I don’t often write about polls of specialist groups, unlike polls of the general public (relevant because they are the people who vote in elections, and easily defined because it is everyone entitled to vote) they are often rather arbitary and hazily defined samples. However, since it’s quite a fun subject and we are into the August silly season, there is a straw poll of 100 academics in the fields of politics and history here, ranking the post war PMs. In order from best to worst, they come out as

1. Attlee
2. Thatcher
3. Blair
4. Macmillan
5. Wilson
6. Churchill
7. Callaghan
8. Major
9. Heath
10. Brown
11. Alec Douglas-Home
12. Eden

Doesn’t mean anything, but feel free to discuss. Personally, for a ranking of post-1945 Prime Ministers I think it rather flattering to Churchill, who was manifestly unfit for the role of PM during his 1951-55 stint, and probably unfair to Heath, who despite the disasters of his premiership did at least have the major achievement of British entry into the EEC to show for his years in power (you might not think it a particularly good thing to have achieved, but at least he achieved a major policy aim).

(And please, try to discuss in it a detached way rather than use it as an excuse to be rude about recent incumbents from the other side. It’s what PM’s achieved in their time in office, not whether they were evil socialists/capitalists (delete as applicable) who brought the country to its knees, etc.)

115 Responses to “Academics rate post-war PMs”

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  1. Eoin


    It was an interesting little excercise-nothing more.

    No doubt it masks many things.

    I cannot get over the Wilson(1) numbers. I was a young FD then-completing multi page application to put our prices up-and being called to Whitehall to discuss….George Browne & the National Plan-nightmare…ah well all history now.

    Nice to read your stuff again-interested in your views on the Labour leadership-I agree with you ….I think ;-)

  2. Alec. I tend to agree with you, and personally I do think Atlee was the best British PM since 1945. Although in the light of earlier PMs and overseas leaders I do not think he was particularly great.

    I put up my list in terms of won elections because it relates to a measurable outcome – and gives some surprising results worth considering further.

    The problem in assessing achievements is that what Governments have to do is so varied, and hard to measure, that it is impossible to come to any reasonably definite conclusion.

    And I would repeat one of the points of my earlier posts: being Prime Minister is largely about avoiding banana skins. To me, Blair is a particular case in point. His performance over Iraq was so dreadful (I wonder what regrets he has about it in private), along with his appalling weakening of UK industry (also a devastating defect in Thatcher’s record) that to my mind it quite outweighs his social investments (although goodness knows how much expenditure notionally on health and education actually went to private contractors). And actually Blair was not anything like a robust enough defender of human liberty and dignity either.

    Eoin Clarke: do you remember the “Three Day Week”? Heath threw away his premiership by his ludicrous handling of an industrial dispute, which he didn’t even win. Hardly the action of a great Prime Minister.

  3. FS – Wouldn’t Blair have a mixed record too?

    Iraq V Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone and Ireland?

  4. @Fred Pitt
    If one includes in the definition of a ‘terrorist’ a person who detonates a bomb in a[n e.g. crowded] space, seemingly indifferent to the number or type of casualty s/he causes both among [presumed] supporters of ‘the cause’ and [presumed] opponents, then the ANC was certainly a terrorist organisation and Mandela, for all the good he has done and for all his subsequent canonisation, probably. One could split hairs given the (later) formation of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), but hey, if it quacks like a duck, walks like …….. Nothing ‘racist’ in opposing IRA (or Continuity IRA or Real IRA or INLA … &c … pick your flavour) and/or the ANC, and/or suicide bombers of whatever race (Islam is a religion, not a race – any race can ‘join’), and/or al Quaeda &c.
    I can’t know that this was the reason, but sanctions alone don’t work – the evidence abounds: Iraq(Saddam), Zimbabwe(Mugabe), Iran, Burma (Myanmar) &c.,&c.,&c., except in very special circumstance: e.g. Rhodesia(Smith), where stopping the flow of petrol tankers over Beit Bridge would have brought them to their knees in a week. Besides, many (France, Israel) were flouting not only sanctions, but the weapons embargo, and who knew when the owners of the load of a VLCC changed on the high seas and it suddenly changed course for Richard’s Bay? Whether all that was part of her calculation I know not.
    What is not in dispute is that South Africa from sometime after 1948 (prior to that, its attitudes & practices were only those of the rest of the ‘civilized’ world – witness the mandates) till free elections in 1994, was a racist state.

