The Prime Ministers: Lord North

Note: Because Lord North is the last Prime Minister whom I view as not being too recent, but also as having had a long enough career to write an article on, this will be the last post in The Prime Ministers series. It will be replaced on Mondays by another series.

Frederick North was born on April 13th, 1732 in London. He was educated, unsurprisingly, at Eton and Oxford, then took a grand tour of Europe, during the course of which he studied at the University of Leipzig. In 1754, at age 22, he was elected unopposed to the Commons as Member for Banbury. North became a junior Lord of the Treasury under the Second Newcastle Ministry, and fast became known for being personable and easy to work with, as well as competent, while his politics drifted to the Tory side of the spectrum. North successfully led a motion to expel a radical MP who had made a libelous attack against the government from the Commons, but otherwise stayed out of the public eye through the 1760s, not wishing to join any of the Whig governments of the time until 1766, when he joined William Pitt the Elder’s Ministry; in 1767, he was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer as Charles Townsend’s (of the Townsend Acts fame) successor, and then Leader of the Commons the following year. Pitt resigned in 1768, leaving the Ministry to Lord Grafton, and when Grafton too resigned in 1770, North became Prime Minister. The first event of his ministry was much like one which occurred 212 years later, when Spain tried to seize the Falklands Islands. North faced Spain down, and the latter desisted on French advice. This incident boosted North’s early popularity, but it gave him the incorrect notions that France would not fight Britain over colonial affairs, and an exaggerated sense of the power of the Royal Navy.


In 1773, following the Boston Tea Party, North introduced the Coercive Acts, designed to pummel the American colonies into submission. They had the opposite effect, enraging the colonists even more In 1775, the US War of Independence broke out with the Battle of Lexington, and things went quickly downhill for North. Although New York and Philadelphia were taken early in the war, the British military was unable to conclusively defeat the colonists, while France, Spain and Holland all joined the war against Britain between 1778 and 1780. The war was unpopular, and facing manpower shortages, the government tried to end restrictions on Catholics in the military, which caused the Gordon Riots of 1780. Martial law had to be declared to put down these anti-Catholic London riots. After a brief resurgence of popularity following the 1781 capture of Charleston, North was turned out of office in 1782 by a Vote of No Confidence, the first Prime Minister to suffer this fate. In 1783, North returned to government in a coalition with Charles Fox, which was nominally led by the Duke of Portland, and helped sign the peace to the war he had so badly managed. North was elevated to the Lords in 1790, and died two years later.



The Prime Ministers: Lord Liverpool

Robert Jenkins, Lord Liverpool, Prime Minister 1812-1827

Robert Jenkins was born on June 7th, 1770, in Westminster. His father was a prominent member of George III’s court, and he was educated at Oxford. He won election to the House of Commons in 1790 as Member for Rye, but he was actually under the age required to take his seat, so he spent a year touring the continent until, at age 21, he could take his seat in 1791. In his first few years in the Commons, he held a few minor positions and, not at all to his credit, opposed the abolition of slavery. In 1794, he enlisted in the militia, in reaction to the rapidly escalating French Revolutionary Wars, and in 1796 was made Baron Hawkesbury, as his father was made Earl of Liverpool, and ascended to the House of Lords.


In the Addington Ministry of 1801-1804, Hawkesbury was made Foreign Secretary, and was one of the primary architects of the Treaty of Amiens; Pitt’s Second Ministry took over in 1804, and as the Prime Minister was gravely ill during this time, Hawkesbury served as the real head of the government, in addition to his official position as Home Secretary. Pitt eventually died in 1806, moving Hawkesbury to the opposition in Baron Grenville’s brief Ministry, before he resumed the Home Office in the Duke of Portland’s Second Ministry. He served in this position for two years, before becoming Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in Spencer Percival’s Ministry. Throughout all these years, Hawkesbury, Lord Liverpool after the death of his father in 1808, served competently in his various offices, until in 1812, Percival was assassinated, the only Prime Minister to befall such a fate. Liverpool succeeded him, and found that he had a great deal to cope with. An inconclusive war with the United States began almost immediately after his ascension, and it was under his leadership that the Peninsular War and last campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars were fought. In the Congress of Vienna which followed, Liverpool gave his Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, considerable autonomy in negotiations, and turned to domestic affairs.

