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Robert Walpole

Sir Robert Walpole, first Prime Minister of Great Britain.

The Prime Minister is the head of government in Great Britain, first minister of the Cabinet, and leader of the majority party in the House of Commons.

Origins of the Premiership[]

Unlike the Governor-General of the Confederation of North America, the position of Prime Minister was not created by statute. Instead, it evolved over the course of the century following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when King James II was forced to abdicate and the English Parliament chose his nephew William of Orange to replace him on the English throne.

Sir Robert Walpole became the first Prime Minister in 1721 when he combined the office of First Lord of the Treasury with the positions of first minister of the Cabinet and leader of the majority party in Parliament. Since the position of Prime Minister had no statutory authority at the time, Walpole's successors often declined to use the name. As late as the 1770s Lord North would not allow himself to be referred to as the Prime Minister, since it was not a constitutional office.

King George III and the American Crisis[]

After coming to the throne in 1760, King George III was determined to recover the powers of the monarchy which had been allowed to lapse by his grandfather and great-grandfather. In 1762 he used his powers of patronage to gain the Premiership for his former tutor, Lord Bute. Although King George was unable to maintain Bute in power, he continued his efforts to install a Prime Minister who would defer to his wishes in governing the country and the British Empire. He finally settled on Lord North, who became Prime Minister in 1770.

The King's attempt to take control of the goverment was paralleled by the growing American Crisis. The outbreak of the North American Rebellion in 1775 led to a decisive change in the balance of power between the Prime Minister and the King. After Lord North succeeded in ending the Rebellion in 1778 it was generally admitted that the King had acted irrationally during the war. Lord North's efforts to affect a reconciliation with the Americans, known as the Brotherhood Policy, were strongly opposed by the King. However, there was sufficient sentiment in Parliament in support of North that he was able to ignore the King's opposition.

The fight over the Britannic Design was a decisive event in the shaping of the modern British government. King George opposed the Design, and through his friends in Parliament, waged a struggle against it. However, Lord North believed that the Design was necessary to secure peace in North America, and he succeeded in winning passage of it. The Design was sent to King George on 23 January 1781, and despite his opposition, he capitulated to North and gave his assent on 26 January.

The death in September 1783 of General John Burgoyne, the first Viceroy of the C.N.A. under the Design, gave North another opportunity to assert his government's independence. Rather than choosing Lieutenant Viceroy Sir Charles Cornwallis, North selected John Dickinson of Delaware to succeed Burgoyne. By the time North resigned in 1785, the ministerial government was more independent of royal authority than at any time since the Commonwealth.

Sir Charles Jenkinson, who succeeded North, continued the policy of ministerial independence. Upon the outbreak of the Trans-Oceanic War in April 1795, Jenkinson added new men such as Charles James Fox and William Pitt the Younger to his Cabinet. Jenkinson's successful prosecution of the war, along with the King's increasingly frequent bouts of madness, further served to encourage the government's independence from royal authority.

Abolition and the Second Britannic Design[]

Early in the 19th century, the traditional names of the Whig Party and Tory Party fell into disuse. In parallel with the C.N.A., the parties in Great Britain went under the names Liberal and Conservative, possibly in response to the growing prominence of economic issues. When a wave of bank failures struck Britain in October 1835, the Liberal government of Lord Thomas Tillotson fell, and in a general election, Lewis Watson became the head of a Conservative-Reform coalition. Within four years, however, the old names had been revived, possibly due to a merger of the Conservatives and their Reform Party allies. This merger may have brought Sir Duncan Amory to power as leader of the rechristened Tory Party in 1839.

The Tories included a growing faction of abolitionists, who chose in 1839 to use their power within the party to hold up the passage of important banking and tariff legislation unless the party as a whole came out in favor of ending slavery throughout the Empire. The remaining Tories agreed, and Amory made a speech in which he promised financial as well as administrative aid for bringing slavery to an end in the British Empire.

