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. Interestingly, if you award points based on rankings (So Attlee gets 12, Eden gets 1), both parties get 39 points…

  2. I was having a conversation with my father in law along similar lines a few months ago. I was suggesting that, since the war, there were only two prime ministers who had actually changed anything, those two being Attlee and Thatcher. Attlee bringing in the NHS and the welfare state, and Thatcher in changing British society into a consumerist and capitalist state. Both PMs changed the game completely, whereas all the other PMs were just tinkering at the edges.
    Whether this was being in the right place at the right time, (Attlee after WW2 where people were ready to throw away the old ideas and start something new, and Thatcher after a number of years of weakened government and union power with the emerging new technologies giving her new opportunities to change society), or whether they were visionaries who would have made these big changes anyway is an interesting argument. Personally I think it’s probably a combination of both.

  3. How very odd, I can find very little indeed to argue with here. Based on “since 1945” Churchill comes out ok probably due to the enormous prestige he carried across the globe, even if we were broke.

    Well, I put behind me the fact that “academics” formed this list, and say its great.

  4. Quite interesting:

    I’d put Atlee and Thatcher = first;

    Wilson third above Heath (4th) and Macmillan (5th) who in turn is above Blair (6th);

    Brown above Major in 9th and 10th respectively.

    Why didn’t they ask Architecture, Real Estate and Planning academics ?? :-)

  5. I’d say Macmillan, Callaghan and Wilson all deserve to be more highly rated than Blair – after all, what DID Blair actually achieve?

  6. I think this betrays those academics’ left-wing bias.

    Blair, Third?

    The man who just admitted that he should have not bunked as many conservative policies when he came in just to have to try and re-introduce them later. The man who made spin THE essential feature of government life. Who lied, or at least failed to plan sufficiently, to take us into war in Iraq, a cock-up at least as bad as Suez. The man who spent most of his years in power locked in a civil war with his Chancellor. The man who came in with a landslide and then left 10 years later having done less to dramatically reform the country than the coalition is trying to do in its first 4 months.

    I’m surprised they’re so kind to blair or callaghan. But I suppose once you get down to major, heath, brown, home and eden there’s not much to pick from.

    It really betrays the vagaries of the job. Eden would have gone down in history as a fine PM, were it not for Suez, but that’s a pretty big cock-up. But is it objectively more of a cock-up than callaghan allowing the winter of discontent, which then meant thatcher could take apart the entire post-war consensus that callaghan was so committed to.

    Or for that matter why does Callaghan failing to beat the unions rank better than heath failing to do the same thing. At least heath got us into the EEC.

    And what did Home do that was so awful apart from being launched into the job at an impossible moment. He almost pulled it off as well.

  7. @Stephen W

    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

    Guess you did not read this note from AW at the start of the thread then……..

  8. ‘I’d say Macmillan, Callaghan and Wilson all deserve to be more highly rated than Blair – after all, what DID Blair actually achieve?’

    Macmillan certainly – he’d be top of my list although in terms of achievements he ranks behind Atlee and Thatcher

    Callaghan wasn’t in the post for long and inherited a near nightmare scenario – making it hard to rate him at all – largely thanks to his predecessor Harold Wilson, surely the most overrated Prime Minister in British history

    For all his faults, I’d rate Blair far more highly than Wilson

  9. I think it is the changes the PM set out to make that matter. I, it will be no surprise to anyone, hated the change Blair created, but by God change he did make.

    Of course there are many on this site who feel exactly the same about the blessed Margaret. I think Clement Attlee deserves his numero ono, after all the welfare state was a huge, huge change from pre-war days.

  10. ROLAND HAINES

    Agree with you on your views of this list – beingan English Democrat doesn’t stop me being reasonably objective about things.

    However, I’ve just noticed a post of yours at the end of the previous set of posts where you suggested to another poster that the sort of comments I’ve been making indicates that I could never been a member of the SBS. I would like to assure you that I was in the SBS and I took part in missions in many parts of the world.

    You should post an apology as nothing is more offensive to a retired member of Her Majesty’s Armed Services than suggestions that they are fabricating their record.

  11. How on earth Blair can be rated third best is beyond me. The economy was good, because the accepted the previous Tory changes and the world economy was good; he got out just at the right time. His failures on immigration, the Constitution, and foreign policy in some areas, to say nothing of the Supremacy of Spin, should rank him closer to last than first.