  5. @Fred Pitt
    Just to illustrate how she treated another state that has been called racist, viz: (Southern) Rhodesia, in December 1979, just 7 months after her election, she brokered the Lancaster House agreement in terms of which UDI ended and (Southern) Rhodesia reverted to being a British colony. There followed an internationally supervised general election in early 1980. ZANU (PF) led by Robert Mugabe won. The facilitation of a black African majority state, led by an avowed Marxist, resulting from pressure on B J (‘John’) Vorster, PM of South Africa to minimise assistance and withhold recognition, is hardly the action of a ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ racist.
    Compare that to the ‘fraternal’ support given by successive SA Presidents (yes, including Mandela) to Mugabe – sanctions or no.

  6. Documents published under the 30-year rule reveal that soon after becoming PM, Thatcher complained that too many Asian immigrants were being allowed into Britain. She made clear, however, that she had “less objection to refugees such as Rhodesians, Poles and Hungarians, since they could more easily be assimilated into British society”. She also “thought it quite wrong that immigrants should be given council housing whereas white citizens were not”.

    The woman who refused to support Mandela because “he’s a terrorist” offered outright friendship to the butcher Pinochet. Anyone who thinks that Thatcher was not a racist is seriously deluded.

  7. Some of America’s greatest Presidents could be tarred with the same brush…. a significant number of them had KKK membership… Truman was unfortuante enough to be ejected from them, not for his contempt for Black people but because he was known to have Catholic friends…

    The great architect of Versailles Woodrow Wilson is on record as saying that America done more for blacks in 100years than they did for themsleves in a 1,000.

    In short the debate about Thatcher’s ideology does not really impact whether or not her position on the list is merited….

    3 election victories… the first woman PM … facing down the Trade unions and making Britain more economically and industrially competitive earn her that title.. he views on asians are frankly irrelevant.

  8. A fair few British Prime Ministers before Thatcher had deplorable views and records on racial matters.

    Even Atlee. It was during the time of the post-war Labour Government (1949 – 1951) that President Obama’s grandfather was imprisoned and tortured in Kenya. (I recollect having in the past been hauled up on this site when I assumed this mistreatment had been during the 1950s Mau-Mau uprising). I wonder what Brown and co., whilst they were in office, said to President Obama to demonstrate their regret about this aspect of Labour Party history.

  9. Major should be higher and Blair lower in my view.

  10. On the basis of what they achieved I would agree with Attlee and Thatcher being 1/2 [actual order depending on your political viewpoint.]

    MacMillan would be a comfortable 3.

    4.An assessment of Churchill is difficult because of his ill-health for much of his term but his achievements were better than most albeit due to forced delegation.

    5. Major based on his economic legacy post 1992 and Ulster.

    There is little to chose between Wilson and Heath who would be a distant 6/7. Both handed on poisoned chalices.

    Eden , DH and Callaghan have I believe been penalised by the brevity of their tenure. Eden introduced the Clean Air Act probably the most effective “green” legislation of the 20C;also he started motorway construction and modernisation of British Railways.
    Re Suez he did actual resign shortly after the debacle.

    DH could well have won in 1964 if the GE had been held after the change in power in USSR and Red China’s nuclear test.

    Callaghan did endeavour [albeit forced by the IMF] to bring some sanity to our finances but was unable/unwilling to deal effectively with the industrial relations problems inter alia.

    Therefore DH at 8. Callaghan 9 and Eden 10.

    Finally in no particular order Blair and Brown both of whom have done untold harm to this country from which I fear it will never recover.

