Queen Victoria & Her Prime Ministers: A Personal History by Anne Somerset - review by Zareer Masani

Zareer Masani

What Gladstone Told His Missus

Queen Victoria & Her Prime Ministers: A Personal History

By

William Collins 576pp £30
 

As a student of constitutional history at Oxford half a century ago, my bible was the writings of Walter Bagehot, the ultimate Victorian constitutional expert. He stipulated that the monarch, despite his or her theoretically wide prerogative, must always act on the advice of a government collectively responsible to Parliament. Bagehot decreed that the monarch’s role was only to be kept informed and to advise and warn, and to grant a dissolution if a government lost its parliamentary majority. Reading this exhaustively researched study of Queen Victoria’s almost sixty-four-year reign, one realises that, in practice, nothing could have been further from reality than Bagehot’s wishful thinking.

Aided and tutored by her intelligent and very industrious spouse, Prince Albert, young Victoria soon acquired a firm grasp of the affairs of her day, including party politics, and showed a fierce determination to enforce her will on recalcitrant ministers. She was able to do so thanks to the confidentiality of her dealings with ministers.

Like her grandfather George III and unlike her lazy royal uncles, Victoria believed it was her right and duty to choose her prime minister, to influence his allocation of portfolios, to intervene directly in cabinet deliberations with open memoranda and even to veto specific policies. This was in an era before parties started electing their leaders. The queen’s view was that her ministers were servants of the crown: they were still required to remain standing through long audiences with her and obliged to win her confidence as much as that of Parliament. As a result, her long-suffering prime ministers had to spend an average of half their time managing ‘the Missus’, as some of them irreverently called her. 

Unlike her descendants, Victoria felt no obligation to keep out of party politics. She began her reign as a passionate Whig and forced the resignation of her first Tory PM, Robert Peel, by refusing to accept his nominees for the largely honorific role of ladies of the bedchamber. As Somerset’s

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