  12. @THE LAST FANDANGO
    Flying in the face of what I have just said, I think I know what you mean. Under Blair we did not come out of Europe, we did not become a US state, (some might say we may as well of done) but social attitutes changed greatly. Perhaps it is my age, I was 51 when Blair came to power, but I notice so very many little things that are now very different in the way people think.

  13. @ARCHIE
    Then I am very glad I never served on an op with you.
    Reading and understanding orders is important in the Catering Corps, never mind special forces.

  14. ARCHIE

    Quite understand why you feel you need an apology but I think many of us on this board would appreciate it if you could move away from all this military stuff and make posts relevant to the topic.

    It is almost certain that the position of Blair and Thatcher on this table is going to be most controversial as they were the sort of personalities about whom people held strong views either for or against. In the case of Blair this is interesting as he saw himself as a centrist but then came the Iraq war!

  15. ROLAND HAINES

    Your inability to apologise to me properly for unfairly smearing my reputation says a lot about your character. I am grateful I never came across you when you were running some army catering operation as if I had I imagine there’s every chsnce the food would have been awful.

  16. @ARCHIE
    With my culinary skills I can guarantee it.

  17. If we take the basis of greatness as the ability to see the need to do something that others do not see, or believe is too difficult, and then to make it happen against all of the protests of the establishment or the perceived wisdom, and to change the future for ever, then I think we can change the list a little. This is especially true if we also weigh the converse, which is the failure to use political capital or financial strength to change things.

    So No 1 must be Thatcher, who pulled us from the mire when noone else could have done so, and we still live in the world che created. Attlee comes in at 2 for the NHS, created despite having no money.

    These 2 are way ahead of the rest, none of whom confronted anything or left much of a legacy, so maybe (I can’t believe I am saying this) Heath should be 3 for the EU entry. Major created financial strength so maybe comes in at 4.

    The losers must be Eden who badly lisjudged Suez, Churchill for failing to be anything except not Attlee, and then Brown and Blair for wasting a big lump of goodwill and a great financial legacy. They managed to refrom nothing, create nothing, and just put us in debt.

    So, my list is Thatcher, Attlee, Heath, Major, MacMillan, Wilson, Douglas Home, Callaghan, Churchill, Eden, Blair, Brown

  18. What did Macmillan do? I’m too young to remember :) I know I could use Wiki but I’m interestered in hearing the totally non-partisan unbiased account that I know I will get from asking on her ;)

  19. There are several PMs who appear to be out of place. Douglas-Home at second from bottom is definitely unfair to a PM who was dealt a wretched hand and almost saved his party; he deserves some recognition for pursuing abolition of resale price maintenance. Churchill should certainly not be sixth based on his post-war government. He should swap places with Heath who spoilt a good chance and gave terrible political leadership on all issues except EEC membership.

    Blair is unexpectedly high and Brown unexpectedly low; I don’t suggest they should be switched around but I suspect Brown’s economic rescue may be viewed more objectively in later decades.

    But it is nice to see Wilson get some recognition and Callaghan not doing too badly. Their two governments had their reputations unfairly trashed. Major as a mid-table performer is also about right.

  20. Sorry, messed that up in the editing: Douglas-Home should swap places with Heath, not Churchill.

  21. @ STEVEN WHEELER LAB
    He continued in the Winston Churchill “the English speaking nations” tradition. Very close to Jack Kennedy
    and at an extremely dangerous and difficult time in world affairs, was a very serious player in avoiding the third world war. Domestically, he told the people they had “never had it so good” which at that time was probably true, but of course many were living at a level which present standards would abhor. He over saw the gentle reduction in Britain’s world standing and national competitiveness as was the way of the British political elite in the 50s and 60s. His wife Lady Dorothy, gardened at Chequers at night, wearing a coal miners helmet with the light switched on.

  22. I would suggest that Brown is too low. As PM (not Chancellor – for which he might be held culpable) he steered the UK through the depths of the recession rather well.

  23. @David Boothroyd

    You make a very good point about the hand that a PM is dealt. Some of them inherited a mess and made the most of it whereas others inherited a benign situation and made a mess of it. They should be evaluated on a value-added (or destroyed) basis.

    No examples lest I seem partisan.

  24. Doubt if anyone can dispute the top two for better or worse they are the two most important PMs since the war. Blair is very high!! I felt a lot of what he achieved was to continue where Thatcher left off. I think Brown is too close to fairlyy judge. I think history will be much kinder to him, than this.

