Politicians in their prime?
Robert Walpole to Theresa May, Dan Carrier gets the full SP on Britain’s PMs from author Andrew Gimson
22 March, 2018 — By Dan Carrier
Celebrated cartoonist Martin Rowson illustrates Gimson’s subjects, Harold Wilson and Lord North
THEY have taken us to war, and taken us out again. They’ve been hailed as national saviours or accused of the opposite. They have done one of the hardest jobs in the country – but almost always, despite their efforts, seen their tenure end in tears.
Being prime minister might give you the chance to have your name etched in history – but, as a new book by journalist Andrew Gimson lays bare, it isn’t always in a flattering manner.
Andrew, who lives in Gospel Oak, recalls starting work in Parliament in 1984 and deciding he’d better find out as much as he could about some of the big beasts who had stalked the corridors of power.
“I did not know much about British political history,” he says. “I wanted some context – I wanted to find out about Disraeli and Gladstone – and I found the amount you could read is almost unlimited. It would take you a very long time to cover even [just] the greatest. I found it was very difficult to get a book where they are all in one place – and it may be a rather dry reference book. I wanted to consider their characters and temperaments.”
His work covers the 54 that have held the office since 1721, starting with Robert Walpole, the first to have held the position as we know it today – and creates a picture of a motley gang of power-hungry wits, both loathed and loved in equal measure, all with tics and oddities that took them to the top – and then tumbled them down again.
“When Walpole was called the PM, it was seen as a term of abuse,” says Andrew. “It meant he had amassed too much power for himself.”
His work highlights the key moments of an administration that characterise how we recall those who have been the first among equals – sometimes unfairly.
Rowson’s Theresa May
“Lord North (1770-82) is remembered today for losing the Colonies,” he says. “But he was PM for 12 years. He was very charming – and very good at his job.”
Lord Salisbury, who served three terms between 1885 and 1902, had a laboratory at his Hatfield home. “He was a real intellectual – but spent all of September playing golf,” says Andrew.
“Attlee was keen on billiards and cricket. He had a ticker tape machine in No 10 for news – but what he really loved about it was it gave him the cricket scores. Major also loved cricket – though the only one who could play was Douglas-Home.”
Herbert Asquith (1908-16), says Andrew, showed the skills needed – and those lacking – to hold on to the post.
“He was a considerable peace-time leader,” says Andrew. “He took on the House of Lords and laid the foundations of the welfare state – but when the First World War broke out, he was not the warrior type. He preferred dancing, playing bridge and holding the hands of attractive women.”
Known as “Squiffy”, as he was “sometimes seen to be worse for wear at the despatch box”, he admitted he had “a slight weakness for the companionship of clever and attractive women,” which, when war raged on the Western Front, stopped being a humorous foible and instead was simply insulting to those risking their lives.
As for those who stand out for being particularly bad, Andrew has little time for Heath or Wilson.
“People used to argue which was worst, not better,” he says. “Then there was Lord Bute – he was generally hated. The best his defenders could say was he was a good botanist but a hopeless politician.”
Such a reputation is not a good place to start if you want any longevity in the job, he adds – obviously, being able to control the Commons is crucial.
Clement Attlee by Rowson
“Walpole did this with patronage, which meant spending very large sums of money,” he says. “Nowadays it is about handing out jobs. PM’s can make around 100 appointments. Getting MPs on the payroll gives the PM power. You need to be able to cobble together a majority. That’s why Donald Trump could not become the prime minister – the Commons just would not stand for it.”
Other factors is the wish to be top dog – he cites Lord Goderich, who was prime minister for George IV for 130 days, and would burst into tears when facing tricky decisions, as being the one out of 54 who wasn’t keen.
“You have to have ambition and devote your life to it,” he says.
A prime minister must be able to handle conflicting views in Cabinet. You have to run a collective leadership – that is something Clement Attlee did so well,” he says.
“He had a disparate collection of ministers, many who did not like one another, but managed to forge a consensus and make sure his government got things done.”
And you need a presence at the despatch box, and able to both respond to and shape public opinion.
“You have to have a sense of how you will be seen by the wider public,” he says.
“The longer you are there, the harder it becomes – you have to be both tough and sensitive. After about eight years that becomes almost impossible.”
And then there is one final, crucial character every prime minister has possessed – namely, they are not someone else.
“There has not been an obvious succession since Eden in 1955,” he says. “It is never the front runner. It is often someone who gets it simply because of who they are not – for example, Major won because he was not Heseltine.”
• Gimson’s Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to May. By Andrew Gimson. Illustrated by Martin Rowson, Square Peg, £10.99.