These Tory Stories podcasts aim to act as counters to the universal Whig version of history, observing history and the world from the viewpoint of an 18th Century Tory. Their focus will be on the Industrial Revolution and the Tory achievements of 1660-1832. Tory Story V – Ranking the Greatest Prime Ministers My book “Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister – Lord Liverpool” makes the claim that Liverpool was the greatest of Britain’s Prime Ministers. In an earlier podcast, I promised to discuss that claim, and to place him among Britain’s other great Prime Ministers, producing a ranking at the end. I shall not attempt to discuss all 57 (as of this week) Prime Ministers, only the ones which have a reasonable claim to rank near the top. This has the advantage of not requiring me to make invidious distinctions between recent holders of that office, since I think observers of all political stripes would agree with me that the eight who have occupied the office in the last 33 years have been pretty undistinguished, with Lady Thatcher the last with any claim to greatness. I shall discuss the great and near-great in chronological order; this is both logical and leaves the more contentious entries towards the end. In total, there are 15 contenders for greatness, with some included for their reputation rather than their actual achievements. In deference to “Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister” I shall leave Liverpool until last. Walpole Sir Robert Walpole, first, is always said to have invented the office of prime minister. Actually, I could quibble – other statesmen, such as the Earls of Clarendon, Danby and Rochester, had performed prime ministerial functions from the Restoration. However, Walpole was operating with a weaker monarchy – indeed, one that for his first six years (George I) did not speak English -- and was its longest-serving occupant, with over 20 years in office. Walpole rose to power by dealing deftly with the financial and political blow-back from the South Sea Bubble’s collapse, imposing rough justice on the company’s management, side-lining several of his rivals who had been more closely involved in the South Sea’s scheming and through his friends at the Bank of England providing enough of a bailout that there was no long-term collapse in investor sentiment. Once this was done, then provided he kept Royal favour and kept the country at peace Walpole could stay in power indefinitely. He was an excellent man of business and prized the virtue of moderation, fashionable at that time in contrast to the “enthusiasm” of the previous century. Through his Sinking Fund and twenty years of peace, he stabilized the government debt, reducing annual interest payments by 27%. He established an alliance with France, already a non-traditional foreign policy, that proved surprisingly durable, although when war came in 1739, initially with Spain, he proved an ineffective war minister. On the debit side, with the help of George I and George II, he established Britain as an effective one-party state, with Tories barred from power altogether and dissident Whigs relegated to futile opposition. His social legislation also tended towards the repressive, as did his tax policy, and the 1723 “Black Act” introduced capital punishment for more than 50 working-class crimes. In Scotland and Ireland his corruption and repression were worse than in England, with the “Wood’s Halfpence” swindle a black spot. On the other hand, he used a light touch in regulating the American colonies and his overall Whiggery and tolerance of Dissent were much appreciated there. Overall, nicely self-described as “no saint, no Spartan, no reformer” Walpole left Britain richer and more stable than he found it, but also more corrupt and less open. Pelham Henry Pelham, Walpole’s successor but one, was the brains and financial acumen in his family, while his older brother Thomas, Duke of Newcastle managed the family’s extensive patronage and foreign policy. In many ways Pelham was an improved version of Walpole. He pursued the same policy of peace, economy and low taxes, but he was not personally corrupt. He was a less outgoing personality than Walpole, and not an especially good Parliamentary speaker, but like Walpole was a superb administrator and excellent with finance. Initially, Pelham was subordinate to the autocratic Carteret who once remarked of him: “He was only a chief clerk to Sir Robert Walpole, and why he should expect to be more under me, I can’t imagine; he did his drudgery and he shall do mine.” Pelham achieved full power in 1746, before which he was faced with the Young Pretender’s rebellion, which from Scotland reached Derby before it turned back. Pelham’s solution was to recall the King’s younger son the Duke of Cumberland and the British force from Flanders. Cumberland finally defeated the Pretender at Culloden in April 1746, but then undertook a policy of suppressing the Highland clans, over Pelham’s opposition. Pelham established the Whigs with a huge Commons majority at the 1747 election, a position repeated in that of 1754, just after his death. He also ended the War of the Austrian Succession, reduced public spending sharply, modernised the calendar and reduced the interest on the National Debt, with the help