From Walpole to Johnson: lessons from the 300-year history of the British prime minister

Three centuries after its inception, Sir Anthony Seldon charts how the office of prime minister has defied hostile monarchs, a scandal-hungry media and two world wars to become the beating heart of Britain’s body politic

Front door of No 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the British prime minister

The history of the British prime minister, 300 years old in April 2021, is riddled with mysteries, in large part because no one has joined together all the dots. It is nearly 50 years since someone tried, when historian Robert Blake wrote a book that discusses the office and its holders going back to the beginning.

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We have biographers who dive down deep shafts into the ground to mine everything about an individual prime minister, but sometimes know little about who came before and after. History has become segmented by period and specialism. Some know a great deal about the early 18th century, or the mid-19th century, about economic or cultural history, but few take the long view. Rare are historians like Jeremy Black, or journalists like Daniel Finkelstein, who have a rich understanding of the entire 300 years of British prime ministers.

In place of a wide horizon, we have gone in for polls, plenty of them, ranking prime ministers from “first” to “last”, as if they were artists whose work we can see now, or footballers who have scored a given number of goals. We attempt to determine a prime minister’s “greatness”. But great at what? Everyone knows about Winston Churchill’s achievements. But what about William Pitt the Elder (PM from 1766–68) or Earl Grey (1830–34), both of whom were considerable figures. Polls are fun but we should not treat them as a substitute for serious analysis.

In  The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister, the book I wrote to coincide with the April anniversary, I have sought to answer seven questions – and I’ll attempt to do so here. They are:

  1. Why did the office emerge when it did in 1721, when Robert Walpole became Britain’s first prime minister?
  2. How has it survived for 300 years, the longest lasting democratic office in the modern world?
  3. Is the job that Walpole was performing in 1721 the same as Boris Johnson in 2021?
  4.  Who have been the best prime ministers, and why?
  5. When did the prime minister take over from the monarch as the most powerful figure in Britain, and from the foreign secretary as the key figure conducting foreign policy?
  6. Why has the chancellor of the Exchequer emerged as the biggest challenger to the authority of the prime minister?
  7. How might the office of prime minister, and No 10, be strengthened as it enters its fourth century?

The first prime minister

So why did the office emerge in 1721? When King George I asked Walpole to be First Lord of the Treasury and chancellor of the Exchequer in April 1721, no one at the time saw it as a major constitutional innovation. No one used the term “prime minister”, except as a term of abuse (because it seemed to usurp royal prerogative).

It was to take two centuries before the office became a formalised part of the British constitution. Some historians have denied that 1721 was a significant milestone at all. This is understandable, but they are wrong to do so. Something of significant historical importance happened then, even if not apparent to contemporaries for many years.

Some see the office of prime minister dating back long before 1721. Chief ministers to the monarch had been strutting the corridors of power since the days of Dunstan, a powerful bishop who advised several English kings in the 10th century.

In the 16th century, Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell under Henry VIII, and William and Robert Cecil under Elizabeth I, had some of the attributes of the prime minister as the job emerged. They were clearly pre-eminent over all other figures in privy council and court. But they differed from the prime minister because their power rested wholly upon the monarch. By the mid-17th century, Oliver Cromwell was drawing his power from his command of the army. But the office that emerged after 1721 derived its authority from the monarch and parliament. The latter was critical to his powerbase, as Walpole understood.

It took the execution of Charles I in 1649, the Interregnum, then Restoration in 1660, and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 to pave the way to the prime minister, as opposed to the chief minister. There was nothing inevitable about the emergence of the office. As the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch reminds us, were it not for the imposition of a Scottish king (James VI and I), a Dutch king (William III and II) and then the Hanoverians, the future of the constitution could have been very different.

A series of Acts of Parliament after 1689 were all important in ensuring that Britain was to develop a constitutional rather than an absolute monarch, with parliament to meet every year, elections initially every three then every seven years, and the king dependent upon parliament for revenue. This required the king to have a figure in parliament who he could trust to ensure his legislation and financial bills passed.

