You Gotta Know These British Prime Ministers

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is the head of the Cabinet (the executive council that leads the government) and is also de facto head of the legislature by his or her presence in the House of Commons. By modern convention, after a general election, the leader of a party able to command a majority of MPs (Members of Parliament) is requested by the monarch to form a government and becomes Prime Minister.

In the 20th century, government terms have been a maximum of five years between elections, but the Prime Minister could choose to call an early election or be forced to do so if he or she ceased to command a majority in the Commons. As of 2011, the government’s term is fixed at exactly five years.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Prime Ministers came from both Houses of Parliament (Lords and Commons); since 1902, all Prime Ministers have been members of the Commons.

Here are ten British Prime Ministers that “you gotta know,” with seven further honorable mentions.

  1. Robert Walpole (1676–1745, PM 1721–1742): Generally recognized as the first British Prime Minister, Walpole established personal control over a Whig-dominated Parliament on behalf of the German-speaking George I. He rose to power after many rivals were tarnished by the collapse of the South Sea Company. His long tenure continued under George II, but his attempts to avoid British military commitments worldwide led to his downfall during the War of the Austrian Succession.

  2. Robert Peel (1788–1850, PM 1834–1835, 1841–1846): Set out the founding principles of the Conservative Party in the Tamworth Manifesto and led the new party to its first general election victory. The Irish Famine accelerated his decision to repeal the Corn Laws, promoting free trade by removing grain tariffs. This act was achieved with Whig support and lost him the backing of his party.

  3. Benjamin Disraeli (1804–1881, PM 1868, 1874–1880): Before becoming Prime Minister, Disraeli was instrumental in the passage of the Second Reform Act as leader of the House of Commons. Britain's only Prime Minister of Jewish descent, Disraeli was also a successful novelist. He promoted a strong, imperial foreign policy including investment in the Suez Canal and the peace achieved at the Congress of Berlin.

  4. William Gladstone (1809–1898, PM 1868–1874, 1880–1885, 1886, 1892–1894): Noted Liberal Prime Minister who passed a Third Reform Act and modernized the military, but failed to achieve Irish Home Rule. Queen Victoria loathed him. During Disraeli’s ministry Gladstone's campaign sensationalized the “Bulgarian horrors,” suggesting that Britain needed to resolve the “Eastern Question” about the fate of the Ottoman Empire.

  5. H. H. Asquith (1852–1928, PM 1908–1916): Liberal Prime Minister who made sweeping reforms, including limiting the power of the unelected House of Lords with the Parliament Act in order to introduce the “People’s Budget” of 1911 which established state pensions. Not a successful wartime leader, Asquith lost control of a coalition government during World War I and was forced to resign in favor of David Lloyd George.

  6. David Lloyd George (1863–1945, PM 1916–1922): A native Welsh speaker who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Asquith. Taking control during World War I, he represnted the UK at the Paris Peace Conference, leading to the Treaty of Versailles. After the war he split the Liberal Party by aiming to continue the coalition government together with the Conservative Bonar Law: the coalition collapsed after embarrassment over the independence of Ireland and a scandal over the sale of honors.

  7. Winston Churchill (1874–1965, PM 1940–1945, 1951–1955): Best remembered as the UK’s wartime prime minister from the country’s isolation in 1940 to victory in 1945. The son of a major Conservative politician, Randolph Churchill, the young Winston Churchill was a Liberal who served in Asquith’s cabinet, becoming First Lord of the Admiralty before resigning over the failure of Gallipoli. As Stanley Baldwin’s (PM 1923–1924, 1924–1929, 1935–1937) Chancellor of the Exchequer he put the UK on the Gold Standard. Winning a second term as Prime Minister during the Korean War, in later life he also won the Nobel Prize for Literature and wrote A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.

  8. Clement Attlee (1883–1967, PM 1945–1950): Won a huge Labour landslide victory in 1945 between the end of the war in Europe and victory in Japan. He founded the modern welfare state based on the Beveridge Report, including the National Health Service under his minister Nye Bevan. Attlee’s Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin took the UK out of Palestine and sent troops to the Korean War.

  9. Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013, PM 1979–1990): The UK’s only female prime minister was known as the “Iron Lady.” Thatcher’s divisive 1980s Conservative premiership saw the collapse of British heavy industry and its replacement by a services-based economy, especially focused on banking. Re-elected in 1983 after winning the Falklands War, she clashed with the mine workers’ leader Arthur Scargill as well as her right-hand man Michael Heseltine, and after losing popularity due to a poll tax was ousted by her own party in favor of John Major (PM 1990–1997).

  10. Tony Blair (1953–, PM 1997–2007): Won a famous landslide election victory in 1997 to end 18 years of Conservative rule as his “New Labour” movement abandoned traditional socialism and moved the Labour Party to the centre. Re-elected in 2001 and 2005, his friendship and later enmity towards his Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown (PM 2007–2010) ended with Brown succeeding him as Prime Minister. Blair’s close relationship with George W. Bush led to the UK joining the invasion of Iraq in 2003; his domestic legacy was higher public spending and the devolution of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Honorable mentions:

  • Lord North (PM 1770–1782): The American War of Independence was lost during his ministry.
  • William Pitt the Younger (PM 1783–1801, 1804–1806) strengthened the role of the Prime Minister and pursued war against revolutionary France.
  • Lord Liverpool (PM 1812–1827) was Prime Minister at the time of victory at the Battle of Waterloo, and faced social turmoil including the Peterloo Massacre of protesters in Manchester.
  • Lord Palmerston (PM 1855–1858, 1859–1865): was a long-serving Secretary of State and the first Prime Minister of the Liberal Party that succeeded the Whigs. He kept Britain neutral during the American Civil War.
  • Neville Chamberlain (PM 1937–1940) signed the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler and promised “peace for our time” with a policy of appeasement. British military failures in 1940 led to his replacement by Churchill.
  • Harold Macmillan (PM 1957–1963) said “you’ve never had it so good” as the British economy recovered in the late 1950s. Later he purged his cabinet in a mass sacking dubbed the “Night of the Long Knives.”
  • David Cameron (PM 2010–) leads a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and has favored austerity economics and the elimination of the UK’s fiscal deficit.

This article was contributed by NAQT writer Edmund Dickinson.

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