Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Top 10 Political Misjudgements

Ever since Gordon Brown decided not to hold an autumn General Election this year, there has been speculation that it could prove as fatal a misjudgement for him as it did for Jim Callaghan in 1978.

I myself speculated in a recent column: "The danger for Mr Brown is that his government, like Major’s, is now entering a period of what the Germans would call Gotterdammerung – the twilight of the gods. Far from renewing Labour in office, it could be that his destiny is to spend the next two years fighting back the inexorable Tory tide, while Mr Cameron prepares for his inevitable victory."

I have already listed my Top 10 political gaffes - so what's the difference between a gaffe and a misjudgement, you may ask?

Well, it's a qualitative one, really. A gaffe is primarily a one-off mistake, often humorous and with few lasting consequences. The misjudgements listed here, by contrast, are ones that arguably changed the course of history, and certainly adversely affected the careers of those who made them.

Five of them were mistakes made by Prime Ministers in office which either ultimately brought them down or, as in the case of Harold Wilson, set their governments off on the wrong course. Three were mistakes made by people who went on to become Prime Minister before the said mistakes in question came back to haunt them. Two were mistakes made by people who could easily have become Prime Minister had they not made them.

And yes, Callaghan is not only at the top of the list, but is the only politician to appear twice....

1. Jim Callaghan not calling an autumn election, 1978

What happened: Prime Minister Callaghan ducks out of an autumn 1978 election after private polls show it might result in a hung Parliament. The ensuing Winter of Discontent puts paid to Labour's credibility as a governing party and leads to 18 years of Tory hegemony which ultimately removes all vestiges of democratic socialism from the British state.

What might have happened: Narrowly re-elected, Callaghan serves for a further three years as Prime Minister before handing over to Denis Healey, who, buoyed by North Sea oil revenues, goes on to establish Britain as a stable, continental-style social democracy. The defeated Margaret Thatcher is replaced by Francis Pym and relegated to a historical footnote as only the second Tory leader of the 20th century not to become Prime Minister.

2. Enoch Powell playing the race card, 1968

What happened: Enoch Powell, spiritual leader of the Tory Right, makes a speech about immigration prophesying that the streets of Britain will soon be "foaming with much blood." He is immediately sacked from the frontbench by Ted Heath and becomes a peripheral figure on the margins of British politics, eventually joining the Ulster Unionists.

What might have happened: After distinguished service as Defence Secretary in the 1970-74 Heath government, Powell successfully challenges Heath for the leadership in 1975 after his two election defeats. Using his supreme oratorical skills to destroy Jim Callaghan at the Despatch Box in the late 70s, he becomes Prime Minister in 1979 at the age of 66, serving for one term before handing over to his faithful protege, Margaret Thatcher.

3. Tony Blair joining the US-led invasion of Iraq, 2003

What happened: Tony Blair, the most electorally successful Labour leader in history, gambles his career on joining a US neo-con inspired military adventure to get rid of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Although militarily successful, it later becomes clear that the public has been duped into supporting the conflict by a tissue of lies, destroying their trust in the Prime Minister.

What might have happened: Using his world-class diplomatic skills successfully to keep Britain out of a disastrous conflict, Tony Blair is re-elected by a third successive landslide in 2005 and immediately announces his intention to fight a fourth election in 2009. In spring 2007, Gordon Brown accepts the presidency of the International Monetary Fund, and Mr Blair appoints David Miliband as his Chancellor and heir-apparent.

4. Margaret Thatcher implementing the poll tax, 1987

What happened: Believing herself to be politically immortal after a third successive election triumph in 1987, Margaret Thatcher decides to implement a 13-year-old pledge to reform the rates. Her decision to introduce a flat-rate tax unrelated to ability to pay sparks off a popular revolt which ultimately sweeps her away.

