YouGov have carried out a survey of political academics for the Political Studies Association and asked who the best Prime Minister we never had was. Previous surveys of PSA academics showed they were mostly Labour supporters, so no surprise to see Labour figures take the top two spots – Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins – followed by Ken Clarke.

The rest of the top ten were Neil Kinnock, Hugh Gaitskell, Aneurin Bevan, Shirley Williams, Michael Heseltine and Tony Benn (as a write-in candidate). Barbara Castle, Rab Butler, John Smith and Charlie Kennedy all got 3%. The highest rated identifiably right-wing figure (as opposed to centrist Tories like Clarke and Hezza) was Enoch Powell on 2%.

The views of the PSA aran’t partially interesting in themselves, but it gives us the excuse to have a fun thread – so who do readers think the best PM we never had was?


58 Responses to “The best Prime Minister we never had”

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  1. Joseph Chamberlain must be up there somewhere. He would probably have been PM had he not left the Liberals over Irish Home Rule.

    Charles James Fox was also never Prime Minister, despite dominating national politics for 30-40 years in the late 18th century.

  2. Peter Shore.

  3. I think Enoch Powell was the best Prime Minister we never had. When I think of the vast amounts of constitutional vandalism Labour has perpetrated against the British constitution, I realise how much latent wisdom in High Toryism is vitality needed.

  4. jeremy clarkson. the last two articles he wrote for the times are better than any manifesto could be

  5. Not very funny, I know, but it would have been a shoe-in for Brown if he hadn’t been and gone and landed the god-forsaken job!

  6. Ian Macleod

  7. Maybe if we could say which person it is best we never had as Prime Minister, without a doubt it would have to be Kinnock.

  8. There were a few figures in the Tory Party in the late 40s/early 50s that I think could have made decent Prime Ministers – Oliver Stanley comes to mind (I believe he died before being able to take over as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1950). Douglas Hurd would have been able to carry the Tory Party better through the 90s than John Major, I think, but I don’t think he’s one of the best PMs we’ve never had.

  9. William Hague – although it’s of course too early to say “never” in his case.

  10. William Hague clearly the front runner in recent political history

  11. Gaz
    If a pollster posed YOUR question and gave me three responses it would be Kinnock, Kinnock, Kinnock.
    The thought of that guy running the country makes me shiver.

    Daily Express readers would no doubt vote for Diana.

    I can’t help wondering what Blair would have been like without Gordon. Bet he can’t help wondering aswell.

    Clarke [Ken not Alan – though that would have been colourful!] for me. Lovely to think of a PM in Hush Puppies whilst his wife seduces journalists with huge slices of chocolate cake and mugs of tea. Less Alistair Campbell, more Enid Blyton.

  12. Difficult as most of the best contenders are probably before my time. I would have to say Heseltine though.

    There does seem to be a pattern that a lot of people are said that they should be PM but never were (this lot) while lots eventually do become it after a period of waiting (Brown, Eden etc) . . . the second lot rarely turn out well though.

    I suspect many who expect to become PM then wait a long time for it eventually get stale.

    I wonder how many people are better remembered by history as a “best PM we never had” than if we ever actually had had them.

  13. I dare say if we had asked sensible non academic working economists they would have said Enoch Powell, Keith Joseph, Nicholas Ridley, Norman Tebbit et al.

    Personally from the mainstream of those I support Enoch Powell. If I am allowed to make a choice as an accountant then Nigel Lawson – though his 1988 budget was completely irresponsible and ruined several years of sensible economic management he simplified the tax regime to sensible levels. Every post lawsonian Chancellor has complicated tax law more than their predecessor – Lawson aided business greatly in simplifying it.

  14. I would have to agree with a few on here :-

    Definately WILLIAM HAGUE

    Possibly ENOCH POWELL

  15. I think that for traditional Tories who didn’t much like Margaret Thatcher (ie Peregrine Worsthorne), the most interesting angle here is what could have been done in the mid 1960s to avoid the Ted Heath disaster (no Ted Heath=no Mrs T?).

    Butler apparently had too many enemies to ever be PM (although I don’t really understand why, as I wasn’t anywhere near being born yet in 1964). So maybe Reginald Maudling if he didn’t have a reputation as a drunk? Enoch Powell if, well, he weren’t Enoch Powell? Slim revisionist pickings on this front.

    Going a bit further back, I think most can agree that Arthur Balfour was a very intelligent man, and that he was an absolute disaster as both PM and opposition leader. If somebody had kept him out though, there might not have been any collapse in 1906 or constitutional crises in 1911. But I cannot think of anyone who could have challenged him, because Balfour was Salisbury’s chosen successor, and because Joe Chamberlain was part of the problem in 1906, not the solution.

    This is all an American view btw. By me saying *that* I might in the eyes of some be disqualifying everything I’ve written here. I hope not.

  16. Ian Macleod, William Hague, Nigel Lawson

  17. I think Jo Grimond was the best PM we never had. If he’d been able to implement half of the ideas in The Liberal Future Britain would be a much fairer and more prosperous country than it is today.

