This year is the 300th anniversary of Britain’s first prime minister taking power. The PM is the most powerful political figure in the UK, but the origins of the position are not clear. In the early 18th century, Britain’s monarchy was losing power to Parliament. This created an opportunity for a politician who could control Parliament and work with the monarch. Sir Robert Walpole was that man. Although his actual title was First Lord of the Treasury, historians consider him to be the country’s first prime minister. He dominated politics from 1721 to 1742.
The politicians who followed Walpole developed his role, but no one used the term ‘prime minister’ —it was actually taboo in British politics for decades because it suggested that one single individual had accumulated too much power. During the 19th century, however, it slowly became acceptable.
Britain’s premiership is mainly informal in character. The PM’s powers come from convention, rather than the law. In 1870, the PM acquired the exclusive right to call cabinet meetings. In 1903, it was decided he could remove ministers and, fifteen years later, that he could call general elections.
The PM’s Advisers
A fundamental element of the premiership since the very beginning has been the question of advisers. Walpole had the assistance of ‘men of business’ —friends and colleagues. With the development of the professional Civil Service in the mid-19th century, the PM could ask for advice from some of the best specialists in the world. A hundred years later, Britain’s premiers started to use special advisers, who combined party political and civil service functions. At the same time, government, which had been cabinet-led, slowly changed to prime ministerial government, and PM staff numbers grew dramatically, reaching two hundred by the year 2000.
a mixed bag
In the last few decades, prime ministers have varied dramatically in quality. While Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair impressed with their general abilities, others have not covered themselves in glory. John Major and Theresa May were both compared unfavourably to Lord North, who famously lost England’s colonies in North America in the late 18th century. David Cameron’s 2016 referendum led to Brexit. Scottish independence could soon follow. Britain’s current and 77th PM, Boris Johnson, often compared himself to Donald Trump … but not anymore!.
|1 Sir Robert Walpole|
(Whig Party, PM from 1721-42)
Britain’s first PM began to live in 10 Downing Street in 1735, the first premier to do so. In 1712, he was found guilty of corruption (a trumped-upcharge) and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Britain’s longest-serving PM, he was excellent at pulling the political strings in Parliament.
|2 Frederick North, Lord North|
During his period in power, the British colonies in North America were lost, and he has carried the blameever since. He was only partially responsible. He spent his last five years in power begging King George III to let him resign. Charming and popular, he loved to tell negative anecdotes about himself.
3 Sir Robert Peel
(Conservative, 1834-35, 1841-46)
A very talented politician, he was a cabinet minister at just twenty-four. Before becoming PM, he prepared the basis for British policing by creating the Metropolitan Police force in London. He launched the Conservative Party in 1835. As PM, he opened the economy to free trade and introduced income tax.
4 Benjamin Disraeli
(Conservative, 1868, 1874-80)
On becoming PM, the first and only Jew to do so, Disraeli famously said: “I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.” He also said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.” He introduced a great deal of social legislation. He was also Queen Victoria’s favourite Prime Minister.
|5 William Gladstone|
(Liberal, 1868-74, 1880-85, 1886, 1892-94)
Gladstone and Disraeli were bitter enemies and had the greatest political rivalry in history. Gladstone served for four terms, more periods than any other PM. To the working classes, he was the ‘Grand Old Man’. He spent much of his life trying to rescue prostitutes. Queen Victoria described him as “half-mad.”
|6 David Lloyd George|
Nicknamed ‘The Goat’ for his inexhaustible sexual energy and womanising, Lloyd George is the only Welshman to have become PM. As an MP he introduced reforms which helped lay the foundations for the modern welfare state. As PM he played a major role at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 that re-ordered Europe.
|7 Winston Churchill|
(Conservative, 1940-45, 1951-55)
Repeatedly voted the greatest Briton of all time, Churchill is Britain’s most iconic Prime Minister. Born in 1874 in Blenheim Palace, one of the great English stately homes, his father was Lord Randolph Churchill, son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, and his mother, the socialite daughter of a wealthy New Yorker.
