How did governments develop the idea of Prime Minister Evolve

Figure 1. Robert Walpole is considered the first Prime Minister, although he and others often did not use this title but it slowly developed as the common title used for the king's first minister.

The idea of Prime Minister, a common post that leads the government in many countries, developed from concepts that evolved from the Middle Age that, over time, became a commonly elected position in many democracies today. How one attained this post has evolved, including who got to chose the person, but today many countries see the post of the prime minister as symbolic of a strong democracy that enables wide and equal democratic participation.

Early History

The position of Prime Minister developed from the English Medieval idea of having a leading minister, sometimes called first minister, or effectively and adviser, to the king. In the early Modern Period, during the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell was the king's chief minister who led council meetings and often had the most influence on the king. He held multiple roles but he was often the lead adviser on many matters before he fell out with the king. The influence of advisers had become more pronounced and it was clear that the king was not always the one who led policy.

In fact, it was Thomas Cromwell who help devise and implement the English Reformation, which saw England leave the Catholic church during during 1532-1534 and form the Church of England. Nevertheless, there often was no position called "Chief Minister" or "Prime Minister," although a form of "Chief Minister" was generally acknowledged. Later, others in government often held various posts for different kings, including Robert Cecil, that regardless of their position they also had the role of chief adviser to the king or queen. Effectively, the post of a chief minister became a type of informal designation that led to the creation of Prime Minister, with this tradition further developing in the 17th century.[1]

During the English Civil War, from 1642-1651, Parliament became not only powerful but overthrew the monarch with the establishment of the post Lord Protector under Oliver Cromwell. Although the post of "Lord Protector" did not last after Cromwell, with the king (Charles II) invited back to govern, English and subsequently British and global history changed. Now, Parliament with much greater authority and having the ability to control the fate of the king, began to formalize a new position that enabled someone beside the king to lead the government.

Increasingly, political parties gained power, which were the Whigs and Tories in the late 17th century. These parties were increasingly able to guide and direct government policy. The Glorious Revolution in 1688 overthrew the king once more (James II), which effectively gave Parliament even more power. This was followed up with the Bill of Rights in 1689 Act. This formalized the House of Commons as being part of the government and allowed it to now formally control taxes and establish new laws. This drastically reduced the power of the king and began to make it more clear that government had to be also led by leaders other than the king or queen. Although elections were held for members of Parliament, no post was created to enable the winning party to claim the role of 'Prime Minister' as of yet.

Under George I, who came to the throne in 1714, it became more apparent that a chief, leading minister acting to lead the government was needed to organize and lead government. George did not speak English and was also the King of Hanover. This meant he was often detached from British affairs, leaving government to his chief adviser. The main minister in his government was Robert Walpole (1721-1742), who soon began to effectively lead and become the first de facto Prime Minister (Figure 1). During that time, 10 Downing Street was offered as a house to the Prime Minister when he was in London carrying out government affairs. This became the tradition, whereby the Prime Minister would reside in 10 Downing Street and has since become the unofficial name of the government. Many Prime Ministers did not reside at 10 Downing Street, but since the early 20th century it has become increasingly used by all Prime Ministers in the UK.

Although Walpole was not elected through his party winning the House of Commons, it set the precedent that a chief adviser should also formally lead government. William Pitt the Younger (1783–1801), who was the chief adviser to George III (1760-180), began to consolidate more power as it became increasingly clear that George III had increasing mental health problems that led him to be ineffective. This was crucial for Britain during this time, particular as numerous crises began to emerge, including the threat of invasion from Napoleon. The formal title of "Prime Minister" only appeared during the tenure of Benjamin Disraeli (1874-1880), with the post finally given official title in 1905.[2]

Later Developments

Figure 2. The leader of the majority party from the House of Commons became the Prime Minister by the early 20th century.

In the 1830s, it became precedent that the Sovereign would select the Prime Minister, which is still the case technically, although the precedent is that the election would reflect which party should lead the government and the Sovereign formally allowing this result. This system payed homage to the old role that a prime minister is a leading adviser who served for the benefit of the monarch, although in reality the role of Prime Minister meant this person now would hold more formal power than the monarch and lead government.