  25. ‘What did Macmillan do? I’m too young to remember I know I could use Wiki but I’m interested in hearing the totally non-partisan unbiased account that I know I will get from asking on here’

    I take it the second part is a joke

    I think Macmillan is the best postwar PM as he’s the closest (at least since Churchill but as has been stated during his second stint as PM he wasn’t physically fit for office) to actually govern in the interest of the country as a whole, rather than certain sections of it, hence the ‘one nation’ description

    He famously said during the successful 1959 general election campaign ‘most of us have never had it so good’. With free universal health care, a minimum wage, an independent nuclear deterrent to mention but a few, he wasn’t lying – most of the country hadn’t

  26. MacMillan would have been my number one.

    He achieved a great deal, not just his electoral victory in 1959 [increased majority], but his decolonisation agenda, and securing a British nuclear deterent. All major platforms gto his premiership, which were achieved.

    On top of that he had a lasting influence on British politics, economically the Tory party would wait till 1980s before challenging his Keynesean and mixed market approaches. Plus, Heath’s EEC membership success years later all began under MacMillan.

    Additionally, I think Harold Wilson ought to be higher up, he did after hall achieve great success in the 1960s with the liberalisation agenda [abolishing capital punishment and legalising homosexuality].

  27. I think that historians will one day rate John Major quite high in the rankings-
    starting the Northern Ireland peace process, despite John Smith’s warning that there were no votes in it, and despite the unionist background of the Tory Party.

    And the economic policies with Ken Clarke- compare the stats he left in 1997 with the inheritance from
    Margaret Thatcher in 1990 (Govt debt, inflation, unemployment and ERM membership etc).

    The concept of the Citizens Charter for measuring public services.

    And I am not a Tory.

    And Blair is surely not the third greatest??

  28. Asking people to be objective and discuss this subject is almost impossible. I recognise that many of you are trying to be as neutral and high-minded about Thatcher as possible but i think you are being too fair.

    We have no industry, many of our finest towns and cities have since gone by the wayside, consumerism has destroyed the fabric our society and disparities between the wealthy and poor have become all the more apparent. We have nothing to fall back on but a service sector which is not enough. Short, medium and long term, the changes Thatcher made to Britain make her unquestionably the worst thing that has ever happened to this country.

  29. @CHRIS LANE
    I agree Blair is not the third “GREATEST” but did he have the third biggest impact on our lives?

  30. Agree with your comment about Heath. Perhaps the criterion should be historical impact rather than achievements. Of course, it is not the time to be pro Brown but he did arguably mitigate a potential depression with fiscal stimulus, quantitative easing and all that. Possibly a lot more meaningful in the long run than any thing Callaghan or Major ever “achieved”. The latter should be much lower in the running order. Could we not have more of this? How about Lib/Lib Dem leaders? Grimond, Steel, Ashdown, Thorpe, Davies, Kennedy, Campbell and Clegg.

  31. @ROGER

    It’s probably too soon for any objective analysis of Brown tbh. Even Blair’s pushing it a bit.

    @STEPHEN W

    Many left-wingers, even capitalist left-wingers, consider Maggie to be Satan. I suspect that she would not have been number 2 if the academics had any left-wing bias.

  32. Don’t think there is too much doubt that Attlee and Thatcher belong at the top. Both were products of their age – Attlee elected at a time when the world was moving firmly to the left – Thatcher at the time when the post war settlement between capital and labour was falling apart.
    Attlee inherited the worst economic mess of all them. Blair arguably the best – except that by his time the UK had lost its manufacturing base, and was overly dependent on the City and North sea oil – not that anybody seemed to care at the time.
    Blair is an interesting one – great achievements in Northern Ireland and Welsh and Scottish devolution – but arguably the worst post-war disaster – the invasion of Iraq – worse in its consequences even than Suez. Think I would be inclined to push him down the pecking order a little – below those who perhaps achieved less but also did far less damage.

