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14 November 2022

From the NS archive: What is a prime minister?

31 March 1956: The nature of the PM’s role is a question that would require a pamphlet to answer.

By Asa Briggs

“The Office of Prime Minister, a book by the American academic Byrum E Carter, has the English historian Asa Briggs questioning the role of the person who runs the country. Carter intends to provide an authoritative history of the position, and looks at the previous occupiers of the prime minister’s office in the past 50 years. He claims that his book fills an important gap in political commentary, assessing “all of its ramifications, institutional, and extra-institutional”. Briggs is scathingly critical of Carter’s work, describing it as “a scissors-and-paste book” formed of older biographies and footnotes that adds nothing to our knowledge of the role. He sees the author as an outsider whose lack of authority on British politics leaves him unequipped to examine the “Potteresque elements of ‘Prime-ministership’”.

American writing on politics falls into two distinct categories. The first is analytical and speculative, daring and effervescent, influenced by a heady mixture of sociology and journalism. The second is descriptive and derivative, cautious and pedestrian, influenced by professors of political science in universities. Mr Byrum Carter’s well-intentioned study of Britain’s “key political institution” falls within the second category. It has been written largely from other people’s biographies, and its sumptuous footnotes, which bolster every remark, have been checked by the proper academic authorities. The result is a scissors-and-paste book, which adds nothing to our knowledge of the prime minister’s office. Surely, political science is by now a mature enough study to dispense with scissors and paste: certainly penetrating American writers, like Key or Herring, would never have given their blessing to a book of this kind.

Mr Carter claims why he has written this book is the lack of an English book “specifically upon the office of the prime minister in all of its ramifications, institutional, and extra-institutional”. There are many deficiencies in home-made political studies, but this is hardly an outstanding one. Professors Laski, Jennings and Keith have said everything between them which Mr Carter says here, and a great deal more besides. The one gap in their work – a study of the “extra-institutional” aspects of the prime minister’s position – is not filled by Mr Carter, who, as an outsider, is inadequately equipped to examine the Potteresque elements of “prime-ministership”. It requires a good newspaper reporter to describe Sir Anthony Eden’s visit to the women Conservatives of Leamington or a day excursion by Ramsay MacDonald to Seaham Harbour. The reason why we have no books specifically devoted to the prime minister is twofold. The time has not yet come when we can write a definitive history of the office, and if we are interested in the present rather than in the past, we can gain little by artificially removing the prime minister from his political background. We can only understand the prime minister if we understand a lot of other things as well.

In his account of the history of the office, Mr Carter is naive and in places misleading. He is naive when he gives a list of a few major wars which Britain has fought since the beginning of the 18th century, and adds that “it is obvious that such events inevitably impinge upon the characteristics of important political office”. He is misleading about George II, George III (“who aimed at the restoration of the royal prerogative to his own hands”) and William Pitt; and when he turns to the age of Peel, he shows as little confidence in his handling of the half-reformed constitution of a hundred years before. Earl Attlee, a shadowy figure, rounds off the book, and Mr Carter comments genially in words that might have been used by the noble Earl himself, “it is not certain that all future prime ministers will be pleased with the arrangements made by Attlee”. A gloss or two on this comment by one of Sir Winston’s overlords would soon bring the problem of the prime minister to life.

In so far as Mr Carter has a thesis, it is open to much further discussion. He maintains that “a changing world has brought greater responsibilities and obligations to the individual who holds the office of prime minister” and “that all of the later prime ministers have been forced to accept greater responsibilities than many of their 19th- and early 20th-century counterparts”. This is strictly true in one sense only, that we place greater burdens on government as a whole in the 20th century than our ancestors did a hundred years ago. In every other sense it is untrue. We need only compare Sir Robert Peel and Stanley Baldwin, or even Lord Palmerston and Sir Winston. Lord Rosebery’s essay on Peel is still the best brief account of the tasks of a prime minister. “What is a prime minister?” he asked in the middle of it, and replied, “That is a question which it would require a pamphlet to answer.” The fact that Mr Carter has found it necessary in the middle of the 20th century to write a book and not a pamphlet is no sign that we grow wiser with the passing of time.

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Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

[See also: What does ‘elites’ mean, and why do they always rule?]

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