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History Of British Prime Ministers

How much power does a prime minister have? In that question really lies the history of British prime ministers. Reading general histories, I gained the impression that after James II was deposed, and William III placed on the throne by Parliament in 1688, prime ministers quickly rose to power. That isn't really true. Parliament may have appointed William III in 1688, but that did not mean that the Crown was finished as a source of power. In 1688, for example, William III retained too much authority for a prime minister to emerge. But under William's successor Queen Anne, dogged as she was by poor health, two ministers, Godolphin and Harley enjoyed a leading status. It was to be Robert Walpole, the successor of Godolphin and Harley, who became Britain's first true prime minister. Nevertheless the prime minister was still not known by that name, and still remained, in theory at least, the monarch's principle servant in Parliament, rather than an independent leader of government. Walpole might have run government, but he still had to conduct an elaborate charade which made it seem as though George II was in charge. This continued need to stay close to the monarch was due to the limited means by which an eighteenth century prime minister could hold his chaotic administrations together. A monarch with centuries of tradition and religious symbolism around them was still a useful unifying influence, and this combined with good old fashioned bribery and corruption allowed governments to work. But then in 1832 the Reform Act passed by Earl Grey's administration ended many traditional shady government practices. With bribery and corruption less available, some other method of achieving unity had to be found. It was during Lord Melbourne's 1834 - 1841 administration that a monarch centred government began to be replaced by party based government run very much by the House of Commons. Party organisation allowed a measure of government discipline to develop, which was to lessen the need for bribery and corruption, and marginalise the monarch. The cross over point might be placed during the administration of Conservative Party leader Robert Peel, 1841 - 1846. Queen Victoria quite clearly favoured Peel's predecessor Lord Melbourne, but treading carefully Peel managed to make it seem as though royal authority was intact, even as his administration proved that it was not. Peel's biographer Norman Gash has written: "he conducted himself in office as though the theory of royal confidence and ministerial responsibility to the crown was the reality of political life. Yet if it had been he would never have come to office" (The Life Of Sir Robert Peel After 1830 P714). Then from 1868 the idea of party permeated the country itself. Various party associations were organised all over Britain. This reflected the growing power of the electorate. The term prime minister now slowly came into use, and was first used in an official sense in 1878, when Benjamin Disraeli was called "First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister of her Brittanic Majesty" in the Treaty of Berlin.



Houghton Hall home of Robert Walpole.

But whether the person in charge was called first lord, or prime minister, and whether they were chosen by king, the House of Commons, or the electorate, the question remains about the reality of a prime minister's power. In some ways reading about prime ministers I began to think of Shakespeare's kings, who are presented as both powerful and helpless. As Tolstoy said in War and Peace national leaders are at the centre of such a wide web of circumstance that in many ways they have less power than the most ordinary of people. Robert Peel for one agreed, when he wrote in 1833 that "men, and the conduct of men, are much more the creature of circumstances than they generally appear in history " (See Gash P717). These contradictions are well illustrated by the relationship of prime ministers and monarchs. If prime ministers are supposed to have replaced monarchs as the centre of power it is interesting how many prime ministers have mimicked monarchs. Monarchs are now figureheads who make no decisions of national importance, but give a sense of unity to the often chaotic business of government. Similarly it is remarkable how many prime ministers have been selected not because of their individual brilliance but because they served as neutral compromise candidates to act mainly as a figurehead. The early twentieth century prime minister Arthur Balfour says much about the typical sort of person chosen for the top office when he described himself at Eton: "I was neither very good nor very bad... I was not a hero among my fellows, nor the subject of hopeful speculation among my teachers. I had, indeed, no difficulty in maintaining an average position among my contemporaries" (quoted in Balfour The Last Grandee by R.J.Q Adams P13). Prime ministers who could be described as neutral figureheads include the Earl of Wilmington, the Duke of Newcastle, the Duke of Devonshire, the Duke of Grafton, Lord North, the Duke Of Portland, Henry Addington, Lord Grenville, Spencer Perceval, Lord Melbourne, Clement Attlee. James Callaghan and John Major. Melbourne is particularly interesting. During his premiership from 1834 to 1841 he made an art of doing nothing. He really only came into his own when Queen Victoria succeeded to the throne in 1837. Melbourne tutored young Victoria in the role of constitutional queen, which is largely the art of energetically doing nothing. Between Victoria's accession to the throne and her marriage to Albert in 1840 Melbourne was a kind of king to Victoria's queen. Their close relationship only ended when Melbourne was replaced by Albert. Melbourne illustrates the fact that the role of a monarch is still required in society. While we think that the modern world has moved on from monarchy, in many ways the idea has simply been translated into new terms, with a prime minister virtually acting as a monarch. Into modern times this continues to be the case, even if for public consumption the role of prime minsiter is portrayed as one of ultimate power and influence. Anthony Sheldon writes in his biography of Tony Blair: "Blair had arrived at Number 10 not realising the very real limits on his executive power: under British constitution it is the departmental ministers who have the task of executing policies. 'You are the chairman, not the chief executive' he was told. 'So who is the chief executive then if I am not?' he asked" (Blair P428). That question went unanswered. Nobody really seems to know who might qualify as the chief executive.


