Anthony Seldon’s book The Impossible Office? is a work of consolidated scholarship about our prime ministers, based on many sources, ranging across several centuries. It is compelling reading, but leaves seminal questions unanswered, particularly on the relationship of the office itself to democracy.
The book is published to mark the 300th anniversary of the office of the British prime minister, the first claimed to be Robert Walpole, although he did not recognise the title himself. Furthermore, there are serious historians who believe that Walpole was not the first prime minister. Henry Pelham, who was prime minister between 1743 and 1754, owed his power to the confidence of the House of Commons, whereas for the most part Walpole owed his own power to George II and Queen Caroline of Ansbach. Both of these prime ministers, however, did rely heavily on bribing members of parliament. Only since 1902 has the combined office of prime minister and that of First Lord of the Treasury always been held by a member of the House of Commons and therefore, crucially, by virtue of democratic election, by the voters.
Indeed, the intrinsic power of an individual prime minister, as we have seen in recent years, has depended not only on the size of their majority but also on the extent to which the prime minister has gained and retained the confidence of the government’s own backbenchers. For example, the fundamental democratic question of “who governs?” turned on the issue of our relationship with the European Union.
As a particular example, the Conservative Party has had a dramatic history, in recent times, of backbench rebellion against incumbent prime ministers, particularly through the aegis of the 1922 Committee. A Conservative prime minister appoints a Conservative cabinet, but is ultimately dependent on his or her own backbenchers, who in their turn depend on democratic election by their constituency voters and the confidence of their own associations. David Cameron, then prime minister, tried to neutralise the 1922 Committee in June 2010 by inducing a vote of the parliamentary party as a whole to bring ministers appointed by him into the voting arrangements and frustrate rebellion by his own backbenchers on the European question. Churchill was urged to do the same during the Second World War, but wisely refused to do so.
Had Cameron been able to make a lawful change to the constitution of the Conservative Party in the way he proposed, which he was forced to accept he did not and had to abandon, it would have become possible for him to ram through policies and to avoid rebellions by his backbenchers. In the words of Churchill, who was himself challenged in his own seat by supporters of appeasement when he was a member of parliament: “Your first duty is to your country, your second is to your constituents, only in the third place is your duty to your party.” Churchill understood that as an MP, you do not do what the whips tell you if you believe it is inconsistent with your duty to your country or constituents. The more fundamental the democratic principle in the national interest, the more reason why you would rebel if you disagreed with party policy and wanted to ensure this fundamental principle and national interest is achieved. Theresa May fell, Cameron failed and Major’s policy on Europe fractured because they did not take heed.
Seldon’s book clearly reflects a number of conscious and some unconscious attitudes, derived from the influence of his closest mentors and advisers, who are well known for their dislike of Brexit, as reflected in his observations, such as: “the noisy ERG… containing purist Brexiteers”. This misses the point, which is that particularly the Spartans, who were not all members of the ERG, were representing the views of their constituents and the British voters on the third withdrawal agreement vote, as proved by the result of the referendum itself and then its endorsement in the general election of December 2019. This was not a question of “banging on about Europe”, it was about prime ministerial acceptance or rejection on the fundamental democratic question and sovereignty, which lay at the heart of our membership of the European Union, and which Boris Johnson (pictured) understood as a matter of sovereignty in a way his predecessors failed to comprehend. Seldon describes Euroscepticism and Brexit in chapter ten as merely “ide- as” which helped Johnson win the general election in 2019. They were not ideas; they are based on democratic principles which are the foundations of our system of democratic government. These must be at the heart of a prime minister’s tenure of office – who governs and how. Seldon’s suggestions in this chapter to improve the characteristics of the role of prime minister fall short of answering these questions, and are a collection of proposals to make the task of prime minister more manageable and professional, but not more purposeful or democratic.
I am puzzled by the omission, from Seldon’s extensive bibliography, of Roland Quinault’s book British Prime Ministers and Democracy. Admittedly, Quinault’s book deals with only ten of the 55 prime ministers, and is therefore less comprehensive in its scope, but it is relevant that all his prime ministers were in power after 1867, following the birth of modern democracy, after the nine year campaign by Birmingham MP John Bright. This new democracy was only reluctantly and cynically adopted by Disraeli. It gave the vote for the first time to 2.5 million working men in 1867 – the defining, although incomplete, moment in our democratic evolution. This inevitably and significantly changed not only the nature of the electorate and the system of government, but also the nature of the role of those contending to be prime minister. The contrast between pre-1867 politics and what followed is epitomised, for example, by Lord Randolph Churchill’s bid in the 1880s, after further extension of the democratic franchise in 1884, for “Tory democracy” and his campaign to “trust the people”. There is a contrast between Disraeli’s claims in 1835 in his Vindication of the English Constitution that: “The Tory party in this country is the national party, it is the really democratic party of England”, with his explicit repudiation of this aspiration whilst he was advancing his policies on the floor of the House of Commons, whilst the 1867 Bill was being enacted, and when he said: “I trust it will never be the fate of this country to live under a democracy.” This breakpoint needs to be grasped, for it was only in 1867 that Disraeli gave in to democracy, and then only under duress.
This book is a concise and rewarding encyclopaedia of our prime ministers, as individual politicians and personalities, in the pursuit of office and power and their contribution to our history, but less so as a contribution to the constitutional history of the office itself and the evolution of our constitutional system of parliamentary government. Perhaps, with his extensive experience, Seldon may care to reflect upon this in a later edition. Boris Johnson should also be included in the top echelon of those prime ministers who made a difference by reason of his restoration of sovereignty, the first since the Restoration by George Monck in 1660.
Our unique system of parliamentary government works precisely because the office of prime minister is dependent on the incumbent’s election as a member of parliament, and his having won the confidence of the voters as a whole in a general election, and that of his backbenchers as well. To answer the question posed by Seldon’s title to the book: the impossible office? – the office of prime minister is not merely possible, but necessary, primarily be- cause the prime minister, being also an elected representative and a member of parliament, has to engage and deliver the democratic will of the people whilst being accountable to parliament itself and being prime minister in Number Ten. This makes our enduring system of parliamentary government uniquely democratic and effective.
Despite my reservations, I otherwise strongly recommend this book because it brings together so much thought-provoking and scholarly information about those who have become prime minister over the best part of 300 years.
Sir Bill Cash has been an MP since 1984 and a parliamentarian under six prime ministers