In 1815, the later infamous Corn Laws were passed, which prohibited the import of grain until domestic prices reached a certain level. The Commons then voted in 1816 to discontinue the wartime income tax, which left Liverpool no real option to resolve the nations’s finances, which had been totally unbalanced by the war, other than increase in other taxes. This resulted in massive public discontent, which forced a series of emergency measures. In 1817, Habeus Corpus was suspended, and after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which cavalry attacked a demonstration, killed 15 and wounded several hundred. In response, the government issued the Six Acts. These Acts, collectively, massively increased the authorities of the government and curbed civil liberties, by giving police the right to search private property for weapons without a warrant, outlawing private training in weapon use, reducing bail opportunities, banning non-government-sanctioned meetings of 50 or more, tightening sedition laws, and increasing publication taxes. The Six Acts are one of the most contentious collections of acts in British history, and led directly to the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820, an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Liverpool and his cabinet. Liverpool’s last seven years in office were comparatively uneventful. In 1824, he supported the repeal of the Combination Acts, which banned labour unions, and spoke against Catholic Emancipation. It was the latter issue which brought his resignation in 1827; faced by the rising tide of pro-Emancipation feeling, Liverpool resigned rather than have to stand against an act which would have allowed Catholics to stand for Parliament. He was succeeded as Prime Minister by George Canning. The Duke of Wellington’s First Ministry passed the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1829, by which time Liverpool had died, on December 4th, 1828, of a stroke.


Liverpool is not an especially consistent Prime Minister. His Ministry passed the infamous Six Acts, but he strangely supported the repeal of the Combination Acts, and he was a free trader, yet supported the Corn Laws. Along with his star-studded cabinet, which included such figures as the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel, Liverpool was a key part of the age of reaction which followed the Congress of Vienna, both within partisan politics and in the larger affairs of the nation. The Six Acts and suspension of Habeus Corpus were of course reactionary, but he also managed to keep a lid on the coming split of the Tory Party between the old Tories and the new Conservatives, which would come to a head in 1835, with Peel’s issuance of the Tamworth Manifesto. In both cases, Liverpool managed to keep the clock from running too quickly, and it is this which forms his main achievement, if one can consider it an achievement.


The Prime Ministers: The Earl Grey

The Earl Grey, Prime Minister 1830-1834

The Earl Grey, was born Charles Grey on March 13th, 1764, in Northumberland. He was educated, as almost every Prime Minister seems to have been, at either Oxford or Cambridge, in his case the latter. His debating and oratorical skill won him renown, and he entered Parliament as MP for Northumberland in 1786, at the mere age of 22. He became a member of Charles Fox’s Whig group, and therefore spent his early career in opposition to William Pitt the Younger. His famous speaking skills helped him rise to the top of the Whig Party, and he also was an early supporter of Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary electoral reform. The latter would eventually become his main claim to fame as Prime Minister. Grey became First Lord of the Admiralty in Baron Grenville’s Ministry of All the Talents, and when Charles Fox died, also took over as Foreign Secretary. Fox’s death also made him the head of the Whigs. In 1807, Grey’s father died. He succeeded to the title as The Earl Grey, and was elevated to the House of Lords, spending the next 23 years of his life in opposition, the longest single stretch which eventually resulted in a Ministry in history. Grey’s chance finally came in 1830, when the Duke of Wellington’s Tory government resigned over the question of electoral reform. Grey was finally invited to form a government, which became notable for two main achievements. Britain’s electoral system had long been broken, with powerful nobles being able to totally dominate groups of constituencies. These were called  Rotten Boroughs, and aside from this, only the richest men with the most land could vote, to say nothing of the complete lack of non-white and female suffrage. To fix this system, the Earl Grey passed one of the single most important acts in British History: The Great Reform Act 1832. This pivotal act accomplished two things. First, it abolished many of the rotten boroughs, and instead gave seats to the growing cities. Second, it extended the franchise, greatly reducing property qualifications. This democratised British politics considerably, as the small group of the extremely rich lost their stranglehold over Parliament. Grey’s second great achievement was the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. Although the slave trade had been abolished in 1807, the practice itself had remained legal, until the passage of this act, which did as its title suggests and abolished slavery in all British possessions. Grey, who was old and tired after decades of political leadership, retired from public life in 1834, leaving the government to Viscount Melbourne. In his last decade, he privately fulminated against the Irish Nationalist Party and Daniel O’Connor, before dying on July 17th, 1845, at age 79.


