United Kingdom: Prime Ministers: 1730-2024 - Archontology
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British Prime Ministers: 1730-2024

Emergence of the Term

The history of the British Prime Ministers owes much more to the imagination of historians, rather than to legal acts related to the origins of this high position and appointment of the office holders. The emergence of the term Prime Minister in Great Britain has long been an issue of scholarly and political debate. Although the term was used as early as the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), it acquired wider currency during the reign of George II (1727-1760). The question to whom the designation should first be applied greatly depends on the meaning implied by the question itself. As a term of reproach, it was used toward Sir Robert Walpole, but its definite birth as formal style assigned to the principal member of British government and its juridical justification date back to the late 19th century.

In the 18th and early 19th century, the London Gazette, the most important among official journals in the UK, assigned this title exclusively to foreign state officials. The term was given a sort of inoffical recognition when the Gazette published a number of condolences (1812) written by the British citizens and officials lamenting the stabbing of Spencer Perceval in the House of Commons. However, there are numerous categorical testimonies deep into the 19th century decrying the notion of a First or Prime Minister, credibly declaring the concept alien to the Constitution. The term actually emerged as a creature of politicians and historians, not lawyers or Parliament - indeed the contrary is best documented.

In 1741 it was declared in the Commons that "According to our Constitution we can have no sole and prime minister... every... officer has his own proper department; and no officer ought to meddle in the affairs belonging to the department of another." In the same year the Lords agreed that "We are persuaded that a sole, or even a first minister, is an officer unknown to the law of Britain, inconsistent with the Constitution of the country and destructive of liberty in any Government whatsoever." Beatson's Political Index of 1788 gives the list of 'Prime Ministers and Favourites from the Acceſſion of Henry VIII to the Preſent Time'. Since 1721 Beatson could only find one 'Sole Minister', and that was Sir Robert Walpole. At all subsequent periods he felt that he had to bracket two, three, or even four people as joint or co-equal ministers whose advice the King took and who therefore controlled the governance of the country.

The pressing need for establishment of formal office in charge of the Cabinet, nevertheless, continued to grow. In an interview by Lord Melville with William Pitt in 1803, the latter argued that "this person generally called the first minister" was an absolute necessity for a government to function, and expressed his belief that this person should be the minister in charge of the finances. In 1806 it was asserted in the Commons that "the Constitution abhors the idea of a prime minister", and as late as 1829 the Commons again asserted that "nothing could be more mischievous or unconstitutional than to recognize by act of parliament the existence of such an office." A certain breakthrough in recognition of the position was achieved when the Earl of Beaconsfield (Benjamin Disraeli) signed the Treaty of Berlin as "First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister of Her Britannic Majesty" in 1878. The appearance of the term "Prime Minister" is found in the Court Circular of 28 Jun 1895 with regard to the appointment of the Marquess of Salisbury to the said post.

There is no acceptable substance to the official concept of a British Prime Minister prior to its emerging into legal light by (a) the royal warrant of 1905 that placed the Prime Minister, mentioned as such, in the order of precedence in England immediately after the Archbishop of York; (b) its mention in the Chequers Estate Act of 1917, and (c) its final and definitive birth through the Ministers of the Crown Act of 1937.

It was not until early 20th century when the Prime Minister's precedence in England was established. On 10 Dec 1905 King Edward VII issued a royal warrant, which included the words:

Whereas We taking into Our Royal consideration that the precedence of Our Prime Minister has not been declared or defined by due authority, We deem it therefore expedient that the same should be henceforth established and defined. Know ye therefore that in the exercise of Our Royal Prerogative We do hereby declare Our Royal Will and Pleasure that in all times hereafter the Prime Minister of Us, Our Heirs and Successors shall have place and precedence next after the Archbishop of York.

The first Act of Parliament to mention the office of Prime Minister was the Chequers Estate Act, which received the Royal Assent on 20 Dec 1917. It dealt with the gift to the Crown of the Chequers Estate by Sir Arthur and Lady Lee, for use as a country home for future Prime Ministers.

Finally, the Ministers of the Crown Act, which received the Royal Assent on 1 Jul 1937, gave an official recognition to the position of Prime Minister and made provision for paying 'the First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister' - the two offices that since the 18th century, have usually been held by the same person:

To give statutory recognition to the existence of the position of Prime Minister, and to the historic link between the Premiership and the office of First Lord of the Treasury, by providing in respect to that position and office a salary of...

The Act made a certain distinction between "position" (Prime Minister) and "office" (First Lord of the Treasury) emphasizing the unique character of the position and recognized the existence of the Cabinet. Nevertheless, in spite of this recognition, the brass plate outside the Prime Minister's front door still bears the title of First Lord of the Treasury.

The lack of official recognition for the position of Prime Minister causes problems when trying to positively identify prime ministers in the British history. Thus, every list of British Prime ministers may omit certain politicians depending on the criteria selected by a researcher. For instance, unsuccessful attempts to form ministries, such as that of Lord Granville in 1746, or the summons of the sovereign to ministers who refused to form a ministry are often ignored.

For reasons stated above, the following index includes principal ministers of the British Crown in order of their appearance on the political scene, but not the traditional sequence of the Prime Ministers appearing in numerous books on this subject and web sites. [1, pp. 112-116; 2; 3]

[1] Fryde, E.B., et al. (eds.) Handbook of British Chronology. London: Offices of the Royal Historical Society: University College, 1986. 3rd edition. online
[2] "The Office of Prime Minister", by Lord Blake (London, Oxford Univ. Pr., 1975).
[3] Englefield, Dermot; Seaton, Janet; White, Isobel (eds.) Facts About the British Prime Ministers: A Compilation of Biographical and Historical Information. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1995. online