What might have happened: Continuing to see-off all pretenders to her crown, sometimes by deliberately over-promoting them as in the case of John Major, Margaret Thatcher secures a fourth term in 1991, albeit by a narrow margin over Labour whose leader Neil Kinnock antagonises some floating voters with his triumphalism. Despite having vowed to go "on and on and on," she serves for only three more years before handing over to her young acolyte, Michael Portillo.

5. Ted Heath's "Who governs Britain?" election, 1974

What happened: Prime Minister Heath, his authority under constant threat from union unrest, ups the stakes by calling a general election on the theme of "Who Governs Britain?" The voters respond: "Obviously not you," and deliver a hung Parliament with Labour as the largest party. Heath loses a further election the same year before being toppled by Margaret Thatcher.

What might have happened: Heath delays the election until the following year and trumps Labour's calls for a referendum on Britain's membership of the EEC by calling one himself, and leading the "Yes" campaign. With the two votes held simultaneously, the public votes overwhelmingly in favour of staying in and returns a triumphant Heath to No 10 for a further five years. He is still succeeded eventually by Mrs Thatcher, though.

6. Harold Wilson not devaluing the pound, 1964.

What happened: Newly-elected Prime Minister Harold Wilson ignores the good advice of his best economist, Tony Crosland, and decides not to devalue the pound, believing it will merely strengthen the widespread belief among voters and the financial markets that Labour governments always devalue. In 1967, Wilson is forced to devalue, thereby strengthening the widespread belief....

What might have happened: Knowing that it pays politically to get the bad news out of the way at the start of a government's lifetime, Wilson overrides the objections of George Brown and Jim Callaghan and devalues in 1964. Recovering from this initial hit, Wilson establishes for Labour such a reputation for economic competence that he is twice re-elected, in 1966 and 1970, finally passing the baton in 1972 to his long-serving Chancellor, Crosland.

7. Michael Heseltine resigning over Westland, 1986

What happened: Tiring of Margaret Thatcher and her autocratic ways, Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine ignites a row over the fate of a small West Country helicopter company which gives him the excuse to stage a dramatic resignation. But his bid to set himself up as the Tories' king-over-the-water backfires when he is defeated by John Major for the leadership in 1990.

What might have happened: Remaining studiously loyal to Mrs Thatcher throughout the late 1980s, Heseltine's steadfast support in the face of a bitter attack from Sir Geoffrey Howe is widely-held to have headed-off a potential leadership challenge in 1990. After Thatcher is gently persuaded by the men in white coats grey suits to stand down the following spring, Heseltine's loyalty in allowing the old girl a final lap of honour is rewarded by grateful MPs who elect him leader by acclamation.

8. Jim Callaghan opposing In Place of Strife, 1969

What happened: Big Jim takes on Barbara Castle over her plans to curb union power and wins. His gamble in appointing himself as Labour's Keeper of the Cloth Cap appears to pay off when seven years later he wins the leadership, but nemesis awaits in the shape of the still-unreformed unions who sweep away Callaghan's premiership in the Winter of Discontent.

What might have happened: Capitalising on the public acclaim engendered by his tough stance against the unions, Harold Wilson wins a comfortable victory in the 1970 General Election. Overtaking Asquith's 20th century record of continuous service as PM in 1972, Wilson hands over the leadership to his long-time heir apparent, Roy Jenkins. But tiring of the endless battles with the Labour left, Jenkins quits in 1977 to become President of the European Commission, leaving Callaghan in charge.

9. John Major entering the ERM, 1990

What happened: After years of saying "no, no, no" to British membership of the European Monetary System, Margaret Thatcher is finally prevailed upon to enter by her new Chancellor, John Major, at a rate of 2.95DM to the pound. The level proves unsustainable, and on Black Wednesday in 1992, Prime Minister Major is forced to withdraw from the EMS and effectively devalue sterling.

What might have happened: Siding with Mrs Thatcher against her pro-European Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, Major decides the time is not right (or ripe) for ERM entry. Hurd and Geoffrey Howe resign, precipitating a leadership challenge by Michael Heseltine. Thatcher is brought down, but Major emerges as Prime Minister and reaffirms his decision to stay out despite sustained Labour criticism. Two years later, his stance is vindicated and the Tories' reputation for economic competence reinforced.

