The Election of 1741
By 1741 the terms Whig and Tory, which had once stood mainly for attitudes of mind, had begun to define parliamentary parties. Whigs, who governed the country for most of the 18th century, were modern, metropolitan and supportive of the protestant settlement of 1688, and of the later Hanoverian succession to the throne. The Tories were country-minded and conservative, often with a nostalgic affection for the ousted Stuarts.
The country was ruled by a coalition of the king (the second of four successive German Georges), his ministers and Parliament. In the 1730s the most powerful figure was Robert Walpole, the first British “Prime Minister”. Walpole had an unrivaled ability to manage George II, while maintaining a majority of Whig MPs to vote with him. He carefully kept out of foreign wars and, though there is some truth in his enemies’ charge that this only provided more money for filling his own and his cronies’ pockets, the policy was genuinely beneficial to trade (including, it must be admitted, the slave trade).
By the 1741 election Walpole was losing his grip. The bribing of MPs with sinecures infuriated the public, as did taxation (too high and on the wrong things), the size of the army (too large), the cost of defending German territories (not our business), and attacks on British shipping by the Spaniards. Meanwhile the Pretender, James Edward Stuart, still claimed the throne from far away Rome. The Jacobites had been in long-term decline, yet some felt that this government’s unpopularity had revived them, especially in country areas.
In about 1740 a new group of dissident Whigs grouped around the heir to the throne, Frederick, Prince of Wales. Lord Bolingbroke wrote them a manifesto entitled The Patriot King – a new kind of monarch, supposedly like King Alfred the Great, who would unite the country under the supposedly fundamental principles of English government – common law, ancient rights and economic, military and naval security. All these ideas were encoded in the masque Alfred, and in its rousing hit tune, ‘Rule Britannia!’, which was first seen privately by the 33-year-old Frederick and his friends at Cliveden House in the summer of 1740. The Earl of Derby’s son, Lord Strange, who in my story mounts the play in Preston on the eve of polling, was one of the Prince’s friends, and had probably been present at that original performance.
The general election of May 1741 went badly for Walpole. Although there were only 94 contests (two at Preston) for 558 seats, his support in the new House of Commons shrank drastically. By February 1742, after deaths and further defections, his majority had disappeared , and he resigned.