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George Grenville

First Lord of the Treasury 1763 - 65

George Grenville was born on 14th October 1712, son of Richard Grenville MP. After his education at Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford, George trained as a lawyer, and then entered Parliament in 1741 as MP for Buckingham Borough, a constituency controlled by his family. Grenville set to work for William Pitt, at the Navy Board. He seems to have been considered honourable, honest, and rather boring. By 1760 it looked as though Grenville was going to be placed in the role of speaker, which would have suited a man so interested in the subtleties of procedure. But 1760 was to see a great change in British politics, with the death of George II, and the succession of George III. George III and his principle advisor, former tutor Lord Bute, both thought highly of Grenville, perhaps because he represented no particular power or threat. Secretary of state William Pitt who had run government under George II was shown no favour by the new monarch, and resigned in October 1761. The figurehead prime minister the Duke of Newcastle followed his secretary of state out of office in May 1762, and was replaced by Lord Bute. Grenville then took over as secretary of state. But Grenville had to pay for his promotion, by being obliged to accept that it was the king and Bute who had made him what he was. Grenville had to face the indignity of serving under Bute - a man who had virtually no political experience before being suddenly made prime minister in 1762. Grenville reacted by giving the king an ultimatum. In August 1763 Grenville demanded that if the king did not give him fiull support he would resign. With Bute widely unpopular, and no other candidate available with enough support to form a government, George III had to back down. Grenville won through, becoming prime minister.

Initially Grenville's ministry seemed to be surviving well. The reforming MP John Wilkes was charged with libel after publishing an account of government corruption in a political newspaper, The North Briton. Parliament rallied behind Grenville, and supported Wilkes' arrest. By 1764 a long ministry appeared to be in prospect. Unfortunately this promising new prime minister made no attempt to tread carefully with the king's feelings, or even to give the impression that George III was in charge. Government was never unified, and the king, and first ministers themselves, had to act as symbols of unity where none really existed. Other first lords, such as Robert Walpole had run government while making it appear that the king was making important decisions. Grenville couldn't or wouldn't play this game. He talked down to the king, who wrote of their conversations: "When he has wearied me for two hours, he looks at his watch to see if he may not tire me an hour more" (quoted by Peter Thomas in The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P123). Today we might be inclined to feel sympathetic towards Grenville, but in the mid eighteenth century there were precious few forces of government stability. Such an untactful dismissal of the main symbol of unity was politically unwise. To an extent Grenville had to act a part in a play, and it was not a part he wanted. George III was determined to get rid of Grenville, and only delayed while he tried to find someone else to run his government. It was not a question of disagreement on policy. The king approved of Grenville's policies, on the arrest of Wilkes, and on attempts to tax American colonists through a stamp tax. George did not attempt to dictate any of the government's positions. It was simply that appearances were not kept up.

Grenville resigned in July 1765 when George III, driven to a rather rash decision by Grenville's behaviour, appointed the first half decent candidate to present himself as a potential first minister. The inexperienced Marquis of Rockingham took over, and Grenville went on to a long career as a respected elder statesman, who continued to put facts before political games. In 1770 he even managed to carry an important bill against government opposition, to make judgments on disputed elections fairer. Grenville's grumpy, self satisfied honesty was always his strength, and his undoing.