The future of the left since 1884

The worst and the best British prime ministers

Britain has had 53 prime ministers. Who were the worst, and the best of these? For me, the criterion is not whether I agree or disagree with their policies. If it were, I should certainly include Margaret Thatcher and David...


Britain has had 53 prime ministers. Who were the worst, and the best of these? For me, the criterion is not whether I agree or disagree with their policies. If it were, I should certainly include Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron among the worst. What I am seeking is to determine how effective they were in carrying out these policies. It is difficult to compare wartime and peacetime leaders, that is why I am leaving out of consideration two great war leaders – the Elder Pitt (Lord Chatham) and Winston Churchill. Both of them were also peacetime premiers – Pitt was a complete disaster, and Churchill was undistinguished.

In the spring of 1955, when Churchill was preparing to stand down as prime minister, he asked the Tory elder statesman, Lord Swinton, if he thought that RA Butler would do better as prime minister than Anthony Eden. Swinton replied that “anybody would make a better prime minister than Anthony, who would make the worst prime minister since Lord North”. “But”, he continued, “you can’t think that now – it’s too late. You announced him as your successor more than ten years ago”. Churchill replied “I think it was a great mistake.”

If Churchill and Swinton had serious doubts about Eden, they were not shared by the general public. Eden was at that stage probably the most popular politician in the UK. In the general election of May 1955, which he immediately called, he had no difficultly in tripling the narrow majority which Churchill had won in 1951, giving the Tories a lead of 58 seats over all the other parties.

Within a month or two of the election, however, loud voices of discontent were being heard, particularly within Eden’s own party and there was widespread speculation that he was not up to the job. Despite these misgivings, Eden might well have survived and served a full term. But he was destroyed by an obsession. This was that the Egyptian leader, Colonel Nasser, was becoming as great a menace as Hitler and Mussolini had been in the 1930s, and must on no account be appeased. When Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956, Eden immediately concluded that Nasser should be overthrown, if necessarily by military means. When the US government insisted that the dispute must be settled by diplomacy rather than force, Eden (without telling most of his cabinet) commenced secret military talks with the French government to plan an invasion of Egypt, in connivance with Israel, which privately agreed to attack the Suez Canal zone, enabling the allied powers to claim that they were intervening to separate the opposing forces and protecting the safety of the canal.

This madcap scheme proved to be the biggest fiasco in British foreign policy – at least since the Munich agreement. It marked the end of British pretensions to be a world power, and provided ‘cover’ for the Soviets’ bloody invasion of Hungary. It also signalled the end of Eden’s political career. A few weeks later he resigned as prime minister on health grounds, and it is likely that Eden’s judgment had been fatally undermined by the dangerous cocktail of drugs which he had been taking throughout the months that the crisis had continued. Eden retired to the House of Lords, as the Earl of Avon, and lived for another 20 years, always denying what the whole world had long known, that there had been connivance with Israel.

As for Frederick, Lord North, he was prime minister for 12 years between 1770 and 1782. During this period the 13 British colonies in North America were lost, and North has carried the blame for this ever since. This is not totally unjust; he was at least partly responsible for imposing the tea duties, and later the so-called “intolerable Acts”, which led to the American War of Independence. He played no part in the conduct of the war – this was handed over to the war minister, Lord George Germain, a distinguished soldier. The idea was to replicate the arrangements during the seven years’ war, when the Elder Pitt had directed the victorious war strategy, while the prime minister, the Duke of Newcastle, had governed the country and raised the revenue to pay for the prodigious military and naval efforts.

For the first two years, the war went relatively well for the British, but after the defeat and surrender of General Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga, in 1777, and the entry of France, Spain and the Netherlands on the American side, North lost heart, and spent the next four-five years begging George III to let him resign. George, who had gone through six prime ministers in the preceding decade, and only felt comfortable with North, refused to contemplate this, or to heed his premier’s advice to seek a compromise peace. It was only after the surrender of Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown in 1781, that North, who had long thought the war lost, girded up the courage to insist on giving up the seals of office, to George’s great dudgeon. It was the obstinacy of the king rather than the prime minister which had led to the prolongation of the war and the final humiliation.

For three years before becoming prime minister, North had been a resourceful chancellor of the exchequer, and his first four years in office – in peacetime – was considered a success. He was a charming man, highly popular with his colleagues, and renowned for his sense of humour, which was often self-deprecating. Numerous amusing anecdotes circulated about him, notably an occasion when his neighbour at an official banquet pointed across the table, and asked “who is that dreadful looking woman over there? “That, Sir, is my wife”, he replied. “No, I didn’t mean her“, said his embarrassed neighbour, “I meant the monster sitting next to her”. “That, Sir, is my daughter”, North responded.

Now to the best prime minister, where the field is rather more crowded, but I am again restricting myself to two – Sir Robert Peel and Clement Attlee. Peel was prime minister for a few months in 1834-5, and then for almost five years in 1841-6, has a multitude of claims to be considered as Britain’s greatest prime minister. At the age of 24, he entered the cabinet as chief secretary for Ireland, a post he held for six years during which he transformed the administration of the country. He was home secretary for 10 years under lord Liverpool and the Duke of Wellington, for three years of which he doubled up as leader of the commons.

During this time, he had two very notable achievements to his name – the complete re-codification of English criminal law, some dating as far back as the 13th century, and the creation of the Metropolitan police force. In 1835 he launched the Conservative party, with a forward-looking programme, which went a long way to restore the appeal of the Tories who were deeply discredited by their resistance to the great reform bill of 1834. His great government of 1841-46 was notable for the re-introduction of income tax for the first time in peace and for opening up the economy to a large measure of free trade.

