A dictatoror first among equals?

The Twenty British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century

February 2, 2007

  • Salisbury. By Eric Midwinter. 146pp. ISBN 1 904950 54 X
  • Balfour. By E. H. H. Green. 150pp. ISBN 1 904950 55 8
  • Campbell-Bannerman. By Roy Hattersley. 155pp. ISBN 1 904950 56 6
  • Asquith. By Stephen Bates. 163pp. ISBN 1 904950 57 4
  • Lloyd George. By Hugh Purcell. 160pp. ISBN 1 904950 58 2
  • Bonar Law. By Andrew Taylor. 164pp. ISBN 1 904950 59 0
  • Baldwin. By Anne Perkins. 163pp. ISBN 1 904950 60 4
  • Ramsay MacDonald. By Kevin Morgan. 151pp. ISBN 1 904950 61 2
  • Chamberlain. By Graham Macklin. 166pp. ISBN 1 904950 62 0
  • Churchill. By Chris Wrigley. 156pp. ISBN 1 904950 63 9
  • Attlee. By David Howell. 165pp. ISBN 1 904950 64 7
  • Eden. By Peter Wilby. 150pp. ISBN 1 904950 65 5
  • Macmillan. By Francis Beckett. 147pp. ISBN 1 904950 66 3
  • Douglas-Home. By David Dutton. 146pp. ISBN 1 904950 67 1
  • Wilson. By Paul Routledge. 165pp. ISBN 1 904950 68 X
  • Heath. By Denis MacShane. 164pp. ISBN 1 904950 69 8
  • Callaghan. By Harry Conroy. 160pp. ISBN 1 904950 70 1
  • Thatcher. By Francis Beckett. 158pp. ISBN 1 904950 71 X
  • Major. By Robert Taylor. 145pp. ISBN 1 904950 72 8
  • Blair. By Mick Temple. 148pp. ISBN 1 904950 73 6

Fears about prime ministerial power are not new, Vernon Bogdanor learns from lives of 20th-century leaders

A damned bore," Lord Melbourne cried, upon being informed, in 1834, that he was to be called to the palace to form a government; he was, he said, "in many minds what he should do". But his secretary, "a vulgar, familiar, impudent fellow", to quote Greville, from whom the story has come down to us, persuaded him to accept. "Why damn it, such a position never was occupied by any Greek or Roman, and if it only lasts two months, it is well worth while to have been Prime Minister of England." (sic) Few of Melbourne's 20th-century successors would have shared his doubts. Most of them sought, with greater or less determination, to reach what Disraeli called the top of the greasy pole. Today, every new MP has a prime minister's baton in his knapsack.

Whether they enjoyed the job once they got there is another matter entirely. Lord Rosebery, Prime Minister from 1894 to 1895, declared that there were "two supreme pleasures in life. One is ideal, the other is real.

The ideal is when a man receives the Seals of Office from his Sovereign.

The real is when he hands them back." Harold Macmillan said power was like a Dead Sea fruit: "When you achieve it, there's nothing there." John Major once asked Roy Jenkins whether he ever regretted not having been prime minister. Jenkins is said to have retorted by asking Major whether he regretted having been prime minister. Major's response is not recorded.

Perhaps few 20th-century prime ministers have really enjoyed the job.

These 20 short volumes will prove of value not only to aspiring applicants to the premiership, but also to sixthformers or undergraduates seeking to "mug up" on 20th-century history rapidly. A few, notably the late Euan Green's account of Arthur James Balfour, Andrew Taylor on Andrew Bonar Law, Kevin Morgan on James Ramsay MacDonald and, especially, David Howell's life of Clement Attlee, are works of real distinction, based as they are on close study of the archives. Many of the others are humdrum, lacking the acerbity of A. J. P. Taylor's review articles and the elegance of Roy Jenkins's essays. One or two are little more than summaries of longer, more distinguished works written by others. Of the 29 quotations in Eric Midwinter's account of Salisbury, 17 are from Andrew Roberts's 1999 biography; while of the 60 quotations in Roy Hattersley's book on Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, 41 are from John Wilson's biography, published in 1973.

Moreover, there are too many minor but irritating factual mistakes scattered throughout these volumes.

