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Worst British Prime Minister ever?

by Gary J Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 05:07:59 AM EST

from the diaries. Jérôme

A comment on DKos that Tony Blair was the worst Prime Minister ever got me thinking.

It is a commonplace, at least at DKos that George W. Bush is the worst US President ever. Thinking about why leads me to conclude that there are two dimensions of worstness - bad policy (like Iraq) and incompetent execution of policy (again Iraq, but perhaps Hurricane Katrina is the better example).

Looking at bad British Prime Ministers I see some as weak figures, being led by a more determined person (the monarch, a theoretical subordinate member of the cabinet or George W. Bush) into bad policy and then feeling compelled to support it. Others were simply incompetent to hold the job of Prime Minister. Still others (Neville Chamberlain in particular) were strong willed and pursued their own policy, which proved to be mistaken.

The one British Prime Minister I would most compare with George W. Bush is not Tony Blair but Sir Anthony Eden.

Who do you think was the worst Prime Minister ever?

I have copied my post on DKos after the fold.

We do not usually talk about this, being less given to rate our Prime Ministers than Americans are to grade Presidents. I wondered which other PMs might be in the running.

Some of the eighteenth century Premiers were pretty ineffective, but the likes of the Earl of Wilmington and the Duke of Devonshire were working in a quite different institutional framework from that of the modern era.

The Earl of Bute (PM 1762-63) was a royal favourite, over-promoted to be Prime Minister. More a tool of tyranny than a tyrant.

Lord North (PM 1770-82). There are some parallels to Blair. As Prime Minister during the American revolution he let the King push him into a more aggressive policy than he would have adopted if he had had a free hand. He loyally implemented and took responsibility for what proved to be a disastrous policy. He could not change the policy or even persuade the King to let him resign.

Possibly the Earl of Liverpool (PM 1812-27), deserves to be on the list for presiding over the repression of the early years of his long Premiership. This was the age when Home Secretary Sidmouth was presiding over something not far short of a police state with spies, informers and coercive legislation the order of the day. It was also the age of the Peterloo Massacre, when yeomanry (militia cavalry) attacked a peaceful reform demonstration.

The Earl of Rosebery (PM 1894-95) led a notably dysfunctional Liberal government, after Gladstone retired. The last Prime Minister chosen by a monarch without consulting the leading figures of the party in power.

The only twentieth century Premier I would include is Sir Anthony Eden (PM 1955-57) for Suez. That was an imperialist adventure which Eden initiated in collusion with the French and the Israelis and promoted with deceit including lying to the House of Commons about why we were going to war.

My conclusion is that Eden was the worst Prime Minister ever because he initiated an evil policy, as well as being a weak, hysterical national leader. He did not just implement the evil policy originated by others. However Toiny Blair does run him close.

Who was the worst British PM?
. Earl of Bute 0%
. Lord North 0%
. Earl of Liverpool 0%
. Earl of Rosebery 5%
. Neville Chamberlain 22%
. Sir Anthony Eden 11%
. Margaret Thatcher 27%
. John Major 5%
. Tony Blair 16%
. Someone else (specify in a post) 11%

Votes: 18
Results | Other Polls
What do you have to say about Maggie? I have heard her blamed for selling out Britain to corporate interests and dismantling the nations social infrastructure, which can be felt today in the disintegration of the social fabric, symptomised by the famous anti-social behaviour problems as a generation is undermined by failing schools and bleak prospects for gainful employment. (Or is someone or something else to blame here?) I'm sure she did some other nasty stuff as well, like being best buddies with Reagan, for example.
She gets my vote anyway. Always gave me the hebie-jebies, did the iron "lady".
by someone (s0me1smail(a)gmail(d)com) on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 02:54:15 AM EST
The Thatcher era is one which I think we are still too close to, to give it a final assessment. It would be very interesting to see what the historians and biographers 50 years from now make of it.

Margaret Thatcher was not a very nice Prime Minister, but she was effective in pursuing the policies she favoured. She was also less devious than many Prime Ministers - what you saw was what you got.

I take the view that the British economy did need to be restructured in the 1980s. The way Mrs Thatcher went about it lacked compassion and empathy for those negatively affected by the changes. On the other hand perhaps a less ruthless leader would not have persisted with policies which were so harsh and thus failed to achieve the benefits of it.

