I have worked in education and entertainment and am also an historian and businessman and currently studying at the Open University.
Introduction -The Parties
Until 1832 politicians weren't paid and the only people who could afford to do the job were aristocrats. For many, the only qualifications they had for the job was a lot of inherited money and a sense of entitlement. Number 10 Downing Street, London has housed some of the best and worst of them.
The Whigs (who became the Liberals), and the Tories (who became the Conservatives) dominated Parliament before 1924 when the first Labour government took power.
Both Whig and Tory were originally insults- a "whiggamor" being an Irish or Scottish cattle-driver and a "Tory" was an Irish revolutionary. Both were used derisively in the 18th century but the names stuck.
Not only does this tell the story of the top job in British politics, but also the effect different personalities and their administrations have had on the world in general.
Sir Robert Walpole, Start Date Disputed (Anytime Between 1721 & 30)-1742 (Whig Party)
The expression "Prime Minister" was originally coined as an abusive term to describe Walpole. As the job evolved from nothing rather than was actually created as a position, it is debated who the first true Prime Minister really was, but Walpole is generally accepted as the original "First Lord of the Treasury". This is also the reason why his official start date is debated.
The office began, not as is usually claimed, because the king couldn't speak English, (many of his advisors were multi-lingual), but because of the aftermath of the collapse of the South Sea Company. The South Sea Bubble, as it is known as in retrospect, sparked investment fever across Britain, rather like the dotcom boom of the late 1990's. Thousands bought shares in the South Sea Company, which traded commodities (including slaves). It was an early get-rich-quick scheme and indeed many people did. However, this river of money couldn't sustain itself and the collapse of September 1720 bankrupted thousands of people. The legendary scientist, Isaac Newton, who lost a fortune over the collapse, famously lamented, "I can predict the movements of the stars, but not the madness of men."
Robert Walpole, a member of the Norfolk gentry, was known as an excellent financial manager, and in 1721, King George I brought him in to tidy up the mess, giving him the titles "First Lord of the Treasury", "Chancellor of the Exchequer" and "Leader of the House of Commons". The two men conversed in Latin as neither spoke the other's language. It is generally accepted by historians that Walpole's administration as First Lord of the Treasury officially began in 1730.
In 1732, the King bought part of 10 Downing Street in Central London and gave it to Walpole as a gift for services to Britain, which Walpole had joined onto a much larger property at the back, hence it being much larger on the inside than it looks from the outside. He set it up as the office of the "First Lord of the Treasury and to this day it remains as such. This title is engraved on the letter box.
Walpole was not a Prime Minister in the sense of today. In the 18th Century the King was the head of the government. Walpole himself insisted he was the "King's Servant". As leader of the Whig party, (which became the Liberals), he led Britain out of the financial crisis, helped secure the Hanoverian succession and kept the country out of wars abroad. Walpole still holds the record as the longest consistently serving Prime Minister, resigning from the post in 1742.
Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, 1742-1743 (Whig Party)
In 1727, George II succeeded his father as king and it was speculated that Compton would take over as First Lord of the Treasury. The new king had hated his father, which, by association, included all his advisors as well. Despite this, Walpole gradually gained the trust and respect of the new king and managed to keep his job for another fifteen years.
Spencer Compton, speaker of the House of Commons until the death of George I, was a close political ally of Walpole. However, the prime minister feared his ambition, and in order to remove a potential political enemy, elevated him to the House of Lords.
Compton was involved in the foundation of the Foundling Hospital, which exists to this day as an umbrella organisation incorporating several hospitals such as Great Ormond Street Childrens Hospital in London and also owns the nearby Coram's Fields. During the 18th and 19th century it was London's most popular charity and is mentioned in many novels including Dickens's "Little Dorrit".
Upon Walpole's resignation in 1742, Compton took over as Prime Minister, gaining a reputation as a willful and hard-headed operator. However, the job took its toll on his health, and after only a year at the helm, Compton died without issue along with his titles.
Henry Pelham, 1743-1754 (Whig Party)
As a young man Henry Pelham served as a volunteer soldier, seeing action at the Battle of Preston against James, the Old Pretender's troops during the First Jacobite Rebellion.
As the younger brother of the Duke of Newcastle, who would succeed him as Prime Minister, Pelham had served, alongside Walpole and Compton, as a governor of the Foundling Hospital.
Pelham's administration was relatively uneventful on the home front, though the Second Jacobite Rebellion under Bonnie Prince Charlie was ruthlessly crushed. Pelham's government introduced legislation to allow Jews to become naturalised British citizens upon application, and introduced the "Marriage Act". This was intended to stop clandestine marriages for those who did not have parental consent. This was not enforced in Scotland however, and over the next few centuries, the village of Gretna Green, just over the Scottish border, became synonymous with elopement.
Events abroad dominated the rest of Pelham's premiership. After the captain of a British merchant ship had his ear severed by Spanish troops who had boarded his ship, Britain went to war against Spain, subsequently becoming drawn into a wider European conflict against France and its Spanish allies supporting Bavarian claims to Habsburg territories in Austria, known as the War of Austrian Succession. George II became the last ever king of Britain to lead his troops into battle, at Dettingen, Germany, against the French.
In India, the French had taken over Madras, the main headquarters of the British East India Company. Though forced to retreat, they remained a major threat to British trade in the subcontinent. To counter this, the British formed an alliance with the Dutch East India Company to establish supremacy in India.
Pelham died suddenly after eleven years in office, being succeeded by his older brother, the Duke of Newcastle.
Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, 1754-1756 (Whig Party)
Pelham's older brother, the Duke of Newcastle, was the first Prime Minister to serve on more than one separate occasion. It was under him that Britain entered the Seven Year War, which began badly for Britain, losing colonies in America and Europe. This was the first war to be fought on every continent. Winston Churchill would later describe it as "The First World War".
Newcastle had been Secretary of State prior to taking head office, and had organised mobs in favour of the Hanoverian succession. The Jacobite cause under James, (the Old Pretender) had been popular and the country was polarised. Newcastle had been instrumental in helping Walpole secure what would become the Georgian era, with the establishment of the House of Hanover.
A theory that people of the city of Newcastle are known as "Geordies" because of Lord Newcastle and the city's support of the king is a popular one. However, there is no evidence to prove this.
Due to disastrous military losses against the French in America, as well as the loss of the colony of Menorca, Newcastle was forced to resign, albeit briefly, his position taken by the Duke of Devonshire.
William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire, 1756-1757 (Whig Party)
Although his painting makes him look old, the Duke of Devonshire has the dubious distinction of dying younger than any other British Prime Minister in history, aged only 44 years old.
Cavendish stepped into Newcastle's shoes upon his resignation during the Seven Year War, which was not going well for Britain at this point. Britain had lost huge swathes of territory to the French in the American colonies.
Despite Cavendish occupying the role of Prime Minister, the true power in parliament was William Pitt the Elder, who would dominate parliament for many years to come.
Devonshire's administration collapsed after a few months as a result of the court-marshalling and subsequent execution of Admiral Byng, who failed to stop the French taking Menorca. This trial became a major scandal, satirised famously by Voltaire, who wrote in "Candide" that the British find it necessary to shoot one of their Admirals every now and then "pour encourager les autres" (to encourage the others).
Devonshire served as Lord Chamberlain after stepping down from the top job, but died in the Netherlands two years after resigning in solidarity with Newcastle, who was dismissed from office after his second term.
To this day, Cavendish's stately home, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England, remains the seat of the Duke of Devonshire, as well as being a popular tourist attraction.
Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle, 1757-1762 (Whig Party)
Although Pitt the Elder led the government at this point, he was unable to garner the support required to gain head office himself. Newcastle once more stepped into the breach, and despite their differences of opinion politically, as a partnership Newcastle and Pitt were formidable. Under their "Broad bottom government", shipbuilding became the order of the day and Britain's naval power became the greatest in the world. Britannia really did rule the waves, while strategic alliances with Frederick the Great of Prussia made sure that Hanover, the home of Britain's ruling dynasty, was protected.
George III ascended to the throne in 1760 and distrusted both men, removing them both from power in favour of his former tutor, Lord Bute, who would become the first Tory prime minister. Newcastle returned to high office as Lord Privy Seal in Lord Rockingham's government later in the decade until a stroke in 1767 finally forced his retirement. He died the following year.
Newcastle divided opinion, with much of the credit for Britain's success during the Seven Year War going to Pitt. However, both men worked together to ensure Britain became the dominant power in Europe by the end of the Seven Year War, and Newcastle was essential to this outcome.
John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, 1762-1763 (Tory Party)
Bute was related to the Campbell clan who perpetrated the Glencoe Massacre in 1692. Despite his Scottish roots however, he grew up in England until inheriting estates north of the border.
During the second Jacobite rebellion (with which he had no sympathy), Bute moved back to London and became tutor to the Prince of Wales, the future George III. As his favourite, Bute became Prime Minister in 1762.
Although Bute's stint in the saddle lasted just under a year, it was he who signed the original Treaty of Paris, thus effectively ending the Seven Year War with France and Spain. This resulted in the British claiming much of their North American and Caribbean possessions. However Bute was criticised for conceding territories back to both countries. Pitt the Elder in particular believed this would lead to further war as it gave France the opportunity to once again threaten Britain's economic interests abroad, which indeed did happen. Winston Churchill would later describe the treaty as a "policy of appeasement".
Bute fell from favour with the king after criticising him in a speech, and the introduction of an unpopular tax on cider to raise money for war debts caused riots in the West of England, the main cider producing area of the country. Bute resigned as PM in 1763, remaining in the House of Lords as a Scottish representative. A keen botanist and patron of the arts, Bute has a plant, the Stewartia, named after him.
George Grenville, 1763-1765 (Whig Party)
Political power swung back to the Whigs under another old Etonian and lawyer, George Grenville. Grenville, who was married to Pitt the Elder's sister, was the first non-aristocrat to become Prime Minister.
Like his predecessor, he also imposed an unpopular tax, this one on the American colonies. The Stamp Act was a common tax in Britain which involved papers having to be stamped with an official seal that was to be paid for in British currency. This was unpopular in the colonies, and opponents of the tax used the slogan "No taxation without representation", a statement reflecting the resentment of the colonists who were governed from afar and had no say in their own destiny, yet were still being asked to pay taxes. This was the start of what would eventually lead to war and the declaration of independence.
After his resignation in 1765, Grenville reconciled with Pitt, with whom he had previously fallen out after being overlooked for a senior position in the Duke of Devonshire's cabinet, which Pitt was at the helm of. He continued to be active in the House of Commons, but after an unsuccessful attempt to prosecute a weekly periodical for printing a critique of a speech by the king, his public image never recovered from what was seen as an attempt at censorship.
Grenville died in 1770, his son William becoming PM at the start of the following century.
Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham,1765-1766 (Whig Party)
Charles Wentworth-Watson held office twice during the 18th century. As a young man he joined the king's army, led by the Duke of Cumberland, during Bonnie Prince Charlie's Second Jacobite Rebellion. He later travelled Europe, becoming Lord of the Bedchamber to George II after meeting and befriending him while in Hanover. Rockingham became highly influential as the central politician in the "Rockingham Club" he and his peer group had formed, but upon the ascent of George III, with whom Rockingham did not see eye to eye, Rockingham resigned as Lord of the Bedchamber, becoming leader of the opposition to Bute's Tory administration. Despite his tense relationship with the king, he became PM for the first time in 1765, appointing the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke as his private secretary.
Rockingham repealed the Stamp Act that had made his predecessor so unpopular in the American colonies, inviting Benjamin Franklin to speak to parliament on American policy, and lowering the American colonies' tax on sugar. However, he introduced the unpopular Declaration Act, giving Britain the right to legislate on behalf of the American colonies.
In-fighting within the Whig party led to Rockingham resigning as Prime Minister, spending the following sixteen years as a member of the opposition, and William Pitt the Elder, having long been a powerful background figure, now officially occupied the highest office.
William Pitt,1st Earl of Chatham (Pitt the Elder), 1766-1768
Pitt the Elder's grandfather had become immensely wealthy as a trader, beginning in the East India Company, then going it alone, opening new avenues of trade within the subcontinent which eventually filtered back to Britain. Originally seen as a renegade, Thomas Pitt was eventually acknowledged as essential to the success of Britain in India. The sale of a large diamond that he had mysteriously acquired earned him the nickname, "Diamond Pitt", and secured the family's fortune.
A brilliant orator and skillful politician, William Pitt the Elder, (given the nickname by historians to distinguish him from his son of the same name who also served as Prime Minister), joined the military as a young man, but was unable to prove himself as a soldier as Walpole had kept Britain out of military intervention abroad.
After visiting the continent briefly, Pitt returned to London and entered parliament, becoming a regular critic of Walpole's administration, which caused the latter to dismiss him from the army. Also a critic of the Hanoverian reign, Pitt earned himself the dislike of George II. Although Pitt worked closely with the Duke of Newcastle on military policy during the War of Austrian Succession, he was overlooked as Newcastle's representative in the House of Commons due to his outspokenness.
After Newcastle's resignation, Pitt became the power behind the Duke of Devonshire's administration. Despite being dismissed over his views on continental policy and the Admiral Byng affair, Pitt had the support of the public and numerous towns and cities including London granted him civic freedom. Reconciled with Newcastle, who had by now become Prime Minister for the second time, the two men made shipbuilding one of the major British industries as control of the seas established Britain's power abroad and enabled victory on land. This resulted in numerous victories that have gone down in history as key imperial triumphs, including Wolfe's routing of the French in Quebec and Clive of India's victories across the subcontinent.
Diplomatic manoeuvres, such as subsidising Frederick the Great of Prussia to fight France in Europe, thus keeping Hanover safe allowed Britain to focus on its Asian and North American colonies.
This war was heavily reliant on credit as much as military might. When Britain merged with the Dutch under the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, as well as merging as trading companies in America and India in the 17th Century, Britain incorporated the Dutch banking system and relied heavily on credit to finance the war. France had no such banking system in place and had to beg, steal and borrow funds. Its humiliation would eventually lead to revolution at the end of the century.
