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  • Prime Ministers and Parliaments:The Long View, Walpole to Blair
  • Paul Langford

Since 1715 there have been 51 prime ministers, and 68 parliaments, or if you like 68 general elections. The prime ministership and parliament are, of course, distinct institutions. Parliament is officially the senior, going back at least to the thirteenth century. The prime ministership is rather a newcomer. Yesterday, 4 December 2005, was the hundredth anniversary of its official recognition, when Edward VII granted the prime minister precedence at state ceremonials. It is revealing that the first formal notice to the subjects of the British crown that they had a prime minister should be about status rather than function. But the embarrassment that could afflict a premier when outranked by members of his own cabinet was longstanding. The issue had been raised in 1838 when Lord Melbourne had to cede precedence to the earl of March on account of the latter's status as heir to the dukedom of Richmond, though characteristically Melbourne professed indifference in the matter.1 In terms of power the prime minister's historical lineage goes back much further. For practical purposes both parliamentary government and the office of premier took root at the same time, in the early eighteenth century.

This was not inevitable. The very idea of a prime minister was detested, and like many unpleasant things, taken to be a French import. Moreover M.P.s generally regarded an alliance between government and legislature as constitutionally unhealthy. So the centrepiece of the modern British constitution was established against the grain by Robert Walpole, the 'first prime minister'. But he could not have done it without a crucial act of parliament, and as it happens one that presents another anniversary. Three hundred years ago next Thursday (8 December 2005) the Commons received a bill repealing two earlier statutory provisions. One required the crown's ministers to take responsibility for their advice and actions not as a council or cabinet but as individuals. The second disqualified officeholders from election to the Commons, effectively preventing M.P.s from becoming ministers at all.2 The result of repealing [End Page 382] these laws was to permit cabinet members to be selected from the two houses of parliament and the cabinet as a whole to be collectively responsible for decisions made in its name.

The prime minister depends on his leadership of such a cabinet and on his personal management of the house of commons from a seat within it. Prime ministers were, and are, creatures of parliament, not of the British people. Tony Blair after all was chosen at the last election by only 24,429 electors verifiably voting for him, all of them in one constituency in north-eastern England. Those who thought they were voting for him in other constituencies assumed that Labour M.P.s would give him a majority in parliament. This was a safe assumption, but a world away from what happens in that other Anglo-Saxon polity across the Atlantic. President Bush was the personal choice of 59 million voters in 2004; he has no seat in the legislature. That is the difference between parliamentary and presidential government; and parliamentary government, in its close relation to the premiership, was made possible by the legislation of three centuries ago.

In recent years it has been claimed that this partnership of premier and parliament has changed radically. Two key arguments are deployed. First, the executive powers of a prime minister have grown, making him not first among equal ministers but director of the rest, and more akin to a parliamentary dictator than leader; second, the prime minister increasingly depends on a public beyond parliament, exploiting not merely the power of party, but the persuasiveness of the modern media. My aim is not to challenge these claims so much as to set them in historical context. Change is undeniable. The question is whether it signifies a shift in the working of these august institutions, or merely fluctuations within an older pattern.

It is true that today's premier does have wide-ranging powers, matching the state's activity, in the economy, in education, health and social welfare generally. But the implied...