Edward Heath started out with what in 1970 were seen as right wing policies, but in around 1972 he reacted to rising unemployment by reversing course (the famous u-turn which Mrs Thatcher, a member of Heath's cabinet, reacted against so strongly during her own Premiership).

The calculated destruction of the National Union of Mineworkers, was an excellent example of callous efficiency in achieving an objective. Mrs Thatcher had the tactical flexibility to cave in to the miners when she was not ready to fight, but once she was ready she moved ruthlessly to obtain her objective.

I do not see Mrs Thatcher as the sort of politician Tony Blair is - starry eyed about rich businessmen. She was perhaps a bit more nationalistic in approach than the modern acolytes of free trade and outsourcing. However Dennis Thatcher had a background in the oil industry and Margaret Thatcher no doubt agreed that it was important to produce a competitive business climate.

The Thatcher foreign policy stood up for perceived British interests strongly, but was not as warmongering or as militarily aggressive as that of Bush and Blair. The Falklands was a limited war for a clear and attainable objective. Mrs Thatcher was not interested in either high minded fantasies of solving the problems of the world at the point of a bayonet or naked resource grabs by force.

The late Thatcher, who had followed the usual trajectory of long serving leaders in losing touch with reality, pursued the truly bad policy of the poll tax with single minded zeal.

I do not see bad leaders (in policy terms, from my own political perspective) who were on the whole efficient and effective in their actions, as being real candidates for worst Prime Minister ever. It is the weaker characters who tend to be drawn along by others who I see as the strong candidates for the accolade.

by Gary J on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 04:10:20 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Which leads to a question of definition. Is an effective promoter of bad policies a worse PM than an ineffective one?
by Gary J on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 04:27:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Great diary, Gary.  Re: your question: you'll need to define "bad", but if it is defined as "clearly against my world view" (or somesuch), then ineffective is better...  I suppose it depends what the crisis was, what alternatives were available, what alternative histories we can suggest...  Tony Blair made the wrong decision when he chose to believe the american govt.  He was scared, and the knock on effects are at present unknowable.  Thatcher knew what she wanted, she was supported by a body of english people (30%?), she taught...that failure might be your own fault and don't expect anyone to care for you if you fail...she put the scrooge back into society...or gave it power and let it wander...

(I'm thinking that "ineffective"; "weak", as perjorative terms need to be contrasted with something...what would the "strong" and "effective" policy have been?  I'm a woolly liberal ;)

Don't fight forces, use them R. Buckminster Fuller.

by rg (leopold dot lepster at google mail dot com) on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 05:33:40 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I would have to go with Thatcher too. She managed to systematically take away our rights without us even knowing it (or some of us knew about it but could do nothing about it) Much like Bush?

The only thing necessary for the persistence of evil is for enough good people to do nothing
by deviousdiva (thedeviousdiva@gmail.com) on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 03:47:46 AM EST
There's a third dimension of bad governance in addition to bad policy and poor execution, namely corruption. This is what set Warren Harding apart from the other morons in office (to date, at least - I suspect that that W will ultimately be eclipsed by this one).

Who's the worst PM when this dimension is factored in?

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt ät gmail dotcom) on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 05:40:50 AM EST
There's a definitely nasty smell coming from Blair on that topic of corruption, which adds to his other problems:

  • he does not seem to believe in much of anything, and what little he believes in - his policies are wildly different (claiming to be pro-European but not doing anything to bring the UK in the euro or any other joint policies, praising markets but running a traditional tax and spend economic policy, pretending to be a bridge between America and Europe but staying on one side of the bridge, claiming to be tough on the causes of crime but doing only the repressive bits, etc...);

  • linked to the above, his focus on spin (and the Murdoch-aimed kind only) at the exclusion of any actual policy was particularly damning;

  • his boneheaded, self-righteous decision on Iraq, of course, takes the cake.

I have a lot more respect for Thatcher than for Blair.

In the long run, we're all dead. John Maynard Keynes
by Jerome a Paris (etg@eurotrib.com) on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 07:34:25 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I went for Sir Anthony Eden - It was a very close call between him and the snivelling Neville "peace in our time" Chamberlain.

