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The Office of Prime Minister since 1979: Basic Changes

There is no such a person who has invented the office of prime minister in Great Britain. No one can find the exact day of the deliberate creation or commencement of the office. There are no essential qualifications for the office specified, no there are any disqualifications anywhere formally laid down. The prime minister is appointed to an unlimited period to the office as there is no any fixed appointment. Also, there is no clear-cut procedure by which the prime minister can be removed from office. In all these aspects the office of the UK prime minister can be considered as characteristic of the uncodified British Constitution (Borthwick 1).

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Still, the prime minister of the United Kingdom is the head of the UK Government who is responsible for its policy and decision making. Also, the prime minister’s duties include overseeing the operation of the civil service and Government agencies, appointing members of the cabinet. Moreover, the prime minister is the principal Government figure in the House of Commons (10 Downing Street). The current paper is concerned with investigation of the changes that the office of prime minister undergone since 1979 up to the present day.

As far as the problem of the change is concerned Richard Hodder-Williams’s position seems to be rather crucial for understanding it. Examining the change in the prime ministership during 1945-1995 the scholar states that the world faced so many fundamental and momentous changes during this period that it would be extraordinary if the prime ministership was not subjected to any changes (Borthwick 225). Hodder-Williams’s concept of change is as follows:

Nobody can doubt that there have been many changes; but whether there has been any clear development of the office is another matter. All alterations are changes; development, on the other hand, implies a number of changes which move in one perceptible direction, building up, for example, a new set of expectations which are passed on in a durable form from one prime minister to the next. There has been change (although even that is sometimes exaggerated) in the office of the prime minister, but an almost total lack of development. The underlying sources of prime ministerial power remain as they were in Churchill’s day (Borthwick 225).

Though the major determinants of power have remained essentially unaltered during the post-war period, the context in which prime ministers operate has changed significantly, as Hodder-Williams states, “the fundamental features of the prime minister’s office have endured remarkably unaltered in spite of the major changes in the broader political environment” (Borthwick 225).

Three distinctive and decisive contextual changes in premiership have taken place:

  • technological;
  • in the international status and power of Britain itself;
  • those related to the political divisions within the United Kingdom.

The technological change implies the developments in communications including both the tangible (transport improvements) and the intangible (electronic media) ones that contributed to the public visibility of prime ministers and their opportunities for short-term travel outside UK. In foreign affairs the prime ministers began to pay special attention to major international gatherings. The role of ministers with responsibility for foreign affairs has widened to personal assistants to prime ministers. Though there is no consistent pattern of these relationships the opportunity for dominance of prime minister has been increased. If we compare the the Major-Hurd relationship and the Thatcher-Major relationship we will observe that in the first case there were a lot of earlier precedents, the second case illustrated in extreme form the consequences of the new balance of concerns. Foreign policy issues have become more crucial in prime minister’s activity, especially in terms of attention time and the expense of the domestic scene (Borthwick 227).

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When in 1979 the Conservative Party’s won in the General Election Margaret Thatcher succeeded James Callaghan as prime minister. Mrs. Thatcher had a radical program of reform and a strong desire to implement it that she saw as her personal mission. Nowadays “Thatcherism” has become a globally recognized term, used to denote policies of a certain type. “Margaret Thatcher is unique among British prime ministers in having spawned an “ism.” (Congdon 49) She remained prime minister from May 1979 until November 1990, the ministership is known as the longest continuous period for prime ministers since Lord Liverpool in the early nineteenth century (Borthwick 15). In 1979 Thatcher had eleven cabinet members. The distinctive feature of the work of her office was that passion and ideological commitment drove the prime minister on. R. L. Borthwick describes Thatcher’s ministership in such a way:

Politics was not a team game where you simply sought to score more goals than your opponents; for her it was a battle in which she sought to annihilate her opponents. She worked frenetically, ensuring that throughout her time as prime minister she dominated the government (Borthwick 17).

During her ministership the role of media has increased significantly. Television has come to dominate much of a prime minister’s working day. Since this time prime ministers could not remain indifferent to the issues which the media have decided to be of national interest. The prime ministers’ performances were appraised, evaluated and criticized daily in the media. The prime ministers became extremely cautious of their actions when they dealt with journalists. The prime ministers did not only react to questions posed by the media, they tried to ensure that they dominated the agenda.

As for the second major change, it has reveled in two distinct ways:

  • the country’s economic problems have necessitated governments taking a close interest in the economic well-being of the nation in a period when the objective indicators of national economic power have been waning;
  • there was a tension that weakened the status of prime ministers as it also frustrated them (Borthwick 229).

Because of these two factors the prime ministers faced the problem of what could actually be done and what they felt obliged to promise.

The third change that Hodder-Williams singles out is that the political divisions within the United Kingdom have become more fluid and less easy to manage (Borthwick 230). The prime ministers had to fight on all fronts for their voters. The thing is that prime ministers appear to be subject to the pressures of special interests and too rarely the confident directors of public policy. Thatcher stakes out a strong leadership position but alienates significant groups within the polity and loses support (Borthwick 230).

As the role of prime minister was understood more as a position than a title or office, it was differently interpreted by different prime ministers. Still, the prime ministers have the ability to act on behalf of the sovereign resorting to certain prerogatives powers, such as the power to appoint ministers. This power enables the prime minister to determine the structure of government and the civil service. Depending on the prime minister’s priorities the number and remit of the various ministers differ: if in the post-war government (1951) there were 30 departments, under the “small government” Conservatives of 1983 and 1993 there were 21 and 19 of them (The Politics of Resignation: Explaining Blair’s Resignation).

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The prime minister’s role differed according to the personal style of the prime minister. Thatcher was noted for her strong style, Major, on the contrary, was seen as weak, Blair’s style was considered as “more presidential” and informal, and “a tendency to communicate frequently with the public through focus groups and press briefings” (The Politics of Resignation: Explaining Blair’s Resignation). Still, it is important to realize that the style depends on political constrains. A united party and large majority like Blair’s is less interested in consensus if compared to fractious cabinet relations in Major’s premiership when making consensus was more important. In the latter case premier minister was the first among equals (The Politics of Resignation: Explaining Blair’s Resignation).

We have considered the role of the first premier minister of the period described. Several words should be told about the role of the current premier minister Gordon Brown. His politics ensures the importance of the prime minister in the United Kingdom. “Downing Street” and “Number 10” is used as metonyms of government not accidentally but because the premier minister is the face of government. Nowadays the role of premier minister is beyond dispute (The Politics of Resignation: Explaining Blair’s Resignation).

Everything stated above considered we conclude that the contextual changes have not affected the structure of the prime ministership, but have clearly adjusted the relative significance of the relationships between the prime minister’s office and other offices, as well as the ability to employ the resources of the office for the exercise of power.

Works Cited

Borthwick, R. L., et al. Churchill to Major: The British Prime Ministership since 1945. Ed. Donald Shell and Richard Hodder-Williams. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1995.

Congdon, Tim. “Did Thatcherism Matter? Britain, and the Rest of the World Have Changed a Great Deal since Margaret Thatcher Took Office in 1979. How Much of the Credit (or Blame) Goes to Her?” National Review 1993: 49.

The Politics of Resignation: Explaining Blair’s Resignation. A Guide to the UK Constitution. Web.

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StudyCorgi. "The Office of Prime Minister since 1979: Basic Changes." October 25, 2021.


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