Behind every Prime Minister there are other people, 'at Power’s Elbow', never achieving the same acclaim or notoriety, yet indispensable to the very public figure they support. The British premiership has always been a group effort. This point can be illustrated by considering the staffing arrangements and working practices of three celebrated Prime Ministers: Robert Walpole, William Gladstone and Winston Churchill. Each deployed a disparate range of people to help them, with a major change over time being the emergence of a professional staff of permanent civil servants, that did not develop fully until the first half of the twentieth century.
Robert Walpole: the first Prime Minister with the first prime-ministerial staff
Robert Walpole, a Whig, is generally regarded as the first British Prime Minister (1721-1742). The role did not exist officially at the time; consequently nor did an official staff to support it. The phrase ‘Prime Minister’ was a term of abuse, and Walpole always denied it applied to him, but he did more to establish and develop the office than any other.
In achieving this feat Walpole had assistance from a collection of public office holders and others with more informal connections. Allies at the courts of George I and George II helped him with the crucial task of maintaining good relations with the monarch. John, Lord Hervey, in particular was able to inform him about developments, and plant ideas in the mind of the king.
Handling Parliament, ensuring that it provided support for his government, was another critical necessity. Aides helped Walpole manage votes in the Commons and Lords. In the latter, Edmund Gibson, the Bishop of London, was particularly useful, and gained for himself the nickname ‘Walpole’s pope’. One of his tasks was in ensuring that as many members as possible of the group of 26 bishops voted with the government.
To ensure the Commons was packed with friendly MPs, Walpole had staff, including holders of posts at the Treasury, fix elections for him. They often did so using the so-called ‘Secret Service’ money, intended for intelligence purposes, but often disbursed as bribes, a fairly standard practice at the time that Walpole elevated to an art form.
Cash incentives were deployed for another purpose – to ensure Walpole received favourable coverage in the print press. He assembled a full-scale team of officials and others to promote his image, and undermine his opponents. A central figure in this operation was Thomas Gordon, who oversaw literary output while holding the official title of First Commissioner of Wine Licences.
Walpole was able to dominate government policymaking. He did so partly because of his political skills and because he held a position that Prime Ministers generally ceased to occupy from the mid-nineteenth century - the head of the Treasury, its First Lord. At the time it was the largest government department. It provided Walpole with a substantial team of people on whose support he could draw, the most important of whom was the Secretary to the Treasury, John Scrope.
Scrope was summoned by the ‘Committee of Secrecy’, a parliamentary committee set up in 1742 after Walpole fell from power, to construct a legal case against him for the misuse of public money. It was unsuccessful. Walpole had covered his tracks well. Aides such as Scrope refused to cooperate and Walpole himself evaded being called to the committee because George II moved him to the House of Lords as the Earl of Orford.
William Gladstone: control freak
Gladstone, a Liberal who had four terms at No.10 (1868-74; 1880-5; 1886; 1892-4), is often compared with his great rival, the Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. While Disraeli was noted for his relaxed approach to the premiership, Gladstone was obsessed with detail and often worked to the point of breakdown. He maintained close oversight of a larger team of personal staff than Disraeli, prescribed exactly how they should go about work, and involved himself in the minutiae of process and seemingly trivial decisions. Even during his last premiership, in his eighties, his work-rate was high, though of necessity he delegated more to others.
Aides to Gladstone often shared his strain. By the late nineteenth century Prime Ministers were no longer immediately responsible for the Treasury. But Gladstone, seeking to get a grip on financial policy, twice combined the premiership with the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer (1873-4 and 1880-82). His private secretaries found themselves immersed in financial policy alongside their other duties, and the pressure sometimes became difficult to endure. Some of his private secretaries, such as Algernon West and Edward Hamilton, went on to distinguished careers in the Civil Service, then an emerging institution.
Beyond his regular team at No.10 Gladstone obtained other more informal support. His circle of helpers included the historian, Lord Acton, who in 1869 went to Rome to pursue Gladstone’s personal objective of preventing the Roman Catholic Church from adopting the doctrine of papal infallibility. Acton was unsuccessful, but continued helping him, and during the final Gladstone premiership of 1892-4, liaised with Queen Victoria. While the Queen and Gladstone had a difficult relationship, Acton got on well with Victoria and helped smooth over problems between the Palace and Downing Street.
Winston Churchill: war leader and team leader
Churchill (1940-45; 1951-5) is often regarded as the greatest ever Prime Minister, largely because of his leadership of the coalition government during the Second World War. His achievements rested to a large extent on the team of personal staff he skilfully constructed, influenced by the coalition premier in the previous world war, David Lloyd George (1916-1922), whose innovations included the formation of a team of personal advisers popularly known as the ‘Garden Suburb’.
By 1940 the permanent Civil Service had emerged as the main provider of impartial advice and support to successive incumbents at No.10. Churchill challenged this tradition, relying heavily on people he chose, such as Brendan Bracken, an MP rumoured to be Churchill’s illegitimate son, and Desmond Morton, who become a special assistant on intelligence.
At the same time Churchill made effective use of career officials already in place as prime-ministerial aides when he came to No.10. They included the Cabinet Secretary, Edward Bridges, a brilliant operator of the bureaucratic machine; and a Downing Street private secretary, John Colville, who became close to Churchill despite having supported Neville Chamberlain and his policy of Appeasement.
Structural change took place as well. Churchill established a Statistical Section, headed by his acolyte Lord Lindemann, known as the “Prof”. It was charged with advising him on the conduct of the war, particularly the mobilisation of resources. It was a precursor of Harold Wilson’s Policy Unit, which survives to this day.
Andrew Blick and George Jones, At Power’s Elbow: aides to the Prime Minister from Robert Walpole to David Cameron (2013)
Dennis Kavanagh and Anthony Seldon, The Powers Behind the Prime Minister: the hidden influence of Number Ten (2008)
Charles Petrie, The Powers Behind the Prime Ministers (1958)
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