  11. You are quite wrong about Churchill’s postwar government. It was one of the most effective in British political history. It got rid of rationing and dismantled Labour’s post war economic controls and laid the basis for the consumer boom of the 1950s, wrongly attributed to Macmillan. .

    It managed the trick, rarely achieved since, of combining full employment with virtually zero inflation, laying the basis for the Conservatives’ uninterrupted 13 years of office, a record under universal suffrage until the arrival of Mrs T. Contrary to popular myth, Churchill was not a figurehead but played an active part across all areas of policy.

    Eager to rid himself of the reputation of “the workers’ enemy”, unfairly gained during the General Strike, he initiated the practice, later revived by Harold Wilson, of holding summit meetings at Downing Street, usually late at night and into the early hours, with union leaders threatening strike action where brandy and cigars rather than beer and sandwiches were on offer. When R.A.Butler, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, asked Churchill on whose terms a potential railway dispute had been settled, he impishly replied:

    “Theirs, old cock.”

    (meaning the union).

    By contrast Heath was a total disaster with his government lurching from crisis to crisis provoking the greatest level of social conflict in half a century. His obsession with entry into what was then the Common Market, far from being a great achievement, was secured by deceit (“there will be no abrogation of British sovereignty”) and, like Gladstone’s similar obsession with Ireland,split his own party and imported an issue into British politics that was to be a running sore.

    He also presided over the only postwar British government that failed to be reelected. Churchill, on the other hand, had the unusual experience of seeing his party gain a seat from the opposition at a bye-election, at Sunderland South in 1953, a feat only subsequently achieved by Macmillan, at Brighouse & Spenborough in 1960, and Mrs T, at Merton & Morden in 1982.

    The list reflects the left-wing bias of academia (especially in political studies) with 3 out of the 5 postwar Labour PMS featuring in the top half of the list. Attlee was much more of a figurehead than Churchill was. He understood little about economics and mostly delegated to his ministers. He was also ill at crucial periods such as the Budget crisis of 1951. The only transformative PM on the list is Mrs T.

  12. MacMillan was much parodied at the time, but in retrospect he achieved much in terms of decolonisation, building the first motorway (M1), and building a large number of houses – a feat which seems to have eluded most prime ministers.

    Prosperity increased, and at the end of his term my parents and many like them had their first car.

    I think if we could analyse the Tories of that era we might find that they were way to the left of the Labour Party of recent times (discuss). It could have been the war experience, or just possibly the influence of the National Liberals from the 1930s and 1940s…

  13. 1. Thatcher
    2. churchill
    3. Major
    and the rest not worth mentioning. To vote Atlee above Thatcher, Major and churchill is an insult. This to me raises questions about people in this country.

  14. Is it too late to contribute to the ‘best MPs’ thread?

    I think Heath is the most underrated post-war PM. After all, it’s difficult to think of anything more profound than his action of taking us into Europe – this (arguably) ensured our future prosperity: it also caused the downfall of his successor, Mrs T (so it was hardly a ‘minor’ thing).

    Heath has been criticised for only winning one of his four general elections but of course in terms of the popular vote he actually won two out of four. (He can hardly be blamed for an electoral system that translated a 0.6% popular vote victory into a 4-seat parliamentary deficit).

    True, Heath had terrible luck – but he held true to basic principles of fairness: most noticeably, he took on the right of his own party on the issue of race (both over the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech two years before his election, and over the issue of the Ugandan Asian refugees two years into his premiership).

    Let us take into account the bad hand that fate delivered to various PMs. It is hard to think of anyone who had such awful luck as Ted Heath. Yet, despite this, he arguably made us a more open society – at home and abroad.

  15. Robin Hood. I am inclined to agree with you that Edward Heath is underrated a bit. But he was not good at the team leadership aspects of being PM. Which caused him problems not only running the Conservative Government internally but also with the major industrial relations issues he ran into. And it was misjudgement, not bad luck that led him to call the February 1974 election as a result of which he lost office, never to come back.

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