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Prime Ministers and History


John Simkin
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Max Hastings wrote an interesting article in today's Guardian about British prime ministers and how they are remembered in the history books:

Tony Blair is working overtime to reform education, commission a new generation of nuclear power stations, bring stable government to Northern Ireland, impose a new vision on Europe, create stability in Iraq, all within the span of two or three years before he quits the scene. It is amazing that such an intelligent man can still suppose, first, that his objectives are attainable and, second, that he will receive any credit for them from the electorate.

It is the fate of almost all governments to be remembered not for what they achieved, but for their failures and embarrassments. Of postwar prime ministers, only two can claim substantial and widely acknowledged legacies. Clement Attlee created the welfare state, and Margaret Thatcher restored the credibility of British capitalism.

Of the remainder, Eden is known only for Suez, Macmillan for Profumo and "you've never had it so good". Wilson left behind his "lavender list", the notorious resignation honours, together with memories of incessant economic crises. Historians of the Heath era focus upon his eviction by the striking miners, rather than his success in taking Britain into Europe. Callaghan presided over the winter of discontent; Major over six years of ridicule, culminating in a painful dispute about whether he wore his underpants inside or outside his shirt.

If all this is flippant and unjust, it represents a reasonably accurate summary of the public perception of modern British political history. If educated adults were asked what substantial acts of governance might be attributed to each of the above national leaders, most would struggle to provide answers.

About two years ago, talking to one of Blair's close associates, I expressed surprise that the prime minister wanted to carry on through a third term, given the fantastic strain of the job, and the unlikelihood of success in his cherished objectives. My friend said: "Oh, but Tony doesn't see it like that at all. He is convinced that if he serves another term, the British people will understand what he has done for them."

In order to serve as a frontline minister, to sustain oneself at the top of the greasy pole, it is essential to be that sort of optimist, whose kind are to be glimpsed nightly at the tables of our great casinos, or buying lottery tickets.

Blair will be recognised by history as a consummate politician, orator, vote-winner. It seems unlikely, however, that he will be judged to have used the power he gained to much lasting effect. To a remarkable degree, he has presided over Britain rather than ruled it.

He has articulated objectives that reasonable people can share: enterprise, compassion, better health and schooling, good deeds in Africa, economic stability. But neither he nor most of his cabinet have discovered how to get things done. They have failed to master the art of translating aspiration into achievement through effective administration.

The backgrounds of most ministers are a serious handicap in office. Few, before reaching Whitehall, had ever run anything or acquired executive skills. Their talents and experience are founded upon rhetoric and political manoeuvre. They govern by hoping that if one declares a commitment to something often enough, it will come to pass.

In a just world, Blair might gain credit for the fact that the British people have been pretty content for most of his time in office. His government has done little to make them angry, at least until the pensions issue began to get serious. He has presided over a period of prosperity, which a decade or two hence we shall look back on as fortunate.

But it is unlikely that Mrs Smith in Coventry will say in her old age: "Gosh, how grateful we were to nice Tony Blair for all that!" People are seldom, if ever, grateful to governments. The Scots and Welsh are unlikely to erect statues of Blair for giving them devolution, nor the Irish to regard him as the architect of their future and still somewhat speculative tranquillity.

By now, you will have perceived where this line of thought is heading. Galling though it must be to him, Blair's legacy will be Iraq. It is plain that, whatever the outcome, it will not be a happy one. Whether or no the coalition forces swiftly depart, the saga will drag on for years, poisoning western relations with the Islamic world. It is unlikely that Iraq can be sustained as a unitary state. Much more bloodshed is to come.

No amount of massage can alter the fact that this was a war of choice, not necessity. Blair, intoxicated by the sensation of standing shoulder to shoulder with the most powerful man on earth in doing a good deed, committed Britain on a false prospectus and in the caravan of gross incompetents in Washington. The consequences threaten to be interminable, not least in this country's increased vulnerability to terrorism.

It is hard to imagine any political historian, never mind the British public, attributing our involvement in this shambles to anything beyond the misjudgment of one man, the prime minister. Posterity will be no more impressed by Blair's professed honourable intentions than by those of Anthony Eden in Egypt, half a century ago.

The memory of Blair's government will be dominated by this disastrous foreign war, rather than, for instance, by his maintenance of a successful economy at home and brilliant speeches to successive Labour party conferences.

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Max Hastings wrote an interesting article in today's Guardian about British prime ministers and how they are remembered in the history books:

Tony Blair is working overtime to reform education, commission a new generation of nuclear power stations, bring stable government to Northern Ireland, impose a new vision on Europe, create stability in Iraq, all within the span of two or three years before he quits the scene. It is amazing that such an intelligent man can still suppose, first, that his objectives are attainable and, second, that he will receive any credit for them from the electorate.

It is the fate of almost all governments to be remembered not for what they achieved, but for their failures and embarrassments. Of postwar prime ministers, only two can claim substantial and widely acknowledged legacies. Clement Attlee created the welfare state, and Margaret Thatcher restored the credibility of British capitalism.