At the helm of the country under Newcastle's successors, Pitt was Prime Minister in all but name. When George III ascended the throne and Lord Bute occupied Number 10, Pitt resigned over the threat from the Spanish Empire, which was allied to France and threatened British interests in the Caribbean.
Despite this, in 1766, Pitt was asked to form a government. However, his acceptance of a peerage, (1st Earl of Chatham) which he had hitherto refused, lost him a great deal of public support.
Pitt suffered a nervous breakdown and resigned in 1768, disappearing from public life, and only reappearing in the House of Lords the following year. His eventual successor, the Duke of Grafton, conducted all official business in his absence, introducing an unpopular tax on the American colonies which is unlikely to have been approved by Pitt.
Upon his reappearance, he warned about alienating the American colonies and stated that they would be impossible to defeat in battle. This was ignored and war broke out in 1776. Because of his stance against the war, Pitt became a hero in America; the city of Pittsburgh was named in his honour in 1778.
Pitt worked tirelessly under several administrations but he was the true power in parliament long before occupying the top position himself. He continues to be regarded as the greatest politician of the age.
Augustus Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton 1768-1770 (Whig Party)
Anyone stepping into Pitt the Elder's shoes had quite a difficult act to follow. Fitzroy was MP for Bury St Edmunds, but upon the death of his grandfather he inherited the title the Duke of Grafton and moved to the House of Lords.
Grafton was an opponent of Lord Bute and the king alongside the Duke of Newcastle and Pitt the Elder, believing the terms of the Treaty of Paris would allow the French to rearm and threaten British interests abroad again.
Grafton was part of Pitt's administration, taking the wheel during his breakdown and officially becoming Prime Minister in 1768. Corsica was overrun by the French in 1768. As a direct result of this, Napoleon Bonaparte, born there in 1769, could officially be classed a French citizen. Grafton's failure to act led to his fall from grace and subsequent resignation.
Despite his ousting from the top job, Grafton stayed in government for another 41 years after his resignation, the longest post-premiership of any British Prime Minister in history.
Lord North, 1770-1782 (Tory Party)
Lord North was at the helm of Britain through the American War of Independence and his reputation is inevitably tarnished with the loss of the colony. Ironically, his former home in London is now accommodation for American undergraduates studying in Britain.
The first Tory Prime Minister since Lord Bute, he became MP for Banbury aged 22. Though offered a place in Lord Rockingham's government, North refused to join the Whig party, preferring to serve as a backbencher.
North took over as Prime Minister in 1770. An early success was a conflict with the Spanish over the Falkland Islands. However, after the Boston Tea Party and numerous punitive measures imposed by parliament, war broke out, with the French and Spanish empires joining the colonists against the British. This time there was no Wolfe or Clive to turn things around.
Britain abandoned the American mainland, resorting to defending its Caribbean sugar plantations, which were a bigger source of revenue. It is said the British military band played "The World Turned Upside-Down" as they surrendered the 13 colonies to George Washington.This had technically been a civil war as there was no real concept of being American, only those loyal to the crown and those who favoured separation. Families were divided by the conflict; for example, Benjamin Franklin's son was a loyalist and the two never spoke again.
In 1782, North received a vote of no confidence and tendered his resignation. After the death of his father in 1790, he inherited the title of Earl of Guildford, dying himself two years later.
Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham,1782 (Whig Party)
Rockingham briefly stood as Prime Minister for a second time in 1782.
His second administration saw steps taken towards the relief of the poor, known as Gilbert's Act after its instigator, Thomas Gilbert. This included the setting up of workhouses, which were later exposed by the likes of Charles Dickens as inhumane prisons for the poor. Famously, Charlie Chaplin spent time in one as a boy.
After fourteen weeks back as Prime Minister, an influenza epidemic swept the country and Rockingham was one of its victims. The second Prime Minister to occupy the position twice, he was succeeded by Lord Shelburne, who was his joint Secretary of State along with Charles James Fox. Fox would become the great political rival of Pitt the Younger in the same way his father, Henry Fox had been the arch-political rival of Pitt the Elder.
William Petty, 2nd Earl of Shelburne, 1782-1783 (Whig Party)
Seeing action as a soldier during the Seven Year War and proving his valour in several battles in Germany, Shelburne entered parliament in 1760. He ascended to the House of Lords upon the death of his father, whose title he inherited, and would later be further ennobled as the Marquess of Lansdowne.
Formerly Home Secretary under Rockingham, Shelburne was a vehement critic of North's government. A competent economist, he, like Pitt, saw the advantage of free trade with America and was opposed to the war. Ahead of his time in many ways, his generous terms towards America at the second Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the American War of Independence, were the reason for his downfall. As an Irishman, he was also mistrusted by the Catholic-fearing establishment.
Shelburne's Chancellor of the Exchequer was the 23-year-old William Pitt the Younger, who, like his father before him, would soon go on to dominate parliament into the following century.
William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, 1783 (Whig Party)
The ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II through her maternal grandmother, Portland served in both of Rockingham's administrations but resigned along with Edmund Burke and Charles James Fox upon the appointment of Shelburne.
In 1783 he headed a coalition government until the end of the year. Prime Minister in name only, the true power being in the hands of Fox and Lord North, Portland resigned after an unsuccessful attempt to reform the East India Company and took over as President of the popular charity, the Foundling Hospital.
After severing political ties with Fox over the French Revolution which he disapproved of, Portland joined Pitt the Younger's government as Home Secretary until the death of the latter, returning to the premiership in 1807 after 24 years out of office, the longest gap between premierships of any British Prime Minister.
William Pitt (the Younger), 1783-1801 (Tory Party)
The second son of Pitt the Elder, the younger Pitt served twice as Prime Minister and was also Chancellor of the Exchequer for most of his first term, having been appointed by Shelburne's administration.
Like his father, he gained his seat in parliament by controlling a rotten borough (a borough with few people but still had an MP who usually owned the area). Despite this, he would later campaign against both rotten and pocket boroughs (where the elections for representatives were corruptly controlled by a landowner), both of which would be abolished in the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832.
In order to stop Charles James Fox and his radical ideas such as universal suffrage, George III appointed the 24-year-old Pitt as Prime Minister much to the derision of many. Pitt offered Fox a post in his cabinet in order to limit his opposition, but his exclusion of Lord North made this untenable and though the two men had previously worked together in the Whig party, they became political rivals like their fathers had been years before.
Pitt was popular with the public, who nicknamed him "Honest Billy" after his attempt to abolish rotten boroughs, although his bill against them was defeated in parliament.
In the wake of the French Revolution, Pitt's government introduced repressive measures against parliamentary reformists, suspending habeas corpus and encouraging people to spy on their neighbours and report any signs of dissent. The revolutionary war was proving costly to Britain, and in order to offset losses due to trade deficits, Pitt introduced income tax in 1797 as a temporary measure. Though this was removed at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it would later be re-introduced, and is still in place to this day.
An attempt to take over the French slave colony of St Dominigue (modern day Haiti) which had revolted and driven out the French, failed, and Pitt was criticised for spending more on this than on the war against France itself. Pitt had formed the Triple Alliance with Holland and Prussia to limit French influence, which collapsed in 1898. A second coalition between Britain, Austria, Russia and the Ottomans also collapsed and Britain now stood alone against France. Pitt then formed an alliance with Ireland to counter any Irish threats of revolution. The Irish red cross was added to the Union Flag and Britain became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801.
Despite the alliance, the King, in between his bouts of madness, would not allow Catholic emancipation. Pitt resigned in protest over this, stepping aside for his political ally, Henry Addington, before stepping back into the helm three years later. While out of office, Pitt encouraged the building of the Martello towers, miniature forts built along the coast. Many still exist and some have been successfully converted into luxury accommodation. Pitt also organised defence organisations in coastal towns for fear of a French invasion under the newly crowned Emperor Napoleon.
Henry Addington, 1st Viscount of Sidmouth, 1801-1804, (Tory Party)
Addington took over a country weakened by harvest failures, a lack of military allies and an embargo on European trade which had been imposed by Napoleon, ("The English are a nation of shopkeepers"). This resulted in the Treaty of Amiens, a much criticised peace treaty with Napoleon Bonaparte which Addington was forced to sign.
This peace did not last long and though he had the support of the king, Addington could not hold a majority in parliament. Combined with his lack of charisma alongside the younger Pitt, Addington handed the baton back to him in 1804.
This was not the end of Addington, who remained at the forefront of politics, elevated by Pitt to the House of Lords. He served as Lord President but resigned after he and Pitt fell out. He later served as Home Secretary, introducing numerous repressive measures resulting in notorious incidents such as the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, when soldiers attacked an unarmed crowd that had turned out to listen to orator Henry Hunt and his speech in favour of universal suffrage.
William Pitt (the Younger), 1804-1806 (Tory Party)
Pitt's second stint as Prime Minister came as the Napoleonic Wars were underway. Using his fiscal expertise, Pitt was able to use Britain's finances to further expand the Royal Navy and apply it to controlling the seas. It was under Pitt that Nelson won the decisive naval battle of the war at Trafalgar, where he was killed in action.
However, the Third Coalition (which included Austria, Russia and Sweden) collapsed after the Battle of Austerlitz, after which Pitt famously said "Roll up that map (of Europe), it will not be wanted these ten years." The war would continue until 1815.
Pitt had suffered from ill-health for most of his life, and died due to complications from an ulcer aged only 46 in 1806. As Pitt never married and had no children, modern historians have speculated on his sexuality. This was an era where obvious homosexuality would have been considered a serious impediment and it is believed that his ambition was far more important to him than anything else. No relationship, homosexual or otherwise is known about him.
William Grenville, 1st Baron Genville, 1806-1807 (Whig Party)
With former Prime Minister George Grenville as his father, Pitt the Elder as his uncle, Pitt the Younger as his cousin and Queen Anne's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir William Wyndham Bart as his grandfather, it was unlikely that William Grenville was going to end up working in a factory.
Resigning as Foreign Secretary in 1801 over the King's opposition to Catholic emancipation, the now Baron Grenville became the head of what became known as the "Ministry of all the Talents". This was a coalition of supporters of Charles James Fox (the real power) and supporters of former PM Henry Addington (now Lord Sidmouth) and included Thomas Erskine and Princess Diana's ancestor, George Spencer.
Though his administration failed to end the war, Grenville's major achievement was the passing of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, which prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire. Britain would later lobby other countries to follow.
William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland, 1807-1809 (Whig Party)
Portland returned to the top job after 24 years. His attempt to centralise the running of the East India company and to curb abuses and private profiteering by representatives abroad had been overruled by the House of Lords, which had forced his resignation over two decades before.
After serving as Home Secretary for the previous decade, Pitt the Younger's supporters returned to power and Portland became their figurehead. This administration saw the beginning of the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal. However, the government was brought into disrepute when Lord Castlereagh, the Minister for War, and the Foreign Secretary, George Canning ended up fighting a dual on Putney Heath, the former shooting the latter in the leg. Both resigned, with Portland stepping down soon after. He was succeeded by Spencer Perceval, who would become the only British Prime Minister to be assassinated.
Spencer Perceval, 1809-1812 (Tory Party)
Remembered foremost for the manner of his death, Spencer Percival was the first and only British Prime Minister to be assassinated, though others, including Robert Peel and Margaret Thatcher have survived attempts.
Under his administration, George III suffered another spell of mental illness, and the Luddite Riots took place. These have been misrepresented as simplistic, but were in fact a protest at the reduction in the quality of production caused by industrialisation as opposed to industrialisation itself..
The son of an Irish Earl, Percival became MP for Northampton after being offered the position by his cousin who had risen to the House of Lords. Rising through the ranks, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1809 and helped ensure Wilberforce's bill to abolish the slave trade went through. He became Prime Minister in the same year, and continued to finance the Duke of Wellington's Iberian campaign. Perceval had 13 children and unusually for the era and for a man of his class, actually spent time with them.
On 11th May 1812, John Bellingham, a businessman who had been bankrupted by the war, imprisoned in Russia and then had his claims for compensation rejected by the British government, shot Perceval dead in the lobby of the House of Commons. Despite a plea of insanity, he was hanged a week later.
Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, 1812-1827 (Tory Party)
In the wake of Perceval's assassination, Liverpool's administration introduced all kinds of repressive measures. This culminated in 1819, when a suffrage rally of 60-80 000 people at St Peter's Fields, Manchester, was attacked by the army, who charged the crowd killing 15 and injuring approximately 700. It was ironically dubbed the "Peterloo Massacre" after the battle four years before.
Liverpool had already been accused of having blood on his hands when as military commander in Scotland, his men massacred civilians in Tranent protesting against enforced military service, then raped and looted in the aftermath. Liverpool (at the time Lord Hawksbury) was blamed for not being there to control his men, preferring to stay at headquarters at Haddington.
Liverpool was thought of as a shrewd politician despite his draconian and often unpopular policies. In opposition he spoke out against the abolition of the slave trade, though later changed his stance, speaking in favour of it at the Congress of Vienna towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
Liverpool's government introduced the notorious Corn Laws, which banned the import of foreign wheat until prices at home reached a minimum. This kept the price of wheat (and therefore bread) artificially high. He suspended habeas corpus several times and introduced the Six Acts, which drastically limited free speech and the right to protest. His unpopularity led to the Cato Street Conspiracy, a Guy Fawkes type plot to assassinate the entire cabinet. This was discovered however, the plotters either executed or transported. He also banned the forming of trade unions.
Under Liverpool, Britain went to war in 1812 with the USA. This is seen in Europe as a minor sideshow as the Napoleonic Wars were still underway, though in North America it is seen as a major victory, with the British being defeated in New Orleans. Washington DC was destroyed and the White House burnt down. It is said it was painted white after this to hide the scorches to the exterior. However this is an urban myth, as it was white before this.
Liverpool was also against Catholic emancipation, which made him particularly unpopular in Ireland.
Liverpool's administration was a time of great change, with the shifting of European borders and the industrial revolution getting into gear, but after the French Revolution and the recent assassination of Perceval, the upper classes were genuinely afraid of the enemy within, and it was also a time of repression and paranoia in Britain.
