Who Is Britain's Greatest Prime Minister?
BBC Earth|May - June 2021
Three hundred years ago this month, Robert Walpole became Britain’s first PM. To mark this huge moment in political history, we asked five historians to nominate the 10 leaders who they believe accomplished most during their residency in Number 10

Robert Walpole

In office 1721–42

Britain was desperate for a steady hand on the tiller following the turbulence of the 17th century. In its first prime minister, writes Jeremy Black, the nation found the right man for the job

When evaluating contributions to national life, we tend to have short memories, considering only recent history. There can also be a tendency to take national survival for granted and to remember instead those who manoeuvred to change the country. That was not a luxury offered Robert Walpole. During his two decades in power he delivered the stability Britain craved after a stormy period in its history.

Born in 1676, Walpole’s life encompassed the revolution that swept aside King James II and VII in 1688–89, the subsequent civil war in the British Isles, and repeated Jacobite conspiracies. War with France in 1689–97 and 1702–13, a conflict in which Walpole had served as secretary at war and treasurer of the navy, had been hazardous – although ultimately successful. And then the country had known the financial crash of the bursting of the South Sea Bubble.

Surviving these crises was difficult enough, but it was also necessary to prevent Britain from being the failed state it had repeatedly appeared to be in the 17th century. For that, a stable, efficient and robust system of government was required.

This was where Walpole came in. His adroit management during the turbulent period of 1689–1722 helped ground the political system. And, once George I had appointed him First Lord of the Treasury, chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons – making him, in effect, Britain’s first prime minister – Walpole stabilised the finances after the South Sea Bubble and kept Britain at peace until 1739.

Peace meant low taxation. This eased political tensions and helped reconcile the Tories to Whig rule. So also did an abandonment of the radical government-directed Whiggism of the late 1710s, notably the moves against the Church of England.

Walpole delivered a series of general election victories. A master of parliamentary business, he skilfully aligned patronage and policy to limit Whig defections and contain Tory opposition. He also kept a close eye on Jacobite schemes. His managerialism was important in lessening political strife and thus keeping the political temperature low.

Jeremy Black’s books include Walpole in Power: Britain’s First Prime Minister (Sutton, 2001)

William Pitt the Younger

1783–1801 and 1804–06

Dominic Sandbrook hails a brilliant orator who laid the foundations for victory in the Napoleonic Wars

Today the one thing most people remember about William Pitt the Younger is that he first became prime minister when he was only 24.

That’s a shame because, by most standards, Pitt stands almost unchallenged as one of our greatest prime ministers. “For personal purity, disinterestedness and love of this country,” his friend William Wilberforce enthused, “I have never known his equal.” And when Pitt died in 1806, worn out by office before he had reached 50, even his great rival the Whig politician Charles James Fox could not contain his shock and disbelief: “Impossible, impossible; one feels as if there was something missing in the world – a chasm, a blank that cannot be supplied.”

The son of another great prime minister with the same name, Pitt’s achievement was to steer Britain through the unprecedented turbulence of the French Revolution and to lay the foundations for victory over Napoleon. He became prime minister in 1783, with Britain reeling from the loss of the American colonies. Posterity remembers him as a Tory; in fact, he generally described himself as an independent Whig. His nickname, “Honest Billy”, captured his upright, anti-corruption image. A brilliant speaker, he was not a gregarious man; caricaturists drew him as stiff and lonely. But he had a convivial side, and was known as a “three-bottle man” because of his taste for port.

Pitt should be remembered, above all, for his leadership during the French Revolution. He recognised almost immediately the cruelty of Jacobinism, worked hard to maintain Britain’s domestic stability and proved a brilliant financial organiser, mobilising the nation’s economic might to double the size of the Royal Navy. It took until 1815 to defeat the French, and by then Pitt had been dead for more than nine years. But it was his victory, all the same.

Dominic Sandbrook co-presents the weekly podcast The Rest Is History with fellow historian Tom Holland

Robert Peel

1834–35 and 1841–46

Laura Beers salutes a leader who put the country’s interests before his own – and, in doing so, reshaped two political parties

Robert Peel is one of the few politicians – the others being Joseph Chamberlain and Winston Churchill – who played a major role in shaping not one but two of our modern political parties. Between 1828 and 1830, Peel served as home secretary under the Tory prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, during which time he established the London Metropolitan Police force, whose officers are still commonly known as Bobbies in his honour.

It was Peel who, shortly after his appointment as prime minister in 1834, first used the term “Conservative” to define his party’s political ideology, characterising political “conservatism” as an ideological commitment to reforming, when necessary, to preserve the established order.

Peel’s first ministry lasted less than a year, but he returned to the premiership in 1841. It was during this second administration that Peel took the momentous decision to put country before party and repeal the Corn Laws. The Corn Laws were tariffs on imported grain, put in place to safeguard the domestic market. As such, they were strongly supported by the landed aristocrats who made up a large and powerful faction within the Conservative party. Peel and his party had campaigned on a commitment to maintain the Corn Laws in 1841, in the face of mounting pressure from industrial interests in the Midlands and the North West.

Yet, as time wore on, Peel became convinced that the Corn Laws were hurting British consumers, a conviction that reached a critical point in 1845 when the Irish potato blight caused a famine in that country and an immediate need for cheap imported grain. It was this conviction that drove his repeal of the laws in 1846, even though he knew that to do so would mean splitting the party to which he had devoted his political life.

The bill cost him the premiership, and ultimately resulted in him being forced from the Conservative party. Although Peel never identified as a liberal, the modern Liberal party was forged in the decades that followed by a coalition of “Peelite” ex-Conservatives, Whigs, Radicals and supporters of Irish Home Rule.

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