Supposing we had a Premiership League for Prime Ministers as well as a bottom division. Who would feature on your own fantasy league?
Anthony Seldon once conducted a league table exercise for a lecture he gave at the University of Buckingham in May 2016. He’s been fascinated by the topic of premiership, and it fascinates me as well; the role of a prime minister has no basis in any British legal system or constitution (such as it is), but still he (or she) is prima inter pares amongst the cabinet.
Britain has had 53 Prime Ministers since 1721, compared to the United States where Obama is the 44th president since 1776. Ranking them in order is a bit of a game, certainly, but it also reveals great insights into what makes effective and weak leaders.
The top ten British premiers all made a major difference; something which very other few Prime Ministers have managed. Lord Grey, who helped abolish slavery, and was architect of the Great Reform Act of 1832, comes in tenth. David Lloyd George is next, for leading Britain to victory in the Great War, for his emergence from such a humble background, his beguiling oratory, and his passion for reform.
Clement Attlee oversaw the Post-War welfare state and adapted Britain to the world after 1945. Benjamin Disraeli, seventh, perhaps the most intellectually brilliant of all Prime Ministers, was unusual in being as successful leading foreign as domestic policy.
Walpole is ahead of her at fourth because he was the longest-serving Prime Minister in our history at over 20 years, and for successfully embedding the position of Prime Minister. Gladstone, four times Prime Minister, was a genius as a financial administrator, and a great social, economic and political reformer, whose one great failure, Home Rule for Ireland, was also heroic.
But top position goes to Winston Churchill, who provided uniquely-strong leadership for Britain in 1940 at the time of its greatest peril in the 300 years that Britain has been governed by Prime Ministers.
Interestingly, those at the bottom of the list were either hopelessly ill-suited for power, like The Earl of Rosebery, from 1894-5 , malign, like the Earl of Bute, from 1762 – 63, or made terrible mistakes. None made bigger errors than Lord North (losing the war of American independence), Neville Chamberlain (for so badly misjudging Hitler in the 1930s), and Anthony Eden (for his conduct of the Suez Crisis, which he then compounded by lying to the House of Commons).
Having the right education has been a great advantage: 26 Prime Ministers went to Oxford and 14 to Cambridge. Some impressive Prime Ministers, on the other hand, didn’t go to university at all, including Disraeli, Lloyd George and Churchill. Being too intellectual is no passport to success – look at Rosebery, Arthur Balfour, and Harold Macmillan.
Prime Ministers need to make their mark early; Peel, Gladstone, and Attlee are the perfect examples of that in their careers. Having a war is a help if it isn’t messed up – Pitt the Younger, Lloyd George, Churchill and Thatcher all had good wars; Blair, not so much.
Gordon Brown (2007-2010) wasn’t all that successful, despite his craving to get the top job for so long – his whole political life, in fact. When he got there, he didn’t seem to know what to do with it; he didn’t have any sort of plan or overarching strategy. Brown was unlucky in that a global financial crisis broke within a few months of assuming office, but his awkward personality – very intelligent but not at home with people – shone though in what is increasingly an era of presentation. He promptly lost the 2010 general election and even managed to be recorded castigating one of his own supporters as a bigot.
From the other side of the coin, Edward Heath (1970-1974) wasn’t any more successful. At the 1974 general election, facing a wave of industrial unrest, Heath asked the country ‘Who governs Britain?’. The answer from the country was “Not you.” He was promptly dumped out of office and replaced by Labour. He is the PM who finally negotiated Britain’s entry into the European Union (then called the European Economic Community), but he also presided over a country which was riven by strikes and civil unrest.
Opinions vary, of course, on pretty much every Prime Minister. I’ve already referenced Maggie Thatcher very briefly, and I can imagine some readers wincing heavily whilst others openly cheered for her. She is a polarising figure though, with only 12% considering her an “average” Prime Minister – the majority of voters in a 2016 poll consider her to have either been good/great (43%) or poor/terrible (30%).
Nearly a third of people (32%) consider David Cameron to have been either a good or great Prime Minister – twelve points ahead of Tony Blair, the next most regarded former PM. However, with 34% of people feeling that Cameron was a poor or terrible Prime Minister, his overall net score is negative at -2%. A further 26% of people considered him to be an average PM.
On that score, it’s interesting to note what different media outlets think of him; some focused his favourables and called him a good PM, others’ headlines commented that he was absolutely useless and terrible. Funnily how a single poll can be interpreted in so many different ways, isn’t it? Actually, no it isn’t funny; it’s incredibly depressing, and perhaps the subject for a carefully-constructed rant in another article somewhere along the line.
In any case, politicians generally, and PMs specifically, have a lot of opportunities to raise their popularity and just as much chance to make utter balls-ups that destroy any chance they have of coming back from the brink. As I write this, Teresa May is leader of the Tories and Prime Minister, and Jeremy Corbyn is leader of Labour and head of HMG’s official opposition, and I wonder if anyone things they are doing an unfettered good job in either role. I’m sure most people don’t, and that will never change; a good Prime Minister is something we all crave, but a great Prime Minister is something we should all be aiming for.