Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The First Scottish Prime Minister

John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute
Today is the 10th March, and the 223rd anniversary of the death of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, the first Prime Minister of Great Britain to have been born in Scotland. He was a prominent Tory, a favourite of His Majesty King George III, and has been called the last important royal favourite in British history. "Important" might be stretching it, as while he served as Prime Minister of His Britannic Majesty's Government, Lord Bute's premiership was not especially successful. His principal achievement was negotiating an end to the Seven Years' War that had raged between the great powers of Europe since 1754. Most of Europe's great powers- including Great Britain, France, Prussia, Austria, Spain, Portugal, Sweden and Russia- were involved in the war, as were the native American tribes caught in the clash between the British and French colonial empires, many of the smaller states of the Holy Roman Empire, and even the Indian Muslim Mughal Empire which allied with the French against Great Britain in the Indian subcontinent. The principal players, however, were the old rivals Britain and France, and the peace settlement Bute oversaw was highly favourable to the nascent British Empire.

His Majesty King George III
of Great Britain, Bute's  monarch
and patron
Unfortunately for Bute, this won him little popularity with the public. His was a time when monarchs appointed Prime Ministers based on their personal prerogative rather than who could command a parliamentary majority, and Bute rose to power thanks to his close connections to King George III, whom he had tutored prior to George's accession to the throne. He had also been close to George's father, Frederick, Prince of Wales, whose death in 1751 made George the new heir apparent. Bute's closeness to Frederick's wife Augusta, the Dowager Princess of Wales, following the prince's death invited scandal and rumours of an affair, although contemporary sources report that Bute was happily married to his wife Mary and had strong religious objections to adultery. Nonetheless, these rumours, coupled with the fact that Bute was a Scotsman and an extremely unpopular attempt to tax the production of cider to help pay off the debt from the Seven Years' War, meant that Bute faced stiff opposition from the English population.

Augusta of
Dowager Princess of Wales
Bute finally resigned from office in April 1763. He was nonetheless suspected of retaining some influence over the King, to the point that in May 1765 his successor George Grenville made the King promise not to appoint Bute to office or seek his advice in the future. The 3rd Earl of Bute spent the rest of his life pursuing a lifelong interest in botany and patronising the arts. A genus of flower, Stuartia, is named after him. Although he spent his last days in England, he never forgot the country of his birth, giving generously to Scottish universities and being buried at Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, from whence his title was derived. His son John succeeded him as the 4th Earl of Bute before being created the 1st Marquess of Bute in 1794. Although Bute's Scottish origins may have contributed to his unpopularity in England at a time when Scotland was still seen very much as a foreign country, his unpopular term as Prime Minister nonetheless illustrates that Scots held high office in the Kingdom of Great Britain after the union and played a significant role in the birth of the British Empire. Far from being seen as colonial subjects of England, the Scottish were treated as partners in the union, if not quite equal partners, or popular ones, for that matter.