The reign of George III, from 1760 to 1820, one of the longest in British history, proved very important to the development of the modern idea of the Prime Minister. There was a major contrast between the situation in the 1760s, when George found it difficult to accept the need to choose first ministers who enjoyed the backing of Parliament, and his greater willingness later in his reign to adapt to the realities of parliamentary monarchy – the constitutional system we still have today.
In the 1760s, both King and ministers confronted the ambiguity of a number of constitutional points, including the collective responsibility of the Cabinet and the degree to which the monarch could select any minister he wanted or had to choose his ministers from among those who had the confidence of Parliament. The King was relatively young when he came to the throne and he was determined both to play a leading political role himself and to distance himself from the ministers of his grandfather, George II. It was not until 1770 that George found a satisfactory minister, who could control Parliament, lead a ministry and run the government and with whom he felt comfortable. Frederick, Lord North, who, as the eldest son of a peer enjoyed a courtesy title but sat in the House of Commons as MP for Banbury, was First Lord of the Treasury from 1770 to 1782 (North never referred to himself as Prime Minister).
Until then, there had been a series of short-term ministries, with Prime Ministers who could not juggle the political need to secure the backing of both the Crown and of Parliament. In the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Parliament had become vital for securing governmental finance and these twin constraints for achieving stable administration were unusual within Europe at this time. In 1762-3, John, 3rd Earl of Bute, enjoyed George’s support but faced strident political opposition. In contrast, George Grenville, Prime Minister from 1763 to 1765, was a better manager of the Commons, but angered George by hectoring him with unwelcome advice and attempting to interfere in the distribution of patronage and offices. George found the policies of Charles, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, Prime Minister from 1765 to 1766, unacceptable. The crisis in the American colonies and tensions between the King and the ministry about how best to deal with it was a persistent source of tension.
Once George had found an effective parliamentary manager in North, the political situation within Britain, and Parliament’s role within it, became far more quiescent. North had little difficulty in winning a majority at the general elections of 1774 and 1780, but was brought down by the government’s failure to suppress the American Revolution or end the subsequent war. After the British defeat at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, confidence in the government collapsed and North lost power in 1782.
George III was then forced to accept a series of short-term ministries, notably the uneasy alliance between Lord North and Charles James Fox in 1783, a ministry he loathed, until he found in the 24-year-old William Pitt (the Younger), a politician who supported his views. Untarnished by the War of American Independence, and seen as uncorrupt, Pitt was able to present himself as governing ‘without party’. Pitt, like all other eighteenth-century politicians, had to build parliamentary coalitions to ensure that government legislation could be passed. He lacked a large personal following of MPs and so needed considerable managerial skill to maintain his position. The formation of the Pitt Government brought monarch and government onto the same side, and the ability of the government to win elections in 1784, 1790 and 1797 indicated its popularity.
The longevity of the first ministry of William Pitt the Younger, from 1783 to 1801, which faced significant challenges in coping with the threat posed by revolutionary France after 1789, was crucial to the development of Cabinet government From the 1790s, the discussions and decisions of the inner core of ministers, the Cabinet Council, became more formal. Collective responsibility and loyalty to the Prime Minister grew, and this strengthened Cabinet ties and increased his influence with the monarch. Indeed, George, who appreciated the degree to which the initiative in policy making had passed to the Cabinet, became concerned that the Cabinet should be informed of his views before deciding their final opinion on important issues.
In his closing decade, George’s poor health meant that royal functions were discharged by his eldest son, George, the Prince Regent, the future George IV. His limited personal skills and indolence ensured a further strengthening of the position of Prime Minister.
Suggested further reading:
Black, J., George III (2006).
Brooke, J., King George III (1972).
Duffy, M., The Younger Pitt (2000).