Eden won out because it was his poor judgement at Suez that created modern Britain's foreign policy. (if I may tangent) I believe that Suez was instrumental in creating the modern foreign policies of France, Israel and Britain. In Britain's case it was to turn itself into a vassal of the United States.

Churchill may have been a nutter but at least he fixed Chamberlain's mistakes. As of yet, nobody has come along to fix Eden's follies.

Money is a sign of Poverty - Culture Saying

by RogueTrooper on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 06:27:34 AM EST
Are you cross-posting this over at Progressive Historians? [Where, BTW, ETers dominate the Recommended Diary list. Go, ET!
Recommended Diaries

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 06:29:09 AM EST
when there are so many to choose from.

It's much harder to think of a good PM. Churchill did a grand job during the war, but was less than able before and after it.

Probably the one thing that unites virtually all of the UK political establishment is mediocrity. Even Maggie was mediocre, not so much in execution - and she was only successful because she was a bully, not a diplomat - but in terms of poverty and vision. In Maggie's world there is no higher calling than for everyone to be a shopkeeper. She certainly achieved that. But historically it's more likely to seem small-minded and petty than grandiose and daring.

There's been no one capable of thinking big thoughts. Possibly the closest we've had was the outbreak of populism after WWII, which broadened access to education and health care. The early Socialists, who were certainly a good thing, had a pre-packaged agenda rather than one they'd created themselves.

We don't have a Kennedy. We don't even have a Segolene.  It's more of a stretch than it should be even to find a Merkel.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 07:35:22 AM EST
Churchill wasn't PM before WWII was he?  I thought he became PM during the war, about the exact time that France was invaded.  After the war was effectively over the loss of the election has always seemed to me to be a shame, not because I would support all his policies, but because he was the one global thinker really left on the stage in a leadership position.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, Chester, You know I'm a peaceful man...'" Robbie Robertson
by NearlyNormal on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 01:06:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Churchill's second premiership is certainly worth examining and Eden's failings are as much a function of his father-in-law hanging on while drunk and incapable through strokes as his own failings. You could even argue that his first administration was not exactly full of glory.

While of course his speeches were inspirational, was he all mouth and no trousers? Certainly alcohol and depression were considerable factors in his persona. His unreasonable expectations drove his son to an early grave. Nor should we forget his war crimes in ordering or authorising the fire bombings towards the end of the war.

by Londonbear on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 01:15:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I went for Blair. Not so much because he led us into a fake war based on lies (although it doesn't look good in the balance) but was he effective in governing the country.

In this he was not. He has presided over a domestic policy of promoting fear to enable the onset of the national surveillance state. Fear of youth, fear of muslims, fear of...you name we'll make you afraid of it.

cue Michael Douglas in the American President
We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who's to blame for it.

Well blair isn't a serious politician either. But he plays one on tv. and he's damaged this country domestically and he's damaged this country's international reputation as well. We are seen as the nodding dog in the back of the US military SUV and we could get away with it before. But now we'll have to spend a couple of premierships with fiercely independent PMs before we can be taken seriously as anything other than a US lackey.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 09:32:39 AM EST
How do you intend to get a fiercely independent PM?

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Carrie (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 09:35:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Right now our best chance is to find one in  Christmas cracker, cos there ain't a conadidate in parliament.

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 09:54:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Since the end of WWII all the world has asked of British prime ministers is that they do no harm. (Which is why Eden stands out as bad.) It's sad and ironic that Blair thought the way to be more pro-active in world affairs was to hitch the UK to the US -- sad because of how much real harm it's caused the world, ironic because it ended up discrediting the very idea of UK as a "world power," probably forever.

Still, I'm not sure I can look at this from a British perspective. My impression is that most Brits are rather comfortable with being a seoond-tier country. But from the outside looking in, I'm appalled by Blair's domestic policies as well -- the national IDs, collaboration with extraordinary rendition, racial profiling, all the various "Security" acts that never seem to inspire much opposition.  

