Premier rewards

The Prime Minister is the political leader of the country and at the apex of Britain’s power pyramid. Whilst in office, they benefit from the perks of the position – accommodation at Number 10 Downing Street and Chequers, a weekly audience with the Queen, chauffeur driven cars and close security protection. But what happens when they are turfed out of power? How are they rewarded for their years of service? 

A previous Vaguely Interesting article (Thy Choicest Gifts In Store) looked at the rewards a grateful nation has bestowed upon its military leaders. By the time of the Second World War, the granting of dukedoms, fortunes and great houses was out of fashion and General Montgomery had to be happy with a viscountcy and an augmented pension. It was not only successful military leaders who benefited from rewards and honours – Britain’s prime ministers have for centuries reaped the fruits of political success.

Portrait of Winston Churchill (and not, as it turned out, the Duke of London) By British Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Two facts brought me to this article. The first was that non-noble prime ministers were routinely given earldoms following the end of their premiership and the second was the startling fact that Winston Churchill had declined the Dukedom of London in order to remain in the House of Commons.

The offer of a dukedom was a considerable honour and having it named for the capital city would have made it without precedent. Although Churchill turned it down, he did not want for other honours. As well as being made a knight of the Order of the Garter, he became the first honorary citizen of the United States. By the end of his life, organisations across the country and around the world were falling over themselves to offer honorary positions, fellowships and doctorates.

Some of his more exotic titles included Grand Seigneur of the Hudson’s Bay Company (which harked more to the Canadian retailer’s colonial past than an honour from a department store), Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, the Nobel Prize for Literature and Elder Brother of Trinity House. As well as turning down the Dukedom of London, he also turned down an earlier offer made in 1945 for him to become the Duke of Dover.

Benjamin Disraeli By Cornelius Jabez Hughes, British (1819 - 1884, London, England London, England) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Churchill was not the only Prime Minister to turn down a dukedom. Benjamin Disraeli and Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, both turned down the award. Both had lesser titles – Disraeli became the 1st Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876 and, according to Scribner’s Magazine in 1900: “it is true that the Marquis of Salisbury might have been a Duke if he had not regarded his marquisate as a prouder title than a new dukedom could furnish.”

As a result, no former Prime Ministers were raised to the peerage at dizzying ducal heights. Plenty were made earls, however, with this more solidly Anglo-Saxon title becoming the standard post-office reward all the way in to the mid-twentieth century. Many twentieth century Prime Ministers lingered in the House of Commons before accepting a peerage and elevation to the House of Lords – Macmillan and Eden all waited a few years before accepting the almost inevitable earldom.

This Conservative pair became the last Prime Ministers to receive earldoms. Heath remained a commoner and member of the House of Commons and would be emulated in this by John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Douglas-Home, Wilson, Callaghan and Thatcher were all given life peerages and thus membership of the House of Lords (as Baron Home of the Hirsel, Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, Baron Callaghan of Cardiff and Baroness Thatcher respectively).

Baroness Thatcher and Dennis Thatcher (Baron Thatcher)

A slew of Prime Ministers were elevated to earldoms in the twentieth century. Even the leader of 1945’s landslide Labour government, Clement Atlee, would accept the traditional reward to become the 1st Earl Attlee. He was joined by the 1st Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, the 1st Earl Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, the 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith and the 1st Earl of Balfour. The non-elevated former premiers (e.g. Bonar-Law, MacDonald, Chamberlain and Campbell-Bannerman) either died before they could be ennobled or had very short lived tenures at Number 10.

Since Lady Thatcher, no departing Prime Minister has accepted elevation to the Peerage and a spot in the House of Lords. John Major turned down the offer of a peerage. He did, however, accept membership of the august Order of the Garter and was knighted in the process to become Sir John Major. He reportedly wanted to draw a clear line between his political and post-political life and felt that membership of the House of Lords was incompatible with that intent.

Both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown decided to pursue other interests, with Tony Blair devoting his time and attention to his foundation and role as a peace envoy to the Middle East. Gordon Brown has, at the time of writing, continued to sit as a Member of Parliament.

3 thoughts on “Premier rewards

  • Ian Curry Post author

    Thanks, Allan – very interesting additions! I like the modesty of Mr Chamberlain’s refusal. I love Asquith’s quip – I had thought that his wife had the monopoly of zingers in that relationship!

  • Allan D

    Bonar Law was the last Premier to be buried In Westminster Abbey in November 1923 (Attlee had his ashes deposited there in October 1967). Asquith’s comment to Balfour was ” we have buried the Unknown Prime Minister next to the Unknown Warrior”.

  • Allan D

    Chamberlain was offered an earldom by George VI shortly before he died in 1940 (as Lloyd George was in 1945 who was too ill to take his seat in the Lords) but said he did not wish to have a more exalted status than his father who was always known as “Mr Chamberlain”.

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