Of the remainder, Eden is known only for Suez, Macmillan for Profumo and "you've never had it so good". Wilson left behind his "lavender list", the notorious resignation honours, together with memories of incessant economic crises. Historians of the Heath era focus upon his eviction by the striking miners, rather than his success in taking Britain into Europe. Callaghan presided over the winter of discontent; Major over six years of ridicule, culminating in a painful dispute about whether he wore his underpants inside or outside his shirt.

If all this is flippant and unjust, it represents a reasonably accurate summary of the public perception of modern British political history. If educated adults were asked what substantial acts of governance might be attributed to each of the above national leaders, most would struggle to provide answers.

About two years ago, talking to one of Blair's close associates, I expressed surprise that the prime minister wanted to carry on through a third term, given the fantastic strain of the job, and the unlikelihood of success in his cherished objectives. My friend said: "Oh, but Tony doesn't see it like that at all. He is convinced that if he serves another term, the British people will understand what he has done for them."

In order to serve as a frontline minister, to sustain oneself at the top of the greasy pole, it is essential to be that sort of optimist, whose kind are to be glimpsed nightly at the tables of our great casinos, or buying lottery tickets.

Blair will be recognised by history as a consummate politician, orator, vote-winner. It seems unlikely, however, that he will be judged to have used the power he gained to much lasting effect. To a remarkable degree, he has presided over Britain rather than ruled it.

He has articulated objectives that reasonable people can share: enterprise, compassion, better health and schooling, good deeds in Africa, economic stability. But neither he nor most of his cabinet have discovered how to get things done. They have failed to master the art of translating aspiration into achievement through effective administration.

The backgrounds of most ministers are a serious handicap in office. Few, before reaching Whitehall, had ever run anything or acquired executive skills. Their talents and experience are founded upon rhetoric and political manoeuvre. They govern by hoping that if one declares a commitment to something often enough, it will come to pass.

In a just world, Blair might gain credit for the fact that the British people have been pretty content for most of his time in office. His government has done little to make them angry, at least until the pensions issue began to get serious. He has presided over a period of prosperity, which a decade or two hence we shall look back on as fortunate.

But it is unlikely that Mrs Smith in Coventry will say in her old age: "Gosh, how grateful we were to nice Tony Blair for all that!" People are seldom, if ever, grateful to governments. The Scots and Welsh are unlikely to erect statues of Blair for giving them devolution, nor the Irish to regard him as the architect of their future and still somewhat speculative tranquillity.

By now, you will have perceived where this line of thought is heading. Galling though it must be to him, Blair's legacy will be Iraq. It is plain that, whatever the outcome, it will not be a happy one. Whether or no the coalition forces swiftly depart, the saga will drag on for years, poisoning western relations with the Islamic world. It is unlikely that Iraq can be sustained as a unitary state. Much more bloodshed is to come.

No amount of massage can alter the fact that this was a war of choice, not necessity. Blair, intoxicated by the sensation of standing shoulder to shoulder with the most powerful man on earth in doing a good deed, committed Britain on a false prospectus and in the caravan of gross incompetents in Washington. The consequences threaten to be interminable, not least in this country's increased vulnerability to terrorism.

It is hard to imagine any political historian, never mind the British public, attributing our involvement in this shambles to anything beyond the misjudgment of one man, the prime minister. Posterity will be no more impressed by Blair's professed honourable intentions than by those of Anthony Eden in Egypt, half a century ago.

The memory of Blair's government will be dominated by this disastrous foreign war, rather than, for instance, by his maintenance of a successful economy at home and brilliant speeches to successive Labour party conferences.

I think that this article has highlighted some important dimensions which are sometimes downplayed or misunderstood by the electorate; firstly, a prime minister is the leader of the country (now, is that England, Britain, Great Britain or the United Kingdom, with or without devolved assemblies?) and secondly, a prime minister is usually the leader and public face of the political party. However, the present situation would seem to indicate that the 'incumbent' has moved away from collaborative decision-making within the cabinet, and has established (quite successfully) a US presidential-mode of leadership. But let's not forget that US presidents have their cluster of advisors also, (our cabinet?)

What is surprising is that the cabinet, fellow MPs and the media have let him get away with it, perhaps he has taken away the 'greasy pole of promotion'. He is doing what he wants - wether this is for self-aggrandishment with an eye firmly fixed on some pseudo hall of fame, or perhaps there is a psychological need which has changed his perception of 'the people'.

Generally, I have little time for politicians, prime ministers, MPs or local councillors or the unquestioning 'devotees' who wear down their shoe leather on behalf of these attention seekers. The sheer duplicity that some individuals have to exercise was illustrated by the demise of MP David Trimple - a genuine man trying to move with the times, who could see that NI would only make progress through consultation and the possibility of compromise, but it was the minority of 'devotees' who strangled his ideas - and he backed off. Is that what politicians do? Tony Blair will be remembered; his chancellor has raised the concept of indirect taxation 'of the people' in unimagined novel ways and he has allowed his zeal to appear as the saviour of education and health (the only two issues not dictated by the EU) to raise him, not above, but beyond the realism 'of the people'. His presuming a global role may seem to indicate an image of 'sincerity and concern' but it is unlikely that his puny efforts will ever match the directness and candour of the likes of Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela and more recently, bad-boy-makes-good, Bill Clinton.

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