Amory was still in power late in 1841 when word reached him from C.N.A. Viceroy Sir Alexander Haven that the North Americans wished to make a major revision of the Britannic Design. Both Amory and Queen Victoria were agreeable, and the House of Commons began discussions on the topic in January 1842. Parliament approved the proposal, and from June to September 1842 the Burgoyne Conference, a special session of the Grand Council, met to draft a series of amendments that came to be known as the Second Britannic Design. The Queen and Amory raised few objections to the Second Design, which was put into effect with the 1843 Grand Council elections.

The Great Depression and the Bloody Eighties[]

John Temple

Prime Minister John Temple.

With the end of active hostilities between the C.N.A. and the United States of Mexico in the Rocky Mountain War in August 1853, Governor-General William Johnson sent his Minister of State, Montgomery Harcourt, to London to meet with Prime Minister John Temple. Johnson recognized that the C.N.A. was rich in raw materials, but in need of capital to develop them, and Harcourt wished to discuss increased British investment with Temple. Temple was intrigued by the idea, and used his connections in the City to persuade several leading bankers to make a survey of North American investment opportunities. As result, British investment in North America increased every year from 1855 to the start of the Great Depression in 1880, except for the period from 1861 to 1863, when Britain suffered from recession.

The Great Depression itself was a reaction to the outbreak of the Franco-German War in 1878. After the outbreak of the war in the late autumn of 1878, Prime Minister Geoffrey Cadogan responded by ordering a mobilization of the British army, and doubled the naval appropriation for 1879. The increased taxes and interest rates that resulted, along with fears of being drawn into the war, led to falling investment in the C.N.A. Beginning in early 1879, British bankers began to call in their loans in the C.N.A., and new investment fell sharply. This touched off the Great Depression, a major economic slump that soon spread from North America to Europe, and combined with the wave of revolutionary fervor from the French Revolution to bring about the social upheavals of the Bloody Eighties.

Geoffrey Cadogan

Prime Minister Geoffrey Cadogan.

In response to the growing economic and social crises, Cadogan joined with North American Governor-General John McDowell to hold the First Imperial Conference in London in 1881 to discuss common problems among the nations of the Empire. The participants at the conference agreed to maintain free trade between the member nations; affirmed their loyalty to Queen Victoria; establish the Imperial Monetary Fund; and initiated discussions on the creation of a common defense force. A Second Imperial Conference was later held in New York City which increased the lending power of the I.M.F.

Much of the revolutionary activity that brought down governments in Europe in the Bloody Eighties was absorbed into the conventional political process in Britain. British reformers joined the Whigs, and the party's reform program allowed it to gain power in the 1885 Parliamentary elections. Under Prime Minister Richard Cross, the Whigs sponsored and passed the Great Reform Bill of 1886, which enlarged the franchise, redistributed seats in Commons, established a social insurance program, and set into motion plans for a redistribution of equity in large corporations. These reforms were grudgingly accepted by most British business leaders, but J.P. Morgan and Shawcross Finlay led a determined opposition to the nationalization of the banks that delayed that reform until 1893.

The rise to power of Marshall Henri Fanchon in France in 1909 marked the end of a period of civil war and instability in that nation. After Fanchon promulgated a new constitution and was elected President of France in the resulting elections in September 1911, Prime Minister Stanley Martin quipped, "France is now at peace. The republicans have their republic, and the royalists their king."

The Global War[]

George Bolingbroke

Prime Minister George Bolingbroke.

In April 1933, North American Governor-General Douglas Watson embarked on a European tour, which included visits to Berlin, Paris, Amsterdam, and ended in London. Introducing Watson's address to Parliament, Tory Prime Minister George Bolingbroke called him "the leader of a great nation, a man of extraordinary vision, and a most welcome visitor to our shores." Bolingbroke called the close relations between Britain and the C.N.A. "a model for all mankind," and said, "We are brothers because men wiser than we saw the need for self-government in North America, and we shall stand united no matter what the foe, no matter what the problem." Watson responded with, "Our loyalty to the Crown remains undiminished, and our relations with the Empire continue to be that of brothers."

