Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Greatest PMs we never had?

I see the BBC has another list ranking 20th century Prime Ministers, with Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher not surprsingly coming out on top, Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden at the bottom, and Tony Blair somewhere in the middle.

I reckon that's probably about right, although I would rate Churchill higher than Thatcher and both James Callaghan and John Major higher than Francis Beckett does - both were dealt an impossible hand by their small parliamentary majorities. I also think he rates Harold Macmillan far too highly - the man was essentially a poseur who allowed Britain to stagnate under his seven-year leadership.

Meanwhile, as my contribution to the debate, here's my list of the Top 10 20th century figures never to become Prime Minister. Or at least, in one case, not yet.

1. Denis Healey
2. R.A. Butler
3. Hugh Gaitskell
4. Joseph Chamberlain
5. Gordon Brown
6. Enoch Powell
7. Iain Macleod
8. Michael Heseltine
9. John Smith
10.Roy Jenkins

Not all of these men could realistically have become Prime Minister - three of them, Gaitskell, Macleod and Smith - died before they had a real opportunity. But some of them would have done a far better job than the men they were forced to give way to - notably Healey (Callaghan), Butler (Home), Brown (Blair) and Heseltine (Major.)

Enoch Powell is of course the great enigma in my list. Had he, rather than Heath, won the Tory leadership in 1965, would "Thatcherism" have arrived 15 years earlier? Probably the country wasn't ready for it then, and might never have been ready for Enoch. But a genuinely great man nonetheless.

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16 comments:

MorrisOx said...

Agree with much of your list. But not RAB (too weak-kneed), or Powell (the Darth Vader of right-wing philosophy), or Jenkins (far too intwested in clawet).

But what about Chris Patten?

stalin's gran said...

How can you possiblu say Powell was a "great man"?

stalin's gran said...

or even possibly!

skipper said...

Agree with Healey as top. Your pic reminds me of the time I interviewed him and I began a slightly oleaginous set of thank yous at the end. He silenced me by waving two fingers, leaning over the table and saying; 'fuck off, fuck off!'

A soft socialist said...

In my opinion, John Smith was the best labour leader never to have become PM.

ThunderDragon said...

Powell was a great politician. Personaly, I would have put him higher up the list. It is also likely that has he not left the Conservative Party in 1974 he could have fought a eladership conest and won it - he was, afterall, easily one of most well-known Conservative polticians of the time.

media scum said...

have we overlooked Stafford Cripps ? I have always thought that had he not died in office, he would have been someone that might have led Labour to a very convincing win in 1951 - remember that he had a big wartime coaltion reputation, and was seen as a competent and effective Chancellor

The Yak said...

I'm not so sure that Brown would have done a better job than Blair as Prime Minister. I cannot disagree with the rest of the list, though!

skipper said...

Media scum
Stafford Cripps was a little fortunate to be made ambassador to Moscow in the war-his leftwing standing was the reason- but did not really succeed in the role; the ascetic tee-totaler did not hit it off with Stalin or his fellow alcoholic henchmen. But this was his launch pad into the War Cabinet and then Chancellor. Not sure he measures up as a 'great' political figure.
On Powell, he was certainly very brilliant and provocative but did he achieve very much? If making people think and debate is part of being great then he qualifies for consideration. But on balance I think not. He seemed to join causes, India for the Empire, UK out of Europe, when they were well and truly lost-scarcely the mark of a great politician I'd have thought.

Croydonian said...

A bold list, and while not necessarily agreeing with the likelihood of success for sundry premierships, that seems to cover all the dauphins I can think of.

If you will permit a small meander, a friend of mine who works in retail once had the chance to say to Healey that he was the best Prime Minister we never had, and hearing this Healey was both modesty and grace personified.

towcestarian said...

What about David Owen? He certainly would have put himself in your top 10.

Guido Fawkes Esq. said...

Portillo before he went into ideological meltdown.

Brown - nah. He is a moody psycho.

Paul Linford said...

Some great comments there, so I thought it would only be polite to respond to the various points!

Morrisox - agree Chris Patten coulda been a contender - he was desperately unlucky to lose his seat in 1992 at a time when he would probably have got the Chancellor's job and emerged as Major's heir apparent. I'm not sure he could have led the Tories by that stage though - I think that by then they were well on the road to ideological suicide.

Gran/Skip/Thunderdragon - Powell is and will forever remain a divisive figure as the comments demonstrate! He correctly foresaw many of the problems we are having now as a "multicultural" society but was wrong to express this in terms of race (or be perceived to have done so.) I agree with Skipper that he wasn't a great politician but I do think he was a great man. Tony Benn, who consistently made inept political choices but was right about many important issues, would fall into the same category.

Soft socialist - No. Smith was a top man and would have been a much better PM than Blair, but among Labour leaders, Gaitskell really
was the man who could have changed everything. Had he lived, and won the '64 election rather than Wilson, he would have established Labour as a sensible, social democratic party and the natural party of government. Neither the SDP breakaway, nor the whole New Labour brain fuck, would have been necessary.

Media scum - I'd go along with Skipper's response on Stafford Cripps. He nearly made my list as it happens as I have a bit of soft spot for ascetic leftish idealists, but I really do think the idea of him getting the better of Sir Winston in the '51 election is somewhat preposterous.

Croydonian - Healey knows perfectly well he was the best Labour PM we never had.

Towcestarian - Have to disagree. If you've got a few minutes to meander through my blog archives you'll find a post somewhere about a lunch I shared with Lord Owen in the late 90s in which he casually informed me that, had he not left the Labour Party, he would have become Prime Minister rather than Blair. The purpose of this story was to demonstrate how far Owen had disappeared up his own arse. In fact he would never have stood a snowball's chance in hell of being elected Labour leader. You should also read Denis Healey's "Good Fairy/Bad Fairy" story about Owen in his auto biography, The Time of My Life. I won't spoil it.

Guido - good to see you here, but Portillo? Are you fucking serious? I was at the Tory conference in '95 when he made his "Who Dares Wins" speech - he was even more of a twat before he went into "ideological meltdown" than afterwards.

As ever, we'll have to agree to disagree about Gordy, but really, there is only one psycho in Downing St, and it's not the guy who lives at No 11.

MorrisOx said...

Loathe though I am, I have to side with Guido on Brown. He is almost (but not quite) the Peter Cook to Blair's Dudley Moore (seriously - put the rictus grins together).

If Brown really were the brilliant man in waiting then he would cope better and plot less. As it is, he comes across as Cooke's Glid of Glood.

Which is why the Dear Deluded Leader is hanging on. He doesn't think the man living at Number 11 has got it.

towcestarian said...

Paul
I was being sarcastic with the David Owen comment - clue in the second sentence. I pretty much agree with your sentiments on DO, but still rate him more highly than GB; my teenage daughter is less moody and more statemanlike than he is. Thanks for the reading tip, it'll be on my Christmas wish list

Andrew Kinsman said...

No Roy Hattersley . . . . ?