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. Valerie,

    It was thank you :)

  2. A lot of people have queried Blair’s No. 3 position. Here are several things he need:

    i) Scottish and Welsh devolution
    ii) Finishing (hopefully) peace in Northern Ireland
    iii) Lots of social changes – e.g. civil partnerships
    iv) Stopping my kids’ school falling down.

    The last one is an important contribution. Thatcher may have changed the UK into a consumerist entrepreneurial society, but at the end of 18 years of Tory rule the public infrastructure (schools, hospitals etc.) was in a miserable state. Spanking new school buildings does not, of course, necessarily lead to better education, but it is a start.

  3. Blair deserves his rating. Remember the crumbling school and hospital buildings he inherited; the lengthy waiting lists up tp 2 years; the disastrous rail privatisation. His big mistake was not to delay the invasion of Iraq until Hans Blix had investigated WMD thoroughly – and then not to persuade Bush of the need for a planned post-invasion strategy. I would rate Macmillan highly and Heath – certainly above Thatcher – did any other PM divide the nation more than she did? Did any other PM promote self-aggrandisement to the detriment of the weak and vulnerable more than she did? Her treatment of Scotland is still the reason for that country being virtually a Tory-free zone.
    It was she with Major as Chancellor who made the catastrophic decision to join the ERM.

  4. I can’t really see how you can seperate Blair and Brown as Brown was so powerful in the Blair government and ever major spending decision has to be approved by him.

    I reakon both Wilson and Macmillan should probably be ahead of Blair/Brown. Wilsons goverment in particular was VERY radical from 64-70.

    Agree with Atlee/Thatcher’s placings and all the lower ones.

  5. @ ALEKSANDAR

    “They should be evaluated on a value-added (or destroyed) basis.”

    Picking this remark up, I have compared incremental change in UK GDP/capita for the period of each premier’s term of office & ranked them.

    The results are :-

    Format :-
    Name / complete years used / % GDP percapita change over those years / average %pa GDP per capita change .

    Ds -Home. end 1963/1964. +4.77% = +4.77% pa
    Heath end1970/1973 +12.26%= + 4.09%pa
    Blair end 1996/2006 +28.56% = +2.86%pa
    Callaghan end 1975/1978 +8.56% = +2.85%pa
    Churchill end 1951/1955 +10.50% = +2.63%pa
    Thatcher end 1978/1990 +29.03% = + 2.42%pa
    Mac. end 1956/1963 +15.34% = + 2.19%pa
    Wilson end 1964/1970 +12.67% = + 2.11%pa
    Major end 1990/1996 + 9.83% = +1.64% pa
    Attlee end 1945/1951 + 6.15% = + 1.03%pa
    Eden end 1955/1956 + 0.46% = + 0.46%pa
    Wilson end 1973/1975 -1.93% = – 0.97%pa
    Brown ens 2006/2009 -3.86% = -1.28%pa

    GDP is in constant 2003 prices.
    Terms of office do not match the callender years I have had to use for GDP-but they approximate those terms.

    Figures for short terms will be less informative than for longer ones.
    There may be some legacy effect for all terms of office-particularly shorter ones.

  6. A bit hard on Brown this. He really showed courage on his policies on saving the economy, strongly influenced the rest of the world, and he was right. That’s a hell of thing to have pulled off. Seems these academics are as easily influenced by who looks good on tv as the rest of us (hence the high place of Blair, surely)

  7. @Colin

    Interesting results even with your caveats. I had expected more growth from the Attlee govt but the data may be complicated by the shift from a wartime to a peacetime economy. There were other wholesale changes like nationalisation that may have affected the data.
    The Callaghan figures most surprised me just because it didn’t feel like that at the time. North Sea oil should have started contributing by then so maybe that boosted them.

  8. Brown, Heath and Callaghan are all fairly underrated, imo. It’s probably also unfair to Douglas-Home, considering he was PM for only a year and the Tories only lost narrowly in 1964.