10. Gordon Brown not challenging John Smith, 1992

What happened: Gordon Brown, seen as the natural leader of Labour's modernising faction, declines to challenge John Smith for the party leadership in 1992. Over the ensuing two years, he is eclipsed by his younger rival Tony Blair, and is forced to stand aside in his favour when Smith unexpectedly dies in 1994. Blair goes on to serve for 13 years as leader, ten of them as Premier.

What might have happened: Brown loses to Smith, but establishes himself as the clear heir apparent. He is elected unopposed in 1994 on Smith's death and become Prime Minister in May 1997, winning again in May 2001 before handing over to Tony Blair after ten years as leader in 2004 as previously agreed between them. Blair goes on to win another landslide for Labour in 2005, but faced by the prospect of a Tory resurgence, embarks on a radical plan to renew the party in office under the banner "New" Labour.

This post was featured on "Best of the Web" on Comment is Free.

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Politaholic said...

What about the decision not to join the EEC in 1956?

Paul Linford said...

Before my time!

Anonymous said...

Really interesting article, Paul. Your analysis matches up with Andrew Marr's 'A History of Britain', which I'm reading at the moment. You could have picked any one of several Prime Ministers for taking on the unions at the wrong time or the wrong way throughout the 60s and 70s, and what about Eden and the Suez canal?

The Half-Blood Welshman said...

Interesting but at risk of being very pedantic, a couple of minor points:

1) Austen Chamberlain (to whom I think you must be referring as "the first Tory leader in the 20th century never to be Prime Minister in no. 1) was never actually Unionist leader. He led the Unionists in the House of Commons, and only when he was deposed was the title "Leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party" created, for Bonar Law. So either Thatcher would have been the first Tory leader never to have been Prime Minister - or the fourth, after Chamberlain, Lansdowne and Curzon, the leaders in the Lords to have the status of leaders and potential PMs and yet never be Prime Minister.

2) As late as early 1975, nobody would have seriously thought of Thatcher as a potential PM - she lived in the shadow of the abler but unhinged Keith Joseph. If Heath had won an election in 1975, he would almost certainly have been able to leave at least theoretically on his own terms, resigning rather than being forced out in a leadership contest. In which case, Whitelaw would have stood - and beaten Thatcher, if she had stood, by a mile.

Hope you don't mind me rainsing these. It's a very good list apart from that, I really enjoyed reading it!

Paul Linford said...


Disagree on the latter point. I have taken the view throughout the post that Thatcher would have become Tory leader eventually, on the grounds that she was essentially an irresistable force of nature. Whitelaw was a good and decent man but he didn't have what it took to be leader, and in his heart he knew it.

The only thing that could have stopped Thatcher in her tracks was being defeated in her first GE in charge, in which case the Tory Party would have pretty swiftly got rid of her. Callaghan had the chance to do this, but flunked it. The appalling consequences of this, for the left at any rate, are why he tops the list.

Anonymous said...

Top Tens! This is what we want!

And, to bring us back to the future, Paul:

What do you think you might be adding to this list, if you were to compile it again in a year's time?

Anonymous said...

Nice article, Paul, well written.

However, I have to take issue with one point and one point alone...

"In spring 2007, Gordon Brown accepts the presidency of the International Monetary Fund, and Mr Blair appoints David Miliband as his Chancellor and heir-apparent."

Brown wanted to be Prime Minister all along! He would never - whatever the circumstances - have accepted any less! :-)


Ted Foan said...

Interesting and contentious, it seems! But thanks for doing it.

I was always a bit confused about the Enoch Powell speech. I am old enough to remember the furore at the time but whenever I have looked back at what he actually said my interepretation was that he was warning that the "rivers of blood, etc" could happen if we weren't careful how we handled future immigration and integration.

Not quite as inflammatory as people think but, of course, used by the more extreme tendencies of both sides of the argument to justify their views.