But the strongest grounds for nominating Peel rests on none of these achievements, but on the two occasions when he defied his own party to carry measures which he believed to be in the national interest. The first was in 1827, when the issue of Catholic emancipation came to a head. In a by-election in County Clare, Daniel O’Connell, who as a Catholic was ineligible for election, put himself up and was elected with a large majority. The prime minister, the Duke of Wellington, feared that there would be civil war in Ireland if O’Connell was not permitted to take his seat, and persuaded King George IV that legislation to permit Catholics to be elected should be immediately introduced.

Peel fully agreed, and it would have been his responsibility as home secretary to carry the Bill through the Commons. But since his days as Irish Secretary, he had been seen – rightly or wrongly – as the spokesmen for the Irish Protestants who had dominated the Irish administration, and was dubbed ‘Orange Peel’ by O’Connell’s supporters. He therefore determined to resign as home secretary, leaving his successor to introduce the Bill. Wellington, however, who had come to rely very heavily on Peel, who was the lynchpin of his government, declared that he was not strong enough to proceed without Peel. Very reluctantly, Peel agreed to stay on, and succeeded in carrying the measure, which was opposed by a very large number of Tories, and was only passed with the aid of the opposition Whigs. Peel immediately became a hate figure in his own party, and was disowned by his Oxford University constituency, which was dominated by Anglican priests. Humiliated, he was forced to seek a ‘rotten borough’ to get back into the House, and permanently alienated a bitter group of right-wing Tories.

Something similar – but more dramatic and more long-lasting in its effects, occurred in the 1840s, when the Irish famine led to irresistible pressure to repeal the Corn Laws so that grain from North America could be imported to feed the stricken population. Against bitter resistance from his own party, two-thirds of whose MPs, led by Disraeli, voted against the measure, Peel emerged triumphant thanks to opposition support. This time, the Tories were even more hostile, voting the government out of office on the first available occasion, and driving Peel and his supporters out of the party.

This condemned it to a lengthy spell in the wilderness – it being another 28 years before a majority Conservative government, under Disraeli was elected. Peel died in a riding accident in 1850, still at the height of his powers. Ironically, the founder of the Conservative party can also claim to be a pioneer of the Liberals, his followers, the Peelites, joining with the Whigs in 1857 to form the Liberal party, with Peel’s lieutenant, Gladstone, subsequently becoming leader.

My other nominee for best premier was a distinguished Fabian. Clem Attlee was chosen leader of the Labour party virtually by accident. He was a relatively junior member of the 1929-31 Labour government, but the 1931 election reduced the party to a mere 52 seats, wiping out the cabinet except for the veteran George Lansbury, who became the leader of the opposition. Attlee was one of only two or three junior ministers to survive, and he became deputy leader, substituting very frequently for Lansbury, who was old and frail. Lansbury, a pacifist who was opposed to the party’s policy of collective security, resigned as leader on the eve of the 1935 general election, and Attlee was chosen as acting leader, for the general election campaign with the general expectation that he would be replaced afterwards by one of the more senior figures who were expected to regain their seats.

The most senior of these were Herbert Morrison, Arthur Greenwood and Hugh Dalton, the first two of whom were promptly nominated. Attlee led Morrison, who had been seen as the favourite, narrowly in the first round, but collected almost all of Greenwood’s votes and easily won the second round by 88 votes to 48. It was believed that Attlee won because virtually all of the MPs who had served with him in the 1931 Parliament voted for him, while the trade union MPs who had supported Greenwood in the first round were mostly advised by their union leaders to vote against Morrison. Another reason for Morrison’s defeat was that he had won a striking victory in the London County Council elections in 1934, and refused to give an undertaking to stand down as leader of the LCC. The MPs wanted a full-time leader, not someone who was moonlighting from his other job.

Attlee was a highly efficient but largely anonymous deputy to Churchill in the wartime coalition. The contrast between them is best described by Ellen Wilkinson, later Labour’s minister for education, who wrote:

When Mr Attlee is presiding over the Cabinet in the absence of the prime minister the cabinet meets on time, goes systematically through its agenda, makes the necessary decisions, and goes home after three or four hours’ work. When Mr Churchill presides we never reach the agenda and we decide nothing. But we go home to bed at midnight, conscious of having been present at an historic occasion.

Attlee’s considerable contribution to the war effort was largely behind the scenes, and he was overshadowed in the 1945 election campaign by other Labour stars in the coalition, including Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps and Hugh Dalton. Flushed with the almost totally unexpected landslide victory, he easily saw off a rather pathetic attempt by Morrison to reopen the leadership question, and went on to serve as prime minister for over six years.

The case for choosing Attlee as the best prime minister rests almost entirely on the legislative achievements of the government he led during those six years. It created the welfare state, including the NHS, rebuilt the ruined economy, nationalised a series of industries, whose record was a great deal better than it has been credited with, gave freedom to India, and played a vital role in the creation of NATO. Attlee presided over the government with great authority, supported by two giant pillars, Ernest Bevin and Stafford Cripps. It was only after their departure and death in 1950-51 that he began to lose his grip, failing to promote Nye Bevan after his great achievements with the NHS, and badly mistiming the 1951 general election. He was not a perfect prime minister, nor was it a perfect government, but it compares very well with any other government of modern times.


Dick Leonard

Dick Leonard, a former Chairman of the Fabian Society, was PPS to Anthony Crosland in 1970-74.

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