Thursday, March 23, 2006


Top Twenty Prime Ministers in 20th century

Kevin Theakston at the University of Leeds has produced a table ranking the top 20 prime ministers of the 20th century(with M.Gill,'Rating 20th Century British Prime Ministers' in British Journal of Politics and International Relations vol 8 pp193-213). I thought it really interesting-those lists again?- and reproduce the list below together with some discussion of the qualities needed by premiers to score well in such a list.

Table 1 Ranking 20th century Prime Ministers

Ranking Prime Minister
1 Clement Attlee (Lab. 1945-51)
2 Winston Churchill (Con. 1940-45, 51-55)
3 David Lloyd George (Lib. 1916-22)
4 Margaret Thatcher (Con. 1979-90)
5 Harold Macmillan (Con. 1957-63)
6 Tony Blair (Lab. 1997- )
7 Herbert Asquith (Lib. 1908-16)
8 Stanley Baldwin (Con. 1923-4, 24-9, 35-37)
9 Harold Wilson (Lab. 1964-70, 74-76)
10 Lord Salisbury (Con. 1895-1902)
11 Henry Campbell-Bannerman (Lib. 1906-08)
12 James Callaghan (Lab. 1976-79)
13 Edward Heath (Con. 1970-74)
14 Ramsay MacDonald (Lab. 1924, 29-31, 31-35)
15 John Major (Con. 1990-97)
16 Andrew Bonar Law (Con. 1922-23)
17 Neville Chamberlain (Con. 1937-40)
18 Arthur Balfour (Con. 1902-05)
19 Alec Douglas-Home (Con. 1963-64)
20 Anthony Eden (Con. 1955-57)
Source: MORI/University of Leeds

The table is based on a survey of 139 university academics who were asked to rate the success of each PM on a scale of 0-10. Attlee managed 8.34; Lloyd George 7.33; Blair 6.30; Heath, 4.36 and poor old Eden, who cut such a dash when a yiouthful Foreign Secretary a pathetic 2.53.

Theakston cites Fred Greenstein, a US academic, who identifies six qualities and skills by which we can judge former prime ministers.

1. How good are they as communicators? This is probably their key skill as they have to persuade a whole host of people on the way to Number 10: initially their parliamentary party colleagues, next the eagle eyed cynics of the press and, most important of the lot by polling day, the public.

2. How well do they organise Number 10 and their government? Attlee created scores of cabinet committees while Thatcher and Blair have tended to prefer small groups of ministers, aides and experts. Heath was a good administrator but not such a good communicator.

3. How good are their political skills? Again, Heath not so good as he could be rude and seemed to lack any real charm. Major was generously blessed with people skills but lacked the necessary inner toughness. Thatcher seemed to command huge loyalty but often treated those closest to her- e.g. Geoffrey Howe- with scant, if any, respect; in the end she paid a heavy cost for this shortcoming.

4. Do they have a strong policy vision? Thatcher did and it was one of her trump cards as it was easy to understand by colleagues, civil servants and public alike and helped guide her through the storms its pursuit created. Major distrusted the 'vision thing' and Blair seems to have it only at the rhetorical level.

5. What is their cognitive style or how do they process advice and information? Thatcher absorbed large amounts of information quickly and reached decisions with equal speed(perhaps too quickly?); Major listed the pros and cons; Blair focuses on the 'big picture' and rather more on presentational aspects.

6.Do they possess emotional intelligence? Can they m,anage their emotions and cope with the stress? Maggie seemed to thrive on the pressure; Major bowed under it; and Blair seems fortunate in having a supportive family life to help him, though the degree of ageing he has evinced since the Iraq War shows he has paid some considerable inner cost.

Theakston reckons Attlee and Thatcher deserve their high ranking and that Blair still has much to do to move up the list. Given his present parlous state and the chorus calling for his departure plus his dependence on events wholly out of his control in the Middle East, sixth out of the twenty might well be as good as it gets for him.

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