Interesting that we are now talking about the problems of population growth in the UK in terms of economics, infrastructure and public services' capacity and the environmental impact rather than racial issues. Perhaps we have made progress in that respect?

Anonymous said...

Of course, had Brown succeeded Smith in 94 it is likely that Labour, while winning in 97, would not have won by a landslide. It was the New Labour project which tempted many Tory voters to defect. Waiting unti 2004 would have been too long, and Labour would have been back in opposition. Brown's current underwhelming performance tends to support this view.

Anonymous said...

A fanvuckingtastic post - this is ten times better than anything I've read on the mainstream media this week !!!

More like this, please, only what about going back to other historical events - I might learn something I missed will kipping in school history lessons !

A winning format, Paul...

Anonymous said...

On number 8 (Callaghan opposing In Place of Strife) you really have to twist to get him coming out as PM. This shows how what may be a mistake for the party or the country is not necessarily a mistake for the person taking the decision.

You also tend to ignore any effects on the country as a whole woukld be substantially better off. For example an earlier devaluation by Wilson, not shadowing the ERM, putting through In Place of Strife Major (or Blair) deciding to copy the business tax & regulatory cuts that Ireland made would all have been likely to increase GNP growth significantly, which over time makes us considerably wealthier.

Anonymous said...

Powell did not refer to "rivers of blood" ....

Old BE said...

Tory hegemony which ultimately removes all vestiges of democratic socialism from the British state

If only...

Anonymous said...

Paul, I add my congratulations on a really thought-provoking thread. I also liked your distinction between gaff and misjudgment.

In getting me thinking I came up with Ted Heath’s decision to concede the Ulster Unionists’ demands for Internment Without Trail in the late 1960s. This was a calamitous dereliction of duty – taken in opposition to the strongest advices from the Army and the civil servants not to. The immediate impact was the catapulting of the Provisional IRA into international ‘freedom fighters’, emasculation of the moderate Nationalists and then several decades of loss of blood, treasure and reputation for the UK.

What might have happened instead? If the advice of the Army and Civil Service etc. had been heeded, for awhile the Provisional IRA violence would have slowly but intermittently increased, moderate Nationalism would have gathered momentum ‘Civil Rights’ style and outmoded Unionism would have continued to atrophy. The gathering tensions would have forced the UK Cabinet to, in turn, force and entice the Unionists into genuine constitutional reform and the sub-civil war would have been averted… might even Northern Ireland become part of the subsequent ‘Celtic Tiger’ success story of the Irish Free State economy?

Little Black Sambo said...

A fascinating list.
You don't include Heath's caving in to European demands; that may prove to have been one of the very worst decisions ever made on our behalf.

Paul Linford said...

I think that might have been another Callaghan one, Ted - not Heath! Wasn't he the Home Secretary who introduced internment?

Tim said...

The enduring popularity of 'what if' early in usenet and now on the web makes it clear what a popular and stimulating format this is.

For starters, it often keeps everything but outright partisan shoutiness to a minimum, because the people involved are often dead (or their careers are). Kind of like practicing on cadavers.

Discussions like this also require (*shock*) a passing knowledge of history, which further discourages the shouty crowd.

You may get more out of the format by sticking to one or two (related) subjects at a time, though.

Oh, and Blair painted himself into a corner over Iraq long before 2003. This alone doesn't say much for his diplomatic skills.

Anonymous said...

Paul you embarrass me there, I read at some length some time ago about the deliberations in the Heath Cabinet on thi theme... I need to go away and recheck my sources and what I read!

Anonymous said...

Devaluation was in 1967 not 1964.

Paul Linford said...

Yes, and the misjudgement was not doing it in 1964.

Anonymous said...

I think student top up fees will prove to be one. An entire generation who are no longer commanding a graduate premium, with debts that prevent them from participating in the home owning class, or force them to change jobs early in careers to leverage the best income. People will say "But it's only..." It won't be. In ten years the government will take the cap off, as they always planned, and plunge good universities - the only ones left people want to go to - back into an exclusive domain of the wealthy. Top up fees will undo a hundred years of equality of access.

