prime minister

views updated May 14 2018

prime minister. The modern office of prime minister developed over several centuries. Medieval and early modern monarchs often had chief ministers and advisers on whom they greatly relied and who wielded vast power—men such as Cardinal Morton in Henry VII's reign, Burghley under Queen Elizabeth, and Buckingham for James I and Charles I. But they depended totally upon the favour of the monarch, as the fate of Wolsey, Thomas Cromwell, and Clarendon demonstrated. The crucial change came after 1688 when it became necessary to summon Parliament every year, and the ability to manage it, and particularly the House of Commons which held the purse-strings, became a vital political qualification. Robert Harley, later earl of Oxford, in Anne's reign, had some of the attributes of a prime minister, including a keen understanding of the growing power of the press, but the title of first prime minister is usually given to Sir Robert Walpole, though the term was derogatory and he denied it. His 21 years in office (still a record) reflected political judgement, financial acumen, debating ability, but also his standing at court, and he nearly lost power in 1727 on the death of George I. The subsequent development of the office depended upon the gradual development of party, which limited the king's choice of minister; on the growing complexity of public business, which demanded a co-ordinating hand; on the slow decline in the influence of the monarch, whose personal approbation remained useful but, by the 19th cent., was no longer essential, as the long careers of Liverpool, Palmerston, and Gladstone demonstrated; and on the development of an organized public opinion, expressed through a reformed electoral system, which substituted the choice of the voters for the choice of the monarch.

Lord North during the American War was still inclined, particularly in moments of crisis, to shuffle off responsibility: in 1778 he told the Commons that ‘he did not think our constitution authorized such a character as that animal called a prime minister’. But William Pitt, a stronger man, took a more determined view of the office, in both theory and practice, observing in 1803 that ‘there should be an avowed and real minister, possessing the chief weight in the council, and the principal place in the confidence of the king … There can be no rivality or division of power. That power must rest in the person generally called the First Minister, and that minister ought, he thinks, to be the person at the head of the finances.’

As the office grew in stature, the prime minister gradually took over many of the powers of the monarch—the granting and timing of a dissolution of Parliament, the appointment and replacement of ministerial colleagues, and, above all, the granting of honours. Monarchs fought rearguard actions and occasionally won successes, but the general drift was against them. Two heavy blows came in quick succession. In 1832 William IV, with great reluctance, agreed to create enough Whig peers if needed to carry Lord Grey's reform bill, thus allowing a vital royal prerogative to fall into the hands of a determined prime minister: three years later, when he dismissed Lord Melbourne, he was obliged to recall him after Peel had failed to win a majority at the general election. Even at court, the monarch was often on the defensive. As early as 1755 George II complained that Newcastle ‘meddled with the bedchamber’, and in 1839 Victoria fought another rearguard action in defence of her ‘ladies’.

Though the power of the office was clearly established by the mid-19th cent., it retained something of its disreputable flavour and was slow to be acknowledged. But in 1865 Bagehot wrote bluntly that ‘the Queen is only at the head of the dignified part of the constitution. The prime minister is at the head of the efficient part.’ In 1878 at the Congress of Berlin, Beaconsfield (Disraeli) was referred to as ‘Prime Minister of Her Britannic Majesty’, and in 1905 a royal warrant gave the prime minister precedence after the archbishop of York.

J. A. Cannon

The development of the office of prime minister has been closely linked to the growth of the party system. For all but ten years of the 20th cent. to the present the prime minister has been the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. The three exceptions were Lloyd George (1916–22), MacDonald (1931–5), and, for a few months in 1940, Winston Churchill. Lloyd George was first appointed during the First World War, and MacDonald held office as head of an ostensibly coalition government after the 1931 financial crisis. Churchill became prime minister in 1940 without at the time being party leader, but within five months he had assumed that role. The office depends on the holder being able to command the continuing support of a majority of the House of Commons.

