Andrew Gimson's portraits of our 54 prime ministers are lucid, pithy and perceptive
Lesser-known premiers: Viscount Goderich (1827-28); Andrew Bonar Law (1922-23) and Alec Douglas-Home (1963-64) (BONAR LAW: LOC. DOUGLAS-HOME: ANEFO/NATIONAALARCHIEF)
I am ashamed at how woefully ignorant I was before reading this book about all but the handful of our prime ministers who had attracted my attention. The two Pitts, because I was born in the village where they lived; Disraeli, because Robert Blake’s biography reignited my generation’s enthusiasm for that unlikely Tory hero; Gladstone, to hear the other side of the story; and Salisbury, who appealed to me most of all, thanks to Andrew Roberts’s biography. In addition, there have been 14 prime ministers during my lifetime. But I tacitly assumed that there was little to learn from most of the others and devoted my reading to political ideas from Burke and Paine through Marx and Hayek to De Jouvenel and Powell.
Gimson’s superb portraits of all 54 prime ministers — from Walpole to May — shows how mistaken I was to neglect them.
He explains that when inveigled by Oliver Letwin into working for the Conservative Research Department, he immersed himself in political history “to avoid suffering from a kind of self-inflicted short-sightedness”. Would that more of the political class were so far-sighted! But because biographies tend to be long, he “wished there was a short book where I could begin by acquainting myself with the whole sweep of British political history over the last three centuries, told in the form of brief lives”. This book fills that gap and does so magnificently. It could hardly be done better.
His pen portraits of our 54 prime ministers are lucid, pithy and perceptive. Somehow, in a few pages each, he manages to take us through their background, character, career, the issues that dominated their ministry and their legacy — if any. The whole is a galloping good read but also the sort of book that sparks ideas about how our political system works, the role of prime ministers and how it has changed.
As Gimson points out, and his portraits demonstrate, no two prime ministers are alike. Moreover, “very few are complete duds . . . for the Commons can detect a dud as soon as he or she begins to speak . . . the three greatest failures — Lords Bute, Aberdeen and Rosebery — failed because they had never sat in the Commons.”
The two PMs under whom I served — Thatcher and Major — could not have been more different.
Thatcher’s abrasive, dominant self-assurance upset some and made others assume she was reckless. Major’s more ameliorative, collegiate style was more a function of his fragile parliamentary majority than personal weakness.
In fact, Margaret Thatcher was, as Gimson recognises, extremely cautious. Out of caution she subjected all ideas, including those that appealed to her, to rigorous debate. But her willingness to argue was often mistaken for intolerance of other people’s views.
Once, the No Turning Back group — her most committed backbench supporters — invited her to discuss a pamphlet on education policy we had produced. She tore into it. Counter-arguments were similarly eviscerated. After she left, those who had never experienced this before concluded that it was true that our heroine just would not listen to perfectly reasonable arguments. Having worked with her on policy papers and speeches before becoming an MP I reassured them: we had won the argument, now she would go back to the officials who had briefed her and hurl our arguments back at them. Sure enough, the policies in that pamphlet soon became government policy.
In cabinet committees, she would often open by spelling out her own views and asking for comments. On one occasion, after every single minister round the table had dissented, she exclaimed, “Am I the only person who thinks we should do this?” To which the chancellor (who, by convention, does not disagree with the prime minister in front of colleagues) replied: “Yes, prime minister, but your views are not without influence.”
By contrast, John Major would go around the Cabinet table soliciting views, not revealing his own until his summing up. To prepare our negotiating position over the draft Maastricht Treaty he asked each cabinet minister to rate the issues affecting their own department as A — desirable, B — undesirable but tolerable and C — unacceptable. After the tour de table, I pointed out that no minister had rated any of their items as A — positively desirable: so, should we not be negotiating to bring about a breakdown in the talks? John Major, who had a strong sense of honour, replied simply: “That would be dishonourable.” The option of openly rejecting the treaty, as Cameron later did, seemed out of the question. So we negotiated a treaty knowing it had only negative implications for the UK.