Anonymous said...

An interesting and stimulating read - if only the MSM could be as thought provoking.

One point. The implication that the defeat of In place of strife meant no changes in the way Union's operated and that this in someway can be directly linked to the winter of discontent.

A big chunk of The Royal Commission was concerned with the way in which the formal TU structure and processess had, in many cases, little influence on what were seen by those who mattered as "Wildcat" strikes.

The key concern in the 1950's and 60's were the number of small plant and factory level walk outs led by the influential and growing shop stewards movement. (One interesting starter book to read to get an idea is "Working for Ford" by Prof. Huw Benyon)

This usually took the form of a build up of grievences which were eventually brought to a head by some small incident that triggered a walk out that was usually sorted out within a short space of time before the local formal full time Union Branch Secretary even got to know about it never mind be involved in sorting it.

One of the key recommendations of the Royal Commission which was implemented and took effect throughout the 1970's was to remove and or curtail the informal powers of the shop stewards in the process and make it more formalised by putting control further up the union hierarchy.

This had a number of effects. One of which was to reduce the number of what was seen by the great and the good as "wildcat" stikes - which were usually short and localised.

The other siginifcant effect - which resulted from this - was, whilst it made it more difficult for local factory/plant level walk outs it simply pushed the grievences to a level where they were amalgamated together so that the only way to resolve disputes was for big industry wide set piece disputes.

Which is what we got in the 1970's. Big industry wide disputes involving lots of people. As compared to the smaller, shorter, localised and more managable situation that prevailed in the 1950's and 1960's.

It would seem reasonable to argue that this change which was implemented out of the royal commission, was equally as influential as the defeat of "In place of strife" - if not more influential - in creating the conditions that led to the "Winter of Discontent."

Anonymous said...

Paul, I have checked out with a highly authoritative source (Derek in the office) about was-it-Heath-or-Callaghan on Northern Ireland Internment.

Turns out I’m right. It was Heath. Internment was introduced by the-then Ulster PM Faulkener with the backing of the UK Cabinet in August 1971. This was during the Heath premiership 1970-74.

In fact, Heath, arguably, compounded matters with the subsequent introduction of The Diplock ‘non-jury’ trials in 1973 because Internment ‘wasn’t working’.

Now, where do I claim my Crackerjack pen and pencil set?

Guido Fawkes said...

Excellent piece.

"4. Margaret Thatcher implementing the poll tax, 1987

What happened: Believing herself to be politically immortal after a third successive election triumph in 1987, Margaret Thatcher decides to implement a 13-year-old pledge to reform the rates. Her decision to introduce a flat-rate tax unrelated to ability to pay sparks off a popular revolt which ultimately sweeps her away."

What should have happened:

She should have held her nerve. Encouraged a no pursuit of those who dropped off the electoral register to avoid paying the poll tax. Labour vote would plunge. She would still now be PM.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul, really superior post in this age of blogdross. Have linked to it... however... what about the SDP formation? If it hadn't have happened, even if we are generous to Thatcher and accept the Falklands factor, we wouldn't have lost as heavily in 83 and surely not in 87 and 92. Yours hypothetically - Rupa

Paul Linford said...


Thanks for the encouragement and for the link! I happen to agree with you that the SDP was an error of judgement, and that it was Healey and Hattersley who made the right call in staying and fighting. But there is (as I am sure you know) an alternative perspective on it, namely that the SDP breakaway was a necessary precondition to forcing Labour to change. Some argue that had it not happened, an unreformed Labour Party would have eventually got back into power again in '87 or '92, with even more disastrous consequences for the cause of the left. I don't necessarily buy this, but it's a respectable argument.

I did think about including "David Owen leaving the Labour Party" in the list as it happens, but ultimately it wasn't just his decision to form the breakaway, and although he believes otherwise, it is hard to argue that his career would have fared any better had he stayed.

Yak40 said...

