarchy, something that had begun with the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw James II replaced by his daughter Mary and her husband William on the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Credibility in politics
In 1711 the South Sea Company had been set up to resolve a national debt crisis. Shares were sold widely with a promised guaranteed annual interest rate of six percent. The business of the company was the slave trade with South America which was expected to boom after the War of the Spanish Succession had ended. However, the treaty concluding the war turned out to be less conducive to the trade, and the company was soon in trouble. Already controlling a substantial share of the company, King George became its governor in 1718.
In 1720 the company collapsed for reasons similar to those that would lead to the crashes of 1929 and 2008. As a consequence, the King, unpopular to begin with, lost his credibility and any initiative he might otherwise have had in political affairs. His new First Lord of the Treasury, Sir Robert Walpole, moved quickly to shore up public confidence in the country’s finances and took over the reins of government, rescuing the King and several officials from the ensuing fallout. Walpole effectively became the first prime minister, and subsequent governments would be run by his successors in this office.
Many of our hallowed conventions of the constitution date from this era. The Queen and her representatives never preside over cabinet meetings, a precedent set by a German-speaking king who had no interest in doing so. The Queen and her appointed governors act only on the advice of their first ministers, largely because her 7th great-grandfather had no other choice after nearly being brought down in a financial fiasco.
It may seem odd that we should celebrate the anniversary of a disastrous venture that involved such negative elements as slavery, corruption and outright theft. But throughout history God in his mercy has repeatedly brought about good out of evil. Our Westminster system is by no means perfect. Nevertheless, it is certainly better than most of the other systems on offer. As such we should be grateful to live under a system of peace, order and good government, however it came about