British Prime Ministers: A Summing-Up

Duff Cooper examines the consistencies and differences between two centuries’ worth of Prime Ministers and asks, 'Has there been a truly great statesman among them?’

No man, nor body of men, ever sat down with the intention of drawing up a constitution for Great Britain. Nor can anyone who wishes to study that constitution be given a copy of it. It is a natural growth that has developed through the centuries and has not yet failed to adapt itself to the ever-changing spirit of the age. Two hundred years ago anyone acquainted with the British political system would have stated, without fear of contradiction, that the office of Prime Minister was unknown to the British Constitution, and a student of political philosophy would probably have added that the very idea of such an office was repellent. Yet it was just at that time that the office was becoming firmly established in the heart of the constitution and generally accepted as inevitable by public opinion. So slow, however, are the English to relinquish old habits or to recognize new facts that the first man to be officially designated as Prime Minister, and to receive salary as such, was Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman who led the Liberal Party to victory at the end of 1905. All his predecessors had held office only as First Lords of the Treasury.

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