Great article indeed.

Powell's speech was very provocative, deliberately I suspect, but even then the PC cowardice was beginning to stir. If you read it today he wasn't too far off in general, and to think he was fussing about a mere 50,000 or so !

Madasafish said...

I remember Enoch's speech. It has to be read in context of the Conservative Party campaigning in Smethwick at the time.

There was a slogan "If you want a nigger for your neighbour,vote Labour" which was on at least one placard I saw then. That was the background... and Enoch's speech was deliberately written to appeal to those sentiments - or so it seemed at the time. (I am not saying Enoch was a party to the placard or it was offical conservative policy.)

Those were the days when landlord/ladies advertised:- Rooms To let: No Irish or Blacks...

So Enoch's speech at the time and in that context could only be seen as a calculating attempt to appeal to local racial prejudices. (Whether it was or not is a different matter).

Anonymous said...

Great post - as has already been said.

But my favourite 'wrong call' is where we really got it wrong post-war. If Churchill had appointed the less emoliant but pro-City Oliver Lyttleton to the Treasury in 1951, he might have supported the Treasury faction behind the ROBOT plan to allow Sterling to float. That could have driven inflation out of the system in the 50s, instead of waiting until the 80s, and given us the same sort of prosperous 60s and 70s as the rest of Western Europe. It would have meant taking on the unions three decades earlier, cutting public expenditure, so scuttling out of empire earlier and - nice twist this - with no money for the big housing construction, Macmillan would never have made his reputation to be at the top table by 1955.

Yak40 said...

I believe (but it was a long time ago) that the Smethwick stuff was for the 64 or 66 elections, a good while before Powell's epic !

Whatever happened to Andrew Faulds anyway ?

Anonymous said...

Agreed, an excellent and entertaining post.
One more suggestion. While not strictly a politician, Arthur Scargill's decision to call a national coal strike in early spring, when massive coal reserves had been built up, helped destroy the power of the unions and set Labour on the long road to Tony Blair.
Instead, Arthur bides his time, appealing for calm from the wildcat strikers on the coalfields. The Tories relax their guard and the coal stocks diminish. In October 1985, Scargill calls, and wins, a snap national strike ballot. As Britain freezes in the dark, and strike support remains firm in the wake of the ballot, a reluctant Mrs Thatcher allows Peter Walker to cut a deal on pit closures.
Humiliated, Mrs Thatcher limps on office for a couple more years, a prisoner of Walker and the wets. However, Scargill's triumph has strengthened the hard left's position within Labour. An anti-militant speech by Neil Kinnock is laughed and slow-handclapped off the platform stage at the party conference and the party is plunged again into inter-necine warfare. The way is open for the SDP/Lib Alliance, a close third in 1983, to recapture its pre-Falklands 40+% poll ratings. An ambitious young chap called Blair cross the floor to join them...

Bob Piper said...

Yak40 ... Faulds retired in 1997 and died three years later.

As has been said, Paul, a great post. I would probably have included fairly near the top Wilson's caving in to the Protestant workers' strike over power sharing arrangements in 1974. It took over 20 years of bloodshed before Blair got them back to the same thing with the Good Friday Agreement. Of course, hindsight is 20:20 vision and Wilson had to make decisions based on military advice at the time.

Anonymous said...

I heard Powell speak in 1968 on the subject of inflation ('printing money') rather than immigration. It was hard to avoid the growing suspicion that he was mad. His inflammatory 'Like the Roman, I see the Tiber foaming with much blood' speech effectively kicked immigration off the political agenda for two generations. The speech was deliberately provocative, with references to 'grinning piccaninnies' and crap through old ladies' letterboxes, and it divided the political class into the powerless reactionary right and the centre-left who don't want to deal with the problem (or even recognise that one exists). As Powell himself might have said, Si monumentum requiris circumspice

eeore said...

I think we might be living through another political suicide, Gordon Brown and the Mc.... no it is a name that may not be mentioned in political circles.

Anonymous said...
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