Even individual prime ministers usually judged as personally powerful continue to illustrate the contradictions of power. William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli are not usually considered neutral characters selected because they didn't offend anyone. But in the history of their administrations they often seemed to be passengers rather than drivers. These two men, leading the Whig and Tory parties respectively, both represented governments that administered continuing reforms. Historians have argued over who was the greater reformer, whether Disraeli was the champion of change in the Reform Act of 1867, or whether Gladstone in opposition forced Disraeli's actions upon him. In many ways the case for both men is unconvincing. Governments followed votes. Governments would increase the range of people who could vote, and then hope that people enjoying their vote for the first time would vote for whichever administration had given it to them. Disraeli's biographer, R. Blake, has written: "It was like a moonlight steeplechase. In negotiating their fences few of them saw where they were going, nor much cared so long as they got there first " (Disraeli - Ch21). Prime ministers such as David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill reveal similar contradictions. The pressures of war time meant they didn't have to worry about the tedious business of keeping party support together. Unity was provided by the pressures of war. And yet even with these apparently autocratic rulers there is a sense that they appeared powerful to answer a public need for the impression of strong reassuring leadership. Whether these men actually had more power than their peace time counterparts is debatable. Lloyd George for example made much in his memoirs of marching down to the Admiralty to demand that the obtuse people there start using convoys to protect Atlantic shipping. A.J. Marder in From the Dreadnought to Scarpa Flow suggests that this is not what actually happened, since the navy had already decided that convoys should be tried. It is also revealing that Lloyd George wanted to sack Britain's senior Army commander General Haig, but found it politically impossible to do so. As for Winston Churchill, Tolstoy said in War and Peace that a leader becomes successful not because they change the direction of history, but because they catch the tide of the way history is going anyway. Hegel said the same thing in different words: "The great man of the age is the one who can put into words the will of the age, what its will is, and accomplish it " (Hegel Philosophy of Right P295). This in fact is what Churchill did. During World War Two he contributed to the war effort not through strategic acumen -in fact his interference in operational matters was often counter productive - but through his talent for words. Churchill's made his contribution through his speeches.