George Canning, 1827 (Tory Party)
Serving for only four months, George Canning held the shortest term in office of any British Prime Minister.
Entering parliament under Pitt the Younger, Canning is particularly remembered for being shot in the leg in a duel with Minister of War Lord Castlereagh as Foreign Secretary during the Duke of Portland's second administration. This resulted in his being passed over as successor for Prime Minister in favour of Spencer Perceval and he, Castlereagh and Portland all resigned.
Canning became Ambassador to Portugal, returning to government under Liverpool's administration as President of the Board of Control, speaking in favour of Catholic emancipation, but being blocked on this in the House of Lords.
Canning succeeded in preventing French intervention in Latin America, opening trade links and aiding newly independent nations, with the help of the Navy, from Spanish control.
Canning's appointment as Prime Minister split the Tory Party, with both the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel refusing to serve under him. However, this made little difference, as Canning died that August aged 57 and was succeeded briefly by Viscount Goderich. Canning Town in East London was not named after him, but is believed to be named after Charles Canning, the first Viceroy of India.
Frederick J Robinson, 1st Viscount Goderich, 1827-1828 (Tory Party)
Having served three days longer than his predecessor, George Canning, Goderich's term in office was the second shortest administration and the shortest ever of a Prime Minister who did not die in office.
Under Liverpool's administration, Goderich was joint Paymaster of the Forces when the Corn Laws were brought in. This unpopular law, which kept the price of wheat artificially high, led to his home being vandalised several times and on one occasion two people were shot. The law was eventually abolished but not until almost halfway through the century.
Elevated to the peerage, Goderich served several posts in Liverpool and Canning's cabinets, eventually gaining the top job upon the death of the latter in 1827.
Goderich was unable to gain control of the cabinet, which was a coalition of mostly moderate Tories with three Whigs. The demands of the King and of the cabinet were at odds and Goderich had domestic issues with a mentally ill wife. Some accounts claim he was distraught at being forced to resign while others claim he was wild with relief.
Goderich continued to serve as a politician however, further enobled as the Earl of Ripon. He joined the Whigs under Earl Grey, and also served under Robert Peel, dying in 1859.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, 1828-1830 (Tory Party)
Almost single-handedly creating the English stereotype of the stiff upper lip, and most famous for his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, Wellington stood twice as Prime Minister, though the second time was only for three weeks, as caretaker for the absent Peel.
Born in Dublin to Anglo-Irish aristocracy, he is supposed to have said "Being born in a stable doesn't make one a horse". This is however, an urban myth as it is known he was proud of his Irish heritage. His other famous quote about Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton is another myth. Eton had no playing fields in his day and as a schoolboy there, he was noted for his lack of sporting ability.
Wellesley entered parliament as MP for the Irish borough of Trim while joining the military. An aspiring musician, it is said that after falling in love with Kitty Pakenham, the daughter of Baron Longford and being rejected by her family as a man with no prospects, he burnt his violins and concentrated on his military career.
Wellesley rose through the ranks, seeing action in the Netherlands and India, becoming a general and making his fortune.
Not yet famous, he returned to England and met Nelson (then the most famous man in Britain), for the first and only time. He found Nelson vain and superficial, before the admiral left the room to find out who Wellesley was. When he returned, Wellington recalled, "I don't know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more." Nelson would be killed a few weeks later at Trafalgar.
Upon gaining command of the army during the Peninsular War, Wellington gained the respect of the Spanish and Portuguese by executing any of his soldiers who looted, took livestock without permission or raped civilians. Winning key victories across the peninsula and across Europe, Wellesley became a hero and was made the Duke of Wellington, a title his descendants still hold.
After Napoleon escaped from Elba where he had been exiled, he returned to France, toppled Louis XVIII and mobilised his troops once more. The decisive battle was near the small town of Waterloo in Belgium, which along with Prussian allies under Marshall Blucher, Napoleon was finally defeated and exiled to St Helena, living in the house where coincidentally Wellington had stayed in 1805 on his way back from India.
Waterloo, an otherwise unremarkable town, has a hill with a lion monument built on the site of the battlefield and is also the name of the area of London where the London Eye is located. It is also the song that won the Eurovision song contest for ABBA in 1974.
Wellington himself went on to join the Tory party, becoming Prime Minister in 1828. He spoke in favour of Catholic emancipation, but was firmly against Jewish emancipation, parliamentary reform and universal suffrage. The later two didn't help his popularity and mobs rioted outside his home, Apsley House, at Hyde Park Corner in London. He installed iron shutters to protect his windows, which led to his nickname, the "Iron Duke".
Wellington's government fell in the face of the overwhelming demand for parliamentary reform, making way for the first Whig administration in 21 years.
Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, 1830-1834 (Whig Party)
There are several stories of how tea flavoured with bergamot oil came to be named after Earl Grey. It had been in existence at least since the previous decade, and Grey was supposedly given a quantity of it as a diplomatic gift. Twinings claim that he was presented it by a Chinese Mandarin after his son was rescued from drowning, while Grey's descendents claim a Chinese mandarin mixed the blend for him in London and flavoured it to offset the lime quantity in the London water.
Whatever the case, Grey did far more for Britain than give his name to a type of tea, as his administration oversaw the abolition of slavery altogether within the British empire and introduced the Great Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 which abolished pocket and rotten boroughs and extended the vote to the common man. At the first parliamentary meeting after the franchise was widened, the Duke of Wellington said, "I never saw so many shockingly bad hats in my life".
Grey was a longtime opponent of the Younger Pitt, taking over as leader of the Whigs upon the death of Charles James Fox. He also stood as Foreign Secretary, resigning over George III's opposition to Catholic emancipation.
As Prime Minister it was the question of Ireland that caused him to step down, the cabinet split over the issue of appropriation of church funds. The Catholic church was still looked upon with suspicion by the English and the issue caused the Chief Secretary for Ireland, Lord Stanley to resign. Grey followed soon after, retiring from politics and public life altogether.
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, 1834 (Whig Party)
Melbourne was originally known as the cuckolded husband of Lady Caroline Lamb, whose very public affair with the poet Lord Byron was a huge scandal in the early 19th century. She famously described Byron as "mad, bad and dangerous to know". Despite their subsequent separation, her death in 1828 affected him deeply.
Melbourne rose to the position of Home Secretary in 1830 under Earl Grey, courting controversy over the execution of a protester in Merthyr Tydfil in Wales who was later proved to be innocent. He became Prime Minister for the first time in 1834 upon Grey's resignation. It was under his first administration that the parliament building burnt down. Tally sticks which had been used as part of the Chancellor of the Exchequer's accounting procedures were disposed of carelessly and the fire spread, destroying the building and giving Londoners the greatest spectacle in living memory.
Melbourne's opposition to parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation and the repeal of the corn laws made him unpopular in the Whig party and after just under four months in the job, he became the last Prime Minister to be dismissed by the reigning monarch, at this point, William IV. However he would return to office the following year.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, 1834 (Tory Party)
Though technically not really Prime Minister having refused the position due to not wanting to become a member of the House of Commons, Wellington became interim Prime Minister for three weeks, holding the fort for Robert Peel, who was in Italy at the time. At this point, the Tory party was evolving into the Conservative Party, and Peel would become the first Conservative Prime Minister.
Sir Robert Peel, 1834-1835 (Conservative Party)
The son of a wealthy Lancashire industrialist, Peel entered politics in Tipperary, Ireland with his father and Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington as his patrons.
Entering the cabinet in 1822 as Home Secretary, he made many important legal changes, reducing the number of capital crimes, introducing prison reforms such as education for prisoners and most famously, establishing the Metropolitan Police force. The name "bobby" is used for policemen to this day and the name "Peelers" was used until well into the 20th century.
As Prime Minister for the first time, Peel issued the Tamworth Manifesto, upon the principles of which the Conservative party is founded. However, frustration over policies that were constantly challenged and defeated by Daniel O' Connell's Irish Radical party caused him to step down and the Whigs returned to power once more under Melbourne.
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, 1835-1841 (Whig Party)
The new Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister, Melbourne's return to number ten began with another sex scandal involving the husband of socialite and author Caroline Norton attempting to blackmail him, accusing him of having an affair with his wife. The scandal almost brought down the government but Melbourne weathered the storm. However, Norton's reputation was ruined.
Melbourne tutored the new Queen in the art of politics, becoming a mentor to her. He was given a private apartment at Windsor Castle, and rumours that they were having an affair circulated. Upon the announcement of his resignation, Peel insisted that some of the Queen's entourage should be dismissed as they were the wives and daughters of Whig party members and the Queen should not show favouritism to any political party. This storm in a teacup became known as the "bedchamber crisis".
After receiving a final vote of no confidence in 1841, Melbourne finally resigned. As the Queen began to depend on her husband Albert as her political advisor, she and Melbourne's correspondence diminished. Melbourne died in 1848, but his name lives on in the capital of the state of Victoria, Australia.
Sir Robert Peel, 1841-1846 (Conservative Party)
Because of the so-called "bedchamber crisis" regarding the Queen's entourage of Whigs, Peel had refused to form a government. However, after Melbourne's resignation, Peel returned to power in the face of huge trade and budget deficits, leading him to re-introduce income tax in 1842, which became a permanent fixture.
Peel's government introduced the Factory Act, which placed restrictions on the number of hours children could work and set basic safety standards for machinery. In reality there was no effective way of enforcing this as there were no regular factory inspections or health and safety laws in place. Industry was new and unregulated.
In 1843, Peel's private secretary, Edward Drummond, was mistaken for Peel and murdered by Daniel McNaghten, who was subsequently found insane and locked up in Broadmoor, a hospital for the criminally insane. McNaghten has given his name to the law regarding and procedure to establish criminal insanity.
Peel's administration was brought down by the repeal of the corn laws, which had been a controversial issue since the early 19th century, banning the import of foreign wheat to allow prices at home to reach a minimum. This kept the prices artificially high, benefiting landowners but not ordinary people. Peel used the growing potato famine in Ireland as his excuse, although at first he believed the reports of the situation there had been exaggerated. Peel had become a convert to free trade and though he knew it would mean the end of his premiership, he went through with the repeal, stepping down as Prime Minister four days after it was accepted by the House of Lords.
John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, 1846-1852 (Whig Party)
Russell occupied the top spot twice in the 19th century and has several pubs named after him. It was his administration that secured the previous Peel government's factory act to restrict child labour and put rudimentary safety measures in place.
Russell's administration was marked by in-fighting within the Whig party, particularly between himself and his foreign secretary, the future Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, over a Gibraltarian British subject who had had his house destroyed by the Greek government. Palmerston had mobilised the navy to enforce compensation.
Russell's government's interference in the relief work set up by Peel's administration to help the victims of the famine in Ireland doomed over a million to death, resulting in mass emigration and the seeds of resentment towards British policy in Ireland that would have repercussions for many years to come.
Palmerston's recognition of Napoleon III, who had overthrown the King of France would lead to his resignation as Foreign Secretary. However, he was determined to take Russell down with him, motioning a vote of no confidence. Russell's first administration ended in 1852 with the General Election bringing in a new Conservative government under the Earl of Derby.
Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, 1852 (Conservative Party)
Stanley entered the cabinet under Earl Grey as Chief Secretary for Ireland. In this role he established the first education system in Ireland. As Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, he would oversee the abolition of slavery bill.
Resigning from the government over the reform of the church in Ireland, Stanley set up a group called the "Derby Dillies", who merged with Robert Peel's central party, both looking for a middle ground between radical Whig and Toryism. Stanley served under Peel's second administration, but resigned over the repeal of the corn laws.
After the 1852 General Election, Derby set up a minority government with the young Benjamin Disraeli as his Chancellor of the Exchequer. This government became known as the "Who who?" Ministry after the elderly and hard of hearing Duke of Edinburgh kept shouting "Who? Who?" after each member of the new cabinet was read out in the House of Lords".
After Disraeli presented his first budget, it proved so unpopular that a vote of no confidence was passed and after only six months as PM, Derby was shunted aside to be replaced by the Earl of Aberdeen.
George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen, 1852-1855 (Conservative Party)
Aberdeen's cabinet was made up of Peelites and free-traders, all of whom had radical ideas but all disagreed on different political issues. Aberdeen was unable to control the mavericks in his cabinet and this, along with the war in the Crimea was to bring his administration down.
Aberdeen's biggest problem was the feud between Palmerston and Russell, who were constantly trying to out-maneouvre each other politically over relationships with France, which under Napoleon III had been expanding it's empire in Indochina and Africa.
It was under Aberdeen's administration that Britain and France would fight on the same side for the first time, against the Russian Empire in the Crimean War alongside the Ottoman Empire. This war is famous for the Charge of the Light Brigade. Despite Tennyson's celebratory poem, this was a major military disaster for the British. Modern nursing, pioneered by Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, became a prominent feature of this war,and the Balaclava and the Cardigan were invented.
The war ended in an unsatisfactory armistice with Russia, and investigations into the way the war had been conducted and managed led Aberdeen to resign and retire from politics altogether.
Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, 1855-1858 (Whig Party)
Palmerston had held office in several ministries since the beginning of the 19th century. As Secretary at War under Lord Liverpool, Palmerston not only survived an assassination attempt by a disgruntled retired Lieutenant over his pension, but upon hearing about the man's mental condition, paid for his legal defence.
Palmerston spoke in favour of Catholic emancipation, though was firmly against Irish independence. His methods of dealing with China and Egypt to establish British interests in those countries gave us the expression "gunboat diplomacy", and came in for much criticism at home and abroad.
As Home Secretary, Palmerston made several amendments to the Factory Act, ended transportation to Van Diemen's Land and made other reforms to the penal system. Palmerston was disliked and mistrusted by Queen Victoria, but having exhausted every other possibility, she asked him to form a government in 1855.
At 70 years old, Palmerston is to this day the oldest person to have become Prime Minister for the first time. His administration saw the final end of the Crimean war, but in China, riots broke out in Canton against the British and several factories were destroyed. The Second Opium War broke out soon after, the first one having taken place under Palmerston's spell as Foreign Secretary. Britain fought for the right to trade opium from India within China. Soon afterwards however, Palmerston resigned after failing to pass a bill which would make it illegal to plot murders abroad within the British Isles. During his brief time out of office, the Whig party evolved into the Liberals. Palmerston would return the following year as the first Liberal Prime Minister.
Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, 1858-1859 (Conservative Party)
Stanley's second administration saw the winding up of the East India Company. From this point on, India would be governed directly from London rather than through a company. This had been the result of what Indians now call the "First War of Independence" and the British rather patronisingly called the "Indian Mutiny". India was a multicultural place, and missionaries had started arriving to convert the natives, despite the warnings the long-serving British there had given. Unsurprisingly, this had not gone down well with the locals. The British army in India relied on thousands of Sepoys (Indian soldiers), and a rumour that a new gun cartridge that had to be bitten open had been greased with lard. Cow fat was offensive to Hindus, and pork fat to Muslims. Sepoys refused to let the tallow touch their lips and rioted. British reprisals were swift and vicious; leaders of the mutiny were strapped across cannon barrels which were fired.
Back in Westminster, Derby's administration collapsed after a year after a vote of no confidence, and Palmerston once again stepped into the breach.
Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston, 1859-1865 (Whig/Liberal Party)
Returning as Prime Minister for the second time, Palmerston is generally considered to have been the first Liberal leader. His administration codified new legislation within criminal law, known as the "Offences Against the Person's Act". This dealt in particular with violent crime. Palmerston's administration also put into place legislation regulating the activities of businesses.
During Palmerston's second administration, the American Civil War took place. Though against slavery, Palmerston's sympathies were with the Confederates, believing them to be the better option for British trading interests in America. His administration also saw the unification of Italy, (Resorgimento), which was encouraged by Britain. Meanwhile in Northern Europe, tensions between Britain and Bismark's Prussia were developing over Bismark's ambitions towards the Danish territory of Schleswig-Holstein. An alliance of Prussia and Austria occupied the region, and though war was averted, Palmerston was accused of betraying the Danes by conceding the territory to Bismark.
Palmerston was alleged to have been a womaniser. One of his nicknames was Lord Cupid, and he was named in a divorce case, though this was proved to be an attempt at blackmail). He is also alleged to have died during sex with a parlour maid, though he was suffering from a fever during his last week. His no doubt apocryphal last words were "Die my dear doctor? That is the last thing I shall do." To this day Palmerston remains the last British Prime Minister to die in office.
John Russell, 1st Earl Russell, 1865-1866 (Whig/Liberal Party)
Palmerston's political enemy Russell stepped back into the helm upon Palmerston's death, albeit briefly. Despite their long-running feud, Russell had served as Foreign Secretary under Palmerston in his last administration, keeping Britain out of the war between Prussia and Denmark.
Elevated to the House of Lords in 1861, Russell's second administration attempted to further widen the electoral franchise, but due to party in-fighting, his cabinet remained unstable and his administration gave way to the Conservatives, once again under the Earl of Derby the following year.
Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, 1866-1868 (Conservative Party)
Derby became, in 1866, the first Prime Minister to govern for a third separate administration.
This administration was known in particular for managing to achieve what Russell had failed to do and expand the electoral franchise, giving the vote to many working class men, thus doubling the number of voters. However, three members of the cabinet resigned over this, including Lord Cranbourne, who would later become Lord Salisbury. He would also serve three times as Prime Minister.
With 22 years as party leader, Derby still holds the record as the longest serving leader of the Conservative Party, or indeed of any political party in or out of office. Upon his resignation in 1868 on his doctor's advice, Benjamin Disraeli took over as Prime Minister for the first time, becoming the first (and only) Jewish-born Prime Minister.
Benjamin Disraeli, 1868 (Conservative Party)
Despite being born Jewish, Disraeli's father had him baptised into the Anglican church after a dispute with his synagogue, which must have been quite a big one. Because of this, Disraeli was able to enter politics, and though such restrictions no longer exist, to this day Disraeli is the only Jewish-born Prime Minister of the UK.
Famous for his wit and for his political battles with his main opponent, Gladstone, Disraeli became a novelist to try and get out of debt, and coined the expression "millionaire" in his first novel "Vivian Grey". Disraeli entered the House of Commons in 1837, serving in Derby's "Who who?" government, named after the elderly and nearly deaf Duke of Wellington's shouts of "Who? Who?" when each member's name was read out in the House of Lords.
Disraeli's first administration lasted eleven months and was divided by issues regarding the Church of Ireland. However it passed legislation abolishing public executions and oversaw Robert Napier's rescue party to Abyssinia, where several British missionaries had been taken prisoner by Tewodros II. Disraeli also brought in legislation to put the private telegraph companies under the control of the post office, the first nationalisation of a British industry.
However, discontent in parliament over the Irish question split the Conservatives and their instability made them un-electable and after the general election in December, the Liberals took power once more under Disraeli's rival, William Gladstone.
William Ewart Gladstone, 1868-1874 (Liberal Party)
Born into a Scottish family and brought up in Liverpool, Gladstone unusually began as a Tory and drifted further left as he got older rather than the other way round. He was originally opposed to both abolition of slavery and factory regulation and campaigned against both issues.
During the 1840's and continuing into his premiership, he took it upon himself to walk the streets of London trying to save prostitutes, which raised more than a few eyebrows in parliament.
During that decade, Gladstone lost part of his left forefinger in an accident with a gun. During Peel's second administration, he became Secretary of the Board of Trade, resigning over Peel's proposals to grant money to a Catholic seminary in Ireland in the belief that a protestant country should not pay other churches. This highlighted the prejudice still rife in Britain regarding Ireland and Catholics. As Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Crimean War, Gladstone raised income tax, though resigned again over investigations into the conduct of the war.
Gladstone took up forestry as a hobby and as exercise until into his 80's. After the resignation of Lord Russell, Gladstone took over the leadership of the Liberal Party, becoming Prime Minister in 1868 for the first time. In all, Gladstone would occupy the top job four times throughout the 19th century, introducing gradual reforms that shaped the country as we know it today.
His first administration saw reforms to the army, making flogging illegal, and to the poor laws, reducing taxes on basic commodities. However, he unexpectedly called a general election in 1874 which saw Disraeli return to power.
Benjamin Disraeli, 1874-1880 (Conservative Party)
Though Disraeli was elevated to the House of Lords as Earl of Beaconsfield, he always felt that real power had come to him too late in life. It was he who coined the expression "to climb to the top of the greasy pole", which was how he described his achievement in reaching Prime Minister. Disraeli and Gladstone's political quarrelling in the House of Commons set the tone for the style of political debating which we recognise as the status quo in the house today.
During Disraeli's second term, legislation regarding the sanitation of London and subsequently the rest of the country was passed. "The Great Stink" of 1858 (the smell of raw sewage from the Thames) had forced parliament to close and triggered several cholera epidemics. London's sewers had been built along with the embankments. These were improved and extended during Disraeli's administration along with other social welfare schemes including new factory regulations and educational reforms.
The "Eastern Question" was the major foreign political issue. The Ottoman Empire was crumbling and Britain was maneouvring to try to stop Russia picking up the pieces. A popular music hall song of the time went "We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do/We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too/We've fought the Bear before, and while we're Britons true/The Russians shall not have Constantinople." This gave us the expression "Jingoism" and was reflective of Disraeli's "Empire for the sake of empire" second administration. Disraeli bought a majority stake in the Suez Canal, a major trading route, making Britain the major player in Egypt and secured government of India, making Victoria Empress of India. Disraeli was the favourite of the Queen, whereas she despised Gladstone who "speaks to me as though I were a public meeting".
During this administration Britain fought a war in Afghanistan, which resulted in the Afghan troops who were loyal to the British rebelling. The entire retreating army but one was killed in the Kybher Pass. In South Africa Britain fought a war against the Zulus, one of the set piece battles at Rourke's Drift later immortalised in the 1964 Michael Caine film. The Zulu leader, Cetewayo was eventually exiled to London, the last King of an independent Zulu nation.
Towards the end of his administration, Disraeli's health began to decline. Defeated by Gladstone in the 1880 election, he died a year later due to complications from asthma and bronchitis. On his deathbed he refused a visit from the Queen, saying "She'll only want me to give a message to Albert."
William Ewart Gladstone, 1880-1885 (Liberal Party)
On the domestic front, Gladstone expanded the voting franchise to include agricultural labourers, but his second administration was overshadowed by events abroad. Indeed, it has been much criticised over its foreign policy.
Gladstone's Irish Coercion Act allowed the British government to respond to troubles in Ireland with force. Charles Boycott, a land agent, was socially ostracised in Ireland for his unfair rents and attempted evictions. "Boycotting" became an everyday term. However, the British government moved in to protect landlords. The incident culminated in the Phoenix Park murders in which the Chief Secretary for Ireland and his Senior Undersecretary were murdered by rebels.
It was events in Africa that finished off Gladstone's second administration. Not only was Britain humiliated in South Africa against the Boers for the first time, but they also faced a Holy War in the Sudan. An uprising against the British led by the Mahdi resulted in the death of the popular General Gordon, who had led the beseiged garrison in Khartoum. Gladstone was blamed for not sending a relief force and was accused of abandoning Gordon to his fate. Previously his acronym G.O.M. had stood for "Grand Old Man" but now the wags reversed it to M.O.G. "Murderer of Gordon".
In the face of strong criticism and weak satire, Gladstone stood down in 1885. Despite this, he remained at the forefront of politics, serving two more administrations before the century was out.
Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, 1885-1886 (Conservative Party)
Salisbury (then Lord Cranbourne), joined the Earl of Derby's third administration as Secretary of State for India during a huge famine across what is now Odisha. His speech in parliament criticising government was so articulate that the political philosopher John Stuart Mill actually crossed the floor to congratulate him.
Salisbury opposed Disraeli's extension of the electoral franchise, resigning alongside Robert Peel and Lord Carnarvon (albeit the latter two reluctantly), though he would later develop respect and a good relationship with Disraeli, returning to his India post under him then becoming foreign secretary. In this post he negotiated a peaceful solution at the Congress of Berlin after the Turkish/Russian War. Upon the death of Disraeli, Salisbury, as he now was, beat Sir Stafford Northcote to lead the Conservatives.
His first administration saw the introduction of the Public Health Acts, making it illegal to rent insanitary property and made landlords liable for the health of their tenants. However, unable to secure a parliamentary majority, and opposing Irish Home Rule, which Gladstone had now decided to support, the Liberals briefly returned to power in 1886.
William Ewart Gladstone, 1886 (Liberal Party)
Gladstone's conversion to Irish Home Rule came in the form of what is known as the "Hawarden Kite".
Flying a kite in political terms is a press release issued to judge public opinion. Gladstone's son Herbert revealed to the press that his father was now in favour of Irish Home Rule, Hawarden being the castle where Gladstone resided.
The Irish Parliamentary Party, under the charismatic Charles Stewart Parnell, sided with Gladstone upon hearing the news, giving him the majority he needed in the 1886 general election. Gladstone introduced Irish Home Rule that year. However, this split the Liberal Party and a snap election was called. The bill was thrown out, thus effectively ending Gladstone's third term in office after only a few months, bringing Salisbury once more back to Number 10.
Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, 1886-1892 (Conservative Party)
In his second term in office, Salisbury set up the London County Council, though later regretted it, believing it to be a breeding ground for socialist activity.
Under Salisbury, a long running diplomatic squabble with Portugal regarding Cecil Rhodes's Cape to Cairo Railway eventually resulted in Portugal conceding modern day Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe to Rhodes's private empire, which would become Rhodesia.
Salisbury passed the Naval Defence Act, further strengthening the British Navy.
The 1892 General Election saw the first Indian member of parliament, Dadabhai Naoroji elected as MP for Finsbury. Critisised for disparaging remarks made about him, Salisbury later appointed him a governor of the Imperial Institute. The election saw Gladstone return to power in a minority government. The Irish Parliamentary Party leader Parnell had been destroyed after being named in a divorce case, but the Irish vote counted, and their support in parliament ensured Gladstone's final administration.
William Ewart Gladstone, 1892-1894 (Liberal Party)
At 82, Gladstone became the oldest person to become Prime Minister. His final administration saw his Irish Home Rule bill making it through the Commons but being defeated in the House of Lords.
Gladstone moved progressively left throughout his career, in opposition siding with the miners during the strike of 1889. He opposed reinvesting in the navy and also opposed the implementing of death duty. He made it law that the heads of public companies had to resign before becoming cabinet ministers. This bill was originally overthrown but then reinstated and is still adhered to to this day.
Gladstone's resigned on health grounds in 1894, suggesting Lord Spencer to be his successor. However, the Queen, despite being out of touch with Westminster politics, overruled his wishes, choosing racehorse owner Lord Rosebery.
Gladstone's years as a politician saw some enormous changes in the industrial and social landscape, both domestically and internationally. Dying in 1898, and despite the Queen's aversion to him, Gladstone was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey.
Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, 1894-1895 (Liberal Party)
Rosebery has the road in London that runs from the Angel, Islington to Holborn (Rosebery Avenue) named after him. A prominent figure in the world of horse-racing, Rosebery served as Foreign Minister under Gladstone on two occasions. This was the era of the "Scramble for Africa", and Rosebery found himself embroiled in negotiations with France over Uganda, a particularly fertile and potentially valuable region.
His appointment as Gladstone's successor ruffled more than a few feathers in the Liberal Party, Rosebery was well known for being far more interested in sports and leisure than in politics. Indeed he quickly became bored and disillusioned with politics during his time at Number 10.
Born into a Scottish aristocratic family, the then Lord Dalmeny became the Earl of Rosebery upon the death of his grandfather in 1868, marrying into the wealthy Rothschild banking dynasty.
Rosebery was a man of wealth and taste, but of no real political ability. The massacre in Turkey of the Armenians had prompted the now retired Gladstone to endorse British military intervention. Rosebery prevaricated however, and no decisive action was taken. Seen as weak and indecisive, his position weakened. William Harcourt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had been passed over in favour of Rosebery, was a constant critic and dissent quickly spread through the party. Already unpopular due to his appointment over many better qualified heads and with public opinion against him, Rosebery was crushed in the general election and Salisbury took power once again. Rosebery remained as Liberal leader briefly before retiring from politics altogether.
Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, 1895-1902 (Conservative Party)
Salisbury's final administration was dominated by foreign affairs. It saw Britain embroiled in the partitioning of Africa, leading to the Fashoda Crisis with France. At this point, Britain was the dominant power in Egypt, and a French attempt at Fashoda on the Nile to gain control of part of the river almost led to war between Britain and France. Eventually both countries signed the Entente Cordiale, which marked a closer relationship of co-operation between the two.
There was a diplomatic crisis between Britain and the US in Venezuela during Salisbury's administration, but the real international theatre was in Africa. The Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan, where the Islamic Dervishes (nicknamed the "fuzzy-wuzzies" by the British) were massacred by a new military innovation, the Maxim gun in revenge for the killing of Gordon several years before. The "glorious" British victory was reported by a young soldier and war correspondent, Winston Churchill.
Meanwhile in South Africa, the discovery of gold in the Kimberly led to a huge influx of British "uitlanders" as they were called by the Dutch descended Boer farmers. War had already broken out once after a British attempt to overthrow the South African president, Paul Kruger. Relationships were tense and the war finally resumed in 1899. The British underestimated their enemy, who knew their terrain well and were equipped militarily by the expanding German empire.
This time, the tone of Churchill's reports were very different; horrific massacres of the British at Spion Kop and Talana Hill. To try to bring the Boers to their knees, Boer women and children were herded into concentration camps by the British where thousands died. The Boer War divided the country and proved the empire wasn't invincible. Peace terms were negotiated in 1902, which would eventually pave the way for the instigation of apartheid.
After the death of his wife and with his health starting to fail, Salisbury stepped down in 1902 to make way for his nephew, Arthur Balfour, dying a year later.
Arthur Balfour, 1902-1905 (Conservative Party)
The origin of the English expression of "Bob's your uncle", (meaning "you've got it made"), dates back, it is believed, to when Salisbury (Robert Cecil) appointed his nephew, Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary to Ireland. It was claimed he only got the post because Bob was his uncle. However, Balfour's ruthless methods proved to his critics that he was no lightweight, and despite doing a lot to alleviate poverty in Ireland such as establishing the Congested Districts Board For Ireland (which was subsequently absorbed into the Irish Land Commission), he still earned the nickname "Bloody Balfour."
Balfour became Prime Minister at the end of the Boer War and around the time of Edward VII's coronation. Tensions with Russia escalated during his premiership after a British trawler fleet was mistaken for a Japanese fleet (it being the time of the Russian-Japanese War) and was fired on. Britain was allied to Japan and the navy was mobilised, but eventually Russia agreed to compensate the sailors and a treaty was signed.
Balfour's government was brought down over tariff reform. Taxes were imposed on imported goods with preference given to those from the empire. This in essence meant higher prices for imported food, an issue which split the party, with Winston Churchill famously crossing the floor to join the Liberals.
Balfour resigned the premiership in 1905, though he remained at the forefront of British politics. Despite his 1905 tightening of immigration laws against the Jews fleeing Russian pogroms, Balfour's true legacy came later as Foreign Secretary in 1917, when he issued what is known as the controversial Balfour Declaration, which would create a Jewish state in Palestine, the modern State of Israel.
Henry Campbell-Bannerman, 1905-1908 (Liberal Party)
Henry Campbell-Bannerman was technically the first true Prime Minister of Britain, the term only becoming official upon his ascendancy to the office, the true title being First Lord of the Treasury. He was also Father of the House, which is usually held by the oldest or longest serving member. Campbell-Bannerman is the only person to have held both titles simultaneously.
A Scottish businessman, Campbell-Bannerman spoke French, German and Italian, and became Lord Provost of Glasgow in the 1840's. Previously Henry Campbell, the adoption of the double-barrelled name was a stipulation of the will of his uncle, whose estates he inherited. His friends would call him CB.
Elected as MP for Stirling Burghs, he joined Gladstone's first administration as Financial Secretary to the War Office, rising through the ranks during the successive administrations. Attempting to become Speaker in the House of Commons, his party refused to allow it, believing him to be too valuable a politician to lose.
As leader of the Liberals, he took over a party divided over the Boer War, but upon the defeat and resignation of Balfour, the Liberals took power for the first time in the 20th century. In sympathy with many of the issues highlighted by Ramsay McDonald's Labour Party, Campbell-Bannerman has been seen as a radical, making many social reforms such as strengthening the power of trade unions, providing free school meals and attempting to curb the power of the House of Lords.
Campbell-Bannerman's administration saw the pact between Britain and Russia in the face of the threat from Germany, though he was unaware that negotiations between the British War office and France were still in action and believed, he told Clemenceau, the French President, that nothing had been promised.
Campbell-Bannerman suffered a series of heart attacks and stood down from office in 1908, dying 19 days later in 10 Downing Street, the only ex-Prime Minister to die there. His famous last words were "This is not the end of me."
Herbert Henry Asquith, 1908-1916 (Liberal Party)
A trained barrister, Asquith joined the cabinet during the last Gladstone administration. As Prime Minister, and with a cabinet that included David Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Winston Churchill as President of the Board of Trade, Asquith's administration laid the foundations of what would evolve into the modern Welfare State, enforcing the free school meals legislation that Campbell-Bannerman's administration had put into place and reforming the education system, building state schools and making it illegal to refuse school places to children on the base of religion or class.
Old age pensions were introduced as well as tax allowances to help low income families. Labour exchanges were established to help people find work and a programme of slum clearance was also implemented.
Despite Asquith's own fondness for the bottle, (he frequently appeared drunk on the front benches and wasn't only nicknamed "Squiffy" because of his name), heavy drinking was targeted. New regulation was imposed and many pubs were forced to shut. Licencing hours were introduced, along with minimum age limits for drinking, smoking and child begging. National insurance was set up to help the sick, the first step towards what would become the National Health Service.
Of course these socialist reforms did not end the grinding poverty that was the reality of most people's daily lives, but reform had to begin somewhere and Asquith's administration set the ball rolling.
Despite these innovations, Asquith's administration also saw troubles in Ireland and at home regarding women's suffrage, including Emily Davison's attempt to fix the suffragette banner to the King's horse at the 1913 Derby and was trampled to death.
Asquith attempted to keep his options open as the crisis in Europe deepened following the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, but irrevocably committed to Anglo-French unity and the alliance with Russia, who had already mobilised its troops, war was inevitable. The Foreign Secretary, Lord Grey famously said, "The lights are going out all over Europe. We may never see them lit again in our lifetime."
After endless military disasters involving the well documented slaughter of thousands of conscripts in France, Belgium and the Dardanelles, faith in Asquith's handling of the war had been eroded. Public opinion and parliamentary pressure eventually forced him to step aside for David Lloyd George.
David Lloyd George, 1916-1922 (Liberal Party)
David Lloyd George's first language was Welsh rather than English and he remains the only Welsh Prime Minister of Britain.
Lloyd George became MP for Canaervon Boroughs, while running a solicitor's practice in London. Though not an anti-Imperialist as is often assumed, Lloyd George saw the need for home rule in the different colonies as opposed to white supremacy. He was particularly outspoken against the Second Boer War, and at a meeting in Birmingham, after speaking out against local MP and hero Joseph Chamberlain, he had to be smuggled out disguised as a policeman for his own protection.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer under Asquith, Lloyd George introduced numerous welfare reforms. His "People's Budget" of 1909 introduced new taxes on the rich and on luxuries, making money available for rearmament and welfare. Britain built eight new Dreadnought battleships, at the time the most sophisticated in the world, beginning an arms race. However, the ensuing First World War saw no real use for them.
In the run up to the war, Lloyd George was accused of profiteering from illegal inside information regarding shares in Marconi. Though he was cleared, suspicions of political corruption continued and he was dogged by further accusations later in his premiership.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Lloyd George continued as Chancellor, then became Minister of Munitions in 1915 upon the realisation that Britain had a shortage of shells for the front line. The production became industrialised and munition factories were set up across the country. Succeeding Kitchener as Secretary of State for War, he resigned in protest at the government's handling of the war, knowing he was the public's choice for the top job, which he was subsequently asked to take over in a coalition with Andrew Bonar Law's Conservatives. His war cabinet concentrated on protecting merchant shipping and though military leadership concentrated on defeating Germany, Lloyd George's long-term strategy was to knock out the Ottoman empire, which was indeed achieved.
In Ireland, the Easter Uprising under Padraig Pearse took place in 1916. The English reaction of executing all but one of the ringleaders (Eamonn De Valera) drove Ireland into the hands of Sinn Fein and would lead to the partitioning of the country. Lloyd George's ill-advised attempt to introduce conscription in Ireland was met with hostility. He weathered the storm however, and despite Russia's departure in 1917 after the October Revolution, the USA was sending reinforcements to the Western Front alongside Imperial troops. Lloyd George's reputation at the end of the war was prestigious and the coalition was re-elected for another term in 1918. The government finally gave the vote to women, albeit only those of 30 and over and abolished the property ownership qualification for men, thus extending the franchise further. The school leaving age was raised to 14 and in 1919, the Housing and Town Planning Act was introduced, creating state owned social housing for the poor.
However, after a further corruption scandal regarding cash for honours and his handling of the "Chanak Crisis" in 1922 which almost took Britain to war with Turkey once again, the Welsh Wizard finally stepped down. Since Lloyd George, there has never been a Liberal government, though Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 with Conservative leader David Cameron as Prime Minister.
Lloyd George remained in politics, but the years following his resignation have diminished his standing somewhat. He briefly became leader of the party again in 1928, but supported Hitler's demands for expansion. As the world once more slid into war, Lloyd George was seen as a potential collaborator, his former political ally Winston Churchill comparing him to Petain, the puppet leader of the collaborative French Vichy administration. Elevated to the House of Lords in 1945, he died two months before the German surrender.
Andrew Bonar Law, 1922-1923 (Conservative Party)
Bonar Law was an ironmaster who held the shortest administration of the 20th Century. He joined the Conservative Party in the "Khaki Election" of 1900 which returned Salisbury to power, becoming Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade under Balfour after his speech in the house in favour of tariff reform (the implementation of taxes on imports from certain countries), an issue that divided the Conservative Party.
Appointed a Privy Councillor under the new king, George V on the recommendation of Asquith and Balfour, Bonar Law became leader of the Conservatives after Balfour's resignation and the two potential replacements, Austen Chamberlain and Walter Long pulled out of the race. Bonar Law formed a wartime coalition government with David Lloyd George's Liberals during the First World War, during which, two of his sons were killed. After Lloyd George's resignation in the wake of the Chanak Crisis and accusations of political corruption, Bonar Law became Prime Minister. His administration was mainly concerned with costs of the war debt.
Bonar Law stepped down in 1923, seriously ill from throat cancer, to be replaced by Stanley Baldwin. After his death, and subsequent interment at Westminster Abbey, Asquith joked that the Unknown Soldier had been joined by the Unknown Prime Minister.
Stanley Baldwin, 1923-1924 (Conservative Party)
From a prosperous ironmaster family, Baldwin was a cousin of poet and Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling. In total, Baldwin ran the country three times, serving under three monarchs.
Joining the cabinet under the coalition government of David Lloyd George, Baldwin became Chancellor of the Exchequer under Andrew Bonar Law. Upon the latter's resignation, the king invited Baldwin to form a government.
With a clear majority in the House of Commons, Baldwin decided to call an early general election. In the face of growing unemployment, Baldwin introduced a protectionist policy on tariffs, but this divided the party and the Conservatives were defeated in a motion of confidence vote. As a result, he first Labour government came to power. However, despite calls for his resignation, Baldwin remained as Conservative leader.
Ramsay MacDonald, 1924 (Labour Party)
The Labour Party have been one of the major UK political parties for as long as most people can remember so it's easy to forget it was once on the fringes. Upon the election of Ramsay MacDonald's first government, the king, George V wondered wryly what his grandmother would have had to say about the Labour Party coming to power.
MacDonald, along with Kier Hardie and Arthur Henderson was one of the founding fathers of the Labour Party. Born illegitimately in Scotland, MacDonald eruditely worked hard to improve himself, and went to London, working as Private Secretary to Thomas Lough, a radical politician, attending evening classes at Birkbeck College in Bloomsbury.
MacDonald joined Kier Hardie's Independent Labour Party, becoming party secretary of the Labour Representation Commitee. In 1906, the two parties merged and became simply the Labour Party. MacDonald's opposition to the First World War made him unpopular. He visited the Western Front to see it for himself and as the true reality of the war started coming home, his reputation recovered. Distancing himself from the radicalism that swept through the Labour Party in the wake of the Russian Revolution, MacDonald refused to merge with the Communist Party of Great Britain.
MacDonald's first administration extended unemployment benefit and introduced a Housing Act that would expand social housing for low income workers. However, a forged letter (the Zinoviev letter) was printed in the Daily Mail which suggested MacDonald's government was establishing communist infrastructure in Britain. MacDonald had recognised the newly established Soviet Union, which had led inevitably to accusations of Communist sympathies. After the suspension of prosecution of a communist newspaper editor for attempting to incite a mutiny within the military, public distrust of the government saw Baldwin return for his second administration. However, MacDonald would occupy Number Ten again, and the Labour Party was now established as one of the major British political parties.
Stanley Baldwin, 1924-1929 (Conservative Party)
Baldwin's second administration featured Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Austen Chamberlain as Foreign Secretary. In opposition, Baldwin had believed the Zinoviev letter to be real and had leaked it to the Daily Mail, which had brought down the previous Labour government. Baldwin had campaigned against socialism and opposed the Russian treaties that Labour had been trying to arrange with the newly formed Soviet Union.
The major domestic event of this administration was the General Strike of 1926. This was a down tools of all the essential services in support of the coal miners who had had their wages reduced. Despite Winston Churchill's attempt to stir up trouble by sending the army through London, the entire strike saw little violence. However, the union caved in after nine days as volunteers kept essential services going.
