I have just read one of the best books I have ever come across on political history. The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister
by Sir Anthony Seldon was published to mark the third centenary of the office of Prime Minister in 2021.[i]
It tells its extraordinary story, explaining how and why it has endured longer than any other democratic political office of leadership. The author explores the lives and careers, successes and failures, of all our prime ministers. From Robert Walpole and William Pitt the Younger, to Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, Seldon discusses which of our Prime Ministers have been most effective and why. He reveals the changing relationship between the monarchy and the office of the Prime Minister in intimate detail, describing how the increasing power of the Prime Minister in becoming leader of Britain coincided with the steadily falling influence of the monarchy.
What are Sir Anthony’s credentials to write such a book? He is the acknowledged national authority on all matters to do with Number 10 and prime ministers. His first book on a Prime Minister, Churchill’s Indian Summer
(1981) was published 40 years ago and since then he has written or edited many books, including the definitive insider accounts of the last five prime ministers. He is the honorary historian of Number 10 Downing Street, chair of the National Archives Trust, and has interviewed virtually all senior figures who have worked in Number 10 in the last 50 years.
He actually wrote the book during the COVID-19 lock down in 2020 so it is premature to think of the book as a judgement on Boris Johnson. Indeed, I was on a call with Sir Anthony where I asked him if he would now write about Johnson quite the same way given all that has happened in the past two years. He thought it an excellent question and confessed that he was already working on a second edition but would not go any further than that.
In theory the position of Prime Minister which is the oldest political office of leadership in the world is more powerful than that of any other. Compared to many countries in Europe and beyond, Britain was remarkably stable politically in the 300 years after 1721. It had no revolution nor Civil War, neither did it adopt an elected head of state, a written constitution, proportional representation, nor a federal structure, which would constrain the Premier’s ministerial power.
What has changed is the nature and stability of Great Britain. The Act of Union in 1707 did not end questions about Scotland’s political future and the second Prime Minister Pelham had to see off the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. The modern movement for Scottish independence is still a major concern for Prime Ministers and the vote for the Union in the 2014 referendum did nothing to quieten the nationalists, and the Brexit vote in the 2016 EU referendum, in which Scotland voted 62% remain, only heightened the pressure for an independent Scotland. Wales has been far more peaceful with a smaller population and has never featured very high in the premier’s priorities but Ireland certainly did. It proved a thorn in the side of 18th
-century prime ministers culminating in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 inspired in part by the French and American revolutions. That was crushed by the British Army on Pitt the Younger’s orders. The Act of Union of 1800 ended the Protestant dominated Dublin parliament but right throughout the 19th
century remained a major concern. The issue of Catholic Emancipation prompted Pitt the Younger’s resignation in 1801 and was resolved only in 1829. The Tithe War in the 1830s and the great famine of the 1840s and renewed national agitation of self-government from the 1870s ensured Ireland became a major preoccupation for Peel, Gladstone, Asquith, Salisbury, and Balfour. By 1914 the Asquith government feared Civil War as the Ulster Unionists armed themselves prepared to resist Dublin rule.
Irish nationalists took matters into their own hands leading to the Easter rising in 1916 and the Irish War of Independence in 1919. Lloyd George’s solution of a partition with the Irish Free State gaining de facto independence separated from the six counties of Ulster provided only a temporary solution. For nearly 30 years from 1969 Northern Ireland was a major preoccupation of the British prime minister with regular Irish terrorism spreading to mainland Britain.
The economic and political integration of Europe became a giant claim on the time of every prime minister from Harold Macmillan to Johnson. It damaged or indeed ended the premiership of Macmillan, Harold Wilson and all recent Tory prime ministers – Thatcher, Major, Cameron and May. Another constantly changing preoccupation has been Britain’s role in the world, as it rose and fell as a global power. The 18th
-century saw a series of massive wars, invariably against France, including the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years’ War, the American War of Independence, and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. For Newcastle, North, Pitt the Younger, and Liverpool, war-making would dominate their time as Prime Minister.
The American War of Independence when the 13 colonies seized that independence was a rude shock to what had been a steady expansion in North America for 200 years. After that Britain’s imperial focus shifted to the east towards India and Australia and then into Africa. Towards the end of the 19th
century Lord Salisbury, a keen imperialist, led the European-wide scramble for Africa. By the end of the 19th
century Britain was a global superpower, with the world’s biggest economy and a network of naval bases all around the world and a huge empire. in the First World War that was partially consolidated as part of the Middle East became British mandates. The Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Newfoundland) all received some form of self-government.
