As second guessing the professional media is the raison d'être of this, and come to think of it, most blogs, we provide a counter list to the Top 50 British Prime Ministers proposed by the Times. My criteria? High marks for successful leadership in a conflict which threatened the survival of Britain. Pushing through a major piece of constitutional reform - Mr Blair's efforts were not reform but a vanity inspired bit vandalism - is also a big plus. Generally keeping in mind that people create wealth, not governments, also earns high marks in calculating the following list. The goal here is more to show those who most influenced the course of subsequent history, rather than those whom the author personally admirers.
10. Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990) - Saving Britain from socialist driven collapse was, of course, her signature achievement. Playing Robin to Reagan's Batman in the last days of the Cold War, enough alone to earn her that statue in the Parliamentary lobby. The Falkland War was significant not for its military success, it could easily have become a disaster, but its symbolic importance. A free nation had not tamely submitted to a brazen act of aggression. Having left the NHS in place was her greatest failure, yet like Canadian Medicare, the reverence for this socialistic relic made it politically untouchable. Her biggest mistake was in cutting defense spending in real terms through out her eleven years in office. In early 1982 she had approved of major cuts to the navy, including the sale of the two aircraft carriers, HMS Invincible and HMS Hermes. Had the Argentinian invasion come a year or so later, when the cuts had taken effect, the Falkland campaign could not have been fought.
9. David Lloyd George (1916-1922) - One of my least liked PMs, yet he would no doubt have made a fascinating dinner guest. I can imagine him and Dizzy trying to one-up the other. Who would be more charismatic, the smooth talking Welshman or the elegant lapsed Jew? The headline accomplishment for Lloyd George was having held the country together during the last two years of the First World War. A politician of lesser talent could have let the Empire and even the country fall to bits. He is today better remember for emasculating the House of Lords, and being - along with his predecessor H.H. Asquith - a major architect of the British welfare state. I rank him so high not, I repeat, out of personal admiration but recognition of his enormous influence on subsequent British history. Even if most of that influence was bad.
8. Herbert Henry Asquith (1908-1916) - If David Lloyd George was Britain's Trudeau, then its Pearson was H.H. Asquith. Contrasting sharply with the Welshman's easy eloquence and keen sense of high drama, Asquith's understated style, and careful plotting, gave ballast and direction to one of the most influential ministries in British history. Along with Lloyd George, and a very young Winston Churchill, he helped lay the foundations of the British welfare state. He was broken by the First World War, driven from power just shy of the half-way mark of Europe's first serious attempt at mass suicide.
7. Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey (1830-1834) - Napoleon had a brandy named after him, Wellington a dinner course and the shepherd of the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, a tea. The simplest thing to say about Earl Grey is that he fought for all the right causes, in about as intelligent a manner as possible, for most of the right reasons, for pretty much the whole of his career. He was, instinctively a Burkean, indeed he even helped manage the Warren Hastings trial, and wherever possible tried to introduce change gradually, allowing people time to adjust to new circumstances. He pushed for dramatic change only when necessary. In describing his landmark Reform Act of 1832, which dramatically increased the number of people who could vote, he said that any further expansion of the electoral roles would be done "according to the increased intelligence of the people, and the necessities of the times." He was no starry eyed utopian, but a practical statesman of shrewd vision.
6. William Pitt, the Younger (1783-1801, 1804-1806) - His career beggars belief. This Minerva-like political genius became Prime Minister just before his twenty-fifth birthday, and this was after he had been Chancellor of the Exchequer at twenty-three. His meteoric ascent was due to good fortune, most of the other plausible candidates (Shelburne, Rockingham) had died unexpectedly, were discredited (North) or viscerally despised by George III (Charles Fox). After the third request, Pitt accepted George III's offer to form a government. Despite losing a succession of parliamentary votes, including clear no confidence measures, Pitt hung onto power with the King's support. Eventually the opposition collapsed and Pitt's power was only seriously threatened again by the temporary madness of the King. The French Revolution ended Pitt's plans for parliamentary reform, as well as his elaborate Sinking Fund for paying off the national debt. It solidified his hold on power and the opposition shrunk to a handful of members. He died with Napoleon dominating much of Europe, yet he had laid the foundations for eventual British victory nearly a decade later.
5. William Pitt, the Elder (1766-68) - The year was 1759, the annus mirabilis. Pitt was not Prime Minister then, yet from his perch as Secretary of State for the Southern Department (a kind of super-ministry that combined elements of defense, home, colonial and foreign affairs) he dominated the Duke of Newcastle's ministry. In his youth he had opposed Sir Robert Walpole's refusal to intervene in continental affairs, and had an uneasy relationship with George III, particularly when the monarch tried to force an early end to the Seven Years War. It was in that war that Pitt engineered a military turnaround unprecedented in the country's history. From the verge of defeat, with only Prussia as an ally, Pitt snatched key French colonies in North America, the Caribbean and India, while laying the groundwork for later successful attacks on Cuba and a defense of Portugal from Franco-Spanish invasion in 1762. It was from this point on that Britain assumed its place as a global power, which it would retain until the Suez Crisis almost exactly two centuries later. His actual time as Prime Minister was short and disastrous. A defender of the interests of the American colonists, he was too ill to resist the meddling efforts of his ministers, especially Charles Townshend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and his government succeeded only in further alienating America. For the remainder of his political career he continued to fight for American liberty, only to be dismissed as a spent force at home, and as a hypocrite in America for having allowed Townshend to impose a new series of taxes without American consent. His last days were, like so much of his life, something out of Grand Opera. Delivering an impassioned speech in the House of Lords, urging reconciliation with America, pleading once again for the liberties of the subject, he collapsed. "If we must fall, let us fall like men" were suppose to have been his last words before being carried home. He could not have chosen them better.
