The first prime minister

A push for ideological purity can prove tempting for politicians in periods of upheaval, as it offers the possibility of complete victory. But it can also lead to crushing defeat, as the eighteenth-century statesmen Robert Harley – who has claim to be the first British premier – realised.

Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley in The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (2018). Credit: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo
Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley in The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (2018). Credit: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo

In 2021, the UK celebrated 300 years since the first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, took office. Boris Johnson gave a proud statement, the historian Anthony Seldon presented a series on BBC Radio 4, and the journalist Iain Dale published a book. Unfortunately for all involved, they were 11 years too late. Walpole had at least one predecessor with solid grounds to claim the title of first prime minister as his own: Robert Harley (1661–1724), Earl of Oxford, who led Queen Anne’s Tory ministry from 1710 to 1714. Harley was a pioneer of parliamentary government and the most significant British politician of the period 1688 to 1714. Though all but forgotten today, his career remains of political, as well as historical, interest. As the modern Conservative party casts around for a post-Brexit sense of direction, they could do worse than look to Harley – the leading figure of the ‘first’ Tory party – for inspiration.

Exactly who we label the first Prime Minister will always involve ambiguity concerning definitions. In the eighteenth century, the term was not an official title, but an insult, used to denounce ambitious ministers for usurping the role of the monarch. It was a charge directed at Walpole by his Tory opponents, and at Harley by the Whigs before that. But if the substance of the role involved commanding both a majority in the Commons and the monarch’s favour, it is arguable that Harley was doing so in 1710 as much as Walpole in 1721. The decisive moment was the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, which saw the Catholic James II ousted by his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange. As part of the post-revolutionary settlement (codified in the Bill of Rights and Toleration Act of 1689), Parliament started to fund the king on an annual basis. It now had to be called every year, or the monarch would go bankrupt: this was the ultimate guard against the lengthy prorogations seen under the Stuart monarchs of the seventeenth century. The Bill of Rights was cited (and in some sense supplanted) on this point by the Supreme Court verdict on Boris Johnson’s prorogation of 2019. From 1688, the monarch became dependent on parliament in a new and tangible way; the role of prime minister became possible as it had never been before. Harley was the first to capitalise on the new possibilities.

What limited modern-day reputation Harley has comes from the 2018 Oscar-winning film The Favourite, in which Nicholas Hoult played him as a foppish schemer, advising Olivia Coleman’s Queen Anne while wearing elaborate stockings and an enormous wig. But, before he sank into obscurity, Harley also suffered at the hand of good old-fashioned dislike. The great nineteenth-century Whig historian Lord Macaulay described him in damning terms: ‘His intellect was both small and slow… unable to take a large view of any subject’, and he ‘was of all men the least interesting’. Winston Churchill dispatched Harley as ‘a base and hardy hypocrite’, following in the footsteps of his ancestor, the Whig matriarch Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough (The Favourite’s Rachel Wiesz). In her own memoirs, Sarah commended Harley’s ‘wonderful talent’ for ‘confounding the common sense of mankind’. In a list of the victims of Herbert Butterfield’s ‘Whig Interpretation’ of history, Harley deserves a prominent place.

For all the vitriol, Harley also had enthusiastic admirers, including Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope and other Scriblerian Tories, to whom Harley was a friend and patron. Pope wrote a tribute to this Maecenas of the eighteenth-century Augustans, portraying Harley as one who had stayed above the fray, uncorrupted to the end:

And sure, if aught below the seats divine
Can touch Immortals, ’tis a Soul like thine:
A Soul supreme, in each hard instance try’d,
Above all Pain, all Passion, and all Pride,
The rage of Pow’r, the blast of public breath,
The lust of Lucre, and the dread of Death.    

It seems Harley himself was not a great poet. Macaulay mockingly cites a dire (but spirited) poem he believed to have come from Harley’s own pen: ‘I honour the men, Sir/Who are ready to answer/When I ask them to stand by the Queen/In spite of orators/And bloodthirsty praters/Whose hatred I highly esteem.’ Or, to quote another Swift, haters gonna hate. Nonetheless, Harley found other ways to leave his mark on literature, gathering an impressive manuscript collection which is now a major pillar of the British Library’s holdings. His portrait still hangs at the entrance to the BL’s manuscripts room.