Baldwin's government standardised the electricity supply. Before this, there were numerous suppliers, even in the same area, operating at different voltages, some AC, some DC. Baldwin set up the Central Electricity Board, which evolved into the national grid, a single supply for the entire country.
In the 1929 election however, in the face of rising unemployment and the General Strike fresh in people's minds, Labour came back into power, though not with an overall majority. This election was referred to as the "flapper election", as for the first time, women over 21 and under 30 were able to vote.
Ramsay MacDonald, 1929-1935 (Labour Party)
MacDonald's second administration was much stronger than the first. The government raised unemployment benefit and set up a slum clearance initiative. Internationally, MacDonald met Mahatma Gandhi to discuss the future of India, though no agreement was reached.
Though not a member of MacDonald's cabinet, the man responsible for dealing with unemployment in Britain, Oswald Moseley, put forward a radical scheme of public works along the lines of FD Roosevelt's New Deal in the USA. However, after constantly having his ideas rejected, Moseley resigned to set up his own party,The New Party, which evolved into the British Union of Fascists. Another notable member of MacDonald's administration was Margaret Bondfield, the first female cabinet member, who became Minister of Labour.
Plunged into the Great Depression of the 1930's, MacDonald formed a National Government with the Conservatives and Liberals. This was seen as a betrayal of the Labour Party's principles and there were riots in Manchester and Glasgow.
As head of the National Government, MacDonald was little more than a figurehead, with Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and Walter Runciman effectively running the country. Presiding over the World Economic Conference in 1933, no agreement could be reached after Roosevelt refused to stabilise the dollar. The international situation was becoming ever more threatening as Nazi Germany began re-arming in direct contravention to the Treaty of Versailles. MacDonald, a pacifist, was criticised by the likes of Churchill for not standing firm. By now, he was mentally and physically impaired and incapable of running the government. He resigned, to be replaced by Baldwin in 1935.
Stanley Baldwin, 1935-1937 (Conservative Party)
Baldwin stepped into the breach in 1935, immediately calling a general election. Despite Hitler's tub-thumping in Germany, the public wanted to avoid war at all costs and Baldwin refused to address rearmament during the election. However, as Germany continued to do so, Britain was left with no choice.
Domestically, the abdication crisis was the major issue. 1936 was the Year of the Three Kings. Upon the death of George V, the popular Edward VIII inherited the throne. However, he was involved romantically with Wallis Simpson, an American twice-divorced commoner who to cap it all, wasn't much to look at. She was also involved with Joachim Von Ribbentropp, Nazi Germany's Foreign Minister. When the King wanted to marry her it was generally felt that he could not remain king. Churchill backed him, saying that he couldn't understand why the King couldn't marry his cutie, to be told by Noel Coward, "Because England doesn't want a Queen Cutie". Edward abdicated and was replaced by his awkward younger brother who became George VI. Edward immediately setting of with Wallis Simpson to Germany to stay as an honoured guest of Hitler.
Baldwin retired the day after George VI's coronation. As part of the appeasement faction, he became unpopular during and after the war, at his last public appearance in 1947, now very frail and deaf, he asked of the cheering crowd, "Are they booing me?" He died in his sleep two months later.
Neville Chamberlain, 1937-1940 (Conservative Party)
Arthur Neville Chamberlain was the son of the great political heavyweight and reformer of the late 19th and early 20th century Joseph Chamberlain and the half-brother of Austen Chamberlain, who served under Balfour and came close to replacing him as Conservative leader.
As a young man, Chamberlain had been sent to the Bahamas to man a sisal plantation his father owned. The family lost a fortune and Neville lost his enthusiasm for empire. As an MP, he set about improving the town planning of Birmingham as his father had before him, but when war broke out he was responsible for conscription under David Lloyd George's administration. However, the two men did not get on and Chamberlain resigned.
Chamberlain became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Baldwin's first administration, but after only five months in office, the first Labour government came to power. Chamberlain was always contemptuous towards the Labour Party, despite his sympathy with the General Strike. During Baldwin's third administration he resumed the role of Chancellor once more. During the succession crisis he was as contemptuous towards Wallis Simpson as he was towards the Labour Party, believing her to be an unscrupulous gold-digger.
Upon Baldwin's retirement, Chamberlain took over as Prime Minister, though he was initially seen as a caretaker who would keep the party steady until the next election. His government introduced paid holidays and improved conditions in factories, reducing working hours. In Ireland, he struck an agreement with Premier Eamonn De Valera over trade disputes, though the partition issue remained unresolved.
Unfortunately Chamberlain will forever be associated with the disastrous policy of appeasement towards Germany, in particular, the 1938 Munich Agreement which conceded part of what was then Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Churchill described the policy as "feeding the crocodile in the hope that it will eat him last." After the slaughter his generation witnessed in the First World War, it is understandable that he wished to avoid war at all costs. After Germany occupied the entire country of Czechoslovakia however, Chamberlain finally realised what he was dealing with. Eventually standing firm and pledging, alongside France, to help Poland, he issued an ultimatum to Hitler. The rest of the story is well known. Terminally ill with cancer, Chamberlain announced the outbreak of World War II, dying six months after leaving office.
Winston Churchill, 1940-1945 (Conservative Party)
The penultimate aristocratic Prime Minister, Winston Churchill is such a revered figure that a poll in secondary schools in 2015 showed that many teenagers believed him to be a mythological character.
Directly descended from the Duke of Marlborough, John Churchill, the British commander at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace itself, the family home. His parents were maverick politician Lord Randolph Churchill and American socialite Jennie Spencer-Churchill.
A poor student and suffering a speech impediment, Churchill joined the military as a soldier and war correspondent, seeing action at Omdurman in the Sudan. During the Boer War, he escaped from a POW camp and fought at the relief of Ladysmith.
Churchill entered parliament in 1900 as Conservative MP for Oldham. He raised money for this by touring America giving lectures on his South African experiences, meeting Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt. Back in London, after constant disagreements with the Conservative cabinet regarding tariff, immigration and free trade, he crossed the floor to join the Liberals, where he and David Lloyd George would lay the foundations of what would become the welfare state.
Under Asquith, he became Home Secretary. He has been heavily critisised for this period in his life, being accused of heavy-handedness toward the striking miners of Tonypandy, the Liverpool dockers and the suffragettes. The Sydney Street Siege, where three Latvian anarchists killed several policemen and hid in a house in the East End of London highlighted Churchill's ruthlessness. A gunfight ensued and the house caught fire. Churchill refused to let the fire brigade intervene. Two anarchists were found dead, the other, known as "Peter the Painter" was nowhere to be seen.
During the First World War, Churchill returned to the army and served on the Western Front, often joining front line troops and making many dangerous excursions into no-man's-land. Returning to parliament, he masterminded the disastrous Gallipoli campaign against the Ottoman empire, a misjudgment which almost ended his career. As Secretary of State for War, he controversially sent the Black and Tans, (an auxilliary para-military police force), to Ireland.
Churchill rejoined the Conservatives as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Baldwin's first administration, returning Britain to the Gold Standard in order to combat inflation. This was well received, though Churchill later described it as the biggest mistake of his life.
During the 1930's, Churhill separated himself from the cabinet over Indian Home Rule and tariff reform, also criticising Baldwin for failing to rearm in the face of German rearmament and Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. Upon the outbreak of war he returned to the cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. After the fall of France, Churchill took over as Prime Minister in a coalition government with Clement Attlee's Labour Party, offering nothing "but blood, toil, tears and sweat."
A born fighter, the war galvanised Churchill, whose "no surrender" pugnacity spread across the country. Churchill exploited his American blood to secure loans from FD Roosevelt's administration. After Hitler declared war on both the US and Russia, the map of Europe was subsequently redrawn and divided up. The British empire would be destroyed by the cost of two world wars.
Churchill was voted out of office at the end of the war, which came as a huge shock to most. Stalin couldn't believe that the British government had had the ballot boxes for two months waiting for the troops to return home and still lost the election. The following year, Churchill would warn the world about Stalin in his famous Iron Curtain speech. Though he had truly made history, he would return as Prime Minister the following decade.
Clement Attlee, 1945-1951 (Labour Party)
Unfairly described by Churchill as "a modest little man, with much to be modest about," and "a sheep in sheep's clothing," Attlee's post-war Labour administration set up the modern welfare state as we know it today, including the National Health Service, which began in 1948.
Attlee is the longest-serving leader of the Labour Party. Though historically overshadowed by Churchill, Attlee is considered by historians and academics to be one of the greatest Prime Ministers Britain has ever had.
A trained barrister, Attlee was a semi-professional footballer before untertaking voluntary work in Stepney, East London. What he saw there turned him into a socialist, and he joined the new Independent Labour Party, then under Keir Hardie, in 1906.
During the First World War, Attlee served at Gallipoli. By an ironic twist, his life was saved by his being hospitalised with dysentery. His platoon was holding the lines during the evacuation of Suvla Bay and he was the second-to-last man to be evacuated. Ironically, his political ally and opponent Winston Churchill had been the brains behind the campaign in the first place. Later in the war he was wounded by shrapnel in Mesopotamia. He also served in France on the Western Front.
On his return to civilian life, Attlee lectured at the London School of Economics before becoming the Mayor of Stepney. In 1922 he served as Ramsay MacDonald's Parliamentary Private Secretary. After Oswald Moseley's resignation in 1930, Attlee replaced him as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, before working his way through the ranks to become Deputy Labour leader to Arthur Henderson, one of the party's founders. Though veering towards radicalism, he changed his mind after seeing the direction Moseley was taking, stating that Labour had to stand for democracy rather than extremism. He became leader in 1935 after the resignation of George Lansbury.
Vehemently opposed to Chamberlain's Munich Agreement with Hitler, and despite his previous commitment to pacifism, Attlee saw no alternative but war. Though leader of the opposition, he served as Deputy Prime Minister in the wartime coalition government with Churchill at the helm. However, Labour refused to continue the coalition after the German surrender, forcing Churchill to call a general election. When Attlee went to the palace to ask the king for permission to form a government, the king didn't speak for a full five minutes. When Attlee told him he had been elected Prime Minister, the king replied, "I know. I heard it on the 6 o' clock news".
Despite the low note upon which he began his administration, Attlee's government brought in massive social reforms that have shaped the way Britain is today, the most enduring being the National Health Service under Aneurin (Nye) Bevan. As the empire receded and the commonwealth formed, the NHS and other industries turned to the former colonies for staff. In 1948, the Empire Windrush, a former German naval ship, brought the first immigrants from Jamaica. Though there were already black people in Britain, they were now commonplace and race relations became a social and political issue.
To solve the housing shortage, prefab estates were built in bombed out areas. New towns would spring up over the next decade, such as Stevenage, Harlow, Crawley and Bracknell. Essential industries were nationalised, and the education system was revolutionised. Secondary Modern schools were created, the school leaving age was raised and university places were made available to ordinary people for the first time.
On the negative side, rationing became more acute than during the war and now included bread. These years after the war were known as the "Austerity Years", but to most people, who had lived in dire poverty before, they were the start of something better.
Abroad meanwhile, Britain's retreat from empire happened almost overnight, with India becoming independent and the state of Israel was created.
Attlee won the election of 1950 but was forced to call a snap election the following year, which brought the Conservatives back into power under Winston Churchill once again.
Winston Churchill, 1951-1955 (Conservative Party)
Churchill's second administration saw the death of George VI and the ascendancy of Queen Elizabeth II, who had been in Kenya at the time. It was in Kenya that the Mau Mau rebellion took place during Churchill's second administration, who sent British troops there to deal with the situation. At the same time, another guerrilla war was being fought in Asia for Malayan independence. There was also a revolution in Egypt under General Gamal Nasser, which would have a significant impact on Britain later that decade.
Domestically, Churchill's government made housing a top priority, pledging to build 300 000 homes a year. He introduced legislation to improve conditions for miners, as well as raising pensions and tax allowances for low income families.
Despite suffering from his second stroke in 1953, Churchill did not retire for another two years. His successor was Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. Churchill died in 1965 and was given a state funeral. As his body was brought down the river on a boat, the dockers lowered their crane jibs as a salute to the man who had refused to let Britain surrender to tyranny. His body was put on a train at Waterloo to be taken to his final resting place in Oxfordshire. Allegedly Churchill had stipulated Waterloo in his will to annoy the French Premier, Charles De Gaulle.
Anthony Eden, 1955-1957 (Conservative Party)
Synonymous with the Suez crisis, which almost overnight saw Britain finished as a world power, history has not been kind to Anthony Eden's reputation.
During the First World War, Eden served as the youngest adjutant on the Western Front, where he was awarded the Military Cross. Both his brothers were killed in action. It was later discovered that Eden and Adolf Hitler were stationed directly opposite each other during the German Spring Offensive in 1918. Staying in the army after demobilisation, Eden then attended Oxford university studying Persian and Arabic.
Eden was elected to parliament in 1924, eventually becoming Parliamentary Private Secretary to Austen Chamberlain, then the Foreign Secretary. Standing in for Chamberlain at a debate in 1928, he was noted as up and coming.
Working his way through several cabinet posts, Eden, though previously anti-war after his own experiences, came to realise that appeasement was not an option against Hitler or Mussolini and resigned as Foreign Secretary in 1938.
After World War II broke out, Eden was appointed as Churchill's Secretary of State for War. In 1945, Eden's son was killed in Burma, which shook him hugely and led to his marriage breakdown.
When Churchill returned to power, Eden once again became Foreign Secretary and was instrumental in negotiating peace in French Indochina. Becoming party leader after Churchill's retirement, he called a general election, which increased the party's majority. Eden was popular and Britain looked to be getting back on its feet, with unemployment at its lowest rate ever.
Despite this, his administration was overshadowed by events in Egypt, where the President had nationalised the Suez Canal, which was a crucial trade route and was previously controlled by Britain and France. Britain and France negotiated a deal with Israel, who would invade the Sinai peninsula, Britain and France would move in to mediate and in doing so, would take back control of the canal. Israel was already at war with Egypt and needed little encouragement.