The Earl Grey’s is famous for two things: the Great Reform Act and the abolition of slavery. His ministry accomplished little else of importance, but these two achievements are of obvious immense significance. The Earl Grey has been, in my view, unjustifiably forgotten by history. Most associate his name with a type of tea, but his political accomplishments should afford him far more stature in history than he receives.


The Prime Ministers: Lord Russell

Lord John Russell, Prime Minister 1846-1852 and 1865-1866

John Russell was born on August 18th, 1792 to one of the foremost aristocratic families in Britain. Very unusually, he did not attend Oxford or Cambridge, instead going to Edinburgh University, where even more surprisingly, he did not earn a degree, instead leaving education to stand for the House of Commons in 1813, becoming MP for the City of London. He joined the wing of the Whig Party in favour of electoral reform in the 1820s, and when the Party entered government in 1830, he became Paymaster of the Forces under the Earl Grey. Russell was one of the strongest patrons of the Great Reform Act of 1832 in the Commons, and became Whig leader in that house following the elevation of the previous leader to the Lords. As leader of the opposition in the 1840s, he supported the Repeal of the Corn Laws, which split the Conservative Party and indirectly made him Prime Minister. The Whig Party, however was just as disunified, and Russell was unable to govern effectively, although he was pilloried for his failure to respond with any degree of success to the Great Irish Famine. In 1851, his Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, recognised the government of Napoleon III in France without approval and had to resign; furious, he turned a militia bill into a Vote of Confidence, and deliberately introduced an amendment he knew would cause the bill to fail, destroying Russell’s government in an act of personal political vengeance. in opposition in 1852, Russell entered a coalition government with Lord Aberdeen after Lord Derby’s short-lived minority First Ministry. Within the coalition, Russell became Foreign Secretary. From this office, he engineered Britain’s entry into the Crimean War. Although the ostensible cause of this war was the right to protect Christian holy sites in Palestine, the realpolitik cause was the upset of the Balance of Power caused by Russia making inroads on the Ottoman Empire. Incompetent management of the war caused a Vote of No Confidence in the Aberdeen Government, bringing Palmerston to power. Russell and Palmerston resolved their differences, and Russell became Foreign Minister in the latter’s ministry. He managed Britain’s attitude to the US Civil War, and indicated Britain’s support for the unification and independence of Italy. In 1860, Russell was elevated to the House of Lords as Earl Russell. Five years later, Palmerston died in office, leaving Russell as Prime Minister. Just like his first ministry, he was unable to accomplish anything and he resigned in 1866, leaving politics for good. He died on May 28th, 1878.


Russell is a strange figure because he was a very successful figure outside the office of Prime Minister, but had no success at all within it. Outside of that office, he brought about the Great Reform Act, one of the most important act in British political history, the Factory Act of 1847, and various other acts relating to union rights and public and social justice. On the other hand, in the office of Prime Minister, he totally bungled the Irish Famine and failed to marshal the Commons to achieve anything. Thus Russell was an extremely talented, successful, competent minister, but he was a poor Prime Minister.


