Talk Report: 2018-06-06

Delving into Prime Ministerial History by Janet Seaton and Barry Winetrobe

Husband and wife team Janet Seaton and Barry Winetrobe both worked in the House of Commons for many years. They became fascinated by the very varied histories of our past prime ministers and the talk they gave to members of U3A on Wednesday 6th June was based on their many findings.

Our Chancellor of the Exchequer is formally entitled ‘Second Lord of the Treasury’. This is because until 1878 the British Prime Minister was officially known as ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ and this title still appears on the door of Number 10 Downing Street. Since Robert Walpole took the title in 1721 there have been fifty-four different men and women in this powerful position, which only fairly recently (1937) became formally known in statute law as the ‘Prime Minister.’

When in 1868 Disraeli announced “I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole” he was of course intimating that the way down from this exalted state could be rather swifter than the climb to the top. Some, through lack of success, illness or death, lasted in the post for less than a year. Several remained for many years: Robert Walpole lasted for twenty one years; the younger Pitt for nineteen, Mrs. Thatcher for eleven. Some were very young when they took up office; Pitt the Younger was only 24. Lord Palmerston was very much older at 71 whilst Theresa May, taking office aged 59 years, was one of the most elderly to do so as well as being only the second woman. During Queen Victoria’s long reign, 10 First Lords of the Treasury came and went. The present Queen still has weekly audiences with ‘her’ Prime Minister and to date has been served by thirteen.

Some prime ministers (let us call them all by this title for ease) are still household names: the Duke of Wellington, Robert Peel, Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher. On the other hand, some soon lapsed into obscurity. When Andrew Bonar Law was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1923 an opponent remarked “the unknown prime minister lies by the unknown soldier.…”

The different men and women not only had different success, life span and politics: they had very varied backgrounds. In past times a Marquis and several Earls and Lords served their Monarch and country, and more recently Winston Churchill was born in Blenheim Palace of rich and aristocratic ancestry.. On the other hand, early 20th century prime minister Ramsay MacDonald was illegitimate, did not know his father and was brought up in a humble Scottish croft. John Major’s father was a circus performer. The talk continued with all sorts of unusual scraps of gossip and information. Cats galore have lived in 10 Downing Street. Churchill had a budgie which travelled around with him and upset him greatly when it escaped in Monte Carlo. Lloyd George loved his Saint Bernard and Harold Wilson his dog Paddy which once travelled first class from London to Exeter on its way to join the Wilsons in their Scilly Isles holiday home. Our prime ministers have turned to many hobbies to dilute the stresses of office: Churchill painted and Alec Douglas Home was an expert at flower arrangements; Edward Heath sailed and John Major loved cricket.

How and why do Prime Ministers leave office? For many different reasons: a defeat in parliament with a vote of no confidence, illness, death. Harold Wilson resigned for no apparent reason, making rumours fly. In May 1812 a less well known Prime Minister called Spencer Perceval was assassinated: his last words: “I’m murdered!”. William Pitt the Younger is reputed to have said "I think I could eat one of Bellamy's veal pies." Harold Macmillan’s last words were apparently: “I think I’ll go to sleep now….”

Some prime ministers are remembered by having things named after them: Earl Grey Tea, Wellington Boots. There are daffodils named after Churchill and raspberries named after Lloyd George. Other countries have airports, buildings and even cities named after their chief ministers. We in Britain mostly do not. We were asked to consider if we honour our prime ministers sufficiently. Even if not universally admired, the chief representatives of government should surely be commemorated? Janet and Barry, who had spoken alternately during our hour of information, were thanked for their interesting and unusual talk.