Trafalgar Tavern Greenwich, a favourite meeting place for Gladstone and his ministers

Saying all this does not mean to suggest that prime ministers sit around all day and do nothing. Many prime ministers have famously not slept much. But the fact remains their work is not necessarily an expression of personal power. Perhaps in conclusion this contradiction can be illustrated by a brief account of the greatest crisis of the career of nineteenth century prime minister Robert Peel. Peel, ironically has been described by various writers as a man who initiated historic change, and as a man who followed along when those changes became inevitable. It was over the Corn Laws that Peel's strangely characteristic powerful and yet powerless position comes truly into focus. The Corn Laws were protective tariffs imposing a high duty on imported wheat, which kept the price of grain artificially high in an attempt to protect agricultural interests. This legislation might have made sense when Britain was a primarily rural country, but made less sense as Britain grew increasingly urban as the nineteenth century progressed. By the 1840s the Corn Laws were being seen as favouring rich landowners over hard working factory workers. The crucial struggle over the Corn Laws began in the summer of 1845 when potato disease began to appear in central and western Europe. In August potato blight was reported in Kent, and by September it had reached Ireland, where millions of people subsisted on a diet of potatoes. Peel took scientific advice, and immediately realised that a huge disaster was looming in Ireland. He organised the biggest relief effort the world had yet seen, buying in £100,000 worth of foreign wheat, enough to feed a million people for forty days. Peel also knew that this wasn't enough, since there were potentially four million people to feed for months rather than days. It therefore seemed inevitable that the Corn Laws, standing in the way of foreign imports, and keeping the price of bread artificially high, would have to go. In so many ways the time of the Corn Laws was over. Britain was becoming an urban rather than a rural society, and the situation in Ireland was the final straw for this out of date legislation. A majority of MPs in the House of Commons agreed. But a majority of MPs in Robert Peel's own Conservative Party, where agricultural land owners were strongly represented, certainly did not agree. Peel realised that getting his party to agree to a repeal of the Corn Laws was impossible. The decision was made to press ahead with repeal even though it was clear the Conservative government would be torn apart. The Conservatives were not in a position to do what needed to be done, so resignation became inevitable. Peel resigned in December 1845, but was forced to return to office when Whig Party leader Lord John Russell could not form a government out of his argumentative colleagues. Into 1846 an increasingly exhausted Peel fought on inspite of howls of protest from his own MPs, led by Benjamin Disraeli. In the teeth of this ferocious opposition, measures were passed which would end tariffs on a whole range of goods. The time had come for these changes, but that did not mean they happened easily.



It was during the battle over the Corn Laws that Harriet Martineau wrote to Peel and described him as a "great doer of the impossible". This accurately indicates what Peel had to go through to repeal the Corn Laws. And yet the great doer of the impossible is described by writer Walter Bagehot in terms which suggest a completely opposite viewpoint. Bagehot writes: "From a certain peculiarity of intellect and fortune, he was never in advance of his time. On almost all the great measures with which his name is associated, he attained great eminence as their opponent before he attained even greater eminence as their advocate. On the Corn Laws, on the currency, on the amelioration of the criminal code, on catholic emancipation... he was not one of the earliest labourers or quickest converts. He did not bear the burden in the heat of the day; other men laboured and he entered into their labours" (quoted The Prime Ministers Vol 1 P375). Somehow both Bagehot and Martineau are right. Peel was not one of the earliest labourers it is true, but it would be ridiculous to say he did not bear the burden in the heat of the day. Robert Peel reflects a strange truth about life. There is an inevitability about affairs, which nevertheless does not let individuals relax into a sense of fatalism. Peel still battled on as if he could make an individual difference. Asa Briggs might claim that Peel was ahead of his time, setting the pace which others followed. But you could argue that people who are truly ahead of their time rarely appear to succeed. There are plenty of examples of visionary people who were simply marooned in a time not yet ready for them. Their bright ideas sit out of place like desert islands. Progress depends on many factors coming together, and you could say that Peel had a knack for knowing when things were coming together. Peel was not ahead of his time; he was of his time and could not escape its strictures; but that was why he was able to change things. All prime ministers are in this position. In the end the nature of prime ministerial power reflects on the strange nature of power that anyone experiences in life. In the words of Forrest Gump: "I don't know if we each have a destiny, or if we're all just floating around accidental-like on a breeze, but I think maybe it's both. Maybe both is happening at the same time."