The powers of the prime minister, though not closely defined, are extensive. He appoints all the other ministers, can transfer them to different offices, or dismiss them altogether. He chairs the meetings of the cabinet and appoints ministers to the numerous cabinet committees. Although he lacks a department of his own, he controls the cabinet office, and his personal policy unit. Honours, such as knighthoods, peerages, and other decorations, are awarded on his recommendation. As leader of the government, he exercises a general if not always clearly articulated authority over policy.

The impact of a prime minister on national policy varies with both the forcefulness of his or her own personality, and the setting in which he or she works. Thus Margaret Thatcher took care to appoint numerous opponents (the so-called Wets) within the party hierarchy to her first cabinet. After two years she felt strong enough to purge the government of the leading Wets; and after her sweeping election victory of 1983, she dismissed her foreign secretary, Francis Pym. However, in later years she felt constrained to appoint men who had served their apprenticeships under her arch-rival, Edward Heath.

In spite of their great powers, prime ministers have been inhibited by fear of losing office. Labour leaders used to be elected by their colleagues in the parliamentary party. Since 1981 they have been chosen by an electoral college, consisting of all Labour MPs and delegates from trade unions and constituency Labour parties. Until 1965 Conservative leaders used to ‘evolve’. Sometimes, though not often, there was a recognized heir apparent. More frequently, when the party was in office, a candidate was presented to the monarch after consultations had taken place among the party's grandees (the ‘Magic Circle’, as one ex-minister sourly put it). Since 1965, the party leader, whether in or out of office, has been elected by the Conservative MPs, and since 1974 the leader has had to run the gauntlet of re-election each year.

The provision for annual re-election makes the leader, even when prime minister, highly vulnerable. Margaret Thatcher resigned in 1990 after she had narrowly failed to win outright on the first ballot and when it became clear that she was likely to lose on the second. For years she had dominated the political landscape. She went down to defeat for two reasons: accumulating evidence that, though she had won three elections in a row, she had become an electoral liability, and resentment of her high-handed and to some arrogant style of leadership.

Yet even before the introduction of the annual re-election of the leader, there were obvious limitations to a prime minister's power. Baldwin, Eden, and Macmillan suffered severe criticism, though the first held on until the age of 70, and the other two left office because of ill-health. Chamberlain resigned in 1940 after losing the support of a section of his party and Churchill was edged out as his abilities lessened with age. It follows that the apparently vast powers of the prime minister are often subject to stringent limits. His overriding need is to have the support of his party in the Commons.

In recent years it has become fashionable to describe the office of prime minister as presidential. The official doctrine is that the prime minister is simply the first among equals, and the rule of collective responsibility emphasizes the collegial character of the cabinet. The office was conceived as being on the model of a team leader rather than an autocrat. Whenever the post is held by a strong prime minister, the assertion that it has become presidential is propounded, and a contrast is drawn between the office in the 19th cent. and today. The comparison has some force. The urgency of many decisions in the modern world, the increased importance of foreign affairs, media emphasis on the personality of the prime minister, have all tended to enhance the office at the expense of departmental ministers. Yet it is easy to exaggerate the change. The gladiatorial contests between Gladstone and Disraeli anticipated the modern concentration on the rival party leaders. Similarly, crucial decisions were sometimes taken by the prime minister and a few colleagues, with the cabinet sidelined. Most of the Liberal cabinet in 1914 were unaware of the extent of the Anglo-French conversations relating to a possible war with Germany.

The rule of a prime minister such as Thatcher will always give colour to the image of the prime minister as all-powerful. But though it may be conceded that there is a long-term trend towards the enhancement of the office, there are frequent fluctuations, as dominating prime ministers are followed by more diffident successors. Thus a Thatcher is succeeded by a Major, a Macmillan by a Douglas-Home. The bitter price Thatcher paid for her overbearing style suggests than an excessively presidential attitude may exact its own penalties.