The Prime Ministers: Harold MacMillan

Harold MacMillan was born in London on February 10th 1894. He was educated at Eton and Oxford, although his university education was interrupted when he volunteered almost immediately after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. He was wounded three times, the third time seriously at the Battle of the Somme, and sent back to Britain to recover, by which time the war had ended. As only he and one other from his class at Oxford had survived the war, he refused to return, and instead entered politics. He was elected Member for Stockton-on-Tees in the 1924 General Election, and became an advocate of economic planning, which he felt could save his depressed, industrial constituency. In the 1930s, he became a member of Churchill’s anti-appeasement group, and a particularly vocal critic of Stanley Baldwin. When the Second World War broke out, MacMillan served in a series of diverse ministerial positions, as Parliamentary Secretary for Supply, Under-Secretary for the Colonies, Minister Resident in the Mediterranean and Air Secretary. He was unseated in the 1945 General Election, but regained a seat in a subsequent by-election and became Housing Minister in Churchill’s Second Ministry. During this time, he fulfilled the government’s election promise of 300,000 houses built each year, and moved to the Defence Portfolio in 1955. He briefly oversaw Britain’s development of the Hydrogen Bomb before becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Eden Ministry. When the Suez Crisis broke out, MacMillan was originally one of the prime planners and supporters of Eden’s military strategy, but became Eden’s main cabinet critic once it became clear the damage US financial and economic penalties would cause. Eden resigned in January 1957, and left the succession open to either MacMillan or Rab Butler; the Queen eventually sent for MacMillan on the advice of Churchill.

MacMillan (second from right, first row) in the First World War.

MacMillan (second from right, first row) in the First World War.


MacMillan had gone from Chancellor of the Exchequer, to Prime Minister, and as such made the economy his top priority, setting a strategic economic goal of full or near-full employment, in accordance with One-Nation British Conservatism. A major disagreement with his cabinet led his Chancellor to resign, and a balance of payments problem led to a wage freeze in 1961. MacMillan’s economic policy was thus not especially successful, but he did much better in foreign policy and defence. He worked to improve relations with the US after Suez, became the first Western leader to visit the Soviet Union, and deployed troops to put down revolts against leaders in Oman, Jordan and Kuwait between 1957 and 1960. MacMillan was also a supporter of decolonisation, as he indicated in the famous Wind of Change Speech, in which he made clear that Britain would be willing to let its colonies go; consequently, in 1957, Malaya became independent within the Commonwealth, and Gold Coast became independent as Ghana. In 1957, Britain also detonated its first Hydrogen Bomb. Decolonisation was massively stepped up in the first few years of the 1960s, as between 1960 and 1963, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, British Somaliland, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Malaysia became independent states. MacMillan also supported Kennedy in the Cuban Missile Crisis, was the prime mover behind the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 and the same year made Britain’s first application to join the EEC, which was vetoed by France. By this point, the stresses of the job had made an impact of MacMillan, who was nearly 70 years old. The final factor in the collapse of his health was the Clinton-esque antics of his War Minister, John Profumo, who had an affair with a 19 year-old model who was also seeing the Soviet Naval Attache. This made the affair a matter of public security, and Profumo was forced to resign from government. MacMillan at about the same time was wrongly diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer, and resigned as well. Although he retired from politics, he became an extremely energetic Chancellor of Oxford; he also wrote his six-volume memoirs, and in his last decade became a sharp critic of Margaret Thatcher and her monetarist economic policies, before dying on December 29th, 1986 at age 92.


MacMillan and John Kennedy.

MacMillan and John Kennedy.

Harold MacMillan’s greatest legacy lies in decolonisation. He was honoured at his death by the African National Congress, oversaw the smooth transition to independence of several states and helped avoid the sort of post-colonial bloodshed that France experienced in Algeria and Vietnam, instead building amicable relations with many former colonies, enabling the formation of the Commonwealth. His economic policies may not have been shining successes, but his stints as Housing and Defence Ministers were both successful, and going further back, he had the wisdom to criticise appeasement and associate himself with Churchill. MacMillan should therefore be remembered as positive for Britain, but well above positive for the former colonies seeking independence.


