In Anthony Trollope’s 1876 novel The Prime Minister, the Prime Minister of the title is Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium. It may today appear very strange that a member of the House of Lords could head the British government. The last peer to be called upon to serve as Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, renounced his peerage shortly after taking office in 1963. The Marquess of Salisbury, who retired in 1902, was the last Prime Minister to lead a government from the Lords.
Trollope’s depiction, however, reflected the political realities of his day. Of the thirteen Prime Ministers who served during his lifetime (1815-1882), only four spent their entire premiership in the House of Commons, while seven governed from the Lords. Uniquely, Lord John Russell spent his first term (1846-1852) in the Commons, but his second (1865-1866) in the Lords, having been ennobled as Earl Russell in 1861. Benjamin Disraeli transferred from the Lower to the Upper House while in office, having been created Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876.
The case of Lord John Russell – a courtesy title which he held as a younger son of the Duke of Bedford – provides a useful reminder that not all those Prime Ministers referred to as ‘Lord’ necessarily sat in the Upper House. As an Irish peer, Lord Palmerston did not have an automatic right to sit in the Lords and was MP for Tiverton while Prime Minister.
Although British politics became progressively more democratic during the nineteenth century, more peers than commoners served as Prime Minister in that period. In fact more Prime Ministers spent their premierships exclusively in the Lords during the nineteenth century than the eighteenth century. Two of the nineteenth (and indeed any) century’s longest serving incumbents were peers: Salisbury, who governed for over thirteen years in three administrations, and Lord Liverpool, who served continuously for over fourteen years.
In 1817, eleven years before he became Prime Minister, the Duke of Wellington remarked, ‘Nobody cares a damn for the House of Lords; the House of Commons is everything in England and the House of Lords nothing’. Events leading to the passage of the 1832 Reform Act appeared to confirm Wellington’s view, bringing down his government, with the Lords eventually forced to yield to the Lower House to pass the Act. Yet Wellington noted in a more reflective mood in 1835 that ‘the House of Lords still constitutionally possesses great power over the legislation of the country’. Before the 1911 Parliament Act tipped the constitutional balance decidedly in favour of the Commons, there were several significant occasions on which the Lords forced the Commons to postpone or reconsider major legislative proposals, notably in 1884 over parliamentary reform and in 1893 over Irish Home Rule. As Walter Bagehot noted in his 1867 work The English Constitution, the Lords also retained its significance as ‘a reservoir of Cabinet ministers’. Nearly half of William Gladstone’s 1880 Cabinet were peers.
Despite the Upper House’s continued significance, some doubted whether a Prime Minister was best placed there. Yet such objections could be grounded less on principle than an aversion to a particular individual. George Canning’s dislike of the ineffectual Duke of Portland, whom he hoped to succeed, prompted him to argue in 1809 that it was ‘indispensable’ that the Prime Minister sit in the Commons. In 1894, following Gladstone’s retirement, a deputation of Liberal MPs protested to their Chief Whip about a peer filling his place, Queen Victoria having chosen the Earl of Rosebery in preference to Sir William Harcourt.
There were undoubtedly potential pitfalls for a Prime Minister who sat in the Lords. Winston Churchill believed that Lord Rosebery’s career was seriously hampered by his peerage, observing, ‘Oh that he had been in the House of Commons! There is the tragedy. Never to have come into contact with realities, never to have felt the pulse of things – that is what is wrong with Rosebery’. Rosebery, who inherited his title aged just twenty, was particularly unusual in never having been an MP; Lord Aberdeen was the only other nineteenth-century Prime Minister in this position. Most Prime Ministers in the Lords could therefore draw on direct experience of the workings of the Commons.
