John, 3rd Earl of Bute

1762 - 1763

John, 3rd Earl of Bute

Although prime minister for less than a year, Bute (1713-92) had a major effect on the course of British history. Tutor to the future George III, Bute was brought into the government when the young King succeeded and took over its leadership a year later. He then and afterwards suffered a considerable degree of racial prejudice, being the first Scotsman to attain the office of prime minister -- it was nearly a century before the second, George, 4th Earl of Aberdeen.

Bute was notable for reversing the previous half-century’s Whig monopoly, bringing in Tories to major posts, some of whom (Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-81), founder of the Hellfire Club, as Chancellor of the Exchequer) were less than ideally suited to their jobs. He also helped several younger Tories like William, 2nd Earl of Shelburne and Charles Jenkinson, who had previously masqueraded as Whigs in the hope of cracking the Whig monopoly of government jobs (Frederick, Lord North was another such, but a protégé of George Grenville not Bute). Finally, he organized a modest pension for the stoutly Tory Samuel Johnson.

Bute was too gentle a personality for the top job, being harassed into resignation by vituperation from an almost universally Whiggish media led by the Radical John Wilkes’ North Briton. However, the politics of the next quarter century and even to 1830 would have been quite different without him. Few ministries from here on were completely Whig, and the country’s underlying Toryism was better reflected in most governments, notably that of Lord North. Edmund Burke (1730-97) and other Whigs were not wrong in seeing Bute’s influence or more especially that of his protégé Charles Jenkinson in most governments, but this reflected a new Tory participation rather than any sinister Royal scheming – George III claimed never to have seen Bute again after 1764. The Tory revival had downsides – the American colonies, staunchly Whig and Dissenter at least in New England, were unhappy under a Church-and-King Tory government and soon showed it.

Bute deserves great credit for opening up the political system, even if his own tenure was brief. Because of his major effect on British politics, he should rank just a little below the middle of the pack.

© 2024 Martin Hutchinson