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By the early twentieth century the prime minister had reached the status of being the preeminent figure in British politics. The monarchy and the royal court had steadily declined in influence, as seen in Chapter 7. The Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office rose, but then fell in power, as described in Chapter 8. But the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury rose, and then rose again, to become, by the end of the twentieth century, the biggest single potential challenge to the power of the prime minister. No longer subordinate at all. Naked political power, ambition, the knowledge that some were virtually unsackable, and the backing of the mighty resource of the Treasury, ensured that they had become a power to themselves, strutting around Westminster and Whitehall like an almighty baron in medieval England.
Prime ministers come to office bursting with ideas about how they are going to make Britain a better country and outperform their predecessor, but with only the haziest idea about the job itself. ‘Reality only fully dawns’, says Mark Sedwill, one ex-Cabinet Secretary, ‘when they go to see the monarch, and walk through the front door of Number 10 for the first time.’ Their first words to the nation uttered on the doorstep of Number 10 say more about them than the job to begin moments later. ‘Where there is discord we will bring harmony’, said Thatcher, quoting Francis of Assisi. ‘A country that is at ease with itself’ was Major’s aspiration. For Blair, it was to govern not for ‘the privilege of the few but the right[s] of the many’ and to ‘rebuild trust in politics’. His school motto inspired Brown to promise the nation that ‘I will try my utmost.’ Fighting ‘burning injustices’ was May’s intention, while Johnson was going ‘to restore trust in our democracy’ by ‘uniting our country’ and ‘answering at last the plea of the forgotten people’ by achieving Brexit and ‘level[ling] up across Britain’. Gus O’Donnell, who patiently waited as Cabinet Secretary to greet two incoming prime ministers, made a study of these first speeches, and notes how similar are the aspirations of the virgin prime ministers.
The prime minister was not predestined to appear in British history in 1721. The job Walpole came to fill in 1721 had been intermittently done for 750 years by forerunners, called here ‘chief ministers’ for simplicity’s sake. We need to understand the similarities of this earlier post, and how the job of ‘prime minister’ differed. Events from 1688 are critical to understanding why the job appeared in 1721. Walpole’s long period in office embedded the new post, but a certain fuzziness and contingency continued for four decades after he ceased to be prime minister. Only with the arrival of William Pitt the Younger (14th, 1783–1801, 1804–6) did the office of prime minister become a secure fixture in British politics.
Our exploration of three hundred years of prime ministers, and the experiences of the fifty-five different incumbents, is almost at an end. The country they led changed fundamentally over that three-hundred-year period, yet their job of leading the nation has in many respects remained the same. This final chapter seeks to provide answers to a number of questions that have come to the fore in the book.
The prime minister cannot be understood from studying a list of powers written down in laws or documents but only by looking at what they did in flesh and blood. Not all prime ministers are equal. Chapter 3 established that only two of the fourteen prime ministers between 1721 and 1806 left an enduring impact on the office, and in this chapter, we consider the other six who defined the office as ‘agenda changers’. They are the creators of the office of prime minister. All eight – two in the eighteenth century, three in the nineteenth, and three in the twentieth – carved out what the office of prime minister means, and shaped the office in their own image. After these ‘agenda changers’ ceased to be prime minister, their successors over the years that followed either tried to be like them, or tried deliberately to distance themselves from them: but none could escape their long shadow.
So the job Robert Walpole performed from 1721 and Boris Johnson from 2019 had much in common. But the country they headed was vastly different. In this chapter, we explore some of the more momentous technological, political, cultural, and social changes that occurred over the 300 years. Only by appreciating these factors, which have been perhaps under-considered in the literature on the office to date, can a rounded appreciation of it be achieved. The sheer pace and extent of change makes the survival of the office of prime minister over 300 years, and the adaptability of the individuals involved, even more remarkable.
Marking the third centenary of the office of Prime Minister, this book tells its extraordinary story, explaining how and why it has endured longer than any other democratic political office in world history. Sir Anthony Seldon, historian of Number 10 Downing Street, explores the lives and careers, loves and scandals, successes and failures, of all our great Prime Ministers. From Robert Walpole and William Pitt the Younger, to Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, Seldon discusses which of our Prime Ministers have been most effective and why. He reveals the changing relationship between the Monarchy and the office of the Prime Minister in intimate detail, describing how the increasing power of the Prime Minister in becoming leader of Britain coincided with the steadily falling influence of the Monarchy. This book celebrates the humanity and frailty, work and achievement, of these 55 remarkable individuals, who averted revolution and civil war, leading the country through times of peace, crisis and war.
No prime minister operates as a general giving orders to troops (though some come to Number 10 thinking they can). They are all playing chess on a multi-dimensional board, prey to forces that vary in type and intensity over time. The most skilful negotiate their way through these constraints, turning them to their advantage, and refuse to be defined by adversities. The least able are swallowed up by them. We first consider the institutional restraints, the checks and balances they face, some dating back to 1721, before considering variable constraints, which have made and destroyed premierships, and rendered even the best-qualified incumbent a cornered animal.
By 2021, the prime minister had emerged in undisputed control of foreign policy, taking over the powers initially from the monarch, then Parliament, then the Foreign Secretary. The prime minister decrees British foreign policy, whether the country goes to war, and how it is fought. This chapter will examine how and why this transition occurred, and why the prime minister today can afford to be more preoccupied with foreign rather than domestic policy, and what this has meant to the office and powers of the prime minister.
The history of the prime minister and of the monarchy are inextricably linked. The monarchy continued to exercise real authority for the first 200 years of the prime minister’s existence. The transfer of power was painful, faltering, and contested. The continued existence of the monarchy was never a given. It had been abolished in Britain in 1649, as it was in France in 1792 (and 1848 and 1870), Germany in 1918, and Italy in 1946. Aside from the queen, and the British Commonwealth, only twenty-eight countries still retain a monarchy, just 15 per cent of the total. Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and Sweden retain monarchies with ceremonial duties, but beyond Europe, they tend to be found in the Muslim world, and include some with absolute power, Brunei, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
The British general election of May 2010 delivered the first coalition government since the Second World War. David Cameron and Nick Clegg pledged a 'new politics' with the government taking office in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Five years on, a team of leading experts drawn from academia, the media, Parliament, Whitehall and think tanks assesses this 'coalition effect' across a broad range of policy areas. Adopting the contemporary history approach, this pioneering book addresses academic and policy debates across this whole range of issues. Did the coalition represent the natural 'next step' in party dealignment and the evolution of multi-party politics? Was coalition in practice a historic innovation in itself, or did the essential principles of Britain's uncodified constitution remain untroubled? Fundamentally, was the coalition able to deliver on its promises made in the coalition agreement, and what were the consequences - for the country and the parties - of this union?