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Henry Pelham

First Lord of the Treasury 1743 - 54

Henry Pelham was born in January 1696, son of Baron Pelham. Entering Parliament in 1717 he rose from MP for Seaford and then Sussex, to high office in the treasury, and as secretary of war, and finally as first lord between August 1743, and his death in 1754. Throughout his career Henry Pelham was supported by his older brother, Thomas Pelham, the Duke of Newcastle, who had, as eldest son, inherited their father's wealth. But while Pelham was one of the earliest holders of true prime ministerial power in Parliament, a charade still had to be played out to make it seem as though the king held ultimate authority. The king had wanted to appoint his favourite Edward Carteret to the post of first lord, but Carteret could not compete with Pelham's money and political skill. George II had no choice but to appoint Henry Pelham, supported by his brother Thomas Pelham as secretary of state. The king then made himself as disagreeable as he could to the Pelhams without driving them from office. It wasn't the most restful of arrangements but it allowed the king to maintain a sense of power.

 

Following his appointment by the king, Henry Pelham consolidated his position in 1746 with a snap election, which caught the opposition unprepared. This established his authority. Much is made of parliamentary corruption in the years before the Reform Act of 1832, the way bribery was a way of life, the way MPs or their families often owned their constituencies as personal property. Control of Parliament might appear to be easy in such circumstances. Henry Pelham, no doubt would have laughed at that idea. Pelham wrote: "The House of Commons is a great unwieldy body which requires great Art and some Cordials to keep it loyal; and we have not many of the latter in our power." (Quoted by Aubrey Newman in The Prime Ministers P67). The Pelhams did what was required to hold together some kind of coherent government. At this time there was no political party organisation to maintain a measure of unity as there is today. The tricks of what was known as "patronage" were the only tools a leading minister had to control his government.

The House became a little easier to manage when the king's eldest son Frederick, Prince of Wales, died in 1751. Frederick had been a focus for opposition to Pelham, and without him life was more straightforward. Pelham continued to preside in a measured way, trying to keep expenditure within reasonable bounds, and presenting a united front with his brother. But then, unexpectedly, on 6th March 1754, just before the 1754 general election, Henry Pelham died. And George II, his former opponent, finally realised he had lost a valuable man. He is supposed to have said on hearing of Pelham's death: "Now I shall have no more peace."

Pelham had been an effective prime minister, but the way in which he succeeded reveals much about how the office of first lord, or prime minister, would develop. Lord Chesterfield said: "Mr Pelham had good sense, without either shining parts or any degree of literature. He had by no means an elevated or enterprising genius, but had a more manly and steady resolution than his brother the Duke of Newcastle" (quoted Newman P71). A prime minister was generally not to be the most brilliant man in government. Instead he was to be the man who could hold the volatile entity of parliament together in something approaching a government. Often such a man was required to represent a kind of extraordinary average. Brilliance might be a drawback.

Pelham, ironically spent much of his time at loggerheads with the king. But in a sense he was a kind of king himself, someone who was able to sit above the battles of his cleverer colleagues and act as a figurehead of unity. King George II in the end seemed to recognise Pelham as one of his own. This is a theme which was to play itself out in various ways in the history of British prime ministers.

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