The serious student is more likely to be excited by the classics - Ensor, Mowat and Taylor - than by some of these pedestrian volumes. Nevertheless, the collection as a whole suggests a number of questions about the office of prime minister and how it evolved in the 20th century. At the beginning of the century, the premiership was held by the Marquess of Salisbury, the last peer ever to hold the office. He was also the last prime minister never to fight a contested election, having been returned unopposed for the pocket borough of Stamford from 1853 to 1868, when he succeeded to the peerage.

Officially, however, Lord Salisbury's title was not Prime Minister but First Lord of the Treasury, for prime minister remained a mere courtesy title until 1905. It had first been used in an official document in 1878 when the preamble to the Treaty of Berlin stated that the Earl of Beaconsfield, formerly Benjamin Disraeli, had attended as "First Lord of the Treasury and Prime Minister of Her Britannic Majesty". The title was not used in any other official communication until, in December 1905, it received royal recognition when a warrant of Edward VII addressed to the Earl Marshal declared that the prime minister had precedence after the Archbishop of York. The first man to be officially appointed prime minister was Campbell-Bannerman in 1905. The office did not achieve statutory recognition until the Ministers of the Crown Act of 1937.

What factors brought the 20 prime ministers of the 20th century to Downing Street? Some seem to have been preordained - Neville Chamberlain as successor to Stanley Baldwin and Anthony Eden as successor to Winston Churchill. Neither was successful, despite or, perhaps, because both were compelled to wait in the wings for many years - chilling news, no doubt, for Gordon Brown. Eden, Macmillan unkindly claimed, had been trained to win the Derby in 1938. Unfortunately, he was not let out of the starting stalls until 1955.

Many 19th-century prime ministers could have made their mark in fields other than politics. Gladstone could have been a classical or theological scholar, Disraeli a novelist, Rosebery a biographer, while Lord Derby spent his leisure translating the Iliad into blank verse, as well as French and German poetry and other classical works. Their 20th-century successors have been less remarkable, though Balfour might have made it as a minor philosopher, Asquith as a barrister, and Macmillan as a moderately successful publisher.

Thirteen of the 20 went to university, either Oxford or Cambridge.

Campbell-Bannerman attended Glasgow University, but skipped finals to go to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a Gentleman Commoner. When David Lloyd George entered No 10 in 1916, he told his loyal supporter Christopher Addison that, with the exception of Disraeli, he was the first prime minister "who had not passed through the Staff College of the old Universities". He had forgotten Wellington. Since Lloyd George, six others have missed out on the "Staff College". They make an incongruous sextet - Bonar Law, Ramsay MacDonald, Chamberlain, Churchill, James Callaghan and, finally, Major, who, as assiduous journalists discovered, left his grammar school at the age of 16 with just three O levels. "Never," Major commented to those who inquired about his education, "has so much been written about so little."

Campbell-Bannerman, Bonar Law and Baldwin were the first prime ministers to present themselves to the electorate not as heroic figures but as ordinary men writ large. "I am just one of yourselves," declared Baldwin, in what was perhaps an accurate estimation of his abilities, "who has been called to special work for the country at this time. I never sought office."

Attlee and Major might have said the same.

The heroic figures, Lloyd George and Churchill, came to power unexpectedly in wartime. Churchill, whom Roy Jenkins regarded as the greatest prime minister ever, would almost certainly not have got there under normal peacetime conditions. In 1938, just two years before becoming Prime Minister, he declared: "My opportunity has passed. I am going to leave public life." After nearly 40 years as an MP, he had a following of just three - Brendan Bracken, the newspaper proprietor; his son-in-law, Duncan Sandys; and an eccentric publisher, Harold Macmillan. Churchill's political fortunes were transformed by the very personal intervention of Adolf Hitler. Nothing less could have brought him to the premiership.

Luck is more important than merit or ability. One prime minister, Balfour in 1902, reached No 10 through the good fortune of having been the nephew of his predecessor, Lord (Robert) Salisbury - hence the phrase "Bob's your uncle". Others benefited from a rapid turn of fortune's wheel. One year before he became Prime Minister in 1923, no one would have given much for Baldwin's chances. Indeed, had his predecessor, Bonar Law, not been stricken with throat cancer at a time when the former Conservative leader, Austen Chamberlain, was temporarily alienated from the party, the "age of Baldwin" would never have come about. Attlee would not have become Labour's leader had he not been one of just two Cabinet ministers to survive Labour's electoral wipeout in 1931, while Margaret Thatcher would probably not have succeeded Edward Heath as Tory leader had Heath resigned immediately after losing the October 1974 general election. It was after they became prime minister, not before, that commentators, always keen to be on the winning side, were to discover that they had extraordinary virtues, virtues that had, somehow, hitherto been overlooked.

