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Analysis of Prime Ministers

Queen Victoria's Prime Ministers of England.

Their names, arranged in the order of their first taking ofiice, are:
Viscount Melbourne, 1835-1841, Whig
Sir Robert Peel, 1841-1846, Conservative
Lord John Russell, 1846-1852, Whig
The Earl of Derby, 1852, Conservative
Earl of Aberdeen, 1852-1855, Conservative
Viscount Palmerston, 1855-1858, Whig
The Earl of Derby, 1858-1859, Conservative
Viscount Palmerston, 1859-1865, Whig
Lord John Russell, 1865-1866, Whig
The Earl of Derby, 1866-1868, Conservative
Benjamin Disraeli, 1868-1868, Conservative
William Ewart Gladstone, 1868-1874, Liberal
Benjamin Disraeli, 1874-1880, Conservative
William Ewart Gladstone, 1880-1885, Liberal
Marquess of Salisbury, 1885-1886, Conservative
William Ewart Gladstone, 1886-1886, Liberal
Marquess of Salisbury, 1886-1892, Conservative
William Ewart Gladstone, 1892-1894, Liberal
The Earl of Rosebery, 1894-1895, Liberal
Marquess of Salisbury, 1895-1902, Conservative
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Begin The Prime Ministers of Britain, by The Hon. Clive Bigham, 1923

Between them (1721-1921) they have led fifty-two administrations, one being four times, two three times and nine twice at the head of affairs. This means that a Prime Minister's average total tenure of office is five and a half years, and that the average length of an administration is four years. Some have much exceeded these limits. Between them seven ministers were leading the government for a total of over a hundred years, or an average of nearly fifteen years each, while twelve others between them only covered twelve years.

It is interesting to compare these figures with the similar figures in the case of France, the European country most, resembling our own in its constitutional system. In the fifty years since the commencement of the Third Republic in 1871 there have been thirty-seven Presidents du Conseil — the equivalent of our Premiers — and some sixty-five administrations, or an average of sixteen months' leadership for each individual and nine months for each ministry. In England, in the same period, there have been only eight Prime Mmisters and only thirteen administrations — an average of over six years for each minister and four for each administration.

As regards their origin, of the thirty-six British Prime Ministers, five have been Scotsmen, three Irishmen, one Welsh and one of foreign extraction. Of the remainder, who were English, six have come from Yorkshire and Lancashire, while Disraeli used to say that five were Buckinghamshire squires. Of those that were Englishmen properly so called, the families of more than half are recorded as having been settled on their own lands in the year 1500, but very few had those three centuries of nobility which, according to Lord Russell, alone gave enough wisdom to rival in the House of Lords that of the bench of bishops or the occupants of the woolsack. Nearly every one of their surnames is simple, either one or two syllable words, and it is curious that the letters "P" or "G" begin either the names or the titles of half of their number. Twenty-five have been the sons of peers and eighteen heirs to a peerage. All except four have been born in easy or affluent circumstances and all except four have been brought up in the country. Seventeen were at school at Eton, five at Harrow, four at Westminster, one at Winchester, one at Charterhouse and one at St. Paul's. Seventeen went to Oxford, thirteen to Cambridge and one to Edinburgh University.

Their average age for entering one or other House of Parliament has been twenty-five, though seven went into the Commons and four into the Lords at twenty-one. Three only entered Parliament as late as thirty-four.

All except three have married, and at the average age of twenty-nine, though one ventured on matrimony eight years earlier and three not until after they were forty. Eight have married twice. Their wives have nearly always been of their own class. Sir Robert Walpole's second wife being perhaps the only exception. Twenty-five have left some issue, though only nineteen have now descendants living in the direct male line.