of the financier Sampson Gideon converting it in 1751 into the famous Consols, paying 3½% until 1757, 3% thereafter. Overall, Pelham was a quiet but very good Walpolean prime minister. Chatham William Pitt the Elder, first Earl of Chatham has one claim to prime ministerial greatness: he came up with the strategy that won the Seven Years War, added immense territory to the British Empire and made Britain for the first time the leading international power. No other prime minister, not his son, not Churchill, nor Liverpool can make such a claim. However, he was uninterested in domestic or economic policy, and in his later years dangerously encouraged the worst elements in the American colonies, justifying their disruption with radical and inflammatory rhetoric. His second prime ministerial term was cut short by illness but was very undistinguished; the Duke of Grafton, who took over from him, was a considerable improvement. Overall, he was a flawed genius, who deserves to rank above the many mediocrities but not right at the top. Pitt To nineteenth century observers, William Pitt the younger was the greatest prime minister. His supremacy continued to be acknowledged until the World War II generation. Only more recently have mild doubts arisen. Pitt’s term in office breaks naturally into two halves, with the outbreak of war in 1793 separating them. In the first half, he was a reforming prime minister who broke new ground in several important ways. He was the first prime minister to implement fully the ideas of “Economical Reform” propagated by the Whigs of the early 1780s. He eliminated many sinecures and, more important, set standards of public service selection and promotion by merit that were to become important during the difficult war years and thereafter. Pitt was also the first prime minister to implement Adam Smith’s principles of free trade and low, transparent taxation. Lower tariffs combined with a decline in smuggling to produce a substantial increase in public revenue. Contemporaries were also impressed by Pitt’s 1786 establishment of the Sinking Fund on a solider base than that of Walpole. Modern commentators scoff at this, but the Sinking Fund maintained Britain’s credit rating and its ability to raise money during the late 1790s, when national insolvency could easily have occurred. Among Pitt’s most important reforms were those in the public service, including the Army, the Ordnance and the Navy. Bills were paid on time, cash management techniques were implemented, and the Navy was brought up to a higher state of efficiency than ever before, essential during the first decade of war. Pitt is often thought to have been almost alone in the early years of his government, with only aristocratic and idle Whigs for support. However Granville Leveson-Gower, 2nd Earl Gower was a Tory voice of immense experience until 1794, having been in Cabinets on and off since 1757 and overseeing the development of Britain’s canal network in the 1760s. Then Charles Jenkinson joined in 1786 (reaching the Cabinet in 1791) and gradually the government became both more Tory and more efficient, William Grenville and the Tory Robert Dundas joining the Cabinet after 1790, and Portland, Spencer and Burke joining with conservative Whigs in 1794 as Gower retired. Pitt was not an effective war minister. His financial management was poor, attempting to raise too much of the war needs through borrowing, incurring a deficit of 16% of GDP in 1797 and raising the money through an untested merchant bank Boyd, Benfield that went bankrupt. Even his invention of the Income Tax in 1798 failed to solve the problem; it was only after Addington invented income tax withholding in 1803 that income tax yields rose to their proper level and budget deficits declined. Pitt’s military strategy was also ineffectual, assembling repeated coalitions of Europe’s major powers, thereby attempting to win the war in one campaign. With France possessing better generals and generally better military organization, campaigns against it confined to a single year universally brought defeat. Pitt’s second ministry was notably fractious and unsuccessful. Indeed, since he lost the support of Sidmouth/Addington in July 1805, he would almost certainly have suffered defeat had he survived to meet the House of Commons for the 1806 session. His fine reputation therefore rests on the first half of his first ministry. I believe he was better than Lloyd George or Gladstone, but not as good a war minister as Churchill nor as good a minister overall as Liverpool. Peel Sir Robert Peel was the son of a very rich textile entrepreneur and Tory MP, an extremely intelligent man who was told so too often in his early years. He was a successful Home Secretary, but his man-management skills were non-existent, as first became apparent with his failure to hold together the large Commons majority that Liverpool had left his successors. Peel’s first period as prime minister in 1834-35 produced the “Tamworth manifesto,” abandoning the beliefs of much of his party’s base. His second government of 1841-46 also showed a disdain for mainstream Tories and a liking for “reformers” who were later to join the Liberals. Peel’s 1842 restoration of the Income Tax gave the state a solid fiscal basis, which he used for