Friday, February 23, 2007

Prime Ministerial legacies

Paul Burgin has a post wondering why Margaret Thatcher has been given a statue in the Commons whilst still alive (Mars Hill: The Statue) and briefly commenting on her and other Prime Ministers' legacies.

Thinking back over the past hundred years, it's quite rare for a former Prime Minister to have had a politically good post premiership. Arthur Balfour had a very successful subsequent ministerial career - indeed so successful it's possible to remember him whilst forgetting he was ever Prime Minister - whilst Alec Douglas-Home proved a benign elder statesmen in Ted Heath's Cabinet. But Ramsay MacDonald's time as Lord President of the Council proved cruel to all involved, including him. And Neville Chamberlain was blighted by his health and a constant campaign to remove him from office that devastated his legacy. Indeed it's only been since I started my PhD that I've come to realise just how narrow a view is held of Chamberlain - even many sympathetic biographies turn him into almost a one policy area Prime Minister.

No other twentieth century Prime Minister subsequently sevred in another office, unless one counts Stanley Baldwin's time as Lord President of the Council between his second and third premiership. But Baldwin was still at the height of his powers and returned to Number 10, to retire on a high. Indeed Baldwin's retirement was expected for months (and his successor was unanimously clear) and he managed to leave Downing Street with a higher standing than any of his successors. Tony Blair must be kicking himself. But Baldwin's reputation came to grief before he died - during the war his reputation was tarnished in the row over the country's preparations for war. It has only been in the last forty years that his reputation has been steadily restored.

Others have been hampered by health (Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Andrew Bonar Law, Harold Wilson) and either died very soon or dropped out of public life almost immediately. Some floated around for so long that when they died it was a surprise it had not happened earlier (Lord Roseberry lived for 34 years until 1929). Others had to watch as their political legacy was dismantled and even their own party turned on their government's legacy (Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major). Some have been respectfully quiet about this, but the actions of Heath and Thatcher in bitterly attacking their successors have brought no credit to them. The legacy of the war preserved Churchill's reputation, even though his peacetime government was an example of a man clinging to office long after he was no longer competent, whilst Clement Attlee died before the backlash against his legacy. Conversely whilst the legacy of Herbert Asquith's government remained in place his own reputation for indecisiveness, the circumstances of his downfall and the subsequent split and destruction of his party meant that he did not die in glory.

What will Tony Blair's legacy be like once he's into the period of lectures and memoirs? Well the observant amongst you will have noticed there are two Prime Ministers I haven't yet mentioned - Anthony Eden and David Lloyd George. Frankly it's hard to think of anything positive to say about Eden's premiership - by the summer of 1956 he was increasingly discredited. And of course it ended in disaster when he launched an attack on an Arab country to domestic and international disapproval. Hardly anyone has managed to justify the Suez Crisis and it increasingly seems that the Iraq War will be remembered equally disastrously.

And then there's the Prime Minister who broke his party, sold honours and ended his days with virtually no-one in politics supporting him. Tony Blair has long said that his political hero is Lloyd George but Blair is hardly the dashing young radical or a country's saviour in time of national crisis. However he has certainly emulated many of the worst features of the Goat (but before anyone suggests anything, I have heard nothing about Blair giving tours of ceilings). With every new revelation about Loans for Lordships, Blair looks more and more tainted, just like his hero.

And what other legacy has Blair got? Most of the changes that have happened under his government can't really be attributed to either him personally or his leadership. He did not received the Nobel Prize for the Northern Ireland Peace Process, whilst Mo Mowlam has always received the credit for the government's contribution. Donald Dewar is remembered as the deliverer of Scottish devolution. And the public services have been shaken up so many times that it seems all that's been achieved is to pour lots of money in and charge the public more. (And in any case with a dominant Chancellor of the Exchequer it's going to be difficult to extract credit for Blair rather than Gordon Brown.) Nor does anyone talk about "Cool Britannia" anymore.

Tony Blair has spent years claiming he is a man of substance not style. But his legacy is a mixture of bad substance or style gone wrong. Which would he prefer to be remembered for?

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