Their average age for first receiving any political office has been thirty-two, though three were given a place when only twenty-three and three not before they were forty-eight. Their average number of years spent in office was twenty, though Newcastle held an office of some sort for forty-six and Palmerston for forty-seven years, while Rockingham only did so for fifteen months. Forty-four years was their average time spent in Parliament, of which twenty-three in the Lower and twenty-one in the Upper House. Six Prime Ministers passed all their parliamentary life in the Lords and eleven never left the House of Commons.

Their average age for first becoming Prime Miaister was fifty and for last ceasiug to hold that position fifty-nine. One, however, first became Prime Minister at twenty-four and one not until he was seventy. One completed his tenure of that office as early as thirty-four and another as late as eighty-four. Fifteen were Prime Ministers while in the Commons and nineteen while in the Lords: two filled the place in each House.

Twenty-one were Prime Ministers as Whigs or Liberals and fourteen as Tories or Conservatives, while Portland led a government in each capacity. The average length of the Tory premierships has therefore been six, while that of the Whig has been only five years. In the last half-century these periods have increased to eight and five and a half years respectively. Every other Prime Minister, on an average, has led two administrations. It is remarkable that the Scotsmen have only averaged two years and the Irishmen about fourteen months ia their tenure of the premiership. A Saxon apparently suits the place best. Seven or eight have changed their politics during their parliamentary careers.

Only eight Prime Ministers can be said to have had any other profession than that of politics. Of these, two were soldiers, one a novelist, one a business man, while four followed the law. Nine or ten achieved some distinction in literature apart from politics, and half a dozen were notable on the turf or in the hunting field. Four fought a duel. Three had been Speakers of the House of Commons. About ten seem to have been really religious men. As to character their most distinguishing trait, common to nearly all, has been honesty of purpose and straightforwardness. Hardly one has "an eyesore in his golden coat."

Their average length of life has been seventy years, though one died at forty-four and one at eighty-nine. Six attained the age of eighty. Eight died as Prime Minister. In other words most of them have been strong and healthy men, though as Lady Montfort said, "All Prime Ministers have the gout." In 1792 no less than nineteen past or future Prime Ministers were alive, while the lives of three of them overlapped so as to cover two hundred and twenty-five years and touch the reigns of eleven British sovereigns. A hundred years ago it was said that only one man had ever led the House of Commons after sixty. In the last sixty years four have done so when over seventy and two of these were over eighty.

The typical Prime Minister of the past has therefore been born the heir to a peerage, brought up in the country and educated at Eton and Oxford. Elected to the House of Commons at twenty-five and married four years later, he has first come into office at thirty-two. At forty-eight he has entered the House of Lords, and two years later has become the leader of a government. He has finally relinquished the position of Prime Minister at about sixty and has died at seventy, leaving a family behind him.

It has usually been held that high office brings great rewards, but comparatively few Prime Ministers have been materially benefited by their place apart from its power and patronage. Some nine or ten have received pensions or houses, such as Richmond Lodge or Walmer Castle, for a limited term. Several, on the other hand, have seriously diminished their fortunes by their tenure of office — Walpole, Newcastle, Portland, Perceval, Russell and Mr. Asquith are cases in point. A few have had their debts paid posthumously by Parliament.

As to honours, the salutary maxim that a Prime Minister confers but does not accept them has been well maintained. The idea that an earldom is the right of an outgoing Premier may be true, but the practice of profiting from it has been little observed. Five only received this dignity at a single step and in two of these cases it was assumed during their term of office partly, at any rate, for the expedition of public business. Two others were promoted in the peerage and one received a viscounty, which, it may be said, he had previously earned by serving as Speaker. But as five Prime Ministers were already dukes and so could not hope for any accession of titular rank, while of the remainder eight died in and one is now in office, only twenty-two can be said so to have completed their service as really to have been eligible for such rewards. Thirteen of these, or two-thirds, did not avail themselves of the opportunity, and it is now forty-five years since a Prime Minister has been raised to the peerage. Twenty-two Prime Ministers have received the Garter, but this honour can hardly be considered in the same light as a peerage, since during the last two hundred years it has but rarely been conferred upon commoners, though several have had the refusal of it.