ever more aggressive moves towards mostly unilateral free trade. Peel’s free trade moves culminated in the 1846 Repeal of the Corn Laws, which split his party and ended his government. In the very long term, Repeal and unilateral free trade doomed British agriculture once American competition became effective in the 1870s and ended British industrial supremacy as competitors built up their industries behind high tariff walls. Peel and his Whig successors grossly mishandled the Irish potato famine, pursuing the irrelevant remedy of Corn Law abolition while failing to implement short-term relief measures that had been second nature in the British famines of the 1790s. As a prime minister, Peel was at best average. Palmerston Palmerston had gained a good grasp of economics at Edinburgh University. He was an admirable Secretary at War for 19 years from 1809. Regrettably he resigned from Wellington’s Cabinet with the other Canningites in 1828, then negotiated successfully with the Whigs, who lacked Ministerial experience, becoming Foreign Secretary in 1830, remaining so in Whig administrations for 22 years. Palmerston’s foreign policy was an extension of Canning’s: opposed to the continental “autocracies,” generally supportive of revolutions, whether or not they had genuine popular backing, and bombastic and prickly when it came to British interests. Overall, he was a less successful upholder of British power and prestige than would be Salisbury, in more difficult circumstances forty years later. After two years as Home Secretary, Palmerston succeeded to the Premiership with a mandate to win the Crimean War, for which he had agitated. This he did successfully, beginning a decade in power in which he was the country’s most popular statesman, while blocking further attempts at parliamentary reform or indeed reform in general. While Palmerston’s foreign policy followed Canning, his domestic and economic policies followed Liverpool; consequently, his Whig followers, notably Gladstone, were discontented but the country thoroughly approved. Palmerston was a much-loved prime minister in easy times but, being in the wrong party, did little to solve Britain’s structural problems. Disraeli Disraeli was a brilliant parliamentary orator, whose invective did much to remove Peel over the Corn Laws, but as prime minister he can be summed up as an Arch-Mediocrity, the epithet he had applied to Liverpool. His first short term in 1868 achieved nothing other than a massive and unexpected election loss based on the new franchise he had defied party principle to institute. Disraeli’s second term included the purchase of the Suez Canal, a useful move that secured British communications for the next 80 years, and a flashy foreign policy “triumph” at the Congress of Berlin that gained Cyprus but not much else. His colonial policy led to British over-extension, with defeats in Afghanistan and South Africa in 1879-80. Domestically, the Disraeli government’s achievements included one disaster, the Trades Disputes Act of 1875, which by giving trades unions legal immunity poisoned British industrial relations for the next century. Economically, Disraeli’s second term was blighted by the post-1873 downturn, which he failed to alleviate or understand. By the end of his second term, following the protectionist German tariff of 1879, it should have been obvious that unilateral free trade was now devastating British agriculture and doing long-term damage to its industrial position, but Disraeli failed to return to the protectionism he had espoused before 1852. Disraeli was a below-average prime minister, albeit a rather better novelist. Gladstone Gladstone was the son of a major slave-owner, who bought more slave properties at discounts when compensation for slave-owners was proposed in 1824 and received £106,769 compensation from the Slave Compensation Commission, the largest sum paid out by the Commission. Gladstone served as prime minister for more than 12 years, over a period of nearly 26 years, reinventing himself several times, moving from right-wing Tory to radical Liberal. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gladstone was much admired, but his reputation is overblown. By the time he took over, the economy was expanding rapidly and the debt to GDP ratio was far below its level earlier in the century. Gladstone was a firm believer in free trade; his sponsorship of the Cobden-Chevalier Treaty of 1860 marked that doctrine’s apogee; the U.S. Morrill Tariff of 1862 made Britain’s free-trade strictly unilateral. Gladstone’s first ministry of 1868-74 was his best, passing major reforms such as the 1870 Education Act, the abolition of Army commission purchase and the Ballot Act establishing a secret ballot. He also interested himself in Ireland, disestablishing the Church of Ireland and passing a moderate Land Act. In foreign policy, he was pacific, which left Britain as a powerless spectator during the Franco-Prussian war. In 1880 Gladstone conducted the first popular election campaign and won a substantial majority. He passed a radical Irish Land Act, which damaged property rights without pacifying the Irish, as well as a third Reform Act, which improved on the first two by including negotiations with the opposition and compromises on contentious