Why the PM will never be president

The Prime Minister
October 6, 2000

Is Tony Blair really more powerful than Clement Attlee? Peter Hennessy's latest book seems to think so but Vernon Bogdanor disagrees.

There are two supreme pleasures in life, declared Lord Rosebery, prime minister from 1894 to 1895, one ideal and the other real. The ideal is when a man receives the seals of office from his sovereign. The real pleasure comes when he hands them back. Rosebery was a singularly unhappy and ineffective occupant of No 10; nevertheless many other prime ministers must have echoed his thoughts. Indeed, even activist prime ministers such as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have been more aware of the limitations of the office than of its opportunities. "Power," Harold Macmillan once remarked. "It's like a Dead Sea fruit."

Peter Hennessy, however, believes that the postwar world has seen a transformation in the power of the premiership. He makes the bold claim that "the half-century and more between Attlee and Blair represents a transformation in terms of the ecology of the job and some of its instruments that is exceeded only by those mutations which took place over the two and a quarter centuries that divide Walpole's accession to the First Lordship and Attlee's". There has, in his view, been a massive increase in the power of the prime minister, at the expense, primarily, of the cabinet; this Hennessy, as a liberal constitutionalist, deplores. The Prime Minister is largely devoted to substantiating Hennessy's thesis by providing "an audit of performance" of every postwar premier.

The book is full of the characteristic Hennessy virtues: wide historical knowledge, an unerring eye for the striking quotation, and, above all, an encyclopedic command of the files at the Public Record Office. Indeed, Hennessy puts most historians to shame in the assiduity with which he trawls for material. But the book also contains some of the Hennessy defects: over-reliance on anecdote and "insider knowledge" as a substitute for argument, over-emphasis on current and perhaps ephemeral trends, and a failure to define and analyse key terms. Above all, the book lacks a comparative aspect. The Prime Minister , like so many works on this subject, is insular, giving the impression that Britain is the sole exemplar of the cabinet system. There is no analysis of the working of the cabinet in other Commonwealth countries, such as Australia, Canada or New Zealand, countries in which, as Patrick Weller showed in 1985 in his book First Among Equals , the prime minister enjoys far greater institutional resources than are available to his British counterpart. In Canada, for example, the prime minister's department comprises not 14 people, the size of the prime minister's policy unit in Britain, but about 1,500 people, although, admittedly, this includes many who in Britain would be working for the Cabinet Office.

Nevertheless, what must impress the detached observer is how little institutional support the British prime minister has, not how much. Since the time of Macmillan, many prime ministers have contemplated creating a department of their own, but none has actually done so. The Cabinet Office, until 1997 at least, was a department for coordinating government, rather than a policy-making one. All this may have been altered by the Blair administration. Blair has certainly reinforced the policy unit at No 10, and it is arguable that the strengthening of the Cabinet Office through the creation of various task forces and policy units is turning it into a prime minister's department in all but name. Indeed, the title "cabinet secretary" has always been a misnomer, for, since the time of Sir Maurice Hankey, the first incumbent, the role has been not only to service the cabinet, but also to advise the prime minister. "You may certainly say that we have a permanent secretary to the prime minister," I was once told by a senior official, "so long as you continue to refer to him by his proper title, which is secretary of the cabinet!" Hennessy, however, in suggesting that these changes have led to presidentialism, overdramatises and exaggerates their significance. Indeed, as Hennessy admits, the fact that Blair, despite his landslide majority, found himself compelled to strengthen No 10 and the Cabinet Office, shows not how strong but how weak the British prime minister is compared to the chief executives of other democracies - not only those operating in presidential systems such as those of the United States and France, but those in parliamentary systems such as Germany, where Chancellor Schroder has a far more powerful office and policy apparatus than is available to Blair.

Moreover, with the notable exception of constitutional reform, the Blair administration has been remarkable more for its caution than for determined prime ministerial leadership. Indeed, it offers a striking contrast in this regard with two other postwar premiers who won landslide majorities, Attlee and Thatcher, both of whom used their majorities to make radical and far-reaching changes in British life.

The Blair project, if there is one, remains on the drawing board and has yet to reach the statute book. Neither does what we have learnt about the working of the Blair cabinet convey the impression that the prime minister enjoys the power of a US president. It is doubtful if ministers such as Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and Robin Cook would agree with the proposition that cabinet ministers are mere advisers to the prime minister, appointed solely to do the premier's bidding.

Complaints about the excessive power of the premiership have been voiced about every active prime minister since the time of Peel. There is some danger, which even so acute a historian as Hennessy does not wholly avoid, of failing to give sufficient weight to historical precedents. Gladstone in 1886 produced a fully fledged Home Rule Bill without bothering to consult a single cabinet colleague. Lloyd George and Neville Chamberlain consulted their cabinets on major policy departures fitfully, if at all; while in 1903, A. J. Balfour, not commonly regarded as a "strong" prime minister, brutally and without a moment's compunction, sacked the free-trade ministers in his government. Determined prime ministers have always been able to evade supposed checks on their power.

The truth is that the prime minister's power waxes and wanes through a combination of personality, circumstance and vicissitude, such that it is hardly possible to make meaningful generalisations about it. One may say of prime ministers what Roy Jenkins has said of chancellors, in a passage quoted by Hennessy: "The attempt to draw patterns... is a tenuous and even sterile exercise. It is like trying to break a cipher from an imperfect text. Perhaps happily, chancellors do not come as diestampings."

One key factor, of course, that influences the prime minister's power is his standing with the voters. It is the electorate that under our voting system gave Blair, with 43 per cent of the vote, such potentially great power in 1997, just as it had given Attlee great power in 1945 and Thatcher the same in 1983 and 1987. That system, however, denied the plenitude of power to John Major in 1992, even though, by gaining nearly 8 per cent more of the vote than Labour, he achieved the greatest victory over Labour of any Tory leader since the war, with the exception of Thatcher in her two landslides of 1983 and 1987.

From one point of view, however, the British premiership has become a much diminished thing in the postwar years. In 1945, Britain still saw herself as one of the great powers. The British empire and Commonwealth covered a quarter of the globe. The Imperial Parliament, as Westminster was still sometimes called, ruled India and much of Africa. The Attlee administration had to decide on such grave matters as Indian independence, the Berlin airlift and the creation of Nato. Compared with those, most of Blair's problems seem pretty small beer. Today, the international environment is equally important - and of course many domestic policies such as the petrol crisis have an international dimension - yet Britain is far less able to influence that environment than she was 50 years ago. Neville Chamberlain at Munich in 1938 was probably the last peacetime prime minister whose decisions would determine the future of the world. "However skilful the British prime minister may be," Hennessy quotes William Rees-Mogg as saying, "he cannot have the world impact of a Pitt, a Disraeli, a Gladstone, a Lloyd George or a Churchill." Moreover, prime ministers such as Lloyd George and Churchill could lead because they knew that the people would follow. In an age when deference has all but disappeared, their successors enjoy no such assurance. Indeed Blair finds himself blocked in every direction: by recalcitrants in Northern Ireland, protesters at the oil refineries, and even the House of Lords, which has just stopped him from repealing Section 28.

The modern prime minister seems to enjoy less power and less scope to exercise it than his predecessors who occupied 10 Downing Street when Britain ruled the largest empire the world has ever seen and both peers and people knew their place. From this point of view, perhaps, Hennessy has written a wonderfully entertaining book about a non-problem.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government, University of Oxford.

The Prime Minister: The Office and its Holders since 1945

Author - Peter Hennessy
ISBN - 0 713 99340 5
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 658

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