As has been stated above, twenty-five Prime Ministers left some issue. One of these, however, had only daughters and, of the remainder, the male issue of three became extinct in the first generation, and that of two others in the second and fourth generations respectively. Thirteen of the twenty-five have left some twenty-four descendants in the male line who have achieved Cabinet rank or its equivalent, in which are included such offices as those of Speaker or Governor-General.

All this, it may be said, does not bring us any nearer to the touchstone of leadership, the ingenium versatile which makes the ruler. For though statecraft may not be an exact science, neither is it wholly empiric. There must be certain laws for its conduct which lead to fame. Why, for instance, did Bolingbroke, Pulteney, Carteret, Fox or Chamberlain never attain to the highest place when many men of much less calibre succeeded? What was the quality they lacked? The question is difficult to answer, the common denominator is hard to find. Perhaps the explanation is that the solidity and calmness of the British temperament prefer something simple, slow and easy of comprehension to remarkable cleverness or transcendent genius. Emerson says that "the rulers of society must be up to the work of the world, and equal to their versatile office; men of the right Caesarian pattern, who have great range of affinity." This is the # which so few have possessed. Adventitious aids, such as birth, fortune or family connection, were undoubtedly of the first assistance to many, though such great ministers as Walpole, Chatham, Disraeli and Gladstone certainly did not enjoy them. The personal magnetism which compels confidence and loyalty and the golden tongue of oratory were given to few. Their presence made a leader strong, but their absence did not necessarily preclude his rising to power. The only common factors that at first seem apparent are a sound education, an early entry into politics, application to business and good health; and these spell success in every profession. Pitt said that patience was the quality most needed.

There is, however, another clue which may point to the secret. Lord Rosebery, in his book on the early life of Chatham, itself a compact history of much of the politics of the early eighteenth century, lays stress upon the importance of heredity, of tradition and of environment on the formation of character. In such influences perhaps lie the determining factors that go to make the political leader of men, that fit him certare ingenio, contendere nobilitate. The remembrance of distinguished ancestors and the desire to emulate their services — the historic surroundings of Eton or Westminster, of Oxford or Cambridge, and the wish to be worthy of their name — free association and loyal competition with ingenuous friends — must perforce make deep impressions on a young mind.

Such a criterion, if applied to the Prime Ministers, appears a singular solvent. The fathers of more than three-quarters of them and the grandfathers of more than half had sat in Parliament before them. Three of them had fathers or fathers-in-law and four had brothers or brothers-in-law who were also Prime Ministers. There were numerous instances of more distant relationships; indeed, the argument of family connection could be carried to almost any extent. More than three-quarters were educated at some one or other of the great public schools and at one or other of the Universities and there formed their first friendships and fought their first fights. Their conversation, their interests and their ideals at home, at school and at college were much concerned with public affairs. Their early life had thus been imbued with a sound tradition, it had been inspired by an active and honest patriotism, it had been passed in a national atmosphere. The right metal was prepared. When it had been forged in the fire of Parliament it lay ready for the hand of fortune to take or to thrust aside.
"Fortes creantur fortibus et bonis.
Doctrina sed vim promovet insitam
Rectique cultus pectora roborant."

One further point deserves thought. It comes from a sound critic. Lord Waldegrave had been closely attached to the personal service of two of his Sovereigns. He had known intimately ten of his contemporaries who had been or were to be Prime Ministers, including Walpole and Chatham. He had himself been offered the seals of the Treasury, which he had refused. A hundred and sixty years ago he wrote these pregnant words: "It is a common observation that men of plain sense and cool resolution have more useful talents and are better qualified for public business than the man of the finest parts, who wants temper, judgment and knowledge of mankind. Even parliamentary abilities may be too highly rated; for between the man of eloquence and the sagacious statesman there is a wide interval.

Source: The Prime Ministers of Britain, by The Hon. Clive Bigham, 1923
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