issues. In foreign policy, he became increasingly moralist, and suffered a major PR defeat in 1885 with the loss of General Charles Gordon in the Sudan. Gladstone then turned to Irish Home Rule, to attract the support from Irish MPs that would bring him back to power. This was a sensible measure, that would have been much better proposed in 1868 or 1880, with a fresh electoral mandate. As it was, by introducing the measure for reasons of parliamentary expediency, failing to consider properly the position of Ulster, and then re-introducing the measure without a majority in 1893, Gladstone made the question politically toxic. Gladstone’s highly successful first ministry and moderately successful second ministry must be balanced against foreign policy failures and what eventually became disaster in Ireland. With a discount for governing in mostly quiescent times, he should rank modestly above average, above Disraeli but below Palmerston and Salisbury. Salisbury Salisbury was prime minister for 13 years and 8 months, the post-Liverpool longevity record. For most of that time, he also held the Foreign Secretaryship. Uniquely among prime ministers, Salisbury had set out a clearly defined political philosophy in the 1860s, which included studies of the younger Pitt and Castlereagh. He then took the India Office in Derby’s last administration of 1866 but resigned in protest at the Second Reform Bill. Salisbury returned to the India Office in 1874, transitioning to the Foreign Office in 1878. When Disraeli died in 1881, he and Northcote succeeded him jointly in the Conservative leadership, but it soon became obvious that Salisbury was the dominant partner. His masterly negotiation of the Third Reform Act secured his position as prime minister when Gladstone resigned in 1885. Salisbury was a truly superior foreign policy prime minister. He expanded the Empire, acquiring territories of 6 million square miles containing 100 million people. In Europe, he rejected close entangling alliances, attempting to work in a balanced manner with the major European autocracies as Castlereagh had. Only the Boer War spotted his record. Domestically, Salisbury was modestly successful. He carried out a reorganization of local government, but his domestic reforms were often in tension with his fundamental beliefs, as in his creation of the leftist London County Council in 1888. In Ireland, he followed a policy of “killing Home Rule by kindness” which did not achieve its central objective. Salisbury’s major missed opportunity was in economics. Salisbury had no intellectual commitment to unilateral free trade, so an Imperial Preference scheme could have emerged in 1895 or even in 1887, when Salisbury enjoyed a safe majority and could have pushed it through. Overall, Salisbury was the best of Queen Victoria’s prime ministers, in an environment that was becoming more difficult. Asquith Asquith was Britain’s first prime minister with working-class origins, achieving academic distinction at Oxford. Home Secretary under Gladstone and Rosebery, he then married the intelligent, witty, fashionable and expensive Margot Tennant, the first politically active prime ministerial spouse. After two years as Chancellor of Exchequer, Asquith occupied the premiership for 8½ years, during which the office’s requirements took on their modern heavy level. However, Asquith’s response to them didn’t. He carried on an active social life, much recreational reading, excessive alcohol consumption and an intense but probably Platonic love affair with Venetia Stanley, to whom his letters involved outrageous breaches of the new Official Secrets Act. When not too drunk, he was an excellent Parliamentary speaker, a good administrator and a very quick study, mastering legislative detail with ease. With help from Lloyd George and Churchill Asquith was the true founder of the modern Welfare State, introducing Old Age Pensions in 1908 and a National Insurance scheme in 1911. What’s more, given Britain’s remarkable fiscal strength at this time, he managed to do this and build up the world’s most powerful fleet of Dreadnought battleships without running budget deficits or raising taxes beyond a modest top combined rate of 13% income tax and “super tax” in 1914. There are two blots on Asquith’s peacetime record. First, he allowed Lloyd George to inflame the 1909-11 Budget/Constitutional crisis by excessive class war rhetoric, which poisoned relations between the parties, making the 1912-14 Irish Home Rule impasse impossible to settle on compromise terms. Second, he not only deepened the French and Russian alliances, but (highly unconstitutionally) held military conversations with the French without informing his Cabinet, making British participation in any war almost inevitable. Once war came, Asquith’s leadership was only intermittently effective. With all his qualities, his departure in December 1916 was overdue. Despite his fatherhood of the welfare state, Asquith does not deserve to rank much above average. Nevertheless, one cannot help liking him. Lloyd George Lloyd George also came from a poor background, but unlike Asquith he traded on it throughout his life. A fiery Radical Welsh MP and a Boer War pacifist, he was a capable President of the Board of Trade before becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer. His 