Hugh Berrington


Barber, J. , The Prime Minister since 1945 (Oxford, 1991);
Blake, R. , The Office of Prime Minister (Oxford, 1975);
King, A. (ed.), The British Prime Minister (2nd edn. 1985);
Van Thal, H. (ed.), The Prime Ministers (2 vols., 1974–5).

Prime Minister

views updated Jun 11 2018


The prime minister (or premier) was the chief executive officer of the Soviet government. The position was formally known as the chairman of the Council of Ministers (also known as the Sovnarkom, 19171946, and the Cabinet of Ministers, 19901991). The prime minister led sessions of the Council of Ministers and the more exclusive and secretive Presidium of the Council of Ministers. The prime minister was charged with overall responsibility for managing the centrally planned command economy and overseeing the extensive public administration apparatus.

Representing one of the most powerful positions in the Soviet leadership hierarchy, the post of prime minister carried automatic full membership in the Politburo, the top executive body in the political system. The prime minister's seat was frequently the object of intense intra-party factional conflicts to control the economic policy agenda.

The Soviet Union's first prime minister was Bolshevik Party leader Vladimir Lenin, who chaired the Sovnarkom, the principal executive governing body at that time. Lenin, who was not fond of extended debates, began the practice of policy making through an inner circle of ministers. Following Lenin's death in 1924, the positions of government head and Party leader were formally separated from one another.

Alexei Rykov, an intellectual with economic expertise, was appointed prime minister, overseeing the administration of the mixed-market New Economic Policy (NEP). In the late 1920s, as party sentiment turned against the NEP, leadership contender Josef Stalin maneuvered to dislodge Rykov from this post. Next, Prime Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, a staunch ally of Stalin, presided over and spurred on the ambitious and tumultuous state-led industrialization and collectivization campaigns of the 1930s. In 1939, with war looming, Molotov was dispatched to the foreign ministry, and Stalin claimed the position, accumulating even greater personal power.

When Stalin died in 1953, it was deemed necessary once again to separate the posts of Party and government leadership. Georgy Malenkov, who had managed the wartime economy as de facto premier, was officially promoted to prime minister. Malenkov attempted the diversion of resources away from military industry to the consumer sector, but was forced to resign by political rivals. The prime minister's post was occupied next by Nikolai Bulganin, whose expertise lay in military matters. In 1958 Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev appointed himself prime minister, in violation of Party rules.

Following Khrushchev's removal in 1964, the prime minister's position became more routinized within the leadership hierarchy, though the Politburo had the last say on economic policy. As industry developed and the economy grew more complex, the responsibilities of the prime minister became increasingly technocratic, requiring greater command of economic issues and firsthand managerial experience. Prime ministers in the late Soviet period struggled unsuccessfully with the challenge of devising economic strategies to regenerate growth from the declining command economy.

Individuals holding the post of prime minister included: Vladimir Lenin (19171924), Alexei Rykov (19241929), Vyacheslav Molotov (19301939), Josef Stalin (19391953), Georgy Malenkov (19531955), Nikolai Bulganin (19551958), Nikita Khrushchev (19581964), Alexei Kosygin (19641980), Nikolai Tikhonov (19801985), Nikolai Ryzhkov (19851990), and Valentin Pavlov (19901991).

See also: communist party of the soviet union; council of ministers, soviet; politburo; sovnarkom


Hough, Jerry, and Fainsod, Merle. (1979). How the Soviet Union is Governed, rev. ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rigby, T. H. Lenin's Government: Sovnarkom, 19171922. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Gerald M. Easter

prime minister

views updated May 17 2018

prime minister Chief executive and head of government in a country with a parliamentary system. He or she is usually the leader of the largest political party in Parliament. The office evolved in Britain in the 18th century, along with the cabinet system and the shift of power away from the monarchy towards the House of Commons.

prime minister

views updated May 23 2018

prime min·is·ter • n. the head of an elected government; the principal minister of a sovereign or state.DERIVATIVES: prime min·is·ter·ship n.