  18. Hague was Conservative leader at the wrong time. The Tories were never going to win back power for at least 2 elections after 1997 (3 as it has proved and poss 4?). He should have waited until they were more electable and Labour less electable so at least he would have stood a chance. With hindsight, I wonder if he regrets it now

  19. Most people would not demur with the original PSA Top Ten save for Neil Kinnock and Tony Benn neither of whom were well regarded even in their pomp but a neutral observer might well add the likes of Ian Macleod, William Hague and more recently the underrated John Reid. The domination of post war British politics by such long standing serving Prime Ministers as Maggie Thatcher and Tony Blair has meant that there were and are a lot of frustrated would be PM’s out there.
    In the end I plump for Roy Jenkins in spite of the fact that I had nothing in common with him politically. Jenkins had a towering intellect and a first rate track record as a Minister-he was certainly a fine chancellor-and he was courageous. A superb biographer in his twilight years, a brilliant table companion ,he was the most charismatic figure in British politics for many years. Sadly he never got his chance to lead the Labour party away from the disasters that beset it in the 180’s and 1980’s.

  20. Neil Kinnock?!?! How on earth can anyone say that incompetant, mediocre old fashioned lefty was even in the thousandth best of PMs we never had? That man has his snout so far in the EU trough it beggars belief. I am disgusted

  21. Slightly surprised that there’s not a single post-war Liberal on the list. Surely Grimond is a more important historical figure than Michael Howard?

  22. I have to agree with Harry about Neil Kinnock. When compared to figures like Hugh Gaitskell and Aneurin Bevan he is found very wanting. Only the inclusion of Enoch Powell makes him look good.

    My choice Roy Jenkins.

  23. Is it any wonder no right wing politicians made it when the survey was of the famously (or infamously) left wing world of political academia?

    Some names: David Niven – for a more genteel country, Alf Ramsay – for a more efficient country, Peter Andre – for a simpler country, Ant and Dec (though they would have to be co-prime ministers) – for a chirpier, more geordie country.

  24. Old Hush Puppies himself, Ken Clarke

  25. Interesting to see such a right-wing tendency in the comments so far. How anyone could choose someone like Enoch Powell beggars belief! In my student days before I saw the error of my ways I actually met Powell (and for that matter Heath when he was leader of the opposition) and I was vastly unimpressed by (a) their personalities and (b) what they had to say. Powell was a throw back to Edwardian colonial attitudes and Heath was just disinterested and rude. Looking across the three main parties, I would pick out Butler and McLeod on the Tory side, Crosland and Smith from Labour and, from the Liberals, well that’s difficult but I’d take Steele before Grimond.

  26. I can’t conceive of any Tory as anything other than appalling – particularly the swivel-eyed brigade (Joseph, Ridley and so on)

    Tony Crosland or Roy Jenkins.

  27. Ernest Bevin.

    Sadly, folks, Michael Howard’s introduction of the politics of permanent crisis into the UK in the 90s has been of far more historical importance than anything Grimond ever did.

  28. george galloway – but never say never

  29. Nice non-partisan comment from ‘MerseyMike’ there. Really adds to the debate. (My apologies for briefly going off thread)

    Anyway, I would like to add Lord Curzon to the list as an intriguing non-PM. What might keep out Curzon from a top-ten list is that the man he lost out to, Stanley Baldwin, proved to be an exceptionally good party leader. It was Bladwin’s Tories after all who received the last absolute GE vote majority in 1931. And despite Churchill’s best efforts I think Baldwin’s reputation as PM has gone up and will continue to do so…

    And Curzon is (probably) largely forgotten in this mass-demos age we live in.

  30. How anyone could choose someone like Enoch Powell beggars belief!

    I wouldn’t expect a Labour activist to understand patriotism and national identity.

  31. Healey must be at the top for Labour. Edward Boyle for the Conservatives, Paddy Ashdown for the Liberals.

  32. I’d go along with Healey, he completely slipped my mind when writing my previous thread. As he’s still alive perhaps someone could persuade him to tell us what his programme might have been when, despite the impact of the Falklands War, he’d nasrrowly won the 1983 election. He’d have been a powerful position and would have no doubt dispatched Militant as effectively as Kinnock.

  33. Norman Tebbit. The most damaging thing the IRA did to Britain was stopping him becoming PM. A man with true ability and the courage to do and say what was right and not pander to the sensibilities of the liberal intelligencia.

  34. …like Magwitch and Bliar did that.

    Healey, certainly; especially if you’re a fan of sensible, pro-European, pro-NATO, social democratic politics. God, I’m a dull bugger.

    Curzon sounds more like a candidate for a nightmarish soc.history.what-if thread on Britain going fascist in the 20s. He was certainly the most arrogant man ever to hold a great office of state.

  35. Tebbit would have never become PM. Too aggressive, too divisive. Major only won in 92 because the Tories managed to present themselves as a different government. Tebbit definitely couldn’t have done that.

    And for that we can only be thankful!