1911 National Insurance “ninepence for fourpence” scheme was well designed and became the foundation of the modern Welfare State. Throughout his career, Lloyd George had a phobia about the landed rich – not the rich in general, just those with inherited land, whom he consistently demonized. His 1909 Budget included a Land Tax with modest yield but major political aggravation capability, which he exacerbated by irresponsible class-warfare rhetoric. This was followed by a 1912 Land Campaign that fortunately came to nothing, another tax-increasing Budget in 1914, the land tax portions of which became a dead letter when war broke out, and a further Land Campaign after he had lost office. The economic reality was that rural landowners had suffered cruelly since 1873 because of unilateral free trade, and by 1910 many of them were approaching bankruptcy. In the first year of the war, Lloyd George did not raise taxes sufficiently to finance war expenditure -- the same mistake made by Pitt in 1793-1800. He was energetic and notably successful as Minister of Munitions and Secretary of State for War, bringing in outside businessmen to overcome ossified bureaucracies, albeit with significant corruption. During this period he became a believer in “war socialism.” With Press support, he then ousted Asquith. As Prime Minister Lloyd George continued energetic but solved few of the problems that bedevilled Britain’s war effort. There was little historical memory of the Napoleonic Wars so that it took until April 1917 for the Admiralty to organize a convoy system. Lloyd George had poisonous relationships with his mediocre top Generals, Robertson and Haig but his replacement for Robertson was no better. Lloyd George’s hatred of Haig went so far as to deny him reinforcements in early 1918 (to prevent Haig launching another bloody “Big Push” offensive) which when Germany attacked in strength in March 1918 nearly proved fatal to the Allied cause. Lloyd George survived 1917 and the first half of 1918 mostly for lack of acceptable alternatives, then after July 1918 benefited from massive popular relief as the final arrival of American forces on the Western Front tipped the scale to Allied victory. He then secured his peacetime position by leading the Coalition into a landslide victory at a snap General Election, which promised the electorate a punitive peace against Germany. The period’s historical oblivion continued at the 1919 Congress of Versailles, where Lloyd George imposed punitive peace terms on Germany and its allies. Woodrow Wilson was mostly responsible for Versailles’ naivete and folly, and Georges Clemenceau for its vindictiveness, but Lloyd George was a prime mover in making it the least successful “peace” settlement in history. Lloyd George’s peacetime coalition was marked by industrial unrest and economic instability. He continued his interventionist policy, making economic soap operas out of every strike threat, and undertaking social and housing programs the country could not afford. His Irish policy was a vacillating mess, causing four years of civil war. When in 1922 scandals broke over Lloyd George’s sale of honours, there was an unsurprising loss of confidence in his leadership, which led to the fall of the Coalition – Conservatives were so thankful to break free from him that their back-bench organization is called the “1922 Committee” to this day. Lloyd George was an unpleasant man, able but corrupt and distrusted by his colleagues, who made some major blunders and poisoned the atmosphere of British politics. Overall, he was a below-average prime minister. Churchill Winston Churchill entered Parliament in 1900 as a Conservative, then crossed the floor to Liberal in 1904 over the issue of free trade – throughout his life, his economic understanding was limited. He entered the Cabinet in 1908, before moving to the Home Office and the Admiralty. At the Admiralty, he built up the Navy aggressively and negotiated the purchase of a majority stake in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, thus ensuring oil supplies for the Navy. He also founded Room 40, the seed of the government’s code-breaking operations in the World Wars and since, now GCHQ. Then after war began, he promoted the idea of the 1915 Dardanelles Campaign, generally felt now to have been strategically sound but poorly executed. He was also instrumental in developing the tank. Churchill was brought back into the Cabinet by Lloyd George, first as Minister for Munitions and then as Secretary of State for War, where he favoured an aggressive campaign against the Russian Bolshevik government. When the Coalition fell, he fought the 1923 election as a Liberal on a Free Trade platform, then transitioned to the Conservatives, being rewarded by Baldwin with the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer. As Chancellor, he put Britain back on the Gold Standard, with an overvalued pound – the overvaluation could have been avoided by passing the Imperial Preference tariff against which he had campaigned in 1923. As Chancellor, Churchill also opposed defence spending as energetically as he supported it 15 years earlier or a decade later. Then he spent ten years “in the wilderness” out of office. Churchill’s inclusion in the