If it hadn’t been for the infamous South Sea Bubble in 1720–21 (when the collapse of the South Sea Company stock ruined thousands of investors), the office might still not have emerged. George I, who became king in 1714, was heavily implicated in the affair, and he turned to the wily Walpole to steer and stabilise the country.

Why the role of prime minister survived

The survival of the office, our second question, was far from certain. A moment of high peril came in 1727, when King George was succeeded by his son George II, who turned to one of Walpole’s rivals, Spencer Compton. Only when he proved incapable of commanding parliament did the second George turn back to Walpole, who cleverly exploited his position, not least ingratiating himself with the king’s wife. Robert Walpole was nothing if not a seductive manipulator of people and money.

When Walpole was ousted from office in 1742, the position was more firmly embedded in the constitution, not least because he survived for 21 years, still the longest spell in the hot seat for a British PM. But it was to be
another 40 years, and the arrival of William Pitt the Younger as prime minister, before the office truly stabilised. It is, to a large extent, thanks to Pitt’s many qualities as a leader that the position of prime minster has survived its first 300 years.

Between Walpole and Pitt, the power of the nascent office of prime minister was threatened by the accession to the throne in 1760 of George III. Britain now had a monarch who wanted to claw back authority from parliament and politicians, to appoint the First Lord and subordinate ministers at will, to be the dominant voice in cabinet and to control policy.

We see this most clearly in the American War of Independence, when it was the king, and not Prime Minister Lord North, who drove the belligerent policy forward. The loss of the 13 colonies was a profound blow not just to Britain but to George himself, who seriously considered abdicating.

For the next serious military conflict, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, it was William Pitt in the driving seat, not George. The king’s bouts of mental illness, and increasing fatigue, and his withdrawal from office in 1811, was another key moment in the emergence of the prime minister. The growing influence of political parties from the 1830s further consolidated the position of the prime minister, as the political head of their party. There was to be no going back.

The genius of the landmark holders of the office was constantly to update the position of the prime minister within the body politic, and strengthen the powers of No 10 and the Cabinet Office, formed by Lloyd George in December 1916. The fact that no one has launched a successful invasion of mainland Britain since 1688, that there was no revolution, nor civil war (all of which would have swept the office aside), all counted. Loss of a major war might have done for the office of PM: had Britain been defeated in the First World War, the monarchy might have fallen, and quite probably the prime minister.

The survival of the office is all the more remarkable considering the profound changes that the role of prime minister has experienced. Walpole never visited Bristol, Manchester or Leeds, still less Wales or Scotland. Norfolk was his limit. He communicated and travelled at the speed of human legs and horses’ hooves. Today, Boris Johnson travels almost at the speed of sound, and communicates at the speed of light. The coming of the telegraph, telephone, electricity, the railway, cars, jets and internet all profoundly changed the life of the prime minister.

Johnson and Walpole

So, given all the changes, is it still the same office, our third question? Walpole and Johnson have much in common. Like Walpole, Johnson is a chancer, who came to office on the back of high-stakes risks. Like his predecessor, on assuming the role, Johnson’s primary task was to remain in office, and see off challengers, who were plentiful. Control of the media, in its very different forms, was and is a principal challenge and frustration for both Walpole and Johnson.

Johnson is First Lord of the Treasury, and ultimately responsible for the national finances and solvency. He is the nation’s leader, tasked with keeping the country safe from threats abroad and within its own frontiers. The population looks to him, as well as to the monarch, for leadership and national unity. Again, these were all challenges faced by Britain’s first prime minister in the 1720s and 30s.

The best and the worst

But which prime ministers have met these challenges most successfully? Of all our seven questions, that is surely the one that is asked most often. As opposed to the parlour game of picking the best and worst prime ministers, it is surely better to place prime ministers into different categories. “Agenda-changer” prime ministers made an enduring mark on the office and on policy, such that the successors either tried to be like them, or deliberately unlike them, but none were able to escape that shadow. They held the union together and enhanced its standing abroad. Only eight match this high standard: Walpole himself, Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel, Lord Palmerston, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. That means that in the last 70 years, there’s only been one such figure.