4. Sir Robert Peel (1834-5, 1841-1846) - Like his hero Pitt the Younger, Peel was a prodigy, being made Chief Secretary for Ireland (effectively running the Irish government) while still in his twenties. At 34 he was made Home Secretary and launched a series of sweeping legal reforms, simplifying and consolidating the criminal law and reducing the number of capital crimes. In 1828 he established the world's first professional police force for Metropolitan London. An opponent of Catholic Emancipation - the granting of civil liberties of Catholics - he gave way out of fear of widespread unrest in Ireland. He made another vain effort to prevent the passage of the Great Reform Act. It's immediate effect was to make the old aristocratic Tory party obsolete. Issuing the first campaign manifesto in history, named after his family seat at Tamworth, he remodelled the Tories party so as to appeal to the new middle class electors. It is from this point that the modern Conservative Party marks its origins. His first ministry was unsuccessful, but in returning to power in 1841 he began gradually striping away Britain's long standing mercantilist policies, abolishing or reducing tariffs on some 1200 items. The last major hurdle to free trade, the necessity of which Peel had been convinced of for decades, was a series of tariffs on the importation of grain, know as the Corn Laws. The wealth of much of his agrarian political base was tied to high tariffs on grain imports, and they rejected his proposals. In 1846 Peel, with the support of the Whig opposition, passed a phased abolition of the Corn Laws. Shortly thereafter his own backbenchers combined with the Whigs to vote him out of office. In his last speech as Prime Minister he declared:
I shall leave a name execrated by every monopolist...but it may be...sometimes remembered with expressions of goodwill in the abodes of those whose lot it is to labour and to earn their daily bread in the sweat of their brow, when they shall recruit their exhausted strength with abundant and untaxed food, the sweeter because it is no longer leavened by a sense of injustice.
3. William Ewart Gladstone (1868-74, 1880-85, 1886 and 1892-4) - A keen student of mathematics and classics, he retained all his life a mastery of numbers and details. He once spent an hour, from memory, explaining to his cabinet colleagues the details of a budget he had just finished drafting. Beginning his career as the most reactionary of Tories, he at one point argued that the slaves members of his family owned were quite happy, he entered parliament in 1832. It was the beginning of a three decade long odyssey which saw Gladstone move from High Torydom to becoming the paragon of Victorian classical liberalism. His political Damascus moment, an appropriate metaphor given Gladstone's piety, was his appointment to Sir Robert Peel's second cabinet. Peel gradually talked Gladstone out of his reactionary and paternalistic attitudes, including one bizarre proposal to nationalized the new railroad industry. He followed Peel into opposition, and after the great man's death became one of the leaders of the Peelite faction in the Commons. By 1859 he brought the Peelites, and what remained of the Whig party under Lord Palmerston, to help form the new Liberal Party. It was in his role as Chancellor of Exchequer that he continued to reduce taxes and government spending wherever possible. He was obsessed with abolishing the income tax, introduce by the Younger Pitt to fight Napoleon, and re-introudced by Peel to help finance the transition to free trade. A naval arms race with France prevented Gladstone from achieving his goal. He did succeed, after much opposition, in abolishing taxes on paper, a long-standing policy intended on limiting newspaper distribution among the working class. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter hailed Gladstone's time as Chancellor:
Gladstonian finance was the finance of the system of 'natural liberty,' laissez-faire, and free trade...the most important thing was to remove fiscal obstructions to private activity. And for this, in turn, it was necessary to keep public expenditure low. Retrenchment was the victorious slogan of the day...it means the reduction of the functions of the state to a minimum...retrenchment means rationalization of the remaining functions of the state, which among other things implies as small a military establishment as possible.
Upon becoming Prime Minister in 1868 he fought to separate - disestablish - church and state in Ireland, despite his strong Anglican convictions. He pushed for an expansion of the franchise (the right to vote). The Army, the Civil Service and the Poor Laws were all modernized. His view of the emerging socialist movement was blunt:
...they are not your friends, but they are your enemies in fact, though not in intention, who teach you to look to the Legislature for the radical removal of the evils that afflict human life...It is the individual mind and conscience, it is the individual character, on which mainly human happiness or misery depends.