After the Second World War, encouraged by the United Nations and the United States, the African and Asian parts of the Empire gradually took their independence led by India in 1947. The disastrous embarrassment of Anthony Eden’s Suez War in 1956 only accelerated the process. From 1957 Macmillan accepted the end of empire. Within eight years all except breakaway Southern Rhodesia had received independence. Britain still retained some vestiges of world power status after 1945 including a permanent seat on the Security Council at the UN. It played a leading role in the creation of NATO in 1949, detonated its first atomic weapon in 1952, followed by a hydrogen bomb in 1957. But it was clearly the junior partner behind the USA in the Cold War with USSR, and other countries including the losers of the Second World War, Germany and Japan, overtook it economically.
-century prime ministers were preoccupied by the shifting coalitions within the Whigs and Tories, but these arrangements were always Westminster focused while the Conservative party created by Robert Peel in the 1830s and the Liberal party which emerged in the 1850s from an alliance of Whigs, free trade supporting Peelites and reformist radicals, looked outward across the entire country. The Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867 widened the electorate from 400,000 to 2.5 million and that led to the rise of mass political parties increasing the pressure on the responsibilities of the Prime Minister as they needed to campaign across the country. In some ways it increased their powers but also provided them with an additional challenge to their authority. They would spend much valuable time and physical capital dealing with party divisions and splits. The emergence of the Labour Party effectively replacing the Liberals as the second party in the two-party system from the 1920s didn’t change any of this and it has seen splits throughout its history leading to the breakaway of the Social Democratic party in 1981 which made it much easier for Thatcher to win the second and third of her three elections.
While several US presidents have been assassinated and many others have faced that threat, since only one British prime minister Spencer Percival has been killed in office 1812, he was murdered in the House of Commons by an aggrieved Liverpudlian merchant, that might suggest that prime ministers have had less to fear. That is not the case. The threat of revolution and violence breaking out as it had in Northern Ireland from 1969 has been ever present in the minds of Prime Ministers. In 1780 during the Gordon riots an angry mob marched on Downing Street before being repelled by soldiers. The Peterloo massacre of 1819 in Manchester caused great anxiety as did the 1848 mass meeting held by Chartists where 85,000 special constables were recruited to quell the risk. The Cato conspiracy of 1820 to kill Lord Liverpool and the Cabinet was thwarted. Peel only escaped being murdered in 1843 because his assassin killed a senior official Edward Drummond in a case of mistaken identity. Decades later in 1984 and 1991 the IRA attempted to assassinate Prime Ministers with a large bomb in Brighton during the Conservative party conference and then using an improvised mortar to drop three shells on Downing Street.
Seldon, after going into much more detail than I can do here, attempts to rank the 55 prime ministers. He calls this a favourite national preoccupation and usually in public opinion polls or indeed polls among prominent historians, politicians and commentators Churchill comes out as the ‘best’ Prime Minister over the last hundred years or so followed by Lloyd George and Clement Attlee. Seldon does not have much time for such polls and instead believes that the leading prime ministers and those indeed who have ensured that the office survived are the ones who rose to the historic challenges of their period in power, won notable general elections, changed the course of the country, and with it, the way the job of prime minister operated. They may have raised the standing of the country internationally, or bolstered the union, key requirements for any Prime Minister, or both. They are: Robert Walpole, Pitt the Younger, Robert Peel, Viscount Palmerston, William Gladstone, David Lloyd George, Clement Attlee, and Margaret Thatcher. All of them repeatedly reinvented the office for each new age. After the 17th
century there was no foreign invasion, nor revolution in mainland Britain, nor Civil War sweeping the PM aside. The monarchy, equally, having learnt its lesson by the beginning of the 18th
century, ceded power peacefully to the PM.