At any rate, for all these reasons my vote goes to Blair. Up till now, the UK always managed to muddle through its Edens, Thatchers and Majors, but Blair has caused real and, I believe, permanent damage.

by Matt in NYC on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 10:58:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
No Matt, you don't understand. It's not a question of being comfortable with being a second-tier nation. It's simply that we know we are the best and do not need all those military and imperial trappings to prove it to other people any more.
by Londonbear on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 01:41:33 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I pick Disraeli, for purely personal reasons. A more open racist may never have occupied the office in the modern era.

The Hun is always either at your throat or at your feet. Winston Churchill
by r------ on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 11:19:28 AM EST
Balfour, clearly the worst of the major Prime ministers as far as I can tell.  Set the stage for Chamberlain's folly.

"I said, 'Wait a minute, Chester, You know I'm a peaceful man...'" Robbie Robertson
by NearlyNormal on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 12:55:40 PM EST
I'd be honored if you'd cross-post this to ProgressiveHistorians, my community site on history and politics.

The Crolian Progressive: as great an adventure as ever I heard of...
by Nonpartisan on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 05:24:15 PM EST
Wow, get a grip people. Blair? Thatcher? I can understand that people here want to register a protest against living politicians rather than dead ones, but when one looks at 300 years of British history, which includes many glorious episodes, but also include:
  1. The Slave Trade
  2. Losing the 13 colonies which have since become the backbone of anglophone civilization
  3. Elimination of natives in other parts of the anglosphere.
  4. Countless colonial wars, too numerous to mention.
  5. the Irish Famine, the Bengal Famine, and probably other famines I don't know about.
  6. Allowing Europe to get caught up in WWI, the war which ended Europe's golden age.
  7. Failure to halt Hitler when it was easier to do so.

All of these seem to put Blair or Thatcher's sins in perspective.

The best thing that can be said about the above record (and I don't mean this in jest) is that Britain has emerged from all of the above (except for item 6, and to a lesser extent item 7) relatively unscathed - British leaders for all their sins have been very clever or very lucky or both. It stands to reason that they may well emerge unscathed from the Iraq fiasco as well.

by Danny P on Thu Dec 7th, 2006 at 06:48:35 PM EST
Hmm, very reasonable, except you're judging other cultures by the values of today. Which not only isn't fair, it's not valid.

One can damn imperial and colonial attitudes and the onsequences of them, but they were very much of their time.

The only one of them we are remotely in a position to judge was the last. Given that the horror of WWI was still alive in that generation's memories, their desire to do anything to avoid a repeat in europe was understandable. Quite simply, they had got to the point where the englishman's burden of civilising europe was too expensive in lives to consider doing except in the face of dire national threat..

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 09:11:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"...the englishman's burden of civilising europe..."
sounds pretty bad.

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 09:46:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Just means you don't have to be coloured to be looked down upon.

British by birth...English by the grace of God

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 10:08:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
is an oft forgotten grim period for the Brits.
by observer393 on Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 06:52:28 AM EST
yes, but there were good reasons for that. Not least of which that churchill was beginning to succumb to alzheimer's and alcoholism.

Also the country was broke, but we still pretended we were a world power and carried on behaving like we could afford all of the nonsense that went with such status, like nuclear bombs and huge navies, air-forces etc.

We had to wait for an entire generation to die before we could start getting some realism into British politics.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 09:05:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
"...succumb to alzheimer´s and alcoholism."

Hope nobody thinks that´s an excuse not to IMPEACH W.  "Poor boy is an alcoholic psycopath, let´s keep him in power."

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.

by metavision on Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 09:51:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In the end he resigned from office after a delegation asked him to go. The nation owed him a great debt and it would have been difficult to have forced him out.

I'm not sure the same applies to little georgie

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Fri Dec 8th, 2006 at 10:06:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think you point to his greatest failing which Maggie shared and Blair is probably guilty of. All hung on until the men in grey suits were baying at the door but they failed to recognise the signs.

Churchill happened to be right about Hitler but I am not sure if that was a function of his correct analysis or his rabid militarism being the right response by accident.

Those pictures of him attempting to be a constituency and MP but having to be carried round a field perched in an sports car to open a fete because he could not walk are full of pathos. The drunken old man waving his cigar and making V signs who people, even his local party, could not persuade to go are beyond sadness though.

by Londonbear on Sat Dec 9th, 2006 at 01:32:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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