government in September 1939 was inevitable and his ascension to the top office in May 1940 nearly so, despite his responsibility for the bungled Norway campaign. Churchill’s ability to inspire the House of Commons and the British people was a vital contribution over the next eighteen months. His personality and oratory also appealed to many Americans; they were essential in convincing Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a true ally and worth helping. Once America entered the war Churchill’s inspirational contribution was less, and he came close to losing office after the defeats of early 1942. Churchill was no great military strategist; he favoured the kind of “side-show” diversions from the main war effort that Pitt and Dundas had favoured in the 1790s. However, in one respect Churchill’s instincts were sound, in deterring the United States from a direct invasion of the European mainland until 1944. Churchill’s relationships with his military commanders were generally good. On the other hand, his personnel selections were sometimes flawed, notably in over-promoting the King’s cousin Lord Louis Mountbatten. His economic management during World War II was minimal – he simply allowed Clement Attlee, Keynes and the civil servants to build the big-government command economy that they wanted. However, there is one major blot on his record: his selection of Maynard Keynes as the British representative at the Bretton Woods talks in July 1944, which resulted in the loss of Imperial Preference and 34 years of post-war exchange controls. Churchill was surprised to lose the 1945 election, but since he had allowed Labour propagandists throughout the war to demonize the economically successful 1930s, a short election campaign in which he referred to them as the Gestapo did not work. Then he played an invaluable role with his “Iron Curtain” speech of March 1946 to awaken President Truman and the West to the continuing dangers of Stalin’s Soviet Union. By the time the Conservatives finally won re-election in October 1951, Churchill was almost 77. In his second term in office he played a successful role in foreign policy, but once again economics was his weakness. He began badly by appointing the consensus-minded R.A. Butler to the Exchequer instead of the ex-City banker Oliver Lyttleton, thus ensuring that Socialist controls and taxes would be largely left in place. His biggest single mistake came in January 1952 when the Treasury, the Bank of England and, surprisingly, Butler, proposed Operation ROBOT, by which the pound would have been floated and exchange control abandoned. This would have allowed the British economy to grow without the painful “stop-start” of incessant sterling crises. Backed by his two most economically leftist ministers, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, Churchill vetoed the scheme – a huge opportunity missed. Rationing was ended in 1954, but taxes came down only marginally. Part of the problem was Churchill’s excessive deference to the trade unions, which began the process of stagflationary labour relations surrenders that continued until Margaret Thatcher’s term in office. Even with a large boost for 18 crucial months of inspiring war leadership, Churchill does not rank at the top of the list, as I shall discuss below. Attlee The Attlee family were richer than the Churchills and the Attlees had much less expensive lifestyles. Thus, after Oxford, Attlee was well able to fund his East End social work and the early years of his political career while enjoying the occasional comfortable Continental vacation. After war service that included Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and the Western Front, Major Attlee turned his social work and political advocacy into a safe Labour seat in Limehouse. After its 1931 wipe-out Labour was reduced to only 46 MPs and Attlee, one of the few survivors not sponsored by the trades unions, was made deputy leader. He became leader shortly before the 1935 election, in which Labour’s position improved to 154 MPs. Attlee gained credibility with the Labour faithful by supporting the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Then in 1940, he made one of the leading speeches in the Norway debate that brought down Chamberlain and became Churchill’s deputy. His record during World War II deserves more attention and respect than it has received. He had more experience of the sharp end of modern warfare than Churchill himself, and the two men had usefully complementary talents. Attlee, while not a great speaker, was excellent at administration, detail and at quietening and settling clashes between the big personalities in the Cabinet and among the military. Attlee was also active in pushing Labour’s objectives for post-war reconstruction, seizing on the Beveridge Report when it was published in November 1942 and steering Butler’s 1944 Education Act onto the statute book. Economically, the government, mostly but not entirely through its Labour members, pushed further the “war socialism” of World War I, paving the way for Labour’s post-war policies. In July 1945, Attlee’s Labour party won a landslide majority – much to his surprise. His government came to power with a radical programme, most of which it implemented within three years of coming to