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Started by Tangent on Jan 4, 2014 9:13:01 PM
Prime Ministers in historical perspective

A thread for discussing PMs, or topics concerning those PMs, which posters find of interest.

I hope we will stay away from the 'usual suspects' - the titans who have frequently been discussed on these boards - and find interesting common themes to link up different subjects.

Tangent - 04 Jan 2014 21:19:21 (#1 of 394)

For starters, why not Ramsey Mac - saint or sinner?

While MacDonald did not create Labour, he, more than anyone else, helped to ensure it became a mass social democratic party than a sort of semi-detached fringe faction on the edges of the Liberals. His principled stand against World War I cost him his leadership of Labour and, ultimately, his parliamentary seat. Not only did he steer Labour into government, but he managed to build, in a quiet way, an effective reputation as a peacemaker. In the Imperial field, he nudged Britain away from a policy of repression in India to the beginning of proper negotiations, and the preparation of self-government. But all this is obliterated by the memory of 1931 and his parting of the ways with official Labour. Is this fair?

AJCook - 04 Jan 2014 21:55:53 (#2 of 394)

"Is this fair?"

It's never fair but it is only natural for a reputation to be made or broken by how that person behaves in the most important political events of their career.

Ramsey will always be the traitor.

Pentecost - 04 Jan 2014 22:06:42 (#3 of 394)

I've always liked Clem Attlee.

Hankinshaw - 04 Jan 2014 22:07:32 (#4 of 394)

He was brilliant in season two of The Walking Dead.

Pentecost - 04 Jan 2014 22:10:28 (#5 of 394)

Well, there you go!

Tangent - 04 Jan 2014 23:14:51 (#6 of 394)

Interestingly, when the crucial Cabinet took place on Sunday 23rd August, Ramsey Mac did secure a narrow majority of the Cabinet in favour of the unemployment benefit cuts (including Herbert Morrison and William Wedgwood Benn). But there was no way the PLP would carry through the policy united, and the TUC were steadfastly opposed. What MacDonald essentially forgot that Labour, as it emerged, was fundamentally a party of the trade unions before anything else. He had become crucially disengaged from them.

Tangent - 04 Jan 2014 23:16:28 (#7 of 394)

Herbert Morrison very nearly joined the National Government, but MacDonald dissuaded him on the basis that Labour would need younger, able and realistic ministers to recover. (You would never know this from reading his own memoirs, though.)

Tangent - 04 Jan 2014 23:31:11 (#8 of 394)

I've always liked Clem Attlee.

I have tended to think that, while Attlee had his strengths, current historical fashion overrates him. He led a great government; but was good, rather than great, himself, unlike some of his ministers.

Pentecost - 04 Jan 2014 23:43:50 (#9 of 394)

I liked him because I met him. Came to our primary school speech day thingie. His wife was a snob, though.

Met Wilson in the off-licence one time. So you compare first impressions, and Attlee was streets ahead of Wilson when measured in terms of who was a gentleman rather than a smart-arsed weasel.

No weasel, Attlee, and if he's only good rather than great then it doesn't matter to me because that's good enough; none of the current crop could have it said of them that they are not weasels.

Pentecost - 04 Jan 2014 23:45:29 (#10 of 394)

And I'll point out this to you, huey; that appearing not great while leading a great government is something nobody has done again to this day. Nobody.

xDiggy - 04 Jan 2014 23:51:56 (#11 of 394)

Has any leader entered a coalition as junior partner and not suffered a reputational collapse?

Tangent - 05 Jan 2014 00:00:11 (#12 of 394)

His wife was a snob, though.

She retained her personal Conservative allegiance even while her husband was Labour leader.

But, as far as successors go, you have to take into account the changing characteristics of leadership. Attlee, like most PMs before him except for a few relative rarities like Peel, Gladstone or LG, was a primus inter pares PM. He was more the chairman of the Board who kept the machine ticking over than a dominant leader (although he was weaker than average as a dominant parliamentarian). What changed after him, and especially during the 1960s, was the presidentialisation of the position and the need for PMs to act, not just as chair, reconciler, and frontman, but to drive forward policy personally to a much greater extent, and to stamp their personal image on the job. That has meant that PMs would need a different mix of qualities to be exceptionally good nowadays.

SlasherBindman - 05 Jan 2014 00:04:21 (#13 of 394)

Alec Douglas Home. PM for 363 days. Was he simply a stopgap between Macmillan and Wilson or were there distinctive and lasting achievements?

Pentecost - 05 Jan 2014 00:07:56 (#14 of 394)

Well, yes, Tangent, but this thread is about historical context and perspective, isn't it? And the chairman of the board approach at the time was the right way to handle it and, as you said earlier, it was a great government. Great. That it wouldn't work that way now isn't the issue because it worked that way then. No?

Tangent - 05 Jan 2014 00:09:52 (#15 of 394)

Has any leader entered a coalition as junior partner and not suffered a reputational collapse?

