The latest in our General Election 2017 series and launching our new blog series on The Georgian Lords, Dr Robin Eagles, Senior Research Fellow of the Lords 1715-90 Section, describes the Pelham ministry’s snap decision to call an election and catch the opposition off-balance…
On 17 June 1747 George II attended the House of Lords to grant his assent to some 59 new pieces of legislation. Having done so, he made a brief speech thanking both Houses for their service before leaving it to the Lord Chancellor (Philip Yorke, Lord Hardwicke) to prorogue the session. The next day, Parliament was dissolved. The decision to bring about an early termination was supposed to have been a secret, but as the duke of Richmond revealed to the duke of Newcastle earlier in the month, it was one everyone knew about: ‘I beg to know when the dissolution of the Parliament is no longer a secret, for every soul I meet with has it, & I look like a fool when I lye [sic], which I am not used to…’ [Richmond -Newcastle Correspondence, 246]. Like many peers in the period, Richmond was eager to play his part in the ensuing elections in a variety of constituencies where he was able to command interest.
Under the terms of the Septennial Act, the Parliament, elected in the summer of 1741, ought to have had another year to run, but the early dissolution had been resolved on, according to Dudley Ryder, ‘to disappoint the Prince [of Wales], who is beginning to intermeddle in most of the boroughs against the next Parliament in order to set up a violent opposition.’ The Westminster Journal of 6 June had a different take on it, suggesting that ‘the Reasons given for the sudden Dissolution of this Parliament, are of the utmost Weight for the Safety and Tranquillity of the kingdom, in order to prevent the pernicious intrigues of France at this critical juncture’. Both were plausible reasons for the ministry to wish to go to the country early. Britain’s involvement in the War of the Austrian Succession had resulted in gains in America, but the country had been invaded by Jacobite forces backed by a resurgent France in 1745 and only days before the 1747 poll the army under the duke of Cumberland suffered a significant defeat at Lauffeldt. The beginning of peace negotiations the previous year had been widely criticized. A desire to strengthen the ministry’s hand in the pourparlers that would ultimately result in the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) was undoubtedly a signal reason for wanting to get the election out of the way early.
As Ryder suggested, though, the ministry was also eager to counter the substantial effort being made by Frederick and his allies to build up an opposition movement founded on a coalition of dissident Whigs, Tories and the prince’s own household retainers. Newcastle and his brother, Henry Pelham (the prime minister) had every reason to be wary of Prince Frederick’s new alliance. It had been, after all, just such a grouping that had played a significant role in destabilizing and ultimately toppling Sir Robert Walpole early in 1742. In the early months of 1747 the prince had announced his intention of returning to opposition for as long as he remained Prince of Wales and on 4 June his movement released their non-partisan programme in the Carlton House Declaration. Heading the opposition, it should be stressed, was not something he expected to be confined to for much longer. George II was by now into his 60s and as the king’s father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather had all failed to make it past 70, there was every reason to expect Prince Frederick’s accession as king to be only a few years away. In the event, this was to be Frederick’s last general election at the head of the opposition, but only because it was to be him rather than his father who would die first.
By the early months of 1747 Frederick’s grouping had begun to make detailed preparations for the election they anticipated to be still 18 months away. Then, as now, the west country was considered a key battleground. There the prince expected to be able to draw on the resources of the duchy of Cornwall. In Scotland, it was hoped that Frederick’s ally, the duke of Argyll, would capitalize on gains made in 1741, and there were other areas of the country, including in the Pelhams’ own heartlands of Sussex, where the opposition aimed to mount a significant effort. In each of these the prince and his lieutenants had begun to lay the groundwork for the next election, but the ministry’s decision to bring the poll forward meant that few seats were adequately prepared for the contest.
The government commenced its campaign, quietly confident of success, but cautious about overstating their strength: ‘We despise the Opposition extreamly. I hope we are not mistaken’. [Richmond-Newcastle Correspondence, 247] The opposition, meanwhile, struggled to rally their unprepared forces. In the west Frederick was hobbled by the loss to the ministry’s ranks of Hugh Boscawen, 2nd Viscount Falmouth, who was able to bring to bear considerable electoral interest in a number of Cornish constituencies from his seat at Tregothnan. According to one of Frederick’s backers at Truro, one of the places where the Boscawens were particularly strong, ‘The majority of the electors here are so attached to the Tregothnan family… that the attempt you advise me to make in this place would I am persuaded, prove fruitless…’ [HMC Fortescue, i. 109] The sheer cost of attempting to ‘buy support’ (technically, of course, a crime even then) was also a problem for the prince’s grouping. The always outspoken Thomas Pitt, for whom the words ‘villain’ and ‘rascal’ were staples of his personal lexicon, expostulated on the state of affairs in Grampound:
I think we can carry it, but it must cost damnably dear. The villains had got a-head to that degree, and rise in their demands so extravagantly, that I have been very near damning them and kicking them to the devil at once. The dirty rascals dispise [sic] 20 guineas as much as a King’s Sergeant does a half guinea fee… [HMC Fortescue, i. 111]
Horace Walpole, who reported a rumour that Frederick had put aside £200,000 to fight the election, considered the money ill-spent, commenting cynically that ‘he had much better have saved it to buy the parliament after it is chosen’. [Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. C.B Lucas, 66]. He may have had a point. The election at Grampound resulted in a compromise with Thomas Hawkins securing one seat in the prince’s interest (with Pitt’s grudging support), while the other went to the ministry supporter, Lord George Bentinck. Elsewhere, the ministry demonstrated supremely assured management. At Seaford, where Newcastle held sway, the duke even sat at the returning officer’s desk to ensure that his preferred candidates were elected. Unsurprisingly, both seats went to his nominees and a subsequent petition complaining against Newcastle’s behaviour was thrown out in the Commons.
The overall result, albeit of an election that saw only 62 contests across the country, was a decisive victory for the government. Some 351 seats went to candidates in the ministry’s interest, with just 92 going to dissident Whigs and 115 to Tories. By the second week of July the opposition had descended into mutual recrimination and the launching of an investigation into how they had failed to carry the seats of which they had had such high hopes. The prince, meanwhile, whose personal grouping had been particularly badly mauled, attempted to play down the size of his defeat and to comfort his supporters. One seat at Grampound, he insisted, was more than he had hoped for; and as Francis Ayscough put it to the inconsolable Thomas Pitt:
Thank God, we have a master who values his friends and servants, not according to their success, but to their zeal and sincerity in his service; and, as no one can have shown more of this than you have done in the late troubles and fatigues you have undergone, so no one can be more in his favour and esteem. [HMC Fortescue, i. 121]
- The Correspondence of the dukes of Richmond and Newcastle 1724-1750, ed. T. McCann (Sussex Record Society lxxiii, 1984)
- Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (Oxford, 1989)
- Reed Browning, The Duke of Newcastle (Yale, 1975)