  33. ‘I think that historians will one day rate John Major quite high in the rankings’

    I agree, and I’m also no Tory

    Major’s administration of 92-97 was arguably the unluckiest in history – even more so than Brown’s administration of 07-10

    They simply never recovered in either the press or the polls after the 92 ERM debacle despite the good things they did – the Northern Ireland peace process, Clarke’s stewardship of the economy

    His fatal error was not using his 92′ election victory to replace the unpopular Norman Lamont as Chancellor of the Exchequer

    Had he done that, black Tuesday might not have happened, and his government might have got as much credit for the good things they did for the bad

  34. We are not getting all that much comment about changes in social attitudes. Perhaps just as well because its hopelessly party political. As a for instance I applaud Mr Gannex Mac Man (Harold Wilson) for legalising homosexuality. However as a Tory in late middle age, I do not applaud Blair for making it a case for automatic cannonisation. I dont want a debate on homosexuality but the impact of attitude change is a constant source of surprise to me.

  35. All I can say that I am really glad that people like Roland Haines never held senior positions in any government . Roland’s nauseating attitude towards someone like myself who served valiantly in special forces (the SBS) is truly sad.

  36. Thanks Anthony for this kind of post. I am sure the academics that took part, enjoyed doing so.

    There are two basic ways to judge a successful PM. One: How long did they survive for? Two: How much legislative impact did they have?

    In both regards, Blair and Thatcher stand ahead of most of them. Atlee creeps into the top three by virtue of the excellent work of the ministers underneath him and his excellent foreign affairs handling.

    The rest really are not at the races… the Wilsons, Edens, and Majors of this world were reasonably safe pairs of hands… but they hardly set the world alight

    The Homes and Browns of this world will barely receive a mention for their work as PMs.

    …. Now if we picked the best Chancellors of post war Britain…….. ;)

    [Noooo! I think we can handle the best PM debate without descending into partisan yah-boo, but I’d be very surprised if we could manage it for Chancellors. I think Darling would probably get a good rating from all sides of the political divide… but I don’t think we could yet manage non-partisan discussion of his predecessor – AW]

  37. “Roland’s nauseating attitude towards someone like myself who served valiantly in special forces (the SBS) is truly sad.”

    I have only known one person who was in the Special Forces.
    He was one of our best salesmen. I remember him coming back from Iraq with one of the biggest construction equipment orders we ever got, having hitch-hiked from Basra to Baghdad in the middle of the Iran -Iraq war to get it.

    He would never have said ” someone like myself who served valiantly in special forces”
    He never talked about his military service-he just got on with his job.

  38. How can Blair be ranked above Chuchill?! Absolute outrage

  39. @ ALEKSANDER

    “Some of them inherited a mess and made the most of it whereas others inherited a benign situation and made a mess of it. ”

    Yes
    This is all pretty subjective.

    Perhaps one can see the extremes in reasonable focus though.

    Attlee & Thatcher way out at the top-both transformative.

    An awful lot of candidates for the bottom-where do you start-it’s pretty crowded down there.

  40. COLIN

    I never normally talk like that either – but if you had followed the previous posts between myself and Roland Haines you’ll have understood why I expressed myself in a slightly immodest way.

    If you are implying that I am not telling the truth about my military service I am more than disappointed but I bet you’ve never been to South Georgia!

  41. ARCHIE
    “if you had followed the previous posts between myself and Roland Haines ”

    I did-I read everything my friend posts-it makes me laugh.

    “I bet you’ve never been to South Georgia!”
    Do you?
    What’s that got to do with the price of milk?

    Can you give your glorious career a rest now please. W’ve all got the message thanks. ;-)

  42. Welcome (back) to some new/returning contributors.

    Seems terribly harsh on ADH and Heath to me. Both dealt rather poor hands …

    On the other hand it always surprises me how generous people are to Wilson, Macmillan and Callaghan. All allowed the culture of industrial decay to fester and papered over the cracks. From my (right of centre/economic liberal) perspective, the most remarkable one was Macmillan – scion of a very successful commercial family, himself a fairly successful leader of the business, and yet unable to cut through the tangled web of spanish practices in so much of what was then, still, one of the most advanced, diverse and internationally integrated industrial economies (for example – Western German GDP/capita only passed UK GDP/capita in 1960)

    Much the same criticism might be made of Churchill, although I think Keynes’ dismissive view of his understanding of economic issues three decades earlier was proably on the ball (whatever the correcness of Keynes’ own views).

    At least Heath tried industrial reform, even if by then the cards were firmly stacked against him.

