Best Prime Minister We Never Had
It is an old device, but a good one, and Francis Beckett seems to have put together a fine collection of essays for a book on a variation of the theme, The Prime Ministers Who Never Were, to be published next month:
Austen Chamberlain Stephen Bates
J. R. Clynes Phil Woolas
Lord Halifax Hugh Purcell
Oswald Mosley Nigel Jones
Herbert Morrison Eric Midwinter
Hugh Gaitskell Robert Taylor
Rab Butler Chris Proctor
George Brown Paul Routledge
Norman Tebbit Peter Cuthbertson
Michael Foot Anne Perkins
Denis Healey Dianne Hayter
Neil Kinnock Greg Rosen
John Smith Francis Beckett
David Miliband Peter Beckett
They are not all, obviously, better than the prime ministers we actually had, but all are interesting exercises in counterfactual history.
Unsurprisingly, I would nominate Denis Healey and David Miliband as the “best” on that list, with competition recently from David Blunkett, Charles Clarke, John Reid, Alan Milburn and Alan Johnson.
This is Beckett’s list of the 10 who would have “made the most difference”, taken from the Biteback press release:
1. Denis Healey. If Healey had become Labour leader instead of Michael Foot, Labour would still have lost in 1983, but – as Dianne Hayter suggests in The Prime Ministers Who Never Were – could have staged sufficient of a recovery to lead Labour back into government five years later. Then, Healey as PM could have halted the right wing ideological tide, and Britain would still have a thriving public sector with natural monopolies like rail still in public ownership.
2. J.R. Clynes. These days almost nobody has heard of Clynes, but he came within a whisker of defeating Ramsay Macdonald for the leadership and becoming Labour’s first Prime Minister. A far more grounded politician than Macdonald, he would not have split the Party into warring tribes, nor panicked in 1926 when the forged Zinoviev letter surfaced, and we would not have had to wait until 1945 to see a reforming Labour government with an overall majority. Phil Woolas – his greatest admirer, bar none – thinks he might even have stopped the rise of Nazism in Europe.
3. John Smith. Had Smith not died in 1994, nothing could have prevented him from becoming Prime Minister in 1997, and we would never have heard of New Labour. The main beneficiary would have been public services, for Smith had become a convert to “hypothecation” – earmarking taxies for specific public services, so that people did not mind paying them so much. The American alliance would have been less dominant, and it is unlikely we would have gone to war in Iraq.
4. Norman Tebbit. After forcing Margaret Thatcher out, the Conservatives installed a leader who provided no clear ideological lead. A clear Thatcherite lead, provided by a figure as determined and tough as Norman Tebbit, might just have done. Had he stood, and had he been able to hold his Party together, the Thatcher revolution could have continued unchecked, with, as Peter Cuthbertson shows, profound consequences for Britain’s future.
5. Neil Kinnock. Underestimating Neil Kinnock has been a public pastime ever since the 1992 election. Had he won in 1992, he would now be remembered as a great reforming Prime Minister, and perhaps as the leader of Britain’s first coalition government since 1945. He would have been able more or less to unite his warring party around a raft of moderate reforms which Greg Rosen describes, and to have established a pattern for social democratic government.
6. R.A. Butler. Butler almost became Prime Minister twice – in 1957, and again in 1963. Chris Proctor sensibly goes for the 1957 moment. It could have been a disaster, for he had the capacity to split the Tory Party down the middle. But it could – as Proctor suggests – have permanently shifted the centre of gravity of British politics several yards to the left.
7. Austen Chamberlain. Much the brighter of Joseph Chamberlain’s two politician sons (the other was Neville, who did become PM), Austen Chamberlain would have been far less easy-going than the famously laid-back Stanley Baldwin. His political strategy would have aimed to stifle the rise of the Labour Party, and he might well have succeeded in maintaining the old pre-first world war two-party system.
8. Michael Foot. Foot is here, not because he led Labour into the 1983 election – everyone knew he was going to lose that – but because he nearly became PM when Harold Wilson resigned in 1976, when Foot was 63. He was a much tougher and pragmatic character than he’s normally given credit for. He and Jack Jones would have been able to keep the unions onside as Callaghan could not. He would not have made Callaghan’s mistake of deferring the election until after the winter of 1978-9; he would have gone straight to the country in the autumn of 1978, and probably won.
9. David Miliband. Had Miliband stood against Gordon Brown for the Labour leadership and won, he could well have avoided defeat in the 2010 election, as Peter Beckett suggests. But it would have been at the expense of a chronically divided Party, whose wars would certainly have hampered his long term effectiveness.
10. Herbert Morrison. Morrison would come higher in the list, if the man who actually got the job – Clement Attlee – had not been such an effective PM. But Eric Midwinter makes a strong case for Morrison being at least as effective, and perhaps more electorally successful.Tagged in: contemporary history
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