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.
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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Edward Pearce, after a national newspaper career starting in 1977, still keeps his hand in with book reviews, obituaries and travel pieces. his early books include Contemporary Political Comment and Satire, The Senate of Lilliput, Hummingbirds and Hyenas, Looking Down on Mrs Thatcher, The Shooting Gallery, The Quiet Rise of John Major, Election Rides and Machiavelli's Children. However, for several years now he has concentrated on writing history. The Lost Leaders (about three near-Prime Ministers) was followed by Lines of Most Resistance (about English Resistance to Irish Home Rule), Denis Heaney (the authorised biography), Reform! (about the 1832 Act), and The Diaries of Charles Greville, both published in Pimlico. He lives in North Yorkshire.
The Great Man by Edward Pearce
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