So why was Harley such a polarising figure in his own time, and why such an obscure figure today? It was because he was seen as a defector from Whig to Tory. This was the major political division of the late seventeenth century, reflecting two different attitudes to the accession of James II to the throne. Whigs insisted that only a Protestant could rule England and pushed (unsuccessfully) for James’s removal from the line of succession before he was crowned. For Tories, on the other hand, the line of succession was governed by hereditary divine right and should not be changed – even if this meant a Catholic king.

Harley’s family were of Herefordshire Puritan stock. As Presbyterians who did not conform to the Church of England, they had suffered under Restoration penal laws, promoted by the Stuart kings and their Tory ministers. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Harley began his political life a firm Whig, welcoming William and Mary’s Protestant takeover. Yet, by 1710, Harley was the leading minister of a Tory administration. In the 1690s, Harley had led campaigns against Court corruption; by 1710, he was the man dispensing royal patronage. He entered Parliament from a dissenting family, whose members were banned from political office before the Toleration Act of 1689; he ended his career leading a party whose members wanted Toleration repealed. For many erstwhile Whigs allies, Harley’s trajectory could only be described as apostacy. He became known as Robin the Trickster.

But Harley insisted that it was the Whigs who had changed. The Revolution of 1688 had necessitated a realignment of party identities. Before the Revolution, the Whigs had been a party of opposition. After the Revolution, with a king and queen more suited to their principles on the throne, the Whigs became the natural party of government. Conversely, the Tories, so long a natural party of the Court, struggled to view William as their rightful monarch, worrying that his Low Church religious sympathies posed a threat to Anglicanism. Many ‘Court Whigs’, including the influential and high-ranking group known as the Junto, became leading figures in William’s ministries.

Not all Whigs made this transition. ‘Country Whigs’ remained suspicious of the corrupting potential of royal patronage and prerogative. Harley was one of those who remained committed to the ‘Country’ viewpoint. He became increasingly involved in Tory campaigns against Court corruption and was soon viewed the leader of the so-called ‘Country alliance’ – the parliamentary group that opposed the growth of Court power.

The Country alliance’s concerns were thrown into stark relief by the Standing Army controversy of 1697-8. This was a debate over whether William III could keep up a substantial land force in peace time. Country opposition to a standing army was rooted in a classical republican ideal, in which liberty was founded on civic virtue. This was a political philosophy that placed great emphasis on the need to have a stake in society: landowners were the guarantors of liberty. The landowning citizen’s desire to preserve their own independence would translate – so the theory ran – into a desire to protect the liberty of the whole. The Country alliance thus preferred the idea of voluntary militias: property owners could then fight for their own and their country’s liberty, without a permanent professional force threatening coercion from the centre. The army was a threat, Country MPs insisted, because it could potentially be used to take away liberties, even if William, a ‘virtuous’ prince, was not himself making any move in that direction.

As the 1690s wore on, it became increasingly clear that the so-called Country ‘alliance’ was not much of a cross-party alliance at all. Increasingly, Harley was among very few (albeit vocal) Country Whigs in a predominantly Tory opposition. By 1701, William, having had enough of the Court Whig Junto’s repeated failures to get his wishes through the Commons, cut a deal with Harley and the Tories to gain the parliamentary support needed to secure a Protestant succession. At first, Harley supported Tory government from the semi-detached position of Speaker of the House of Commons. The following year saw the death of William and the accession of Queen Anne, a great supporter of the power of the Church of England, under whom the Tories found themselves in an even stronger position. At this point, Harley too made the transition to high office. Once the scourge of government corruption, he had become the fount of Court patronage.

Harley justified this transition by saying that it was the Junto who had abandoned Whig principles, through their support for expensive European wars which required the centralisation of power. The only way that he could now reverse these lamentable decisions was by taking a role in government. But to the Whig Junto, Harley’s willingness to support a Tory government was the greater crime. Their concerns are understandable: the more extreme among Harley’s new Tory allies wanted to roll back the Toleration Act of 1689, which had given freedom of worship to Presbyterian dissenters (including Harley’s own family), and thus destroy the delicate balance of the ‘moderate’ religious settlement. Harley, however, was convinced that he was supporting his own vision of moderation. He made innovative use of political pamphleteering to shape public opinion throughout his career, acting as a patron to Daniel Defoe, among others. The fullest statement of his stance can be found in Faults on Both Sides (1710), a pamphlet commissioned by Harley and written by Simon Clement, which criticised both Whigs and Tories for the part they had played in England’s recent woes.