  9. I think if this was conducted in 40 years time then Blair and Brown might have swapped places

  10. Eoin!!!!! You’re back!!!! Yippppppeeeeeeeeee

  11. Hi Sue :) Yes I am :) .. minus my wallet… 2010 is the year of thefts for me I am afraid… that’s four burgalries I have experienced since Easter

    How was 2 weeks on UKPR? Did 12% yellows meet with much banter? or the solid decline in government approval?

  12. Oh Eoin, it was bleak.

    No-one debating anything just snipes and digs. I felt like a lonely little red boat in a sea of blue. When I complained at being called a trot or commie, I got moderated.

    So many exciting news things happened and I had to talk to myself.

    The perceived wisdom is that Reds are just insanely jealous of Blues for the Lib adultery, we are opposing simply for the sake of it and Labour ruined the country. Even Alec nearly gave up.

  13. “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”

    I think that considering the majority of the post-war evil socialist/capitalists have brought the country to its knees, we’re doing remarkably well.

  14. Oh and you HAVE to watch the coalition programme “5 days that changed the World” from Thursday on catch up it was GREAT

  15. ALEKSANDAR.

    Me too.
    Even more the results for Wilson’s first administration.

    I had left the profession for industry by then, and my work memories of that time are all bad.

    I have done the same excercise over Con/Lab administrations -regardless of PM :-

    Again the GDP periods are not co-terminous , but approximate the government tenure.:

    Lab -1945-51 +1.0% pa
    Con 1951-64 + 2.6%pa
    Lab 1964-70 + 2.1%pa
    Con 1970-73 +4.1%pa
    Lab 1973-78 +1.3%pa
    Con 1978-96 + 2.3%pa
    Lab 1996-09 + 1.8%pa

  16. Sue,

    Interesting indeed…

    I would say that any opposition party with 38% after 13 years in power can be very very proud of itslef. 268 MPs take the red whip.

    One might surmise that one of the key reasons blues are trying to behave as best they can (in government not UKPR) is that they see the ever present threat of a red return…. It was probably Blair’s biggest mistake that even with blues on 164Mps in 1997 he still lived in fear of them coming back. But then who can blame him, didnt we all?

  17. Sorry, “5 Days that Changed Britain”

  18. Sue,

    Thanks for that I will watch it tonight :)

  19. Blair? Third?
    Is somebody taking the Michael?
    Someone remind me – what he actually achieved in office? 10+ years. Longer than anyone on that list, bar Thatcher.

    Now, afterwards? Count it.

  20. Interesting that if you give each PM a points score of 1 – 12 in descending order from 12 downwards, Labour and Tory PMs total 39 points each, meaning that with 5 Labour PMs to 7 Tory, this ranking score Labour PMs as significantly better than Tories.

    @Colin/Alexander – using the GDP figures in office isn’t much good unless you find a way to compare this with global economic movements. It’s really the relative performance of the economy that would be much more useful as a measure.

    Even if you could do this however, it would still give a markedly one dimensional view of success for any given government. I would argue that social reform is as important, if not more so, that pure economic measures in the post war era. If there was a way to measure this objectively, we would then be scoring things like de criminalising homosexuality and civil partnerships against Clause 28 for example.

    In general, Labour have been a greater engine for positive change in this area since the war, but arguably have a weaker case in relatively narrowly defined economic measures.

  21. Interesting with regards to Blair being so high, but I remember one of my teachers saying that, had it not been for the Iraq/Afghanistan war, then Blair would have been remembered as one of the better Prime Ministers (dunno whether he meant post-war or in general.)

  22. From historical viewpoint its difficult to really be objective about anything after 1990….Thatcher wwould have rated very highly before the banking collapse made the whole ‘financial’ experiment of the 1980s look more high risk….Balir has NI and Devolution and NHS to his credit but I think it’s right to say in some ways Blair/Brown was an extraordinary poltical continuum with the Brown premiership a strange coda.

    Major and wilson were gr8 political PM…keeping their aprties in power despite themselves but less achieving in lasting snese. Heath has to his credit a major achievment in EU but again stragely politically catastrophic. Churchhill after 45 was a bit of a shambles, Eden not goodMacmillan very politically canny…

    So maybe I move Churchill well down and give Major and Wislon more credit.