“Major influencers” come next, all of whom made a powerful impact on the country, like Winston Churchill, William Pitt the Elder, Benjamin Disraeli, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, but who left little enduring mark on the office. “Stabiliser prime ministers” (such as the Earl of Derby and John Major) all served well, but, in part because of the lack of opportunity, such as a war or major disruption, or lack of talent, didn’t significantly shift the dial.

“Noble” failures are leaders of integrity and ability, who signally failed to achieve their mission, like Neville Chamberlain and Theresa May. “Ignoble” failures include Lord Melbourne (who spent far too much time fawning over Queen Victoria, and not enough trying to improve the lot of his fellow countrymen), and Anthony Eden, who shamed himself and the country over Suez in 1956.

Finally, there’s a group of 12 who served for a year or less. This group includes some (like Lord Canning, who lasted just 119 days before dying) who could well have become significant prime ministers. So, too, could Spencer Perceval, assassinated after just three years, the only prime minister to suffer that fate.

Prime minsters, the Crown and the chancellor

As to why the prime minister took over from the monarch (our fifth question), this was a process that unfolded progressively over the centuries. Their position was immeasurably stronger relative to the monarchy in 1901 when Victoria died than it had been in 1837 when she assumed the throne.

The growth of representative democracy was critical to legitimising the prime minister. Yet to dismiss the power and influence of the monarchy today – especially Elizabeth II, the best-known figure and the most photographed in the world – would be a mistake. The monarch is a much stronger symbol of national unity across the four nations, and throughout the Commonwealth than the political and transitory prime minister –
a fact that’s been evidenced on numerous occasions during the Covid-19 crisis.

Over the past three centuries, the British foreign secretary has gradually lost power to the head of government. Technology has made such a development all but inevitable. By the time of the First World War, the prime minister could follow in real time and direct operations on the battlefield in a way that Pitt the Younger and Lord Liverpool could never have done 100 years earlier. For decades now, the prime minister has merely had to pick up the phone to speak to the president of the United States and other key global figures.

While the foreign secretary has fallen in power, the chancellor of the Exchequer (our sixth question) has seen his (it always has been a man) power wax. Since the 1980s, when Nigel Lawson was chancellor, they have increasingly challenged, threatened and ignored the prime minister. Tony Blair’s premiership would have been utterly different if he had not been constantly blocked by Gordon Brown as chancellor, as Theresa May’s would have been had it not been for her chancellor, Philip Hammond.

The outlook for prime ministers of the future

Every prime minister since 1945 has left the building at a time not of their own choosing, through election defeat, cabinet revolt or (as was the case with Harold Wilson in 1976) ill-health. None left with their agendas completed. What might then be done to strengthen the office of prime minister, and No 10 (our final question), as we enter the fourth century?

The prime minister and senior posts in No 10 have been overwhelmingly white, middle-class, male and from the south-east of England. Walpole and Johnson studied in the same classrooms, slept in the same bedrooms, and played in the same fields at Eton. No 10 has been full of cronies, with open selection criteria rejected in favour of mates being brought in looking and sounding like the prime minister. More women, people from BAME backgrounds, and people with regional accents are urgently needed.

Prime ministers have – for much of the office’s 300-year history – been vastly overworked, with little time for parliament, visiting the four nations, meeting people, going to the theatre, or even seeing the country at play.

We expect so much of them, expectations that they themselves encourage, not least with their hyperbolic statements on the doorstep when they enter the building. Disappointment is inevitable. But change is needed. The frequently impressive record of the German chancellor since 1945 shows how different it could be.

We need to create the opportunity for the often highly talented figures who rise to the top of the British political system to leave No 10 on their final day, not in tears, but with their heads held as high as they were on their first entry.

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Anthony Seldon’s is the author of The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister ( CUP, 2021). His BBC Radio 4 series The Prime Minister at 300 is airing now and available via BBC Sounds