Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Stop Thatcher!

The BBC's Daily Politics show is currently running a poll to find Britain's greatest peacetime Prime Minister. At least that makes for a relatively objective criterion for inclusion on the shortlist, in contrast with the recent Politics Show poll on political heroes which included the likes of Alex Salmond and Clare Short while leaving out genuine greats like Denis Healey.

Margaret Thatcher, who is being championed by her old Fleet Street cheerleader Kelvin Mackenzie, has predictably already built up a big lead, but that may have something to do with the fact that the Labour vote appears to be splitting fairly evenly between Clem Attlee, Tony Blair and Harold Wilson. Some tactical voting is clearly called for here!

For what is worth, this is how I would rank the ten Prime Ministers in the BBC's poll. Only the first two, I would contend, left the country overall in a better state than they found it. The rest have left it in varying degrees of messes ranging from industrial chaos to (in the case of the last two) disastrous military escapades.

Anyway, here goes.

1. Clement Attlee. The undisputed No 1 in my book for having fashioned, from the ruins of WW2, a country fit for heroes. The architect of much that was good about the Britain I grew up in.

2. Margaret Thatcher. Yes, she sorted out Britain's industrial anarchy and restored our national self-confidence, but she also left a bitter legacy in social division that continues to this day.

3. James Callaghan. The period of Lib-Lab government from 1977-78 was in my view the most sensible and humane of my lifetime. But Big Jim funked an election in '78 and paid a terrible price.

4. Edward Heath. Another PM brought down by the industrial problems he had failed to solve, he deserves credit for his towering achievement in bringing Britain in from the sidelines of Europe.

5. Harold Wilson. His achievements were primarily political, in making Labour for a time the natural party of government. But like many before and after, failed to arrest our long economic decline.

6. Sir Alec Douglas Home. Considering he had less than a year in the job, he didn't make a bad fist of it really. Took over a party rocked by the Profumo Affair and nearly won the 1964 election.

7. Harold Macmillan. A Blairite before Blair in political style, this consummate poseur told us we'd "never had it so good" while accelerating the post-war decline. Overrated in my view.

8. John Major. Nice chap totally out of his depth after being chosen to succeed Thatch. Promised a nation at ease with itself, but ended up as the hapless fall-guy for his feuding, sleazy party.

9. Tony Blair. Promised to restore trust in politics but ended up sullying it still further as well as embroiling Britain in possibly its most damaging military disaster for more than a century.

10. Anthony Eden. Was kept waiting too long for the top job by Churchill (excluded from the BBC shortlist) and went bonkers, causing him to view Colonel Nasser as a reincarnation of Hitler.

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MorrisOx said...
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MorrisOx said...

The risk with a list like this is that recent successes or failures are magnified by live exposure while those of the past are dimmed by distant memory.
I'd agree completely with Eden's position at the bottom of the list, though the man didn't go bonkers. He was sick, certainly, from all the drugs he was forced to take after that appallingly botched operation. But blame for the Suez fiasco must also be shared with senior cabinet members like Selwyn Lloyd (who knew how deep the deception went yet played along with it even though he could have reached agreement with Egypt without conflict) and even Harold Macmillan – one of the real Suez hawks in the cabinet who egged Eden on. Even though the human cost was far lower, this was a much darker episode in Britain's democratic history than Iraq. It was collusion, it involved lies to Parliament, the UN, the Commonwealth and our Allies, and keeping the truth from cabinet members, diplomats and senior civil servants. It was only thanks to Eisenhower that we were rescued from a full-scale Middle East catastrophe just a decade after the end of World War II.
Blair was not the prime mover in Iraq, though he certainly gave Bush some legitimacy, and for that reason I'd push him up the list for partly creating and certainly maintaining a period of economic growth and stability that no Labour or Tory government has ever managed before.
Sunny Jim I'd drop down because he was a selfish political schemer who helped defeat Barbara Castle's 'In Place of Strife', a measure that could have helped avoid the years of industrial trouble that culminated in his own downfall. There were some giants in his administration, Paul, but I really don't think he was a giant PM.
I wouldn't argue with Atlee or Margaret Thatcher, but I'd follow them with Wilson (for doing what Blair didn't and keeping us out of an American misadventure}; Blair; Heath, who could have been great if he'd ever felt comfortable in his own skin; Macmillan; Home (for nothing other than inspiring Willie Rushton to stand against him in Kinross in a failed attempt to stop an Earl who had disclaimed his title becoming MP and PM. How different 'I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue' could have been...); Major (a decent man at least); Callaghan; Eden.

Anonymous said...

[Suez] was a much darker episode in Britain's democratic history than Iraq. It was collusion, it involved lies to Parliament, the UN, the Commonwealth and our Allies, and keeping the truth from cabinet members, diplomats and senior civil servants.

