The Rise of the Prime Minister, 300 Years and Counting

Today, 3 April 2021, is the 300th anniversary of Robert Walpole being appointed First Lord of the Treasury, and so becoming the first, de facto, Prime Minister. It was the first time any single minister could be considered to be in control and it quickly became a position held by the leader of the government. Since then the role of Prime Minister has changed drastically. Most of these changes have been vital to the development of a reasonably democractic system, however in recent years there have been some worrying changes.

Before powers and offices were combined in this way, the government was a collection of ministers without a set leader. Walpole, in the face of criticism over the centralization of power, felt the need to “unequivocally deny that [he was] sole or Prime Minister”. In more recent years such disavowal of power would seem absurd, with Prime Ministers stressing their political power. 

As the position was not used in any official capacity or legally recognized, it can sometimes be hard to define who was the Prime Minister. For example, both William Pitt the Elder and the 1st Duke of Newcastle were described as the Prime Minister simultaneously as they both held similar powers. In today’s system such ambiguity would be seen, quite rightly, as a flaw. It is vital that political power is clear, and each minister knows to whom they are answerable.  

It was not until 1878 that Benjamin Disraeli officially recognized the position of Prime Minister by signing the Treaty of Berlin as “First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister of her Britannic Majesty”. Even now the office of First Lord of the Treasury is inherently linked to the position of Prime Minister. Such oddities hinder transparency and should be regularised so that the Prime Minister only has powers as the Prime Minister, and all associated positions and offices are merely titular nods to history.

Disraeli’s time as Prime Minister marked an interesting shift, as being a member of the House of Commons had become an advantage for the Prime Minister, but not a necessity. It shows how many of the democractic changes to the system were not the result of support for democracy, but sly moments of politicking. 

The Prime Minister is technically chosen by the monarch. However, since 1834, when William IV picked a Prime Minister without Parliament’s support, who quickly had to resign, the monarch can only choose a Prime Minister on the advice of the government. This again was not about true democracy, but was a party political struggle in which the King’s mistake was to support the losing side.    

Related to these democratic changes is the way in which the Prime Minister has communicated with the people. Gladstone was one of the first to directly appeal to voters across the country. The Prime Minister travelling around the country giving speeches has become a standard part of our political system. For all the faults of rhetorically slick, carefully spun, sophistic speeches punctuated with the odd outright untruth, public political discourse is a key part of any democratic system. 

It gets more concerning when this transmutes into a sense of almost presidential focus on the Prime Minister as a figurehead. It is normal for a sense of patriotic loyalty to manifest in respect for a figurehead, but said individual (be it a monarch or president) should not be affiliated in a partisan way with the government of the day.

The current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is quite rightly using technology to directly address the people, especially in emergencies. What the Prime Minister should not be doing, is using this sort of direct address to side-line parliament. Policy decisions should first be announced in the House of Commons, giving the elected MPs the chance to scrutinise and challenge them. The focus on centralised press briefings has also raised questions about transparency and journalistic freedoms.

Linked to this is the recent trend of centralising government decision making. It appears that the current Prime Minister tried to alter the political structure so civil servants and some political advisors would answer directly to the Prime Minister’s office rather than to a delegated Minister. The most notable example of this was the argument over the proposed merger of the Treasury and Prime Minister’s teams, leading to the resignation of then Chancellor, Sajid Javid.

In 300 years, power has steadily shifted from the monarch to the government. The House of Lords has lessened in power, so now any Prime Minister must be a member of the House of Commons. Long gone are the times in which successive Prime Ministers could govern from the House of Lords. These changes have worked slowly, more by shifting convention and political expediency than any set plan. Even in 1963 the Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home was briefly a peer until he could renounce his position and stand in a byelection. 

Such a change is surely a good thing for any democratic society and is clearly something that should be celebrated. However, the gradual change, based in convention, means that a peer could still legally hold the position of Prime Minister.

It is also worth noting that many of the powers transferred from the monarch are not now in the hands of parliament, but the government. So, the position of Prime Minister as leader of the government must be carefully monitored.

As the Prime Minister is a position built over such a significant span of time, with powers slowly built up by convention rather than by any deliberate legal authority, there is very little that can limit a Prime Minister’s actions if they decide to break convention. Hopefully as the role continues to evolve, some of these powers might be formalised and brought into a structure with real oversight.

Words by Ed Bedford

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