Who Hired Cock Robin?

It’s something of a running open secret about British politics that being a politician is one of those jobs with no actual job description, and for which you need no qualifications. Another aspect of this open secret is that the higher up a statesman or -woman climbs the greasy pole, the less they ultimately have to do for their job.  This characteristic of our constitution Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn famously noted in their acclaimed 1980s sitcom Yes Minister, which they put into the mouth of Jim Hacker’s Parliamentary Private Secretary Bernard Woolley when the programme became Yes Prime Minister in 1986:

 

WOOLLEY: Everything you’ve always read in the paper about how hard a prime minister has to work is a bit of a myth, really!  It’s, er, put out by the Press Office as a matter of course, but, if you think about it, what do you have to do?

HACKER: Chair the Cabinet?

WOOLLEY: Two-and-a-half hours a week.

HACKER: Chair a couple of Cabinet committees?

WOOLLEY: Four hours.

HACKER: Answer questions in the House, twice a week?

WOOLLEY: Another half an hour.

HACKER: Er…

WOOLLEY: Audience with the Queen on Tuesday evenings?

HACKER: Another hour.

WOOLLEY: Seven-and-a-half hours a week so far!

HACKER: Don’t be ridiculous, Bernard.  There must be more to it than that!

WOOLLEY: Well, of course, you’ll have to read all the briefs, so we’ll rush you from place to place, shaking hands with people – but other than that, well, there’s lots of things people want you to do, and lots of things you should do, and any number of things you can do, but very few things you have to do.  After all, it’s up to you: you’re the boss!

 

This vague description of the country’s most important non-royal political job is yet another aspect of the UK’s lack of an explicit rule book or fully codified written constitution – something that has characterized, and in many cases bedevilled, British political life over the generations.  A number of times in his career the Conservative hereditary peer Quintin Hogg, the Lord Hailsham (1907-2001) described the British political system as an “elective dictatorship”, which on the face of it sounds utterly oxymoronic, but he was surely on to something.  If you can command a majority in the House of Commons, you can more or less run the country like God.  All that matters is that you have the numbers in the House to back you up – so if you can keep no fewer than one more than half of the occupants of that chamber sweet your job is safe for life, at least theoretically.  What is more, since general elections have over the years turned into personality contests between party leaders, whoever is PM might just as well call him/herself President and most of the country would scarcely bat an eyelid.

Exactly who the UK’s first Prime Minister was depends on how important you consider certain state papers to be.  The term was used in official documentation in Westminster for the first time in December 1905 when the Liberal leader Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) took office (PM 1905-08) – though Benjamin Disraeli had styled himself Prime Minister when signing the Treaty of Berlin in 1878.  Most historians, though, consider the inaugural holder of the office of PM to be Sir Robert Walpole, who started work in the job exactly three centuries ago.

Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745)

Walpole essentially made the job of Prime Minister the malleable post that it would subsequently become.  He managed to stay in the job for nearly 21 years – still a record today – and dominated political life not unlike any previous monarch.  His downfall was even satirized in a nursery rhyme: Who Killed Cock Robin? (which is entertainingly recounted here by – of all people – Walt Disney…) .

Walpole was an East Anglian landowner and MP who had done very well over the years, and had proved to be a charming and effective manager of men and matters in the ruling Whig party, so it was barely surprising when King George I appointed him First Lord of the Treasury (the job’s original official title, which can still be seen engraved on the 10 Downing Street letterbox) on 3 April 1721.  It wasn’t just that the first Hanoverian king couldn’t speak a word of English, and was finding the business of chairing his Cabinet through the medium of Latin (in which he wasn’t that conversant anyhow) particularly tedious.  At the time the country was reeling, not only from the effects of the War of the Spanish Succession, but also from the bursting of the South Sea Bubble, in which holders of stocks and shares everywhere were ruined in an investment scheme designed to eliminate the National Debt by investing in a ship company that somehow appeared to have no ships.  Walpole managed to calm nerves by (to coin a modern phrase) Making the Right Noises: essentially he uttered some vague words about a rescue package for investors, which turned out to be an empty promise.  Once that crisis had passed he set about the job by reducing land taxes, keeping the country out of costly foreign wars, and making crimes like poaching and damage to property punishable by hanging – the last of which was particularly popular among the propertied classes.  