How powerful is the prime minister? The claim that the prime minister has become over-powerful seems to have originated during the administration of Sir Robert Peel from 1841 to 1846. By 1889, when John Morley wrote in his biography of Walpole a chapter on the Cabinet, a chapter that was in fact the work of Gladstone, he could declare: "The flexibility of the cabinet system allows the prime minister to take upon himself a power not inferior to that of a dictator, provided always that the House of Commons will stand by him." And, in 1963, shortly before the end of Macmillan's premiership, Richard Crossman, writing a new introduction to Bagehot, declared: "The post war epoch has seen the final transformation of cabinet government into prime ministerial government." Fears about prime ministerial power are nothing new.

In his book Fifty Years of Parliament , published in 1926, Asquith, Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916, stated: "There is not, and cannot be, from the nature of the case, any authoritative definition of the precise relation of the prime minister to his colleagues... The office of prime minister is what its holder chooses and is able to make of it." These volumes cast a great deal of light on what the holders have been able to make of it and, in particular, on the issue of whether we are moving from a system of cabinet government to one of prime ministerial or even presidential government. Of course, the biographical format tends to exaggerate the role of the prime minister. Indeed, some of these volumes give the impression that prime ministers ran their governments all by themselves, without needing to secure the consent of their colleagues or advice from their officials. Yet the success of some - Asquith or Attlee, for example - consisted less in what they themselves achieved than in their skill at harnessing the energies of a formidable and potentially fractious team of ministers towards common goals.

These 20 biographies make it clear that the thesis of increasing prime ministerial power is far too simplistic to account for the complex facts of political life. The power of the prime minister depends, and always has depended, upon vicissitudes, electoral and personal, and no clear evolutionary trend is discernible. Those who believe that there has been a progressive accretion of prime ministerial power overrate the power of a modern prime minister and underrate that of prime ministers of the past.

Balfour, not normally thought of as a "strong" Prime Minister, peremptorily sacked three free trade ministers in 1903; Campbell-Bannerman did not bother to tell his Cabinet about staff conversations with France in 1907, conversations that, in effect, laid the basis for a mutual security pact.

Churchill committed Britain to the defence of Soviet Russia in 1941 without consulting his Cabinet, while Attlee excluded his Cabinet from major decisions on atomic weapons policy. Macmillan sacked seven Cabinet ministers - one third of his Cabinet - in "the night of the long knives" in 1962.

Tony Blair may envy these precedents. He has not been able to emulate them.

He has not even been able to persuade his Chancellor to look kindly towards the euro. Most prime ministers have felt the limitations of their position more than its strengths. Even Lloyd George, perhaps the strongest prime minister of the century, complained that "The President of the United States is a dictator for four years. He can do practically as he pleases.

If I were in that position I could accomplish many things which are now impossible, or which can only be accomplished by endless manoeuvring."

The power of a modern prime minister depends, not only, as Morley suggests, on whether the House of Commons will stand by him, but also on his standing with the electorate. If Thatcher and Blair seemed powerful, it is because we the voters made them so by giving them, under our peculiar electoral system, landslide majorities. Perhaps our resentment at the power of the prime minister is merely the rage of Caliban looking at himself in the mirror. Even so, Thatcher was eventually pushed out by her colleagues, while Blair has been forced to accelerate his retirement. Of 20th-century prime ministers, only Salisbury, Baldwin and Harold Wilson left office voluntarily. Campbell-Bannerman, Bonar Law, Eden and Macmillan resigned on grounds of ill-health. The rest sought, in Churchill's graphic words, to stay in the pub till closing time, only to be chucked out by the voters or by their colleagues. Caliban has proved a fickle master, but few prime ministers have been able to escape his verdict.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at Oxford University and professor of law at Gresham College.

The Twenty British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century

Publisher - Haus Publishing
Price - £9.99 each, £175.00 the set

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