Before 1902, the Prime Minister could derive from the House of Lords, which often had final authority on law and could overrule the House of Commons (Figure 2). However, in 1911, the House of Lords became marginalised, with the House of Commons gaining extra power to create law. During the 19th century, British power was emulated by many countries, which began the practice of many countries in Europe and elsewhere by the 20th century creating the post of "Prime Minister." Meanwhile, the post of Prime Minister in the UK continued to evolve. Women soon gained the right to vote in 1918 and 1928; the House of Commons continued to gain power during this time.

During the early 20th century, prime ministers began to also derive from republics and not only monarchies. What contrasted this form or style of government is that the party would select its leader, rather than being directly elected as head of state as in a presidential system, and the party that wins an election would enable its leader to be the formal Prime Minister.[3]

Although Prime Minister usually reflected a given party winning, some countries began to merge and blend presidential systems with that of a parliamentary systems, whereby the Prime Minister was sometimes directly elected (e.g., Israel). Some countries, such as France, have a dual system of President and Prime Minister, where sometimes one has more power than the other or the two co-exist as a type of check and balance situation. Most of the world's governments have emulated and/or modified the British system, although in North and South America many countries there use the presidential system similar to the United States.[4]

Modern Position

Over the course of the 20th century, the Prime Minister post has increased in importance in parliamentary systems. Today, in Britain, the Prime Minister has roughly 200 members of staff, reflecting the increased importance. Think tanks and policy establishments in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere have also become increasingly influential in advising prime ministers, where policies have been used to guide new ideas in international and national affairs. With the major World Wars in the 20th century, the Prime Minister post has also increasingly taken on international affairs as part of their job requirements.

In countries where some areas have a semi-autonomous status, prime ministers have lost some powers, including devolution which has effectively moved some or all domestic policies in these regions to local councils or parliaments. This is the case in the UK. However, where powers are in dispute, such as in Spain, then conflict can arise and the central government has taken power back from local legislative bodies. Overall, many historians argue that the presidential system has influenced the parliamentary system more so in the 20th century, as personalities of individual presidents and the loyalty they command has become more influential in leadership selection and elections.

More commonly now, individuals rather than parties gain more attention from the media, with the media using specific people as the standard bearer of a party even though parties often ultimately select a Prime Minister rather than the electorate.[5]


The role of Prime Minister is historical because it represents the earliest form of modern government headed by an individual who was not a monarch. Defining this role has not always been clear, with the position of Prime Minister not even formally declared for several centuries. Increasingly, however, prime ministers were needed as kings lost power in Europe and elsewhere. With the increasing influence of Britain in the 19th century, the post Prime Minister became a position commonly seen in governments around the world. However, what it means to be Prime Minister continues to evolve today, with some countries opting to combine presidential and parliamentary systems, as each has different advantages in selecting leaders.


  1. For more on Medieval and Early Modern developments in what became the Prime Minister post, see: Bogdanor, Vernon. 1997. The Monarchy and the Constitution. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  2. For more on how the English Civil war and succession crises after the war evolved the post of Prime Minister, see: Rhodes, R. A. W., and Patrick Dunleavy, eds. 1995. Prime Minister, Cabinet, and Core Executive. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  3. For more on the 19th century reforms to the role of Prime Minister, see: Quinault, Roland E. 2011. British Prime Ministers and Democracy: From Disraeli to Blair. London ; New York, NY: Continuum.
  4. For more on how different countries modified and adapted the role of Prime Minister in their governments, see: Samuels, David, and Matthew Soberg Shugart. 2010. Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers: How the Separation of Powers Affects Party Organization and Behavior. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  5. For more on the evolution political systems in the 20th century and how the role of Prime Minister developed, see: Dalton, Russell J., David M. Farrell, and Ian McAllister. 2011. Political Parties and Democratic Linkage: How Parties Organize Democracy. CSES. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.