Such measures and innovations go a long way to explaining why Walpole lasted as long as he did in the job.  The low land taxes and peace policy meant that the British aristocracy got considerably richer, and he used his own personal riches to expand the size of the Cabinet – even giving jobs to members of his own family – which meant he had a wide tranche of placemen who owed him their advancement.  Walpole also made sure that after each election every new MP dined with him personally, so that he could get to know them, and either charm or blackmail them into seeing things his way.  Perhaps most importantly, Walpole began the tradition of making the House of Commons – or rather, his faction in the House – his power base, rather than the general court.  Before Walpole took office the Whigs were a vague faction united by some basic principles of limited monarchy and toleration of Dissent.  After he left office they were a proper, disciplined party machine.  His opponents conversely recognized the importance of similarly upping their game.  Not only that, but in 1732 King George II gifted Walpole a certain Westminster property at No 10 Downing Street, but the PM refused to accept it for himself, and instead initiated the tradition that whoever was the head of government would use it as his private residence while in power, and then vacate it for his successor.

The good times could not go on indefinitely for Walpole.  When faced with the need to raise extra money he introduced Excise duties in 1733, rather than raise the land taxes that would have adversely affected him and his colleagues.  This enraged the expanding mercantile community who were keen to go on making money out of the expanding British Empire.  What irked them further still, though, was Walpole’s policy of peace, which they slammed as appeasement of foreign tyranny.  When empires expand they invariably clash, and wherever Britannia’s limbs extended they were inevitably going to collide with those of the old enemies, France and Spain.  Ultimately, even the peace-loving Walpole couldn’t contain the clamour for war against Spain in 1739, after the Welsh mariner Captain Richard Jenkins claimed that officers on a Spanish ship, after accusing him and his men of smuggling in the Caribbean, had sliced off his left ear.  How true this story is remains uncertain, but the ensuing War of Jenkins’ Ear didn’t go well for the British (though, to paraphrase the humorist John O’Farrell, we should be grateful that the Spaniards didn’t have Jenkins castrated…).  Walpole was blamed for the disaster, with mobs sticking his effigy on bonfires around the country.  Finally, in February 1742, after years of election reverses, Walpole lost control of the House of Commons and decided to quit, rather than give his opponents the chance to force him out.

Since Cock Robin was slain (or, rather, chose to fall on his arrow), his 54 successors (to date) have had varying degrees of success in copying his example in obtaining and retaining power.  He certainly never called himself Prime Minister: as far as he was concerned, his job was First Lord of the Treasury.  The term “Prime Minister” was something of an insult in Walpole’s day – a barb that the First Lord had usurped the King’s powers.  Because the job of Prime Minister has, under the unwritten constitution, evolved over the centuries, it has been more or less whatever its holder has wanted the job to be.  Consequently, those who have served as PM have ranged from quiet, unassuming chairmen-of-the-board types like Lord Liverpool, Asquith, Baldwin and Attlee, to messianic conviction figures like Palmerston, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Churchill and Thatcher, to over-promoted human fiascos like Lord Aberdeen, Balfour, Eden, Brown and May.  

The trouble with the role of the PM is related to the wider, fundamental problem of the British constitution remaining stubbornly uncodified: since the job description can be written more or less according to its holder’s whims, there is the risk that the holder can do whatever he/she likes with the job, however ethically dubious.  It was best explained by the Observer‘s Andrew Rawnsley, in a comment piece published in that paper soon after the current occupant of 10 Downing Street arrived there in the summer of 2019, when he wrote of how ‘Britain’s democratic fabric relies not so much on laws as assumptions that people will behave properly‘:

When people refer to the British constitution, they are talking about a hotch-potch of such conventions, combined with ancient charters, precedents, international agreements, legislative bolt-ons and unwritten understandings.  The fabric of this messy tapestry is held together by a crucial thread.  That is an underlying assumption that everyone can be trusted to behave in a proper way.  In the absence of a formal constitution, British democracy is heavily reliant on politicians acting with honour and playing fair.

What if they don’t? What happens then?

George I, the monarch of the day, hired Cock Robin, and according to our political rule book, which for all kinds of reasons remains an imaginary one, George’s successors will continue to hire Robin’s successors – though whoever is heading the Windsor family knows that the PM can only keep his job if a majority in the House of Commons are happy with the appointment.  Not since William IV tried to sack Lord Melbourne in 1834 has any monarch forgotten that lesson.  Even in 1742, though, the Sparrows with their Bows and Arrows were, ultimately, the people making full use of the ballot box, since Walpole’s allies in the Commons, despite all the corruption that was swimming around Westminster and Whitehall at the time, could never completely withstand popular passions.  Even with a political system as imperfect as this one, we would do well to remember that.


Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.