However, Egypt blocked the canal to all shipping and the US President, Eisenhower, refused to support a military solution, threatening to halt trade with Britain. Pressure from the opposition and his own party made Eden back down. Britain was shown to be a weak power, and distrust of Israel in the Middle East heightened. Eden was roundly criticised for not seeing the operation through to the end. Surviving a confidence vote however, Eden looked like he would survive the storm. The incident had affected his health however. He had suffered from an ulcer since the 1920's which had caused all kinds of gastric complications and left him in huge pain. In the 1950's he was prescribed benzedrine and became addicted. It is likely that this affected his judgement as Prime Minister. He would often rant about Nasser, whom he saw as another Hitler.
In 1957, Eden was advised by his doctors to resign for the sake of his health. He was given the title of the Earl of Avon and ascended to the House of Lords as Harold Macmillan replaced him at Number 10.
Harold Macmillan, 1955-1963 (Conservative Party)
Originally derogatorily nicknamed "Supermac", Macmillan was the last Prime Minister to have been born in the Victorian era. He was also the last to have served in the First World War, where he was shot in the hand and also survived a glancing bullet to the head at the Battle of Loos. After returning to the front, he was severely wounded at the Somme, and though he recovered, his injuries left him with a shuffle in his walk forever afterwards.
Entering parliament as a backbencher in the 1930's, Macmillan initially supported appeasement but changed his mind after the Munich agreement. He became Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply in Churchill's wartime coalition government and served in several roles, becoming Minister Resident at Algiers, during which time he was badly burned in a plane crash.
As MP for Stockton, he lost his seat in the 1945 election but returned in the by-election that year in Bromley. As Housing Minister during Churchill's second administration, he exceeded Churchill's pledge to build 300 000 new homes a year. Macmillan occupied several cabinet roles before becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer under Eden. During his time in the job he introduced premium bonds, which became an instant hit. During the Suez crisis, it was Macmillan's idea to back an Israeli invasion. However, he miscalculated, believing Eisenhower would support military action. After Eden's resignation, Macmillan succeeded to the top job, beating off his closest rival, Rab Butler.
His administration saw many changes in Britain as the average living standard went up and unemployment fell, leading Macmillan to make his legendary and often misquoted comment, "Most of our people have never had it so good."
Another famous quote of Macmillan's was made in Cape Town to a hostile audience; his "Wind of Change" speech, a landmark point in decolonisation. Many former Imperial states had gained or were in the process of gaining independence. Britain was retreating from its empire and South Africa left the Commonwealth in protest at black majority rule. Over the following decades it would become more and more isolated by its policy of apartheid.
Britain also became a nuclear state under Macmillan, with the successful testing of the hydrogen bomb in 1957. However, Britain had its own nuclear disaster that year with a fire at Windscale (now Sellafield) Nuclear Power Station. The results of this are unclear, but it is accepted that it was responsible for up to 50 deaths from resulting cancers.
Macmillan attempted to join the European Economic Community, but Britain's application was vetoed by Charles De Gaulle, the French Prime Minister, who believed Britain was too close to the USA and their membership would diminish France's importance.
Macmillan himself remained popular, but the Vassall affair, in which a civil servant, John Vassall, had turned out to be a Soviet spy and the Profumo affair, involving the Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, who had been having an affair with a woman who was also involved with a Soviet naval attache damaged the government's credibility. By denying the affair and being exposed, the popular image of politicians being liars became the norm.
Macmillan resigned soon after a prostate operation in 1963, to be replaced by his Foreign Secretary, Alec Douglas-Home. In the 1980's he advised Margaret Thatcher on the Falklands crisis, though he famously likened her policy of privatisation to "selling the family silver." Now almost blind, Macmillan became the 2nd Earl of Stockton in 1984, dying two years later at the age of 92.
Alec Douglas-Home, 1963-1964 (Conservative Party)
Alec Douglas-Home (pronounced "Hulme") was the last Prime Minister to occupy 10 Downing Street as a member of the House of Lords, though he renounced his peerage, (the 14th Earl of Home) and joined the House of Commons for the rest of his premiership.
He is the only Prime Minister to have played first class cricket. When a protester threw an egg at him during an election campaign he was able to catch it unbroken.
As parliamentary aide to Neville Chamberlain in the run up to World War II, he accompanied Chamberlain to Munich for the famous meeting with Adolf Hitler. Though Chamberlain was eventually destroyed by the resulting appeasement, Home claimed that it had positive results as it gave Britain an extra year to rearm.
In 1940, Home was paralyzed by spinal turberculosis which involved a bone graft. He was unable to walk for almost two years.
After the war, Home stood as MP in Lanark. and was appointed Minister of State at the Scottish Office by Churchill during his second administration. After Eden succeeded to the premiership, Home became Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, trying to maintain Commonwealth relations with India, Pakistan, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and other former colonies in the run up to the Suez war.
Under Macmillan, Home became Leader of the House of Lords, as well as Foreign Secretary, negotiating with the Soviet Union over British access to West Berlin through the Berlin Wall, which had just been built, and through the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the succession to Macmillan, Home ruled himself out of running for leadership, but then changed his mind. Upon his appointment, (on Macmillan's recommendation to the Queen, to to dismay of many others), the press compared it to Caligula's appointment of his horse as Consul. He resigned from the House of Lords and under his premiership, Nyasaland (now Malawi) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) gained their independence. His administration also saw the assassination of John F Kennedy, with whom he had had a good working relationship.
Home was uncomfortable on TV. One of his advisors attempted to help him gain the young vote by quoting the Beatles but Home didn't get the reference and quoted the line wrongly, (...and you know that can't be too bad). During the election campaign in 1964, two students attempted to kidnap him. He told them if they did, the conservatives would win by a majority and gave them some beer. They then changed their minds.
The Conservatives did better at the polls than expected, though Harold Wilson's forward thinking Labour administration won by a small minority and a year later, Home resigned as Conservative leader to be replaced by his former Foreign Office ally, Edward Heath. Home became president of Marylebone Cricket Club and found himself embroiled in a row over Basil D'Oliviera, a non-white player in the England team which led to the Apartheid regime cancelling the England tour. Home's handling of the South African president was compared to Chamberlain's handling of Hitler.
Remaining in politics until the mid-1970's, Home returned to the House of Lords, dying in 1995 at the age of 92.
Harold Wilson, 1964-1970 (Labour Party)
During World War II, Wilson had been a research assistant and statistician to William Beveridge, the man behind Britain's social reform programme after the war. Standing as MP for Ormskirk in the 1945 election, he was immediately brought into parliament by Attlee as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Works. He then moved to Huyton, just outside Liverpool, standing as MP. As President of the Board of Trade, he became the youngest cabinet member of the 20th century at the age of 31, two years younger than Churchill was when he occupied the same office.
After the death of Hugh Gaitskill, Wilson became Labour leader, defeating George Brown and James Callaghan. Wilson's speech that the future of Britain would be forged "in the white heat of (the scientific and technological) revolution" showed him to be progressive and forward thinking, and Labour narrowly won the 1964 election.
Wilson's party inherited a deficit of £800 000 000. The story goes that James Callaghan, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer found a note in his new office from the previous Chancellor, Reginald Maudling, saying "Good luck, old cock. Sorry to leave it such a mess." In 1967, the government was forced to devalue the pound which most likely led to Labour losing the 1970 election. A further application to join the EEC was vetoed once again by De Gaulle.
However Wilson's government made numerous social reforms. Comprehensive Schools were introduced and the Open University was founded. University education became commonplace during Wilson's administration and new universities and polytechnics opened across the country.
A new generation of New Towns, such as Milton Keynes came into being. New council estates were built across Britain, though many became synonymous with urban decay. Tower blocks in particular were criticised, and the Ronan Point gas explosion in Newham, London in 1968 showed how badly designed these buildings were.
Homosexuality and abortion were decriminalised under Wilson's administration, while road building increased as the number of car owners rose.
Wilson's foreign policy included sanctions against Ian Smith's Rhodesia. He refused to grant the colony independence until Smith extended voting rights to native Africans. Rhodesia would be a political issue for many years to come. The administration also saw the start of what became known as "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland, and Wilson sent the British Army in in 1969 to try to restore peace.
By 1970, the economy had recovered slightly, but Labour were voted out in the General Election that year. Wilson remained as Labour leader however, returning to power in 1974.
Edward Heath, 1970-1974 (Conservative Party)
There is a story that when Idi Amin met Edward Heath, he hadn't heard the famous bandleader of that name had recently died and believed this was who he would be meeting.
However, Edward Heath the Prime Minister was also a musician, a virtuoso on the piano and organ and a competent orchestral conductor. He was also a world class yachtsman, winning several awards and captaining the British team in the Admiral's Cup whilst Prime Minister.
An adjutant in the Normandy Landings, Heath became MP for Bexley in 1950, being appointed opposition whip by Churchill. Under Macmillan he was responsible for negotiating Britain's eventually vetoed application to join the EEC. As Prime Minister, he would be more successful.
Becoming party leader after Home's retirement, Heath dismissed Enoch Powell after his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech regarding immigration, which had become a political hot potato. The 1970 election was the first election in which race and immigration became central issues.
Heath's government introduced charges for various welfare state provisions such as school meals and prescriptions. Most notorious was Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher's cutting of free milk for 8-11 year olds, giving her the nickname of Margaret Thatcher the milk-snatcher.
Heath's administration saw "Bloody Sunday", when soldiers shot 14 men dead at an anti-internment march in Derry. Over the next three decades, the IRA would extend its bombing campaign to the mainland.
Heath's government provided some benefits such as the Family Income Supplement and Disability Allowance. It also improved subsidies for slum clearance. The school leaving age was raised to 16 under Heath's administration. The geography of Britain changes as counties were redrawn. New counties appeared such as Merseyside, which had previously been part of Lancashire. The most significant change in Britain however, was the decimalisation of the monetary system.
Two miners' strikes did considerable damage to Heath's administration. Power cuts became regular because of industrial action and the three day week was introduced to conserve energy.
The 1974 general election saw no party gaining a majority, but an attempt at a coalition with Jeremy Thorpe's Liberals fell through and Wilson's Labour Party regained Number 10.
Heath lost a party leadership contest to Margaret Thatcher and spent the rest of his career criticising her policies. Heath never married and it is generally presumed he was homosexual, though there is no evidence of this. Many people who knew him claim he was asexual. Since his death, there have been several allegations that he was involved in a serious child sex abuse ring. Investigations were made in 2017 and amid claims of a cover-up, nothing has been proven.
Harold Wilson, 1974-1976 (Labour Party)
Wilson's second administration saw unemployment rise to over 1000 000 for the first time despite increased spending on education, housing and health.
The IRA extended its campaign to England and pub bombings in Birmingham and Guildford outraged public opinion and strained Anglo-Irish relationships. Several people were arrested and jailed on unsafe convictions which were overturned at the end of the following decade. However, nobody else was prosecuted and the police who perverted the course of justice were cleared.
Suffering from the beginnings of colon cancer and Alzheimer's Disease, Wilson stood down in 1976 in favour of James Callaghan, whose premiership would come to be synonymous with Britain in decay.
James Callaghan, 1976-1979 (Labour Party)
The only British politician to have been Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister, Callaghan, despite his successes in various roles of administration, will be remembered primarily for endless industrial action that blighted his premiership.
This was in 1979 after a decade of strikes and massive inconveniences to the public, most famously the dustmen's strike and scenes of enormous piles of rubbish in Leicester Square, which became London's de facto dumping ground. Quoting Shakespeare's Richard III, Callaghan described it as the "Winter of Discontent."
Entering politics in 1945, he dropped his first name (Leonard) and began to use James. Prior to this, he served in the Royal Navy, (the only Prime Minister to do so and the last armed forces veteran to occupy Number 10), and was discharged during World War II with tuberculosis.
As Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, he introduced zebra crossings. As Chancellor of the Exchequer under Harold Wilson's first administration, he inherited an £800 000 000 balance of payments deficit. Callaghan introduced Capital Gains Tax, but was eventually forced to devalue the pound. As Home Secretary, Callaghan introduced the Race Relations Act in 1968, making it illegal to refuse employment, education or housing on the grounds of ethnicity.
Taking over leadership of the party on Wilson's resignation, he began tackling inflation which had risen over the decade, cutting public expenditure. The economy was beginning to recover. However industrial action the following year, plus a famous news story in the Sun that showed a tanned Callaghan returning from a conference in Guadaloupe with the headline "Crisis, what crisis?" led the public to believe this had been his response to the series of strikes affecting the country. His rating slumped dramatically, while Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives ran a famous electoral campaign with the slogan "Labour Isn't Working", which showed a long queue of unemployed people at an unemployment office. Margaret Thatcher became the first female Prime Minister in Britain and Labour would spend the next 18 years in opposition.
Callaghan resigned, replaced by Michael Foot and subsequently elevated to the House of Lords, dying in 2005, the day before his 93rd birthday.
Margaret Thatcher, 1979-1990 (Conservative Party)
Few people in British politics have been as divisive as Margaret Thatcher. The daughter of Alderman Roberts, the Mayor of Grantham and a local politician who ran a shop, the young Margaret Roberts became a research chemist and was part of the team that created "Mr Whippy" style ice cream.
Her first political seat was Dartford, almost next to Bexley, which was occupied by Edward Heath, whom she would replace as Conservative leader. She married Denis Thatcher, a wealthy businessman and oil executive who funded her training as a barrister. Elected in 1958 as MP for Finchley, she rose through the ranks, and in opposition, she joined the shadow treasury, eventually joining Heath's shadow cabinet as Fuel and Power spokesman.
The Conservatives won the 1970 election and Thatcher was appointed Secretary of State for Education and Science, becoming notorious for abolishing free school milk for 8-11 year olds, earning her the moniker "Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher". It was later revealed that she had been forced into this by the treasury and had opposed the move herself.
Thatcher had originally supported Keith Joseph in the race to become Heath's successor, but after an ill advised speech about working class mothers and problem children, he withdrew and Thatcher ran for leadership herself becoming leader in 1975, despite appearing on TV previously saying there would never be a female Prime Minister in her lifetime.