Mrs Thatcher’s powerful convictions and clear agenda have imprinted on many of us a template of what a prime minister should be. This is not just among Conservatives. Many on the Left yearn for their own left-wing Thatcher. Some look back to Attlee as a proto-socialist Thatcher, albeit more taciturn, driving through his programme of nationalisation and establishing a centralised welfare state.
However, Gimson shows how rare it is for prime ministers to have a clear agenda or even a clear philosophy. Churchill did in the context of war, as did both Pitts. Attlee, he notes, simply applied to peacetime problems the top-down, command-and-control approach which had been essential and necessary in war. Gladstone was the nearest peacetime equivalent to Thatcher. But the norm is for prime ministers to want to be someone rather than to do something: to manage events as they arise rather than set the agenda.
We are certainly wrong to be surprised, even if we are disappointed, that her successors have been in that managerial, reactive mould rather than conviction politicians.
One reason so few past prime ministers have had a clear agenda is that most of them — both Whigs and Tories — saw their job as preserving and conserving things, not changing them. When grievances emerged, they had to be redressed. Threats from abroad had to be countered. But the unspoken assumption was that Britain was blessed with an invaluable constitution which guaranteed our freedoms, internal peace and stability. It should be altered only reluctantly to accommodate new forces — the rise of the industrial towns, the growth of the middle class, the emergence of a respectable working class, the aspirations of women, and recurrent unrest in Ireland — which might otherwise threaten it.
Consequently, a frequent pattern among the first 30 or so prime ministers is resistance to change followed by accommodation to change — often giving prime ministers difficult challenges in party management.
It is only during the last half-century that the idea took root — at least among the political class — that “change” should be an end in itself. Ask any aspiring politician what they want to do and they will parrot words about “changing things for the better”. Even evolved institutions which work perfectly satisfactorily must be changed to conform to an abstract formula. It is now almost unheard of for anyone to say their aim is to preserve what is good against unnecessary or malign change. (The only exception being in local politics where even self-proclaimed radical politicians whip up nimbyist opposition to all planning proposals.)
In this climate, political leaders feel obliged to have an agenda for change. But politicians who have no clear convictions of their own are likely to find themselves the agents of other people’s views. As Heinrich Heine warned: “Mark this well ye men of action: you are nothing but the unwitting agents of the men of thought who, often in quiet self-effacement, mark out most exactly all your doings in advance.”
Even Churchill, normally open to new ideas, found himself the captive of the conventional wisdom when as Chancellor of the Exchequer he made return to the Gold Standard his goal. Once opposition to appeasement hardened into a doctrine, Eden — famous above all for rejecting appeasement to Hitler — felt he had to resist Nasser by force. But he then succumbed to American financial pressure because he was a prisoner of the doctrine of fixed exchange rates. As Gimson is one of the few to recognise, he could simply have let the exchange rate take the strain and burn the Americans’ fingers.
The most remarkable modern example of a leader without an agenda of his own is Blair. He won an almost unparalleled majority yet had no idea what to do with it. In his first parliament he largely implemented the pledges he inherited from John Smith: devolution plus dismantling the elements of an internal market in health and education which Major had put in place. Then he spent the next two parliaments reinstating them under new labels. Tony Blair — Grand Old Duke of York. Effectively he had become the “unwitting agent” of the dominant paradigm of that period which was Thatcherite neo-liberalism.
Gimson rightly emphasises how important the personality of each of our prime ministers is. He quotes Canning’s famous words in defence of Pitt: “Away with the cant of ‘measures not men’, the idle supposition that it is the harness and not the horses that draw the chariot along.” But even more powerful than either measures or men is the force of ideas. Leaders strong enough to question the prevailing wisdom of the age decide the direction of the chariot. Others merely drive it with varying degrees of skill along roads determined by the “men of thought”. As Daniel Jones said, “If we don’t have ideas, ideas have us.”