  23. One has to salute Wilson for keeping us out of Vietnam.
    He was’nt afraid to stand up to the yanks.

  24. ir’rational – We can all play that game “Maggie? Second? blah blah”

  25. As a northerner who was 16 in 1979 it is difficult to me to recongmise Thatcher as a good PM even after 30 years.
    She left our society divided and created an underclass and was homophobic and imho profoundly racist in outlook even calling Mandela a Terrorist.
    I agree with Alec social development comes alove Economics for me for me so i would score Wilson and Blair well although Iraq counts against the latter and the former went with the’60’ Zeitgest rather than pushing the boundaries himself.
    Finally, I think history will judge GB better.

  26. Why is the list incomplete and not showing Cameron in 13th position?

  27. Colin,
    Great stats on GDP growth.

    Attlee’s era includes the truly awful 1947 winter
    (Shiver with Shinwell and starve with Strachey)

    Many economists think the Maudling Boom under Home and the Barber Boom under Heath were
    disastrous- leading to balance of payments crises, inflation and falling £ with a consumer boom that was bound to crash.

    Do the figures in your post include ‘quality output’?

    On the Callaghan figures- I think North Sea Oil does not come into play until Maggie’s time.

    Great figures- chart. I’ll use them in my lessons in school!

  28. @Chris Lane – pretty much the point I was making. The Barber Boom was a compete disaster – possibly one of the three worst economic management decisions of the C20th along with returning to the gold standard and entering the ERM at the wrong level, and Heath bagged unsustainable growth for his own record at the expense of an almightly bust which Callaghan and Healey had to deal with (and actually dealt with rather well, despite what the common folk memory of the period is).

    I’ve often posted that economic policy needs to be judged on the impacts over the decades, and Colin’s GDP figures that tend to be trotted out to show how relatively better Tories are in government ignore the fact that for much of their periods in government they sought to engineer economic booms to fit with the party needs within the electoral cycle. When they got it wrong, Labour came in, often at times of greater global stress, hence the GDP record disparity.

    As I said earlier, I would seek to judge a much broader range of measures than GDP which is easily distorted by many other factors.

    @Ir’rational – working in the Third Sector for much of the Blair years I and my colleagues benefitted enormously from the minimum wage, statutory holidays for part timers and legal requirements for pension schemes to be extended to part time staff. I avail myself of my new rights to roam most weekends, but due to my personal circumstances have not felt moved to use my rights to a civil partnership. I’m an expat Scot and happy to see devolution.

    In my local area I have two newly built schools, a brand new hospital plus a brand new local respite centre, two new doctors surgeries and four Sure Start centres. My area has seen crime fall to it’s lowest recorded level since the early 1970’s, with violent crime also declining dramatically. Air quality has continued to improve and our local river now has salmon as regular occurance. We didn’t enter the Euro.

    I can produce a list equally as long of things I find disappointing about Blair’s time in office, and I still personally characterise his tenure as a missed opportunity in broad terms, but if you take off you partisan spectacles you will see many good achievements also.

  29. @ JIMJAM

    What grounds have you to suggest Mrs Thatcher was homophobic or racist , what nonesense ! As a Glaswegiam who was 13 in 1979 I can appreciate the mountain she had to climb and she without doubt had to fight the hardest to get to become PM.

  30. “What grounds have you to suggest Mrs Thatcher was homophobic or racist?”

    Section 28, and her remark that she didn’t want to see Britain “swamped by people of an alien culture” will do for a start.

  31. @Sue Marsh
    I suppose it dependeth on one’s viewpoint..
    @Fred Pitt
    S28 (actually S29 in law) was about indoctrination of children
    ‘Swamped….’ is now non-contentious even for a significant portion (a majority?) of Labour. The language may differ – the sentiment is the same. (Only Gramsci might disagree).
    Her views may have been Right-Wing, but ……

  32. @Fred Pitt
    Even Attlee (and almost certainly Churchill) was probably ‘homophobic’. If one (or both) was not ‘in the closet’.
    I think both points we make illustrate only too well the dangers inherent in projecting the values of one age upon another.

