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In the ongoing SNC-Lavalin affair and the aftermath of damaging testimony by former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, it appears that the Canadian prime minister and his government are slowly sinking into a dark, bottomless Trou d’eau (waterhole), to the ‘Sheer’ delight of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal-to-Oil Opposition. Alleged corruption in the highest echelons of parliamentary government is nothing new: personal and political corruption have been associated with the office of ‘prime minister’ ever since this position first appeared, in early eighteenth-century Britain. Indeed, the archetype of ‘high prime-ministering and misdemeanours’ is surely Sir Robert Walpole (pictured above on the right, in all of his self-satisfied glory), who dominated British politics in 1721-42 as First Lord of the Treasury and thus as King George I and II’s ‘sole and prime minister’.
In the wake of the civil wars and Glorious Revolution in seventeenth-century Britain, two political parties gradually coalesced: one supporting monarchical privileges and the High Church, the other championing the power of parliament and Protestant toleration. The opposing sides bequeathed insulting nicknames to each other: ‘Tory’, meaning Irish bandit; and ‘Whig’, meaning Scottish outlaw. Eighteenth-century British politics, then, was dominated by ‘the rage of party’ between the Whigs and Tories–spurring satires, lampoons, and insulting cartoons of the governments in power, such that the culture of the time was infused with ‘the rage of parody’ as well. The political climate was deeply Wal-polarised.
The Hanoverian kings George I and II were relatively uninterested in British affairs and the machinations of government, and so entrusted effective executive power to the hands of the brilliant Whig politician Walpole–who was particularly close to George II’s consort Caroline. Walpole managed a vast political machine which not only dominated government but also exercised effective control over Whig Members of Parliament through the powers of patronage. His iron grip on government was called a ‘Robinocracy’, referring to the nickname for ‘Robert’. Walpole, to his credit, is remembered for having steered Britain through an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity with his policies fostering commerce and enlightened self-interest. But he also used the resources of the state to aggrandise his personal fortunes and those of his family and mistress, epitomised by the lavish Palladian house he built in Norfolk, Houghton Hall. To opponents such as Viscount Bolingbroke, leader of the Patriot party seeking to defend ‘liberty’ and ‘virtue’ against the ‘authority’ of Walpole, the prime minister was a lice-infested Whig. The dominance and corruption of Robinocracy spurred plenty of Wal-polemics.
Two stand-outs among the many anti-Walpole satires of the early eighteenth century were Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Eliza Heywood’s Adventures of Eovaai (1736)–both of which feature in the EMSP’s core course curricula. Swift’s masterpiece is often mistaken for children’s literature or appropriated as source-material for terrible adaptations such as the most recent fiasco featuring Jack Black, but Gulliver’s travels to four remote corners of the world satirise British and European society, politics, science, and philosophy. In the voyage to Lilliput, Gulliver encounters a wondrous miniature kingdom inhabited by diminutive Smurf-like inhabitants who turn out to be wicked, vain, and corrupt: in other words, a mirror to British society and politics. The most corrupt Lilliputian politicians are the High Treasurer Flimnap and his confederates: a clear reference to Sir Robert Walpole and his Whig government. We learn that Flimnap and other officials are admired for their abilities to dance on ropes and leap over and creep under a stick held by the Emperor: a reference to the pettiness of European politics, a real Lilliput-down of court corruption and of the Walpole-vaulting required to curry favour with rulers. Because of Gulliver’s refusal to use his vast bulk to conquer the Lilliputians’ sworn enemies–as well as rumours of an affair with Flimnap’s wife and Gulliver’s act of saving the burning palace by pissing on it–Flimnap and his cabal draw up articles of impeachment and execution against Gulliver, thus Lilliput-ting him in his place. The protagonist, disillusioned, becomes a Gul-leaver: better off a Gul-liver than a Gul-dier.
Heywood’s novel is even blunter in its caricature of the Whig PM as little better than a Wal-polecat. Eovaai is a talented but unfortunate princess who loses her kingdom soon after her father passes away, and is abducted by the evil magician Ochihatou–the prime minister of a rival nation who has seduced its queen and bewitched its king into granting him absolute power. Through his control of demonic spirits, Ochihatou manages to disguise from others his ‘natural Pride, his Lust, his exorbitant Ambition’ as well as his physical deformities, enabling him to carry out ‘Designs…to the almost total Ruin of both King and People.’ We learn that among his other vices, Ochihatou is a misogynist: his predation of Eovaai arises from sensual lust and lust for power combined with an Ochihatred of women. Under the guise of helping Eovaai, he is only ‘Robin’ her virtue. But Eovaai learns to see through his deceptions, and eventually Ochihatou is violently hoist on his own Wal-poleaxe.
Likewise, the downfall of the historical Walpole was due to his taxation policies to finance Britain’s debt–including the state’s power to enter people’s homes to extract the excise–and preference for a treaty with Spain over going to war with Britain’s traditional enemy, which appalled patriotic merchants who were exercised over the excise and whose businesses were adversely affected by the treaty. Under overwhelming political pressure, Walpole excised himself from government and retired to his wealthy estate. This was not the end of Whig dominance in the eighteenth century, however, as Walpole’s fall would be later succeeded by the rise of William Pitt the Elder and the Younger. Thus, although Walpole may have been consigned to the dust(Ro)bin of history, Britain (from a Tory point of view) would nevertheless end up in the Pitts.
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Wal-polar Exploration Studies Program