Working on her presentation, she hired actor Laurence Olivier as her voice coach and travelled widely to build up her international profile. After the Labour administration fell in the 1979 election, Thatcher paraphrased the prayer of St Francis, "Where there is discord, may we bring harmony; Where there is error, may we bring truth;
Where there is doubt, may we bring faith; And where there is despair, may we bring hope."
Thatcher's first term in office saw unrest due to the recession, increased taxes, rising unemployment and limits on public spending. There were race riots in 1981 across many of Britain's inner cities after years of appalling police and community relations. Though many in her party were alarmed at her policies, Thatcher refused to be dissuaded, in one of her speeches she announced, "The lady's not for turning". Meanwhile, four senior members of the Labour Party decided to set up the Social Democrat Party, now merged with Liberal to make the Liberal Democrat Party.
In 1982, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, precipitating a war which caused extreme journalistic jingoism. This boosted Thatcher's popularity and saw her re-elected a year later. Thatcher became close to Ronald Reagan's administration in the US and his attempts to end the Cold War.
Her second term saw privatisation of several nationalised industries, a popular move, along with the introduction of the right to buy for council tenants. However 1984 saw a bitter miner's strike. Violence flared between the police and pickets which was later proven to have been instigated by the police themselves. This time the government was prepared and refused to give in to the demands of the miners, led by the millitant Arthur Scargill. The union caved in and the miners went back to work on reduced wages. Unprofitable pits were closed and entire communities became ghost towns.
Other heavy industries such as steel and docking also became obselete under Thatcher as Britain went from blue to white collar, with the reform of the city, which gave ordinary people the chance to become speculators. The word "Yuppie" (young upwardly mobile) was coined. The era is synonymous with greed and self-serving at the expense of others and when the stock market collapsed in 1987, to many it looked like a case of just desserts.
During her second term, Thatcher survived an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Thatcher had refused to treat convicted IRA members as political prisoners, and many went on hunger strikes, the most famous being Bobby Sands who died in the Maze prison in 1981. Four years later, the IRA targeted the Conservative conference in Brighton, missing Thatcher but badly injuring party Chairman Norman Tebbitt and killing five people.
Her administration dominated the 1980's, but she was brought down by her imposition of the Poll Tax, which she attempted to bring in to replace the rates system. This would mean high earners and low earners would be paying the same and a march against it turned into a full scale riot in 1990. Thatcher refused to back down, but the resignation of Geoffrey Howe, her Deputy Prime Minister, over her hostility towards the European Monetary Union led to a leadership challenge that November. She resigned at the end of the month, and Chancellor of the Exchequer John Major stepped into the power vacuum.
Elevated to the House of Lords, she helped secure the release on medical grounds of Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile, citing his help during the Falklands War. Growing increasingly frail and suffering from dementia, the Iron Lady, as she was dubbed by a Soviet journalist, died in 2013, receiving a ceremonial (though not state) funeral, with a service at St Paul's Cathedral.
John Major, 1990-1997 (Conservative Party)
Brought up in Brixton as the son of a music-hall and circus performer, it was said that John Major was the only person who ran away from the circus to become an accountant.
After leaving school, Major worked for the London Electricity Board and then went into banking while pursuing his political ambitions. In 1968 att the age of 21, he was elected to Lambeth council, and became MP for Huntingdon in 1979, joining the cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. After a reshuffle, he went from Foreign Secretary to Chancellor of the Exchequer, presenting the first live budget on TV. When Thatcher resigned, Major beat off Douglas Hurd and Michael Hesletine to become Prime Minister.
Britain was in a recession and unemployment was high. Early on in his premiership, the IRA launched a mortar attack on Downing Street, the shell landing in the back garden. In the 1992 election, Major came away with the highest vote ever recorded.
Public confidence in Major's administration was eroded by Black Wednesday, in which Britain left the Exchange Rate Mechanism and the value of the pound plummeted. The Maastricht Treaty regarding the European Union and the single currency divided the party, and despite Major's efforts, Britain never entered the Eurozone.
Several affairs within his cabinet rocked the Conservatives and "sleaze" became the byword for his party. Public opinion towards Major's administration waned and in 1997, Tony Blair came to power at the head of the first Labour government for 18 years.
Tony Blair, 1997-2007 (Labour Party)
After the sudden death of John Smith, Tony Blair became the last Labour leader to win a general election. Blair's administration coined the title, "New Labour", in order to distance themselves from the left-wing Labour policies that the party had become notorious for.
Blair studied law at Oxford, performing as a guitarist and singer in a rock band and modelling himself on Mick Jagger, who coincidentally also studied law. After graduating, he joined the Labour party and became MP for the new constituency of Sedgefield in County Durham in 1983, joining the shadow cabinet under Neil Kinnock in 1987.
When John Smith took over as Labour leader, Blair became Shadow Home Secretary. Labour were in ascendancy when he took over the party, allying himself with rock stars, comedians and other celebrities, and his election campaign used the D-Ream song "Things Can Only Get Better" (with Professor Brian Cox on keyboards) as its theme. "Cool Britannia" was his slogan. He was even advised by Margaret Thatcher. To this day, Blair is the longest serving Labour Prime Minister.
Domestically Blair's administration introduced many social changes, building schools and bringing in a minimum wage. The sure-start programme introduced new childcare centres and drop-in centres as well as a grant for children to be invested in trust. The age of consent for gay people was brought down to 16 and civil partnerships were legalised. Blair's government negotiated the Good Friday Agreement with the IRA, releasing political prisoners including Patrick Magee who planted the bomb at the Conservative conference in Brighton in 1985, in return for demilitarisation and numerous other concessions. For the first time since the troubles began, there seemed to be a real hope of peace in Northern Ireland, though an IRA splinter group attempted to sabotage the peace process by setting off a huge car bomb in Omagh killing 29 people.
In 1997, Diana, the Princess of Wales was killed in a car crash in Paris. Probably the most popular member of the Royal Family at that point, Blair's popularity received a boost as he wasted no time in appearing in public to give a eulogy, describing her as the "Queen of Hearts".
Blair's administration sent more troops into battle than any other administration in history, including in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and notoriously, Iraq. After the September 11th terrorist attacks, American President George W Bush claimed to have intelligence that Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, contravening international law. Despite United Nations weapons inspectors not finding these, an American led coalition with the UK ignored the United Nations vote against the invasion and despite the largest protest march ever organised in the UK, Iraq was destabilised, resulting in the rise of the Islamic State. Saddam Hussein was caught and subsequently executed, but the Chilcot Inquiry investigating the Iraq war later gave a damning report on Blair's involvement. Blair was accused of misleading both parliament and Britain, and in 2007, he handed over party leadership to his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown.
Gordon Brown, 2007-2010 (Labour Party)
Becoming MP for Dunfermline East in 1983, Gordon Brown shared an office with Tony Blair. According to legend, when John Smith died, there had been a deal struck between the two of them in a restaurant in Islington to share the premiership; Blair would stand first then stand back for Brown to take over. Their partnership was central to the success of New Labour, though there were rumours of a serious rift between them. Blair became leader of the party and Brown supported his bid.
When Labour took power in 1997, Brown became Chancellor of the Exchequer, an office in which he served for the next ten years. Brown introduced Working Tax Credits to supplement low incomes. He also transferred banking supervision to the Financial Services Authority, a move which many economists criticised and retrospectively claim made the financial crisis much worse.
Brown took over from Tony Blair in 2007 with no serious challenges. He was only one of five university educated Prime Ministers that did not attend Oxford or Cambridge, the last before him being Neville Chamberlain.
Brown's administration saw the "credit crunch" which heralded a worldwide recession beginning in 2008. Several high street stalwards went under, most famously, Woolworths. Brown introduced a bank rescue package, to the anger of many who believed it was irresponsible lending and greed on behalf of the banks that had triggered the recession in the first place.
The 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament. After negotiations with the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg to form a coalition, Brown stepped down and recommended to the Queen that opposition leader David Cameron should form a government.
David Cameron, 2010-2016 (Conservative Party)
David Cameron is credited with modernising the Conservative Party by introducing numerous social innovations regarding healthcare, education and same-sex marriage.
Educated at Eton, where he was almost expelled after being caught smoking marijuana, he travelled to Hong Kong and the Soviet Union, where the KGB attempted to recruit him.
After graduating from Oxford, he worked for the Conservative Research Department, briefing John Major for "Prime Minister's Questions". He became advisor to several of Major's cabinet, but eventually became disenchanted with politics and went into journalism, working for Carlton Media.
However, in 1997, Cameron began looking for a parliamentary seat. After serving in Stafford and Whitney, he entered parliament in 2001 and became a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, while writing a column for the Guardian online. Under Michael Howard, Cameron became Shadow Education Secretary while serving as external director for Urbium PLC.
Upon Michael Howard's resignation, Cameron beat George Osborne and David Davis to become the youngest Conservative Leader for almost 200 years. After the 2010 election, which resulted in a hung parliament, Cameron formed a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, who refused to work with Labour. Cameron became Prime Minister with Nick Clegg as deputy.
Cameron introduced an austerity programme to combat the recession. The defence budget and child tax credits were cut, but the National Health Service was untouched.
During the "Arab Spring" of 2011, Cameron's government was involved in the overthrow of Colonel Gadaffi of Libya. After pressure from the Argentinian government, here was a referendum regarding government of the Falkland Islands, which overwhelmingly voted to stay under British governance.
2011 saw some of the worst rioting across London and in Manchester. Though the cuts in tax credits were blamed, Cameron claimed it was the work of gangs and opportunists.
Despite voting against Tony Blair on gay rights in the past and criticising the repealing of section 28, a clause introduce by Margaret Thatcher's government banning the "normalising of homosexuality in education", Cameron changed his stance, permitting marriage for same-sex couples.
Cameron was accused of elitism when it was revealed that most of his cabinet were old Etonians, though the then Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, blamed the state school system.
After a referendum on Scottish independence, in which the majority voted to remain in the UK, Cameron bowed to Eurosceptic pressure and called a referendum on Britain's future in the European Union. Cameron supported membership of the union, but Britain controversially voted to leave, and Cameron stood down for Home Secretary, Theresa May.
Theresa May, 2016- 2019 (Conservative Party)
The second woman to hold the office of Prime Minister, Theresa May worked at the Bank of England, and was introduced to her husband while at Oxford University by the future president of Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto.
She served as a councillor for the London Borough of Merton in several capacities before being elected as MP for Maidenhead in 1997. Moving through several positions in the shadow cabinet, she became the first female chairman of the party, advocating change within the party. When the Conservatives took power in 2010, May became Home Secretary, reversing Labour's identity card scheme and capping immigration levels. The latter included advertising posters on buses and lorries telling illegal immigrants to "Go home or face arrest". This was roundly criticised for stirring up racial hatred and were eventually banned by the Advertising Standards Authority.
After David Cameron stood down in the wake of the Brexit vote, Theresa May, a pro-Brexiteer became first choice as his replacement. Famously telling the Conservative Party "We're known as the Nasty Party", May called a snap election in 2017, resulting in a hung parliament. May controversially brokered a deal with the anti-abortion, anti-gay rights Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland. However May's administration was marred by numerous scandals including the Windrush affair in which many of the intitial "Windrush" generation of Afro-Caribbeans were threatened with repatriation and in several cases, were illegally deported and left destitute despite being settled in the UK for generations. This led to Home Secretary Amber Rudd's resignation.
Brexit continued to be the main issue throughout May's administration and after surviving a vote of no confidence from her own party, as well as a parliamentary vote of no confidence, May was defeated over her proposed Brexit deal three times in the House of Commons leading to an emotive resignation speech in June 2019.
Boris Johnson 2019- (Conservative Party)
The current Prime Minister at the time of writing, Boris Johnson was the second Mayor of London and will be forever associated with introducing the bike hire scheme across London, known as "Boris Bikes". The classic upper class blue background, Boris Johnson attended Eton and studied Classics at Balliol College, Oxford.
As a trainee journalist for the Times, Johnson was dismissed after falsifying a quote in an article, but secured work with the Telegraph. As a political commentator his style was often criticised for its racist and homophobic content and wrote regularly for the Spectator. After coming to national attention appearing on Have I Got News For You, his upper class twit persona, Johnson became editor of the Spectator and appeared regularly as a television panelist. After Michael Hesletine's retirement, Johnson stood for the seat of Henley in Oxfordshire, eventually becoming Shadow arts minister under Michael Howard.
In 2008, Johnson became Mayor of London, introducing the new routemaster buses and after re-election in 2012, presided over the London Olympics. Despite several scandals including an affair with a fellow journalist and being implicated in the Parliamentary Expenses Scandal, Johnson remained a popular figure. A keen cyclist, despite his introduction of the bike hire scheme, Johnson was criticised by cycle groups for not doing enough to make London's roads safer for cyclists.
Johnson endorsed the Brexit campaign and despite being favourite to take over from David Cameron, refused to stand for party leadership and was appointed foreign secretary in Theresa May's new cabinet. This was considered by political analysts as an attempt to weaken Johnson politically. He resigned his position in 2018 and returned to the backbenches until the resignation of Theresa May, taking over as Prime Minister.
In August 2019, Johnson controversially prorogued parliament in order to narrow the time MP's would be able to block a Brexit deal. This provoked protests across the UK and was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court. However the 2019 General election saw a landslide victory for the Conservatives with the largest majority since 1987. Britain finally left the European Union in February 2020.
Johnson has been criticised for his handling of the coronavirus Covid 19 outbreak. His critics claim he should have imposed a lockdown much earlier than he did, like in several other European countries. However when he caught the virus himself, his popularity seemed undiminished by the reaction of the public and his endorsement of the National Health Service which treated him was well received.
A divisive figure, Johnson continues to court controversy and respect in equal measures. Britain is more polarised than it has been since the days of Margaret Thatcher under Johnson's leadership. This article will continue to be updated as Johnson's term in office continues.
Daniel J Hurst (author) from London on December 14, 2018:
Thanks. Glad you like it.
CJ Kelly from the PNW on December 13, 2018:
Great job. Learned a lot. Keep up the good work.