  33. @Fred Pitt
    I must apologise – my memory fails!
    (Many?) different numbers during passage as other amendments were proposed or removed, Royal Assent to S28 (or ‘Clause’ or ‘2A’). Confusing, but we know to what we refer.

  34. @Alec

    Good post, as ever. As a child of the 50/60’s I can remember Barber’s boom/bust and McMillan’s ‘You’ve never had it so good. Good to put it all in context. I must do some reading on the topic. Now I’m retired, I’ve got the time :-)

  35. “What grounds have you to suggest Mrs Thatcher was homophobic or racist?”

    Racist for calling Mandela and the ANC “terrorists”, and racist for being the lone voice out of forty-nine Commonwealth leaders in opposing economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa.

  36. You could argue that, particularly from the point of view of the party which appoints them, that the chief measure of Prime Minister’s success is whether they win the next General Election. Which on my reckoning gives us the, to me very bizarre, order:-
    1. Blair
    2. Thatcher
    3. Wilson
    4. Major
    5. Atlee
    6. Macmillan
    7. Eden
    8. Churchill
    9. Heath
    10. Callaghan
    11. Brown
    12. Douglas-Home.

    Another perhaps overlooked criterion is that the Prime Minister must ensure that the state is successfully defended against internal and external threats. This is largely a minimum requirement; but it has been failed by a number of Prime Ministers: Eden (Suez), Blair (Iraq, and collapse of industry), Brown (Afghanistan and the banking crisis), Callaghan (Northern Ireland), Thatcher and Wilson have mixed records: Wilson kept the UK out of Vietnam, but presided over economic mismanagement. Thatcher scored well on defence (the Falklands) but was an economic disaster, not just because of chro nically high unemployment but in particular because she threw away the huge one off windfall of North Sea Oil (look at current Norwegian prosperity) through electoral bribes and deliberate industril destruction in order to destroy the Trades Unions (anybody can avoid industral unrest by having no industry). On this criterion, the best PMs have to be Attlee, probably followed by Macmillan, Major and Churchill.

    However, it is perhaps more helpful to look at Prime Ministers in process terms, i.e. how competent they were at doing the job, as outcomes are so dependent on cirumstances, the actions of other people and indeed luck. On this, I think it becomes clear that what Prime Ministers need are raw ability, relevant learning and practical life experience, and perhaps above all people skills. Some Prime Ministers lead as individuals (Thatcher), and some as committee people (Attllee). But the important thing is that they get their ministers to achieve, The glaring contrast here is between Blair and Brown.

    Identification of the competencies needed by a Primie Minister is crucial for the pracical purpose of selecting future leaders. And as I have posted in relation to the Labour leadership contest, Labour are currently worryingly bad at this, just crashing into a leadership contest. I agree that electing a leader should be a democratic process involving MPs and party members, but parties do need to take on board that if they are to win elections and then govern competently they must put serious, informed, thought into their election process, not just have a personality beauty contest.

    In relation to the experts’ list, I think that the person whose position history is most like to revise is John Major. He did a good job given a very unpromising situation. And he, perhaps by accident, following collapse of the ERM, laid the foundations for UK properity at the end of the century.

    I think that Blair and Thatcher are grossly flattered by second and thrid position. They both had a lot to do with the UK’s decline from third place in terens of world power in 1945 to its current subservience to the USA and marginal position in Europe. Although in truth just about all the UK’s postwar Prime Ministers did very disappointingly when judged by this criterion (consider for instance DeGaulle, Adenauer and Brandt as international comparison figures).

  37. Fredric.
    On your basis Thatcher should be above Blair , while they both won three elections his vote dropped dramatically from his first win to his third while her’s didn’t.

  38. Yes, Russglas. But on the other hand Thatcher was forced out of office in a leadership election, whilst Blair in theory resigned voluntarily, albeit under heavy pressure.

    There will be similar issues about the ordering of those PMs who won one or no elections.