power. Socially, it was much less radical; the destruction of Establishment institutions and traditional British attitudes came later. Aneurin Bevan wrote of Attlee in Tribune: “He brings to the fierce struggle of politics the tepid enthusiasm of a lazy summer afternoon at a cricket match.” This made him a highly effective leader of a radical government. Attlee remained an unabashed patriot in foreign policy, deciding that Britain needed its own nuclear deterrent, and setting up a program to create one when it became clear that the United States would not share its technology. He also believed in a long-term future for the Empire but sent the ineffably inept Mountbatten to India in 1947 to shepherd through Indian independence, at a cost of 1 million lives. Economically, Attlee was a Keynesian – he believed in control of the economy by an enlightened government, including a substantial degree of state ownership, but not in full public ownership of industry. In his time, this was forgivable; capitalism had a relatively poor track record in the inter-war period, while two wars had shown the allure of “war socialism” and government controls. Even in Attlee’s Edwardian youth, the British economy had underperformed other countries because of Britain’s persistent commitment to unilateral free trade. On taking office, Attlee embarked on an extensive programme of nationalization, beginning with the Bank of England, then coal, the railways, electricity, gas, airlines, long-distance road haulage and later the iron and steel industry. None of these nationalizations was successful; they tended to run large losses and acquire highly inefficient management practices, but only road haulage and iron and steel nationalization were reversed by Churchill’s Conservatives; the remaining privatisations had to wait for Thatcher. The Attlee government carried out two major reforms that made a major difference to the long-term future of the British populace. The National Insurance Act of 1946 established a universal compulsory national insurance and old age pensions system. The second, even more iconic to the electorate today, was the establishment in 1948 of the National Health Service, again initially on a non-contributory basis. During World War II, Attlee was an effective deputy to Churchill, then after 1945 he implemented an agenda that changed Britain forever. Despite the failure of his economic vision, he deserves to rank near the top of the list. Thatcher Margaret Thatcher’s father was a prosperous grocer who became an Alderman of their home town of Grantham; in politics a Gladstonian National Liberal. She gained a second-class degree in Chemistry at Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a strident, politically active Conservative in a left-wing college. After Oxford, she became an industrial chemist, stood twice for election in Dartford, married a wealthy and strongly Conservative older businessman, became a barrister and entered the Commons in 1959 as MP for the North London suburb of Finchley. From the start Thatcher was on the right of the party. She was promoted quickly to junior ministerial posts, then served in 1964-70 in shadow economics posts. In 1970 she was brought into the Cabinet as Minister for Education, this being thought appropriate women’s work. Thatcher was an energetic but conventional Education Secretary, abolishing free school milk deliveries to protect other items of spending and proceeding with a comprehensive education programme in which she did not believe. After Edward Heath’s October 1974 second defeat, she launched what appeared a quixotic bid for the leadership, which she won because of the country’s desperation with Heath’s incompetence. She was not a very good Leader of the Opposition, and she was surrounded by colleagues who almost all disagreed with her, but already she showed the way to a more robust pursuit of victory in the Cold War: “I stand before you tonight in my Red Star chiffon evening gown, my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western World” she said in a 1976 foreign policy speech. On gaining office, Thatcher immediately carried out two reforms that made a huge difference to the British economy: she reduced the top rate of income tax to 60% and she abolished exchange controls, in force since 1939. These actions alone justified her election and went beyond anything her predecessors had done. Economically, the next few years were very difficult. “Give me six strong men and true, and I will get through” she said on taking office, but later ruefully added: “Very rarely did I have as many as six.” Thatcher survived through sheer determination and by an enormous stroke of luck: the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands. Thatcher won the 1983 election by a landslide, then embarked on another test of her courage, the 1984-85 miners’ strike. Being both determined and competent she won it, though it took a year. By this time, immeasurably helped by Norman Tebbit she had straightened out trades union legislation, for the first time since Disraeli’s 1875 Act. During this second term Thatcher’s privatisations also moved into high gear with the British Telecom deal, privatizing not only industries that Attlee had nationalized but also those such as electricity and