That's an interesting one. Lord North's formation of a Coalition with Fox, and the Coalition's formation of a storming party to overrule George III, ended in political defeat, estrangement from the King, and the effective end of his political career. Earl Grey let Lord Landsdowne lead the Whigs into coalition with the liberal Canningites against the ultra-Tories, and Landsdowne did not come out of that with his reputation enhanced. The Marquess of Aberdeen was able to use royal fondness for the Peelites to form a government despite being the junior partner, but that government would collapse in ignominy on Roebuck's motion in 1855. And that's before the C20 examples of LG and MacDonald (and Samuel) are considered, leaving aside the 1940 Coalition as a special case. But, insofar as the Liberal Unionists were a genuine coalition arrangement, Hartington and Chamberlain - the great Joe, that is - enhanced their standing, which was not negligible to begin with.

Tangent - 05 Jan 2014 00:27:43 (#16 of 394)

but this thread is about historical context and perspective, isn't it? And the chairman of the board approach at the time was the right way to handle it and, as you said earlier, it was a great government. Great. That it wouldn't work that way now isn't the issue because it worked that way then. No?

I don't think we are in disagreement on the contextual point. What I meant was that a modern PM who was not great, but led a great government, would probably display a different range of skills to Attlee.

But what I would argue is that Attlee's skills, while valuable to the government, gave that government all it needed. The palette of problems facing that government were probably the most far-reaching and challenging any government has faced in peacetime. In addition, almost all of the major ministers on which the success of the government depended - Bevin, Bevan, Cripps, Dalton and Morrison - had little faith in him, and were continually prepared to intrigue against his leadership. In those circumstances, Attlee's administrative tautness and his non-confrontational attitude towards his big beasts had some great advantages. But there were drawbacks - firstly, the lack of a strategic grip and direction for the Labour movement after the first wave of manifesto promises were delivered by 1948. Secondly, the personal animosity at the top of Labour grew, until it produced the toxic mix which overflowed with Bevan's resignation on teeth and spectacles, undermining the party for years afterwards.

Tangent - 05 Jan 2014 00:32:06 (#17 of 394)

Was he simply a stopgap between Macmillan and Wilson or were there distinctive and lasting achievements?

RPM was a lasting landmark, although Ted Heath had to force it on Sir Alec by threatening resignation, and the votes it lost among small retailers arguably had the decisive impact in 1964.

SlasherBindman - 05 Jan 2014 01:14:02 (#18 of 394)

Why did Douglas Home rather than Butler become PM?

Post deleted by user
Tangent - 05 Jan 2014 01:56:51 (#20 of 394)

That's an good tale. (I meant to start a 50th anniversary thread, but I forgot about it.)

Macmillan had no liking for Butler: this probably originated in the inter-war period, where Macmillan was one of the most prominent anti-Munich voices, lost the Whip for a period, and almost got permanently estranged from the party, while Butler was the most prominent of the younger supporters of Munich and Chamberlain all the way up until 1940. Macmillan had to outmanoeuvre Butler to secure the post-Suez succession to Eden, and delighted throughout his Premiership in giving him difficult or humiliating jobs which needed all Butler's ability and ingenuity to cope with, while denying him the post of Foreign Secretary which he really wanted.

Of the other likely alternatives when Macmillan was faced with resignation, Lord Hailsham was the darling of the grassroots at the time, but seen as a loose cannon by his elders. Maudling was untested, and Macleod's period as Colonial Secretary and feud with the Lord Salisbury of the day had cut off his support from the Right. The Earl of Home had, crucially, secured the support of the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, Sir John Morrison (later Lord Margadale), and was in Macmillan's good graces (even though he had been Neville Chamberlain's PPS during his Premiership). Crucially, during the 1963 Conference in Blackpool, where all the potential candidates displayed their oratorical wares, he performed the best relative to expectations.

An important factor was that Tony Benn's battle to disclaim his peerage had just achieved success, and there was a window available for existing peers to abandon their titles which put Hailsham and Home in the frame. Macmillan settled on Home as his candidate, and asked Lord Dilhorne (the LC, and formerly Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller) and the Chief Whip, Martin Redmayne, to sound out the candidates.

Anti-Home advocates within the party have alleged, ever since then, that Dilhorne, in particular, lied or misled in this task, either reporting people incorrectly or coaching them to back Home (Thatcher, who was sounded out as a junior minister, gives a specimen of how this have occurred in her memoirs - she was originally unenthusiastically in favour of Butler, but was told by Redmayne that Home was a distinct possibility, and supported him). On the basis of these soundings, Macmillan formally recommended Home to the Queen from his hospital bed as he resigned.

The anger from the liberal section of the Conservative party was intense. The Earl of Home (now Sir Alec) only promised to try to form a government. Younger liberal Conservatives, including Butler's proteges like Powell and Macleod, attempted to convince Butler to refuse to serve, which would certainly have brought the government down, as Hailsham and a whole host of ministers would have followed his lead. But he decided to serve, and only Macleod and Powell among Cabinet ministers refused to serve.

The resulting fallout, culminating in Macleod's devastating "Magic Circle" article in the Spec the following year, marked the end of upper-class dominance and values among the Conservative party leadership.

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