A Land Of New And Old

On Monday, it was announced that the United Kingdom will have a new prime minister:

Foreign Secretary under the previous prime minister, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss won an internal vote of only about 170,000 Conservative party members to become the party’s new leader after Johnson’s resignation in July. As the party’s leader, she also assumes the role of the head of the Government due to the fact her Conservatives still hold a majority in the House of Commons following their general election win in 2019. Because there does not need to be a general election until December 2024 (five years after the previous one), the wider British public has no say either way about her personally taking over the leadership of the existing Government.

Truss becoming prime minister is not much different than if a U.S. president resigns or dies and the vice president becomes president; but that is a rare event. In comparison, this method of changing prime ministers – a governing faction/party replacing its leader and thus the prime minister between general elections – is a not uncommon occurrence and started centuries ago… well before the head of the monarch’s Government was even called “prime minister.” They were known as “first minister” into the 1800s.

[John Hoppner, 1804, “William Pitt the Younger.” Public Domain. Wikipedia.]

Until the 20th century, most of the British public had no real voice in who governed the country. Before the first “Great Reform Act” of 1832 only a small minority of men met the property-ownership requirement that qualified them to vote. No women could vote at all until 1918… although they certainly had their opinions…

[From a 1797 scene in Tomorrow The Grace. Click to expand.]

The United Kingdom has evolved gradually from a monarchy in which the monarch *rules* to one now in which the monarch merely reigns as a figurehead and it is parliament – particularly the House of Commons – that *rules.* Back in the 1780s, though, the monarch still had some residual political power. Famously now, in December 1783 King George III appointed William Pitt (the Younger) “first minister” even though the 24-year-old (he is still the youngest person ever to head the British government) did not command a majority in the House of Commons. The opposition, led by Charles James Fox, who the King despised for having been an opponent of fighting to keep the U.S. in the empire, and Lord North in the House of Lords, who the King blamed for as “first minister” having lost the war in America and U.S. independence, sought to oust Pitt.

Shortly after his appointment by the King, Pitt lost a vote of “no confidence” in the House. Several of Pitt’s proposed new laws were also resoundingly defeated. By custom Pitt should have resigned as “first minister” and the King appointed a new one who had the support of a majority in the House of Commons.

Instead Pitt and the King “plotted” that Pitt could gather enough support in the House for him to form a majority group that would then win a general election. The King greatly helped Pitt do so by promising this or that – more or less bribes by today’s standards – to various Fox/North opposition MPs to the point opposition to Pitt did fall off; former opponents miraculously turned Pitt supporters or just abstained in various new votes. The King dissolved Parliament and Pitt then led his “growing” new “faction” to victory in a general election in March 1784 (and there had by then been little chance he would not win given the King’s obvious support – including tossing money and patronage around – for him). Fox was furious at the King’s (clearly less than impartial) behavior.

[The ruins of Berry Pomeroy Castle, near Totnes, Devon, now a preserved tourist site owned by English Heritage. Photo by me, September 4, 2022.]

Much as George Washington was elected first U.S. president although receiving only just under 50,000 “popular” votes in 1788-89, Britain has too of course changed a lot since George III’s and William Pitt’s days. Nowadays George III’s sort of monarchical political involvement and interference is inconceivable from Queen Elizabeth II. The current monarch would never dare try to appoint her own “Pitt” just because she wanted to; she will formally appoint Truss prime minister today ONLY because Truss has the support of a majority of the elected (mostly in 2019) members in the House of Commons.

[The Embankment. Dartmouth, Devon. Photo by me, August 2022.]

Still, mass media brings politics into every home now. The entire adult UK citizen population over age 18 – including women; who as we see may now also become prime minister – may vote and merely switching party leadership horses midstream might have been the norm in, say, “1784” or “1797,” but that seems pretty outdated by now. When a British prime minister resigns in the 21st century, if we think about it, there really should automatically now be a general election.