water supply, state-owned since pre-war times. While not always entirely successful, privatization became a trend worldwide. Thatcher won a third election in 1987 with a majority only slightly reduced. In her third term, she reduced the top rate of income tax to 40%. However, her attempt to replace the rates (property tax) by a personal community charge met with huge opposition. Nevertheless, by the time of her ouster, the British economy had enjoyed several years of rapid growth with a new focus on services, while both the public sector and the budget deficit had been substantially shrunk and inflation had been conquered. Furthermore, this period saw the fall of the Berlin Wall; her last days in office were spent at a Paris conference ending the Cold War and signing the largest disarmament agreement since World War II. There were inevitably mistakes. Three stand out: First, her settlement of the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe question handed the country over to Marxist guerrillas led by Robert Mugabe, with massacres and expropriation following. Second, her financial services legislation eliminated the traditional London merchant banks and produced a London financial system dominated by foreign-owned trading juggernauts, with many scandals and little innovation. Third, Europe. Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 1988 awakened her supporters to the danger of a unified European super-state, but it came both too late and too early – too late for her to have time to devise an alternative plan for Britain’s future and too early for her colleagues to wake up to the dangers, which took another generation. As a result, her last years were clouded by leadership challenges. Thatcher’s contribution to Cold War victory and her economic achievements were beyond anything Churchill managed. Even with her mistakes, she should rank near the top of this list. Liverpool I have dealt with Liverpool’s achievements at length in Tory Stories Podcast 1. However, I’d like to summarize his strengths against other great British Prime Ministers. On economics, he was clearly the best, narrowly ahead of Thatcher. Unlike her, he did not need to turn the economy around completely; it was already on the right track, but he understood industrialization and implemented policies to foster it, notably his Corn Laws which forced Britain to compete as a high-wage economy. Subsequent prime ministers’ economic policies can best be measured by how far they fell short of Liverpool’s; none surpassed them. None of the prime ministers responsible for wars were outstanding in military strategy, with the exception of Chatham. Churchill and Pitt were both misguided strategically and Lloyd George was worse, very nearly losing World War I by bickering with his generals. Liverpool, while no Chatham, came up with the strategy of steady and moderate pressure that would wear down Napoleon’s economically illiterate regime, and pursued it through several difficult years. While Churchill should get extra points for inspiring war leadership, the communications technology did not exist for Chatham, Pitt and Liverpool to achieve a comparable morale effect on the general public, even if they could have. In domestic policy, Liverpool navigated sure-footedly through the very difficult post-war years, then relaxed when it was possible to do so, with Peel’s criminal law reforms representing a substantial liberalization. Here several prime ministers had comparable achievements, but none were demonstrably superior. Overall, therefore, my top five prime ministers would be as follows: (Honourable Mentions – numbers 6-10 -- Pelham, Chatham, Palmerston, Salisbury, Asquith). 5th: Clement Attlee. He gets a bonus for excellent service as Churchill’s deputy, and the sheer volume of changes he implemented was staggering, whatever your views on them. 4th: William Pitt the younger. He was the pioneer of Industrial Revolution economics, following Gower, producing an excellent recovery from the American War and a highly productive period to 1792. However, he was not an especially good war leader. 3rd: Winston Churchill. His reputation was overblown in the early decades after World War II because of his inspirational morale-boosting war leadership. (Attlee was a far better administrator). His post-war term of office was no more than competent, and not always that. 2nd: Margaret Thatcher. She gets extra points because of the appalling situation she inherited, and the mess her successors have made since she departed. Her economic changes were huge, albeit alas not permanent. Like all these five leaders, she gets extra points for character. And 1st: Robert Banks Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool. Others exceeded him in individual areas, but for all-round successful leadership in a very difficult period of unprecedented change, he deserves to rank No. 1 Thank you very much for listening. That is the end of Tory Stories Podcast No. 5
Ranking the Greatest Prime Ministers
September 30, 2023
Ranking the great and near-great Prime Ministers in chronological order; stacking them up against Lord Liverpool.
Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92 - Finale.
Sir Robert Walpole by Hands Hysing
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