The British Prime Minister and the Development of Democracy, 1868-1997: Graham Goodlad Examines the Changing Role of the Occupant of Number Ten in an Era of Significant Political Change

By Goodlad, Graham | History Review, September 2010 | Go to article overview

The British Prime Minister and the Development of Democracy, 1868-1997: Graham Goodlad Examines the Changing Role of the Occupant of Number Ten in an Era of Significant Political Change


Goodlad, Graham, History Review


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Between the age of Disraeli and Gladstone and that of Major and Blair 130 years later, the British political system underwent far-reaching changes amounting to a transformation. In this period Britain became a mass democracy, with the extension of voting rights to growing numbers of male workers and then to women. Intimidation and the bribery of voters by the social and political elite virtually ceased as part of electoral practice. The powers of the monarchy and the House of Lords were steadily reduced as the elected House of Commons became accepted as the dominant parliamentary chamber. The main political parties developed formal organisational structures, at national and local levels, and acquired an increasing hold on the loyalties of grassroots supporters. The mass media--a popular press, augmented later by radio and television--took on the dual role of commentator and participant in the political process. What was the impact of these changes on the role of the Prime Minister?

An Ill-Defined Role

One of the difficulties in approaching this subject is that the position of Prime Minister has traditionally lacked clear legal definition. The office is generally held to date back to the government of Sir Robert Walpole (1721-42), who established the monarch's first minister as principal manager of the Cabinet and Parliament. With occasional exceptions, the post of Prime Minister was synonymous with that of First Lord of the Treasury. The former title did not appear in an official document, however, until the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. Nor was the Prime Minister formally accorded a place in the order of precedence at the royal court until 1905. Statutory recognition of the Prime Minister, as a salaried individual with specific duties, arrived with the 1937 Ministers of the Crown Act.

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Nonetheless, long before that point the importance of the office was generally recognised. By the mid-Victorian period the Prime Minister was understood to be more than merely 'first among equals' in the Cabinet. Disraeli's comment on gaining the premiership in February 1868, 'I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole', is perhaps the best known acknowledgement of this truth. The major responsibilities of the office comprised the following: the management of the government as a whole, in Parliament and the country, usually combined with leadership of the largest political party; representation of the country in dealings with other states; a leading role in the formulation of policy, especially in economic and foreign affairs; and the power to appoint members of the ministry and thus to determine the overall shape of the government. The very flexibility of the role--in contrast, for example, with the President of the United States, whose powers and functions are laid down in the constitution--has often been a source of strength. As we shall see, the role of Prime Minister has depended heavily on the personality and style of particular office holders, and on changing circumstances. There is considerable truth in the words of one long-serving incumbent, H.H. Asquith (1908-16), that the office is what each individual holder chooses, and is able, to make of it.

The Basis of Prime Ministerial Power

Historically the power of the Prime Minister derived from the monarch's commission to form a government; indeed in a formal sense this remains the case down to the present day. By the nineteenth century, however, it was clear that no Prime Minister could govern without the support of a majority in the House of Commons. This was true even of premiers who sat in the House of Lords, as many did until the retirement of Lord Salisbury in 1902. Moreover, as a consequence of the gradual widening of the franchise, it became clearer that ultimately governments answered to the electorate. In the 30 years before the start of our period, the government was changed only once (in 1841) as the result of a general election.

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