The Prime Ministers: Henry Campbell-Bannerman

Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Prime Minister 1905-1908

Henry Campbell-Bannerman was born on September 7th, 1836, in Glasgow. His father was a prosperous textile magnate, and both he and Henry’s brother were also involved in politics. Henry was educated at the University of Glasgow and Cambridge, and after becoming a partner in the family business, he decided to enter politics, and stood in a by-election for the constituency of Stirling Burghs in 1868. He lost, but won the seat in the general election which took place later that year. Within 3 years, he had achieved a ministerial position, as Financial Secretary to the War Office in the First Ministry of William Gladstone. In Gladstone’s Second Ministry, after a series of similar financial positions, he entered the cabinet as Chief Secretary for Ireland. During Gladstone’s third and fourth, and Roseberry’s, Ministries, Campbell-Bannerman became Secretary of State for War. He was perhaps lucky that the Conservatives entered office in 1895, as otherwise he would have been tarred with the unpopularity and poor results of the Boer War. In opposition, he became Liberal Leader in the Commons in 1899, the same year that that war began. Campbell-Bannerman had the difficult task of holding together a party split between pro- and anti-war factions, which was predictably defeated at the 1900 General Election. Sometimes known as the Khaki (due to the colour of British army uniforms) election, the Conservative Party used the anti-war wing of the Liberal Party to enhance their own patriotic appeal, and won a convincing majority. However, in 1902 and 1903, the Liberal Party found new strength under Campbell-Bannerman. The Boer War ended in 1902, ending a serious party division, while the Conservative Joseph Chamberlain put forth his proposals for Tariff Reform, which unified the Liberal Party in opposition, and allowed the Party to stand as one again. In 1905, Arthur Balfour resigned as Prime Minister, which led to the formation of a minority government under Campbell-Bannerman. Faced with the prospect of governing with a minority, as well as the so-called Relugas Conspiracy, whereby several leading Liberals planned to kick him upstairs to the Lords, Campbell-Bannerman solved both issues, by calling an election in January 1906, while offering the plotters important cabinet posts. They all accepted, and the Liberals won one of the largest landslide victories in history, gaining 216 seats to a total of 397, an absolute majority; Balfour, still Conservative leader, lost his seat.


Once in power, Campbell-Bannerman proved to be a moderate social reformer, although he would be considered Conservative if compared to his two immediate successors. He established a system of free school meals, gave greater power to the unions, and created the system of criminal probation which still exists in Britain today. In foreign policy, Campbell-Bannerman’s ministry witnessed a strengthening of relations with Russia and France, as the Anglo-Russian Entente was signed in 1907, and the first Anglo-French military staff discussions took place, which would eventually produce the BEF of the First World War. It also granted self-government to various regions in South Africa, which led to the formation of the Union of South Africa after the end of his ministry in 1910. In 1907, Campbell-Bannerman, now 71 and in poor health, suffered a series of heart attacks, and resigned in April, 1908. He died a mere 19 days after leaving office. His last words, rather amusingly, were “this is not the end of me.”


Campbell-Bannerman’s achievements while actually in office were fairly modest, especially when held up against the records of Asquith and Lloyd-George, his two Liberal successors. That said, modest is better than negligible or non-existent, and his more important contribution was to lead the Liberal Party through a difficult period. After Gladstone’s last resignation and death, the Liberal Party was still split over Ireland, and split again over the Boer War. Campbell-Bannerman managed to keep the party together enough that it was able to recover, and return to power on a massive majority in 1906. He is therefore a rather unsung hero for the Liberal Party; Asquith and Lloyd-George would not have been able to do what they did had Campbell-Bannerman not managed to keep the party together.

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The Prime Ministers: Anthony Eden