I have the greatest respect for you MorrisOx, but aren't you being a trifle naive here?

Anonymous said...

Churchill was a peacetime PM too, or doesn't he really count?

Btw hope you're enjoying Belper life - I'm grew up nearby in Kilburn.

Paul Linford said...

For some reason the Beeb left Churchill off its list, I can only assume because they thought it would make it more interesting.

For the record, I would place Churchill at No 1 in any all-time list of Premiers, purely on account of the fact that he saved the country. But in a list of peacetime premiers since 1945, I would probably place him between sixth between Heath and Home. He didn't really do a great deal in his second premiership, being incapacitated with a stroke for much of the second half of it, and he hung on far too long for the good of his successor, Eden, who was, quite literally in my view, driven insane by the wait.

MorrisOx said...

I appreciate the point you make, Paul, but while it's popular to draw comparisons between Iraq and Suez, there are clear differences.

With Suez, Eden was the prime mover. With Iraq Blair was not. Neither does Blair's 'dodgy dossier' bear comparison with the secret meetings at Sevre, the 180-degree turn on collaboration with Israel, the outright lies told to Parliament, the UN and Eisenhower, the serious attempts to find the basis for agreement which Selwyn Lloyd then wriggled out of.

What made the whole episode worse was that it put economies still recovering from war and institutions created to avoid it at risk. This one single event played its own part in the rise of violent Arab nationalism, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, even the French decision to cut Britain out of the birth of the European Community (in longer memories, it may also have been behind Chirac's holier-than-thou attitude towards Iraq).

In short Suez was a thoroughly squalid episode in our democratic history, one that caused many members of the Commonwealth to revise their opinion of the 'mother ship'.

I don't for one moment diminish the impact of Blair's decision to sned us on an Americna misadventure, or the political dirt thrown to justify it.

But it isn't the first time we have made a mess of things in the Levant.

Paul Burgin said...

"For the record, I would place Churchill at No 1 in any all-time list of Premiers"
I think that's why he was left off the list. He would be the obvious winner!
BTW Have you read Hennesey's book on postwar PM's. Very good.

skipper said...

Kevin Theakston from Leeds University has written an analysis of the top ten in 20th century, based on a MORI poll of academics, published in my recent Politics -UK 6th edition and ranks the resultant top ten as:
1. Attlee
2. Churchill
3. Lloyd George
4. Thatcher
5. Macmillan
6. Blair
7. Asquith
8. Baldwin
9. Wilson
10. Salisbury
11. Campbell-Bannerman
12. Callaghan
13. Heath
14. Macdonald
15. Major
16. Bonar-Law
17. Chamberlain
18. Balfour
19. Douglas-Home
20. Eden

snowflake5 said...

In terms of historically important achievements, which affect several generations (as opposed to simply running the country well, which affects only on those alive at the time), the two greatest PMs are Clement Atlee and Edward Heath (for taking Britain into the EU).

Mrs Thatcher in future years might also be remembered for signing the Single European Act, which tore down all trade barriers and created the world's only true free trade zone (NAFTA still has tariff barriers). It came into effect only after she left office, but has arguably had more of an impact on British life than anything else she did (and will continue to do so in the decades to come).

Blair hasn't actually achieved anything of multi-generational significance, but the Brown government, assuming it finishes off and rationalises the constitutional reform, might.

Anonymous said...

I had/have no admiration for Thatch at all, Paul, but I doubt this "bitter social division" thing you write about. The booming bit of the mid-to-late 80s saw a blurring of social classes - I'm an oik from the absolute slums of Cambridge (don't be fooled by the city's academic/media image - there is another side), but I mixed with, and formed friendships with, people in the 1980s that I would never even have met in the 1970s.

I believe that Thatcher's hard heartedness, and all the anger and protests it provoked, left many of us in a state of political burnout in the 90s and paved the way for today. A world of endless priggishness and hypocrisy, nonsensical waffle about how "supah" the 70s were (totally rewritten, of course) and how the 80s were truly nasty.

But we're all right now (Jack).

And yet a lot of the affects of the Blair government's actions on things like the NHS in England, selling off social services homes, etc, would have caused screams of outrage in the 1980s.

And as for Gordon Brown and the devolution thing!

The underclass in England suffers most from unfair devolution, but nobody who "matters" really gives a damn. In political circles, heads are buried in the sand or polite, half-hearted comments are uttered: "I say, chaps, perhaps we really should look at the England thing," and ignored.

Yet the council estate I live on is now a hell of a lot more rundown and downright dangerous to live on than it was in the 1980s (or even a lot of the 90s).

I'm afraid that I do not understand now at all.