Churchill’s critique of Rosebery overlooked his experience outside Parliament. An accomplished public speaker, Rosebery was active in Gladstone’s election campaign in Midlothian in 1880 and was elected to, and served as first chairman of, the London County Council in 1889. Neither was Aberdeen ignorant of electoral politics; while he was in office, two of his sons were elected as MPs. More significant in Rosebery’s unhappy premiership was his difficult relationship with the Leader of the House of Commons, Sir William Harcourt, his main rival for office in 1894. In contrast, once the volatile Lord Randolph Churchill had resigned in 1886, Salisbury had a much smoother relationship with his right-hand men in the Commons, the dependable W.H. Smith and Arthur Balfour, his nephew. Arguably the growth of party discipline during the nineteenth century made it easier for the Commons to be managed on behalf of a Prime Minister who sat in the Lords.
Matters were different in the eighteenth century, when it is notable that the longest serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, chose to remain in the Commons, declining the offer of a peerage in 1723. The average time in office for eighteenth-century Prime Ministers who sat in the Lords was only two years: their absence from the Commons, while not the only factor in their downfall, was a major disadvantage. Resigning in 1770, the Duke of Grafton declared that the Prime Minister needed to be ‘in the scene of action’ in the Commons.
With skilled management it was possible to lead from the Lords, even before the creation of disciplined party structures. Lord Liverpool held his ministry together in the troubled period after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. With his own speaking abilities confined to the Lords, astute Cabinet reshuffles between 1821 and 1823 helped to bolster his ministry’s debating strength in the Commons, and resulted in the promotion of three future Prime Ministers: George Canning, Robert Peel and Frederick Robinson (later Viscount Goderich).
The more demanding nature of business in the Commons, combined with failing health, was largely responsible for Disraeli’s decision, while serving as Prime Minister in 1876, to go to the Lords, where he described himself as ‘dead, but in the Elysian fields’. This elevation was widely believed to have weakened his political position, not least because it was harder for him to respond to Gladstone’s attacks on Conservative foreign policy.
Other Prime Ministers had a less positive view of the Lords. Salisbury described it in 1876 as ‘the dullest assembly in the world’. Earl Grey had been disgruntled when his father accepted a peerage, which would curtail his own promising Commons career once he succeeded to the title on his father’s death. After his maiden speech in the Lords in 1808, Grey complained that ‘it was like speaking in a vault by the glimmering light of a sepulchral lamp to the dead. It is impossible I should ever do anything there worth thinking of’. He was wrong, however, for as Prime Minister in the Lords he oversaw the passing of the 1832 Reform Act. During his premiership, Rosebery likened the Lords to being ‘confined in a gilded dungeon with his bitterest political enemies’. His position as a Liberal peer in a chamber dominated by his opponents was particularly uncomfortable.
Even after Salisbury’s retirement in 1902 peers remained potential candidates for the premiership. If the Liberal government had fallen after 1911, the new Conservative Prime Minister might have been Lord Lansdowne rather than Andrew Bonar Law. But significantly, it was the Commons which prevailed when a real, rather than hypothetical, choice between peer and commoner occurred. Advising George V on a successor for the ailing Bonar Law in 1923, Arthur James Balfour urged that the Prime Minister must be in the Commons, reinforcing the King’s own preference for Stanley Baldwin rather than the experienced, but aloof, Lord Curzon. In 1940 Lord Halifax emphasised ‘the difficult position of a Prime Minister unable to make contact with the centre of gravity in the House of Commons’ as a key reason for his reluctance to replace Neville Chamberlain, leaving the way clear for Churchill.
Halifax was correct that the centre of gravity of British political life had shifted decisively to the Commons. The political power and influence of the House of Lords had diminished significantly since the nineteenth century, a trend which continued apace in the second half of the twentieth century, making the possibility of any further Prime Ministers governing from the Lords increasingly unlikely.
Suggested further reading:
David Cannadine, The decline and fall of the British aristocracy (1990)
R.W. Davis (ed.), Lords of Parliament. Studies, 1714-1914 (1995)
R.W. Davis (ed.), Leaders in the Lords: government management and party organization in the upper chamber, 1765-1902 (2003)
Robert Eccleshall and Graham Walker (ed.), Biographical dictionary of British Prime Ministers (1998)
Paul Langford, ‘Prime Ministers and Parliament: the long view, Walpole to Blair’, Parliamentary History, 25:3 (2006), 382-94.
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