  36. Ken Livingstone is the only politician I really admire because he is one of the few politicians who wins elections the hard way – by actually winning the argument with the electorate in the face of the hostile press. He is also one of the most efficient politicians we have – he achieves real progress – he has limited power but just look at what he has achieved with transport in London. Bus use well up against the national trend and the congestion charge – the first in the world despite immense opposition it is now accepted by even the likes of Boris Johnson. The mind boggles at how wonderful this guy would have been as PM. Joining the euro, introducing proportional representation, independent foreign policy, scrapping nuclear weapons, tax raising at local level. Oh bliss – but only a distant dream.

  37. So Merseymike thinks all Tories are appalling. How truly pathetic. My friends come from all over the political shop-it makes no difference as far as I am concerned unless they are extremist. For example a Socialist to me is just somebody who seeks to better the lot of his fellow citizens -by a different route. I may not agree with his views but I sure as heck respect them. Well Merseymike I hope one day you will realise that the world is not divided into black and white or goodies and baddies. Have a great Christmas.

  38. Nick Keene-well said.

    In a modern democracy political objectives are mostly about means rather than ends.The basic tenets of a civilised society are broadly shared-differences centre on how best to achieve them.

    The consequences of political tribalism and it’s awful bedfellow religious tribalism are all too evident in the TV news from far away places.

  39. Good God. Healey?? If he had ever been primeminister I think most of the businesses in the UK would have gone to the wall. A top personal tax rate of 98.5% – that makes the communist party look business friendly.
    I was particularly aggrieved to hear him say that he regretted the closure of grammar schools. If he regretted it, why on earth didn’t he do something about it at the time?

  40. Is this confined to MPs? Why not a trade union leader like Joe Gormley – they practically ran the country anyway in the 1970’s.

  41. We should perhaps not forget that most grammar schools were closed by one called Margaret Thatcher between 1970 and 1974. Healey, as Chancellor, inherited a damaged economy from Anthony Barber – remember the ‘Barber boom’? Healey had been a first-rate Defence Secretary, one of the few who held that post who had had direct military experience.

  42. Barbara Castle.. now that would have been fun. Also i think Mo Mowlam could have made a good PM given a strong cabinet to lead. Jenkins would have made a decent PM as would Shirley Williams. From the Tory side surely Rab Butler would have to be top choice, or if we really want to dig deep how about Austin Chamberlain, better than his brother surely and how about Chamberlain senior.

    As for Enoch Powell he would have led us into god knows how many wars the man didn’t undsertand the concpet of modern diplomacy he would have just been downright dangerous.

  43. Grimond took a Liberal party that had been in decline for decades and set it on a path towards expansion. He reinvigorated Liberalism as a relevant progressive ideology. He has a good claim to be the father of the SDP/Liberal Alliance that became the Lib Dems. Steel and Ashdown were both competent leaders of the Lib Dems, but I doubt either would see themselves as equals of Jo Grimond. The only thing that sets Grimond apart from the rest of the list is that he never held a Cabinet position.

    From the people on the list, I like Roy Jenkins above the rest. Shirley Williams would have made a good PM and from the Tories I think Ken Clarke would have been a better choice than John Major in 1990 if he’d stood (he’d have been a better choice in 1997, 2001, 2003 and 2005 as well). I like Heseltine, but he’s too much of an economic nationalist for me to want him as PM. Healey should have defected with the Gang of Four and let the Labour party die.

  44. As for Enoch Powell he would have led us into god knows how many wars

    I got a good laugh from that one. You obviously know next to nothing about him, he was no warmonger. Blair is much more of a warmonger than Powell was.

  45. Paddy Ashdown for me. Genuinely intelligent, charismatic and a strong leader.
    And on a more satirical note – Tony Blair. He might have been quite a good Prime Minister, but instead he made himself President and the rest is history…

  46. Nicholas-well said. But he was a towering and rather severe intellect . He seemed to me to be more suited to the Halls of Academe than the Corridors of Power.

    The suggestion that Roy Jenkins would have made a good PM makes me smile-The Permisive Society made obligatory & free Claret for the workers?

  47. Michael Howard

  48. Incredibly, everyone has missed the obvious:

    Dr (now Lord) David Owen.

    Had the SDP won in 1987 – obviously alone and not in any way reliant on the Liberals – Owen would have quickly become the undisputed best peacetime Prime Minister of the 20th Century.

    Thatcher would never have had her disastrous third term and New Labour would have been strangled at birth. Britain would still be grateful to Owen to this day.

    The debate would now be over whether Owen was a better PM than Churchill. Thatcher and Attlee would be mere also-rans.

  49. John Rees (though PM would probably be the wrong title for him)

  50. Tough one, but certainly I think the following could all have all ended up highly thought of if they had reached the highest office:

    Conservatives: Austin Chamberlain, Sir John Anderson, Reggie Maudling, Iain Macleod, Willie Whitelaw and William Hague (although he may yet reach the top..)
    Labour: Tom Johnston, Ernest Bevin, and John Smith
    Liberals: Sir Edward Gray, Archibald Sinclair and Joe Grimmond

    Also if other had become PM earlier in their career they might have made a greater impact: Bonar Law, Eden, Callaghan
    Other: David Owen (for the SDP or leading a coalition with any of the above)

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