For all his hopes of moderating the instincts of both parties, Harley also recognised that any successful parliamentary manager needed to work with one party or the other. And by this time, it was clear which way Harley would jump. The election of 1710 saw a Tory landslide, following the provocative sermons of Henry Sacheverell, who had described dissenters as a ‘nest of vipers’, and called for the repeal of the Toleration Act. Voters rallied around the slogan ‘Church in Danger’, sweeping a Tory majority to victory. There was only one figure who had enough credit with both hard-line Tories and the queen, who personally favoured a more moderate approach to dissenters and toleration: Robert Harley. He mediated between Queen and Parliament, making himself indispensable to both in the period 1710-14. The pattern of modern prime ministerial politics was established.

Thus, by 1710, Harley, the Country Whig from a dissenter family, was the only figure who could command the confidence of a High Church Tory House of Commons. This he did with great success, implementing a range of effective political changes in difficult circumstances. He negotiated the Peace of Utrecht to end England’s expensive war against France, to the delight of Tory landowners. But he also blocked moves by more extreme Tories to reopen the question of the Protestant Hanoverian succession or repeal the Toleration Act.

In the final months of Anne’s life, things started to fall apart. Harley’s daughter died and he drank in increasing quantities. Rivals, such as the charismatic Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke, a future Jacobite conspirator, emerged from the Tory ranks, taking Harley’s distraction as an opportunity to undermine his position. Just days before her death, Anne was persuaded to dismiss Harley from office. This did not do the Tory hardliners much good: as soon as Anne’s successor, George I, arrived in London he blamed the Tories for their role in the Peace of Utrecht, which he viewed as unfavourable to his native Hanover. Perhaps Harley, with his tact and moderation, might have helped the Tories plead their cause. In the event, George dismissed all Tory officeholders, inaugurating a new era of Whig government.

Harley was himself impeached for alleged misdemeanours in office. One of the charges against him was that of aspiring to the role of prime minister. The accusations were eventually dropped, but only after two years in the Tower. On his release, he retired to a quiet life with his manuscripts. Thus ended Harley’s career – and the lifespan of the first Tory party. By 1721, the ascendancy of Robert Walpole’s Court Whigs was secure, and for the rest of the eighteenth century, everyone who was anyone in politics called themselves a Whig. The modern Conservative party finds its roots in a reinvention of Toryism in wake of the premiership of William Pitt the Younger (1783-1801, 1804-06), rather than the party of Anne’s reign.

Yet many of the political concerns of the first age of party run parallel to our own dilemmas. Swapping Brexit for the political upheavals of the 1688 Revolution, and the Russo-Ukrainian War for War with France, the 1690s look a lot like the political world of the 2020s. This was an era of newly globalising financial systems, party-political realignment, military conflict and rapid inflation. The constitutional drama of 1688 had reshaped the structure of politics, but its effects took several years to work out, as Whigs and Tories alike got to grips with new alliances and priorities. Harley and his contemporaries debated the best way to balance European influence with domestic liberties, responding to widespread concerns that power might become too concentrated in the hand of an impenetrable elite. The Country rhetoric and the language of civic virtue deployed by Harley and his supporters – even once they reached the heart of government – revolved around concerns about globalisation and a loss of a sense of place which have echoes in debates over Brexit today. One reason the Conservatives have struggled for stability in the years since 2016 is that Brexit suddenly changed from ‘Country’ rallying cry to the cause at the heart of their ‘Court’ government. No one in the period 1688-1714 succeeded in running a government based on Country principles for long. But Robert Harley came the closest.

Harley’s career also offers a salutary example of how to get things done in polarised times. Whether it was the battle of Whig versus Tory, Court versus Country, or High Churchmen versus Presbyterian dissenters, the early eighteenth-century ‘rage of parties’ was a time of deeply felt political division. Harley was, ultimately, someone who preferred to make uncomfortable alliances with people he found distasteful, rather than splintering off on his own. He was not afraid to take sides, and was one of the first to recognise that the logic of the post-1688 English parliamentary government worked most effectively as a two-party system.

But he also never stopped insisting that there were ‘faults on both sides’, his great rallying cry against a complete descent into factionalism. It is a phrase that retains its resonance today, another era in which political opponents all-too-easily view each other as the devil incarnate. Extreme positions and a push for ideological purity can be tempting in periods of political upheaval, offering the chance of total victory. But they also bring with them a risk of crushing defeat, like that faced by the Tories at the accession of George I. Here lies a warning to both sides in our own time.


Eloise Davies