Bolingbroke was in East Anglia attending his daughter's wedding on Saturday, 22 February 1936, like other world leaders unaware of the impending global economic crisis. The crisis began two days later, when Kramer Associates President John Jackson announced that the company was moving its headquarters from San Francisco, California to Luzon in the Philippines. Soon after, it was learned that K.A. had been selling securities in the world stock exchanges for weeks, converting its funds to gold. The price of gold began to rise rapidly in London, until trading was halted at noon. There was panic on all the world's securities markets that day, and one by one they closed their doors, in fear of helping create a liquidity crisis. The C.N.A.'s National Financial Administration branches were all overextended at that point, and between 15 and 17 March all six were forced into bankruptcy.

The North American financial panic spread to western Europe by early autumn, and to Japan by November. Despite the worsening financial situation, in the November 1937 Parliamentary elections, Bolingbroke's Tories were able retain their majority in the Commons on the strength of Bolingbroke's reputation as a "Great Englander" who would defend British interests against German encroachment.

The outbreak of the Arab Revolt in the Ottoman Empire in August 1939 proved to be the catalyst for war. After being defeated by the Ottoman army at the Battle of el Khibir on 10 September, Abdul el Sallah, the leader of the revolt, appealed to the Germans for military aid, and Chancellor Karl Bruning agreed, beginning an airlift of German troops to Arabia on 19 September. The Ottoman Shah contacted Bolingbroke to warn that he could not withstand a combined Arab-German assault, and to request aid from the British marines stationed at the Victoria Canal. Bolingbroke met with the Cabinet on 20 September, and it was agreed that 10,000 Royal Marines stationed at the canal would be dispatched to Constantinople. That afternoon, Bolingbroke addressed the Commons to inform them of the decision. "This may mean war. If so, then so be it. We cannot allow Mr. Bruning to destroy a century and more of progress in that part of the world."

British and German troops clashed near Damascus on 30 September. Bruning declared war on Britain on 1 October, and Bolingbroke's government responded in like fashion the next day. Both Bolingbroke and Bruning attempted to win the support of the C.N.A. Bruning offered the North Americans "a share in a new world order, a partnership of equals after the aggressors are destroyed." Bolingbroke was less direct, instructing his ambassador to Burgoyne, Quentin Ritchie, "to stress the implications of a German victory in the Atlantic ... have Mr. Hogg consider the nature of the German-Mexican pact ... a strong neighbor to the west is hardly in North America's interests." However, Governor-General Bruce Hogg, who had defeated Watson the year before, was unmoved by either appeal. An isolationist, Hogg had run against Watson's active foreign policy, and he was determined to keep the C.N.A. neutral.

The War Without War[]

Philip Halliwell

Prime Minister Philip Halliwell

The detonation of an atomic bomb by Kramer Associates in June 1962 led Mexican dictator Vincent Mercator to declare his Offensive of the Dove, calling on all nations of the world to sign a non-aggression pact, and asking for a world conference of the participants in the Global War, who were still technically at war with each other, to meet in Geneva the following summer to sign treaties legally ending the war. Prime Minister Philip Halliwell responded on 29 January 1963 by saying, "The President would not be so anxious to have us in Geneva had he a bomb in Mexico City." Halliwell and German Chancellor Adolph Markstein refused to attend the Geneva conference, because no agenda had been agreed upon.

Halliwell's successor, Harold Fuller, signed a non-aggression pact with North American Governor-General Perry Jay in April 1964, establishing an alliance between the two nations. Thus, when British scientists successfully tested their own atomic bomb on 14 February 1965, the C.N.A. was effectively under British protection until North American scientists were able to detonate their own bomb on 1 September 1966.


Sobel's sources for the development of the position of Prime Minister are Rodney Brown's Parliament and the Cabinet in the Age of North (London, 1911); Henry Collins' Lord North and the Rise of Parliament (New York, 1956); Paul Mitchell's The Jenkinson Cabinet and the Five Years' War (London, 1958); and Luther Koskins' Parliament in the Nineteenth Century (London, 1965).

This is the Featured Article for the week of 17 November 2013.