  39. Fredric

    Well true but showed the fighter she was and she had to fight much harder to get to her party leadership than Blair in my opinion in terms of the snobbery and sexism in her party at the time.
    She was a conviction politician while I saw Blair as a bit of a chancer but only my opinion.

  40. Russglas, I said that the order in which the PMs came using subsequent election vistory as the criterion was bizarre. I certainly wouldn’t put Blair top of my list of best post-1945 PMs, not least because of his disastrous decision to go to was against Iraq. And personally I wouldn’t put Thatcher top or second either.

  41. Blair must surely lead in terms of electoral success. Far larger seat majorities than Thatcher or anybody else since the beginning of the 19th Century.

  42. Sorry – 20th Century

  43. His third victory was only because of the bias in favour of Labour in terms of the boundaries.

  44. @Frederic and Russglass – taking Blair as an example, rather than get bogged down in whether or not PMs won elections and with what majorities, I’d far rather assess what they actually achieved with their period of office. Atlee lost his third election as they were exhausted, but they achieved far more in terms of lasting positive legacy than probably any government has ever achieved in British history. ‘Winning’ is pointless in itself.

    You’ve also got to bear in mind that electoral success needs to be judged in the context of the opposition. Thatcher in 1983 and Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005 did not have great opponents – are these victories worthy of greatness, or would a monkey have done just as well? On this basis, Cameron’s performance in 2010 may well be judged poorly in the history of politics.

    Atlee’s landslide was against a national hero and was achieved through sheer weight of ideas and conviction – simply no comparison to a landslide against a useless opposition and with the massed ranks of the press behind you.

    Greatness is all about context.

  45. Blair, regardless of what you think of him personally deserves his place in the top three for four main reasons.

    1. Above all elese he delivered three stunning election victories.

    2. His education act, health act, crime reform, and poltiical refrom mark his ministry as one of the most radical of the last 100 years…. only the 1830s 1870s 1900s and 1940s match it.

    3. The standing of Britain improved… in the G7 and in the international arena Britain was once again taken seriously. In 1997 Univeristies ran modules on the post war decline of Britain. Those modules are now absent from most history degree pathways…

    4. His term witnessed a parliamentary unity (in therms of votes at least) that is unrivalled… there was no real hesaltine moment… no Joe Chamberlain moment… he commanded loyalty, which is unrivalled.

    For lots of reasons Thatcher’s reign was equally impressive but fewer contest her place in the top three so I wont go into that…

    for what its worth I (in political terms only- for there is a great deal to liek about Blair), I depise them both.

  46. @eoin – “His term witnessed a parliamentary unity” – no it didn’t! He suffered more and increasingly large revolts.

    His big majorities weren’t stunning either – they had more to do with the awful state of the Tories with the combined effect of the third party taken seats and votes off the main opposition.

    The list of reforms you mention really aren’t that great. You missed one of his finest moves though – on international aid and debt relief. Way more important than endless criminal justice acts and burdensome reforms of health and education.

  47. Alec,

    I am sorry I disagree. Blair went 10 years without a proper parliamentary defeat.

    Also the comment on his reforms are simply that they were reforms. I am not judging the reforms per say. Afterall, you hardly expect me to support PFI and all that went with it…

    with things like these you have to be as objective as you possibly can…

  48. Alec,

    It is fairly well known that if I was compiling a list on personal taste the my favourite Scotsman (bar one) would be top of the list…. :)

  49. Chris Lane

    Thanks.

    No I didn’t ” include ‘quality output’?”-not actually sure what you mean.

    The data is purely financial-it was in response to a remark Aleksandar made-just a bit of fun.

    Of course there are other factors -notably how the GDP growth was distributed through the population.

    Perhaps one of the “critics” of the data I posted would like to attempt a broader view.

  50. Colin,

    To assess the PMs performance in economic terms to the benefit of the country seems logical enough. Of course, there are other mitigating factors but a poor leader has managed to blow economic opportunities before even in the face of favourable international climate….

    I was struck by Heath’s economic perfromance.. arguably Russia and the US were experienced particularly tough economic circumstances at this time. In light of that, perhaps his performance as Pm has been underestimated.

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