Anthony Eden, Prime Minister 1955-1957

Anthony Eden was born to a landed family in County Durham on June 12th, 1897. He was educated (of course) at Eton, before enlisting at age 17 in the First World War, in which he reached the rank of Captain and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. When the War ended, he resumed his education, attending Oxford and graduating with a Double First in Oriental Languages. His language proficiency would serve him well in his political career, as a Foreign Secretary who could speak 6 languages (English, French, German, Russian, Arabic, Persian) was a valuable asset. Upon leaving school, Eden decided to enter politics, and was elected as Member for Warwick and Leamington in the 1923 General Election. Eden, as a very junior MP, served as a civil servant in the Foreign Ministry under Austen Chamberlain, until he was appointed under-secretary for Foreign Affairs in 1931. Three years later, he became Minister for the League of Nations. From these positions, he supported the Baldwin Ministry’s policy of Appeasement for a few years, but came to the view that Nazi Germany was a threat which had to be dealt with, and could not be bought off with Appeasement, which led him to oppose Foreign Secretary Samuel Hoare’s policy of appeasing Fascist Italy and its invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. When the political fallout of the Hoare-Laval Pact forced Hoare to resign, Eden was appointed Foreign Secretary as his replacement. As Foreign Secretary, he attempted to shape policy away from Appeasement, but was certainly no hawk. He backed reasonable agreements with Italy and Germany, but expected them to be honoured, and was against the idea of giving the aggressor nations whatever they liked. Eventually, Eden and Chamberlain’s ideas and policies became irreconcilable, and the former resigned from the government in 1938. He did little in the next year of political significance, but returned to Chamberlain’s government in September 1939 when war broke out. When Churchill became Prime Minister in Spring 1940, Eden became Secretary of State for War for a short time, before returning to the Foreign Ministry. Eden became one of Churchill’s closest, most prominent ministers, and was given the additional responsibility of Leader of the House of Commons in 1942. He served his war role well, and returned to Opposition in 1945, when Labour won the General Election of that year, becoming Deputy Leader of the Conservative Party.

Eden in the First World War.

Eden in the First World War.

NPG x81173; Anthony Eden, 1st Earl of Avon by Bassano

When the Conservatives returned to Government in 1951 under Churchill’s leadership, Eden became Deputy Prime Minister as well as Foreign Secretary. His main achievement of this period was the 1954 Geneva Accords, which arranged the partition of Vietnam into North and South, although he was irked that the United States declined to sign the agreements, agreeing only to observe them. Churchill retired for good in 1955, leaving Eden as Prime Minister. He immediately called a snap election, which increased the Conservative majority substantially. However, Eden had never held a ministerial position other than Foreign Secretary, so he largely left domestic affairs to his ministers and personally concentrated on foreign affairs.

In 1956, Eden was plunged into the crisis which was to be his undoing when Gamal Nasser, the leader of Egypt, nationalised the Suez Canal in July. The Canal was vital to the British Empire, as it was vital to commerce and to strategic resource supply. Seeing this as a crisis similar to those of the 1930s, Eden resolved on a decisive military response, and agreed to a plan conceived by France, whereby Israel would invade Egypt, threatening the Canal. France and Britain would then land paratroopers to take back the Canal, and Israel would withdraw. When executed, however, Eden ran into the unexpected opposition of the United States, which was afraid the USSR would intervene to support Egypt, and condemned all three nations involved. The US issued a threat to Britain, stating that if Britain did not withdraw, then the US would change the exchange rate to Britain’s disadvantage and cut off the economic assistance which Britain still needed to rebuild after the Second World War. In addition, the majority of his own cabinet threatened to resign. Faced with this dual pressure, Eden was forced to call a ceasefire on November 7th. The Suez Crisis proved to the world that Britain and France were no longer the great powers they had once been, and also ruined Eden’s political reputation. The stress of the crisis had done great damage to his health, and in 1957, he resigned on the advice of his doctors. He lived for another two decades, writing his memoirs, and died from liver cancer on January 14th, 1977.

Anthony Eden is a figure I view as being somewhat unfairly maligned. He worked faithfully for years, especially during the war years, and eventually was cast down just as he reached the pinnacle. In addition to the great personal misfortune this was for him, the Suez Crisis tends to overshadow the entirety of the rest of his career. He opposed Appeasement, became Churchill’s right had man in war and in peace, and worked as an extremely effective Foreign Minister. He was always a moderate; early on in his Ministry, before the Crisis, he said that “Peace comes first, always.” He viewed the Suez Operation as legitimate, saying afterwards that if Panama had nationalised their Canal, the US most certainly would have taken action. I view Eden, therefore, as a deeply unfortunate figure, who does not deserve the derision with which many view him.