One could elicit Gladstone's sympathies for the sick and lame, for the rent seekers, of all classes, he had only implacable scorn. He was not consistently laissez-faire, having ordered the nationalization of the telegraph network, and the transformation of the Post Office into a kind of savings bank, yet he did more than any other Victorian figure to liberate British economic, political and social life. His few remaining statist instincts were mostly driven by a desire to help the thrifty and industrious poor who, through little fault of their own, fell on hard times or on a scanty retirement. He opposed socialism and collectivism, though perhaps not as heartily as he could have, thanks to his altruistic instincts. He stunned much of Europe by his regular support for trade unions and even large scale strikes, such as those of the London dock-workers in 1889. So strong was the legend of Gladstone that even Asquith and Lloyd George, fearing the rise of the socialist Labour party, invoked his memory on several occasions.
2. Sir Robert Walpole (1721-1742) - Fat, machiavellian, pragmatic and corrupt enough to have grown very rich from his two decades at the head of national affairs. His art collection was so famous that, after his death, it was bought by Catherine the Great of Russia, forming the nucleus of the Hermitage's collection of paintings. He is one of the least inspiring figures, as well as the first, to have occupied No 10 Downing Street. His enormous importance consists in having, essentially, created the office of Prime Minister. Unlike the office of President of the United States, for most of British history there was no statutory definition of the powers of the office of Prime Minister, or even the procedure for appointment. The term Prime Minister first appears in legal documents, a treaty, in 1878. In Walpole's day it was actually a term of abuse, suggesting that the minister in questions was beholden to the King and not Parliament. The office of Prime Minister was not so much created by Walpole as congealed by him over his time in power, establishing precedent with actions rather than through any expounded theory of government. With the emergence of Parliamentary supremacy after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, there became a practical constitutional issue of who wielded day to day executive power. If the King did, then what was the role of Parliament? If Parliament was to wield executive powers, who was to be invested with those powers? For practical purposes a nation cannot be run by some 650 MPs, someone has to be in charge, and after the authoritarian bungling of the Stuarts, it was less and less likely to be the monarch.
Walpole essentially bridged the constitutional gap, taking the existing office of First Lord of the Treasury, effectively the government financial controller, and leveraged its power over his colleagues in the Cabinet. By happy coincidence the reigning monarch, George I, spoke little English and stopped chairing cabinet meetings. Walpole simply replaced the King at the head of the table. While he disliked cabinet meetings, preferring to deal with ministers directly (making them easier to bully), his pre-eminence over this cabinet colleagues came from his delicate balancing of monarchical and parliamentary will. By holding the confidence of both Parliament and the King, he could effectively rule the country. This remarkable power was due to Walpole's personality, there being little legal or constitutional underpinning for his efforts. Yet it established a template, which, over the next century evolved into something resembling a modern prime ministership, including collective cabinet responsibility, non-confidence motions and the right choose ministers, regardless of the wishes of the monarch. It was the office of Prime Minister that allowed for the gradual shifting of executive powers from Crown to Parliament. It was a vital constitutional bridge, however improvised, that allowed Britain to become a modern liberal democracy, with little blood being spilled. Matched with his constitution making, though he rejected suggestions he was being innovative, was Walpole's focus on low taxation and peace. His power, he understood, came from the support of landowning backbenchers, who paid much of the country's taxes. Any increase in expenditure, sooner or later, would result in a tax increase, which would threaten Walpole's political position. The expense of war, he understood, would ruin him, as it ultimately did. He strove for peace among the Great Powers, because in peace lay his position. Taxation were generally abhorrent to Walpole, not out of deep personal conviction - he had few - but an old fashioned sense of political self-preservation. Born a few years after Walpole's political accession, Adam Smith noted the effects of the first Prime Minister's policies on the British economy, it boomed for twenty years after the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. All the while the French economy, and those of the other principal European powers, stagnated. More by accident than design, Walpole had demonstrated that less government leads to more prosperity.
1. Sir Winston Churchill (1940-1945, 1951-1955) - He was right about so many things, when so much of the political establishment was wrong. He was right to try to stop the spread of Bolshevism, including his dispatching of British and Imperial troops to aid the Whites, and assassins to kill Lenin. He was right about returning Britain to the gold standard after the inflationary growth of the First World War, though he set the price of gold in sterling at far above the market rate, forcing the Bank of England to hike interests rates to economy crippling heights. He saw the dangers of socialism, yet as one of the welfare state's godfathers he proved an inarticulate of critic of the Labour Party's post-1945 plans. During a notorious radio broadcast he said that Labour would need a "sort of Gestapo" to run the country. He saw the anarchy that would descend on much of the world when the British Empire collapsed, yet could offer only sentimental nostalgia for keeping it together. His brilliant mind saw opportunities where others saw the impossible. Sometimes the bungling of lesser men destroyed the opportunities, and nearly Churchill himself, as with the Gallipoli fiasco. He was brave to the point of reckless, having to be convinced not to join the early waves at Normandy by George VI. His faults mixed easily with his virtues. Yet at that precise moment in the history of civilization, when totalitarianism was at its maximum strength, when his ill-prepared country stood alone, he knew to act and how. In the flux of inter-war international politics, he saw the constancy of the threat. A handful of his distinguished predecessors had saved their country from its mortal enemies. In the Spring of 1940, he saved more than his country, he saved the very idea of liberty his nation had bequeath to the world.