Before entering politics as a member of the Conservative Party, Churchill combined a military career, serving in India and Sudan, with writing. Once in politics, he switched from the Conservative Party to the Liberals, and then back to the Conservatives again. In 1940, during the worst days of the Second World War, with the Nazis overrunning Europe and British defeat seeming inevitable, Winston Churchill was appointed both Prime Minister and Minister of Defence. He will be remembered as the man who stiffened the resolve of the British people and held the country together, helping to lead the Allies to victory.
Two weeks after Germany surrendered on 5 May 1945, he resigned as Prime Minister. To the surprise of many, he and his party were defeated by the Labour Party in the general election of July 1945. Although he continued in politics as leader of the opposition, and even became Prime Minister again in the 1950s, his finest hour had come and gone. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 in recognition of his “mastery of historical and biographical description”, as well as for his oratorical output. However, he controversially believed in racial hierarchies and eugenics, he fought against independence for India, and he opposed trade unions and workers’ rights; even, on one occasion, using the army against Welsh strikers.
8 Clement Attlee
Considered by many to be the most successful PM of the 20th century, this great administrator introduced radical welfare reforms and created the National Health Service, both of which remain vital pillars of British society. He also rebuilt the economy after World War Two and gave freedom to India.
|9 Margaret Thatcher|
The first female Prime Minister and possibly the most divisive British leader in history, Thatcher and her twelve years in power profoundly changed the nature of British society, and her influence is still felt today. In the political arena, she challenged and defeated the powerful trade unions, changing labour relations forever, and also moving British politics in general to the right, which in turn led to a radical transformation in the Labour Party and the subsequent electoral victories of the ‘New Labour’ party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Equally important were the consequences of her economic and financial reforms, carried out in tandem with those of President Ronald Reagan in the US.
Thatcher liberalised the British economy, privatising state-owned industries and introducing more flexibility into the labour market —moves copied around the world. Her general policy could be summarised as less welfare state, less government, lower taxes and more freedom for business and consumers. Equally radical was her financial policy. Thatcher introduced financial deregulation in an attempt to strengthen the British economy. The so-called ‘Big Bang’ reforms of 1986 removed many restrictions on the London Stock Exchange, and some experts attribute the 2008 financial crisis and accompanying banking scandals to these changes.
Thatcher’s time in power was marked by shockingly high unemployment and social unrest that on occasions turned violent. Drug abuse and family breakdown became more common, and critics connect her policies with a culture of greed and selfishness in society. In fact, in an interview in 1987 she famously said: “There is no such thing as society.” The IRA tried to assassinate her in 1984.
|10 Tony Blair|
Blair helped Labour to achieve power after eighteen years in the wildernesslandslideseatspartnerships
, in the biggest
in history (418
out of 659). His legacy included revitalising the UK economy, civil
, Bank of England independence, and local government for Wales and Scotland —but he controversially joined America in the Iraq War.
Out of rank Boris Johnson
Britain’s current prime minister, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (‘Bojo’), was born in New York in June 1964. He decided very young that he wanted to be “world king”. Bullied at school because of his Turkish lineage, he cultivated an eccentric English persona as self-protection. After attending prestigious school Eton and then Oxford University, he went into journalism. Dismissed from his first job on The Times for fabricating a quote, he moved to The Daily Telegraph, where he spent five years ridiculing the European Union. He then spent six years as editor of the magazine The Spectator, where he hosted famously lascivious parties. Johnson has had two wives, several partners and countless affairs, often at the same time. It is not clear how many children he has. Johnson entered Parliament as a Conservative MP in 2001. After two terms as Mayor of London, he became an MP again in 2015. He made himself the chief spokesman for the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum and then argued for a hard Brexit. The premiership quickly followed. In the December 2019 General Election, Johnson won a landslide victory for the Conservatives. A year later he signed a deal with the EU. Johnson contracted coronavirus last year and was seriously ill. Many experts have criticised him over his handling of the pandemic. However, the successful vaccination programme in Britain has restored some of his lost credibility. Johnson’s future, however, is still very uncertain.