Thursday, 23 January 2014

Ranking Prime Ministers

I recently received an email asking me to rank the post war prime ministers. It prompted a lot of thought. I had read biographies of most British Prime Ministers but struggled to rate them against each other. I recalled that I had met four of them and had lunch with two of them. I looked at what had happened to the economy during their period of office, what major new initiatives they had introduced, their international exploits but most of all how happy did I feel at the time.

I had been born during Attlee's post war government and although I have no memories of Attlee, I can recall watching Churchill and Eden on BBC newsreels after my parents won a TV in a competition in 1952. From Harold Macmillan onwards the PM of the day became part of everyday conversation. My father was a political activist and we had a steady stream of politicians visiting the house during my school years. Every weekend as a 15 and 16 year old I had to give up my bedroom for a parliamentary candidate who travelled up from London, he lost the 1964 election by 14 votes. A Panorama programmes was filmed in our living room the night I was revising for my 'O' level French. I was responsible for reading through and correcting the spelling in my father's letters to the local paper on most mornings before leaving for school.

I began rating PMs by looking at developments during their time in office but realised that global events that are often outwith their control shaped progress. These events as well as the cost of living, employment, public services and incomes all influence turnouts at elections and the popularity of a PM. I decided that I should rank the PM's intuitively from my sense of whether they improved the quality of life of people from all walks of life. Did they display good governance, were they fair and did they win and retain trust?

Although I have never belonged to a political party I do have left of centre sympathies on most issues. I have worked closely with politicians of all persuasions for 40 years and observed the good, the bad and sometimes ugly traits of politicians. I am generally impressed by their commitment to serving their electorate and communities although their craving for power and recognition is not always matched by their ability to take objective and rational decisions. Groupthink and party discipline sees to that.

I have had an interest in the main political events from the mid 1950s and watched and heard news broadcasts from all of post war prime ministers apart from Attlee. He was the man who introduced me to cod liver oil and rationing but I forgive him because he made some good calls on the important things that have influenced my life. I lived in a new council house, attended a new school, my family benefited from the free health service, and I obtained grants to give me a higher education. Attlee created a more egalitarian society at the end of the war, putting the well being of the many above wealth for the few; and he started the dismantling of the empire. A man whose vision was clear and unencumbered by the necessity of being a performer for the media, which he certainly wasn't.

Mrs Thatcher was the antidote to the welfare state that he created. She has done the most to damage to the lives of ordinary folk with high unemployment, the sell off of council housing, mortgages of 15%, underinvestment in schools and the NHS, deregulation of the markets, privatisation of public services and the creation of a culture of greed with rampant income inequalities.

Post war prime ministers could be divided into three groups: those who managed radical change and were electorally successful - Attlee, MacMillan, Wilson, Thatcher and Blair. Those who won an election but struggled to make an impact or endear themselves to the wider public: Churchill (in his 1951 -1955 guise), Eden, Heath, Major and probably Cameron; and those who never won an election - Douglas-Home, Callaghan, and Brown.

Undoubtedly the PM who made the most significant changes that have lasted the test of time was Attlee. He was not a great communicator but someone who managed a team of talented and strong willed politicians. He encouraged them to radically reform the role of government, to create the welfare state and to eradicate the pre war perils of poverty and inequality. He was a champion of the United Nations, the Marshall Plan and the independence of India.

MacMillan was a one nation Tory who embedded the post war settlement of the welfare state introduced by Attlee. He invested heavily in public infrastructure: rail modernisation, motorways, public sector housing and schools. He was brave enough to bring down the curtains on the British Empire in Africa. My sense during the late 1950's is that it was a period of relative happiness as prosperity was spread across all sections of society and unemployment was very low.

Wilson led the expansion of higher education, made technology a priority and carried out significant social and economic reforms during his first six years as PM. He was a lot less innovative in his second spell although he ended the miner's strike that had brought down Heath. He then let inflation rip and his period in office was punctuated by more industrial relations crises that could have been averted had he stood by Barbara Castle's proposals - 'In Place of Strife' in 1969.

Margaret Thatcher abandoned the post war consensus about the role of the state and adopted neo-liberal policies that created a market driven economy and privatised or reduced many public services. John Major was seen as a failure by many Tories but he did rescue them from collapse of confidence as Mrs Thatcher lost credibility even amongst her own MPs. He surprisingly won the 1992 General Election. He started the process of peace negotiations in Northern Ireland and the recovery from Black Monday.

Tony Blair inherited a strong hand and a massive majority as the Tories became increasingly mired in corruption scandals after 18 years in power. Blair played it well in many ways and won three elections with the economy booming and huge investment in Education and Health. But the way he courted the city, celebrities, the press and media and adopted many of the Thatcher reforms including rail nationalisation were already damaging his reputation before his ill considered invasion of Iraq. He did carry out significant social reforms such as the minimum wage, international aid, created devolved governments in the UK, a partial reform of the House of Lords and brought the Good Friday agreement to Northern Ireland.

Then there are the men who don't quite fit in like Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown. Heath took the UK into the European Union but made some serial mistakes in his handling of local government reform in 1971, industrial relations and his back benches. Jim Callaghan was a calming influence after Wilson's sudden resignation in 1976 but it hard to say what he achieved other than to herald the onset of Mrs Thatcher. This inevitably followed his failure to tackle either the industrial relations or monetary crisis of the late 1970's. Brown's famed intellect could never get the better of his morose brooding personality that had damaged both himself and Blair as he plotted his succession. As Chancellor he crafted an image of being prudent and iron fisted but the sell off of gold in 1999, his irritable determination to push PFI and obsequious pandering to the financial sector did not play well. Nor did the ordering of two aircraft carriers to be built in his backyard. Having said that he did a remarkable job bringing together world leaders to stave off a global melt down after the financial crisis of 2008.

It would seem that David Cameron is about to join this club of the men who don't fit in. I would not have expected this in 2010. He seemed to have taken the Conservative party into a new era and had progressive views on environmental and social issues. Unfortunately these good intentions have been stumped by the traditional views of the party. His attempts to stave off the UKIP advances by conceding a European referendum to keep his right wingers onside smacked of weakness in adversity. He appears to cherish popularity much more than his predecessors, all of whom seemed to be more principled than Dave the soundbite.

And at the bottom of the ratings. Anthony Eden was a terrible failure during Suez despite his considerable experience and aristocratic charm and resigned within the year. Sir Alec Douglas-Home was a gentleman but suffered from the undemocratic nature of his appointment and the jibes of the opposition and media at a turgid time for the Tories. But these two did not inflict the damage of Thatcher. David Cameron may yet manage that.

So my ranking of Prime Ministers for the impact they have made on the wider electorate and the economic and social progress of the UK goes as follows.

1. 1945-1951   Clement Attlee                Labour
2. 1957-1962   Harold Macmillan            Conservative
3. 1997-2007   Tony Blair                        Labour
4. 1964-1970   Harold Wilson                  Labour
5. 1990-1997   John Major                      Conservative
6. 1974-1976   Harold Wilson                  Labour
7. 1970-1974   Edward Heath                 Conservative
8. 1976-1979   James Callaghan            Labour
9. 1951-1955  Winston Churchill            Conservative
10. 2007-2010 Gordon Brown                Labour
11. 1963-1964  Sir Alec Douglas-Home Conservative
12. 1955-1957  Sir Anthony Eden           Conservative
13. 2010-2015  David Cameron              Conservative
14. 1979-1990  Margaret Thatcher          Conservative

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