  43. Daniel Clarke: “How can Blair be ranked above Churchill?”

    Very easily, because we’re not looking at Churchill’s wartime coalition government but at his ‘Indian summer’ government of the early 1950s. There are good things to be said for it: it accepted almost all of the Attlee government’s nationalizations, reversing only Iron and Steel which was the worst-handled of them. It also played a strong part in international affairs, developing NATO and the UN while developing an independent nuclear armed Britain (whatever you think about nuclear arms, the history is quite clear that this decision gave Britain much more influence in the world).

    But ultimately the 1951-55 government was a poor one, making few important reforms. Churchill was old and tired, and suffered a severe stroke in office. He clung on to power too long, and his management of the personality clashes in his cabinet was weak.

  44. Oh … and before my right of centre colleagues chime in on the greatness of the Iron Lady, please remember …

    Hong Kong
    Zimbabwe
    the 80’s NHS
    3 million unemployed
    the over-valued pound.

    Mrs T did many things right – but not a few wrong as well.

  45. COLIN

    Point taken and I agree that I should never have taken offence at what appears to be a genuine mistake by Roland. Incidentally, if you don’t know what South Georgia’s got to do with the early 80s, I can only say that you should!

    From the tone of your remarks on this board I believe you might be tempted to join the English Democrats. We are organised regionally and it is easy to find out who is the regional organiser closest to you from our website. We now have over 1300 fully paid up members and our membership has increased by 7.5% since the election. We even managed to persuade a west country cider maker to sponsor our annual conference in the past so we aren’t one of those ‘here today,gone tomorrow’ minor parties.

  46. @Rob Sheffield

    Fair comment.

    Call it slightly partisan.

    I don’t think anyone would disagree that attlee or thatcher dramatically changed the country and have huge achievements to their names.

    I just don’t see what Blair achieved that makes him more successful than wilson or macmillan (so I’m not that partisan).

    Without being too partisan. What are Blair’s actual achievements. He squandered an economic legacy, failed to deeply reform the public services, and took us into two difficult wars without any real plan to get us out again.

    On the plus side he introduced a great deal of social reform supporting minorities and sexual equality, civil partnerships etc. He also increased spending on public services.

    However, he then went on to do this too much. And I don’t see how this mixed record, especially considering the excellent financial position and huge amount of public goodwill he had on entering office, means he should ranks 3rd.

    It seems Wilson and Macmillian did more and left more stable countries with considerably fewer opening advantages.

  47. Sheps,

    In terms of what hand is dealt to you, it is less relevant than one would imagine. Arguably Atlee and Thatcher were dealt the two hardest hands of all. Bankruptcy and reconstruction are no mean challenges…

    Brown, Major and others were not dealt very favourable hands either but I think that is part and parcel for the job… In short I would not excuse some 2 or 3 year term of mediocrity on the basis of a tough hand..

    On another note, looking down the list it is clear the Britain has a remarkable high standard and calibre of Prime Ministers…. when one thinks of George Dubya or Jimmy Carter or indeed Nixon, I think Britain can be reliably reassured that the process whereby it allows a PM to continue in office if the are successful works reasonably well….

  48. ‘Mrs T did many things right – but a few wrong as well.’

    At last, a balanced view on Lady T – much to be welcomed

    I think history (although kind to her at the moment) will be more balanced too

    ‘looking down the list it is clear the Britain has a remarkable high standard and calibre of Prime Ministers…. when one thinks of George Dubya or Jimmy Carter or indeed Nixon’

    You could add Ronald Regan and even Bill Clinton to that list too

    Brown, Major, Douglas Holme and Callaghan were all dealt relatively poor hands

    Under the circumstancews Callaghan and Major did relatively well, Brown and Diuglas Holme less well, although I do think history will be kinder on both the Brown and Major governments –

  49. I think because Blair’s reputation is so tainted by the Iraq war that people ignore the part he played in facilitating the NI peace process. Obviously It is not perfect now, but I think Blair deserves some credit, along with others of course, for the great strides that have been made since the Good Friday agreement.

    FWIW I think Thatcher did bring about great changes to the nation’s mindset. It’s funny thinking back to the days when there was no TV after 11.00 pm and none at all during the day. Also one could’nt just buy a phone, but had to rent it from the GPO/BT and it took 6-8 weeks to be installed etc etc. Small things, maybe, but quite telling all the same.

  50. @Eoin

    Hope Italy was good. :-)

    @Roland, Colin

    I think Archie and Wayne are cut from the same cloth. :-)

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