Anthony Seldon has narrated this article for you to listen to.
Thursday 3 April 1721 was an unremarkable day in political London. No fanfare or ceremony surrounded King George I’s appointment of Robert Walpole as First Lord of the Treasury (Prime Minister), merely a paragraph buried in the press: ‘We are informed that a Commiffion is preparing appointing Mr Walpole Firft Lord…’ Yet here was the start of what has become the longest-lasting head of government job in the democratic world — and its 300th anniversary falls on 3 April this year.
Expect no fanfare or drone pyrotechnics in political London to mark the occasion. Our leaders will, inevitably, be attending to the pandemic and other pressing concerns. But that does not mean that we should let the moment pass.
Many countries make much of the history of their heads of government and state — including the United States, which has museums and research centres for every president. But not in Britain. Visitors cannot enter No. 10 nor even Downing Street: the merest of glimpses of the building through heavy iron gates, blocking off what used to be a public thoroughfare, is the most they see. This is expected in an autocracy, but in our democracy? Is it surprising that the young are cynical and switched off from politics when the job at its apex feels so remote?
Robert Walpole served 21 years, still the longest tenure, and cemented the office within the British constitution. Between him and Boris Johnson, so alike in temperament and circumstance, there have served 53 prime ministers: some magnificent, others lost at sea.
They took decisions that shaped the modern world. For 55 years, the 13 colonies that became the United States were governed by them.