openDemocracyUK

Presidential maybe, but it's a British tradition

Andrew Blick
15 April 2010

Aside from the impact the leaders' debates may have upon the outcome of the General Election, some observers will take them as further evidence of a supposed newly-emerging tendency in British politics. It is often held we have become 'presidentialised'. In particular, it is argued that increasingly dynamic prime ministers are overriding Cabinet and presenting themselves - and being portrayed by the media -  as 'presidential' leaders.
 
A full consideration of the historical evidence suggests a need for caution about such views, as shown in our book published this week by Imprint Academic, Premiership on the development, nature and power of the office of the British Prime Minister.

Robert Walpole is commonly regarded as the first Prime Minister because of the ascendancy he achieved during the period 1721-42. During his tenure he displayed many of the characteristics held to have become prevalent only lately amongst premiers. Walpole's ally, John, Lord Hervey, wrote of Walpole that "he did everything alone…whilst those ciphers of the Cabinet signed everything he dictated…without the least share of honour or power". In 1741 Samuel Sandys criticised Walpole in the Commons for having supposedly achieved "the sole direction of all public affairs". 
In the media Walpole the person was treated as synonymous with his government, with an assault on the former serving as an attack on the latter. In The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay the famous couplet "How happy could I be with either, Were t’other dear charmer away" was understood at the time as a depiction of the triangular relationship between Walpole, Lady Walpole and Walpole ’s mistress, Maria Skerret. Jonathan Swift made similar insinuations in Gulliver’s Travels; and in a poetic tirade of 1738 Alexander Pope stated: "Sir ROBERT’S mighty dull, Has never made a friend in private life, And was, besides, a tyrant to his wife".
 
Many premiers since the time of Walpole have been presented as the dominant individual within governemnt. Lord Grenville, who succeeded William Pitt the Younger as premier after his death in 1806, described Pitt the Younger as having led in his second, final period of office "a Cabinet of cyphers and a government of one man alone". During his premiership of 1828-30 the Duke of Wellington was described by an ally as "sole Minister and decidedly superior to all". One critic said Wellington ’s ministers "dare not have an opinion, but must move either to the right or the left as this Dictator may think proper".
 
Sidney Low argued in 1904 that for "the greater part of the past half century…The office of Premier has become more than ever like that of an elective President". An article by Harold Laski of October 1920 argued that David Lloyd George, rather than being a chair of the Cabinet, had become "virtually the President of a State". In 1963 Crossman wrote that by the mid-nineteenth century prime ministers wielded "near-presidential powers".
 
Consequently, while the innovation of the leaders' debates should not be dismissed as insignificant, they should be seen as a manifestation of a tendency that has long been associated with the British premiership and political environment rather than as a symbol of an increasingly presidential system.

Andrew Blick and George Jones are authors of Premiership: the development, nature and power of the office of the British Prime Minister, published on 15 April by Imprint Academic.

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