The next category is a list of 11 prime ministers who, while having a decisive influence on the country did not make that long-lasting mark on policy or the office. They are William Pitt the Elder/Chatham for his war leadership and being the first truly popular politician in the country; Lord Liverpool, who brought vast experience and stability to government, having held the post of Foreign Secretary, Home Secretary, War Secretary, oversaw the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars and the unrest after it, and was one of the first prime ministers to see his job as coordinating other government departments; Earl Grey, passing the Great Reform Act and the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, which went far further than the abolition of slavery itself in 1807 to root it out; Benjamin Disraeli, who passed social welfare legislation, was the first Prime Minister to attend a conference abroad, had an enduring impact on the Conservative party, and shaped the role of the modern prime minister in the era of mass party politics.
In the 20th
century, Asquith, who pushed the social policy agenda, above all with the 1911 National Insurance Act and drove through the Parliament Act; Stanley Baldwin, who provided stability of the country in the volatile interwar years, helped induct Labour into parliamentary democracy, and saw the country through the abdication crisis; Winston Churchill was the supreme was leader of Britain at its greatest peril in the entire 300 years, but he did not change the office, and lost two general elections (1945 and 1950) and just scraped home in his third (1951); Harold Macmillan, the first television prime minister, who drove decolonisation and the first attempt to join the European Community; Harold Wilson, who oversaw the liberalising policies under Roy Jenkins, and was the first prime minister since Lloyd George significantly to expand the size and reach of Number 10 but who, like Macmillan, did not successfully tackle Britain’s chronic economic problems; Edward Heath for taking the country into the European Economic Community; and Tony Blair, for constitutional reforms, including devolution, an elected Mayor of London, and the Supreme Court, social and economic reforms including the minimum wage, but who did not find an enduring solution to Britain’s chronically troubled relationship with the EU, and became mired in the errors of Iraq.
I will not go into all the rest of the list, but they are classed as ‘positive stabilisers’, ‘noble failures’, ‘ignoble failures’, including Anthony Eden and ‘left on the starting line’, those who simply did not have enough time in the job to make much of a mark.
So finally, what makes for a successful premiership? There is no magic formula, but Seldon has developed a four-point approach: they are ‘individuals’,’ ideas’, ‘interests’, and ‘circumstances’. His eight ‘Agenda changer’ prime ministers shared some common attributes: their long apprenticeships, they had clear ideas, a moral seriousness and finally they all possessed an iron will.
They may be formidable ‘individuals’, but all the really successful ones had strong support. Inside Number 10 they need three or four outstandingly able operators, to lead the pack below them.
‘Ideas’ are equally essential to successful premierships. Lacklustre premiers scramble for ideas and go in for periodic relaunches, which are never successful. Ideas mobilise, they enthuse, they bring diverging people together; they include the abolition of slavery, solving the Irish question, Imperial preference, the mixed economy, decolonisation, devolution, and privatisation.
‘Interests’ need to run with a premiership rather than against it. Pitt the Younger could channel the financial interests in the City while Peel ran up against powerful landed interests that resisted his attempts to repeal the Corn Laws. Churchill was able in masterly fashion to line all the powerful interests in the nation behind the war effort from 1940-5. Trade unions helped bring about the ends of the premierships of Wilson in 1970, Heath in 1974, and Callaghan in 1979 while Thatcher was able to outflank them, ensuring powerful business, financial and media interests were supportive of her.
‘Circumstances’, or events as Macmillan, said finally help explain why some premierships succeed where others fail. Wars are the most dramatic. Walpole’s failures during the War of Jenkins Ear helped bring about his own demise, while Pitt the Elder’s leadership in the Seven Years’ War made his name. The American War of Independence quashed North, while the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars established Pitt the Younger’s and Liverpool’s reputation. The Crimean War finished off Aberdeen but elevated Palmerston. The First World War fatally damaged Asquith as the Second World War did Chamberlain, making Lloyd George and Churchill. Attlee’s final demise in 1951 was hastened by paying for the Korean War, while Suez did for Eden, the Falklands boosted Thatcher, yet Blair never recovered from Iraq.
In describing the impossible job Seldon particularly picks on the point mentioned as one of the qualities of the best Prime Ministers, that is a long apprenticeship. It is noticeable that this is becoming less and less the case. Most of the Prime Ministers after the Second World War had such an apprenticeship serving either in government or opposition in many capacities before being asked to take over the position of Premier. However, the last five either had no experience of government or just one role in the case of Brown, May and Johnson. They are becoming younger which means that they have more energy but less knowledge and experience and also are less clear what they’re trying to achieve. According to the civil servants who are there to advise them most of them have almost no idea what their objectives are when they come into power.