300 Years of Prime Ministers

May 14, 2015

Multiple Pages
300 Years of Prime Ministers

All proper congratulations to David Cameron, elected last week as Prime Minister of Britain on the Conservative Party ticket. I can’t say I repose any great hopes that Cameron will actually conserve anything; but then, Britain’s not my country, so the stakes for me are merely tribal (the Anglosphere), civilizational (the West), and sentimental (I grew up in Britain). Not much; but also not nothing.
Cameron’s actually been Prime Minister for five years already. His party didn’t have a clear majority in the House of Commons, though, so Cameron’s government was a coalition with the gentry-left Liberal Democrats.
Cameron’s own inclinations are gentry-left so the need for a coalition was not personally painful to him; but alliance with LibDem globalist multiculti tree-huggers was inhibiting to the small number of genuine conservatives in Cameron’s parliamentary party. Now that the Conservatives can govern in their own right, these dissidents may find their voice and exert some influence. We’ll see.

I’m surprised, and somewhat depressed, to find that of the 56 persons to have served as British Prime Minister, 14 of them—a precise quarter—held office in my own lifetime.

“Cameron I can’t like: the vapid rhetoric, simulated emotions, and reflexive political correctness all stick in my throat.”

Even more depressing, I never met any of them. The closest I ever got to a Prime Minister was in October 1964 when Harold Wilson arrived at Euston Station in London after his party won the general election of that year. I was a student at University College just across the road, so I went over to join the crowds at Euston welcoming him. The back of my head is visible in news photographs of the scene.

(The American historian Arthur Schlesinger had met Wilson two years previously: “He is immensely clever, immensely self-satisfied and skates on the edge of pomposity.” To us college radicals, though, Wilson was a champion of modernity who would sweep the cobwebs from the halls of Britain’s reactionary establishment, strike down inherited privilege, and establish an efficient socialist utopia of justice and equality. Ah, youth!)

The office of Prime Minister didn’t exist in any formal way until 1721, when Sir Robert Walpole was the first to hold the title. Walpole had been Prime Minister in all but name for long before that, though. This year in fact marks the three hundredth anniversary of him taking up the reins—of Britain having a Prime Minister de facto if not quite de jure.

Let’s take a brief trip down History Lane, back to 1715.

In those days the monarch was still a force in ruling Britain. He could, in theory at least, dissolve the actual government and form a new one more to his taste.
There had, however, been a change of dynasty in 1714. Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts, had failed to produce an heir despite having endured seventeen pregnancies. (I have always thought that Anne’s husband, George of Denmark, should have been given some kind of award for effort. George, an amiable nonentity, was the person of whom Charles II said: “I have tried him drunk and I have tried him sober and there is nothing in him.”)

The law required a Protestant monarch, so Anne’s nearest Protestant relative, the German George of Hanover, was shipped over to be George I. He opened a straight run of four Georges, collectively memorialized by a Victorian wag in the ditty:

George the First was always reckoned
Vile; but viler George the Second.
No-one ever said or heard
A decent thing of George the Third.
When to Heaven the Fourth ascended
God be praised! The Georges ended.

The wag’s humor was premature:  the 20th century brought forth two more Georges, and the Brits likely have yet another in their future.

Unfortunately George I couldn’t speak English. He had rehearsed a little speech to make when he landed in England, to reassure the English that he had come for the good of all. He got the grammar mangled though, and proclaimed: “I haff come for all your goods!”

Unable to follow the debates of his ministers in the council chamber, George got bored and stopped showing up. Walpole, already the alpha male among the King’s advisers, took over the vacant chair. (His private conversations with George were conducted in what each could remember of school Latin. Since both Walpole and the King were lousy scholars, this must have been something to hear.)

Walpole was a piece of work: a big, hearty, back-slapping man with a great rolling laugh. “In all occurrences, and at all times, and in all difficulties, he was constantly cheerful,” said a colleague. He was a heavy drinker; but, like Ulysses S. Grant at war, he was always cold sober when there was serious business to be done.

Dr. Johnson said of Walpole that “he always talked bawdy at his table, because in that all could join.” At least one American President seems to have been of the same disposition.  When Vernon Jordan was asked what he and Bill Clinton talked about when playing golf, Jordan replied: “We talk pussy.” Walpole’s combination of political skill and personal crudity is very Clintonian.

Walpole’s proudest boast was to have kept Britain out of wars for a quarter of a century. He told George II’s queen in 1734: “Madam, there are fifty thousand men slain this year in Europe and not one Englishman.”

Peace gets boring to the masses, though. Five years later, Walpole was maneuvered against his will into war with Spain—an absurd war with an absurd name: The War of Jenkin’s Ear. Watching the frenzied celebrations in the streets of London, Walpole muttered: “Ah! They are ringing the bells today, but they will soon be wringing their hands.”  He lost his position soon afterwards.

I think I would have liked Walpole. Cameron I can’t like: the vapid rhetoric, simulated emotions, and reflexive political correctness all stick in my throat. Still, if he delivers an entire generation of peace and prosperity to his countrymen, as Sir Robert Walpole did, the Brits will look back with satisfaction on Thursday’s decision.

Daily updates with TM’s latest