Top 20 PMs - who gets your vote?

17th November 2006 at 00:00
The 20 British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century Haus Publishing pound;9.99 each, pound;175 for the set

Churchill was stabbed in the chest, Heath had no friends, while Tony Blair was a 'complete pain in the backside'. Se n Lang looks at the legacies - and school days - of British prime ministers

Who was the greatest prime minister of the 20th century? Churchill and Lloyd George, in that order, agreed historians and political commentators who debated the issue in 1999, which rather suggests that if you want to get ahead in politics you need to win a war.

Haus Publishing organised a similar poll at this year's party conferences to accompany the publication of this boxed set of 20 short, authoritative and readable biographies. Not only did the Conservatives vote for Thatcher; Labour voted her their number two, just behind Attlee. Read them yourself, then make up your own mind.

Each book starts with family background and an overview of the individual career, then it's the Downing Street years, and finally the longer-term legacy. There are some deliciously mischievous assessments. The patrician Lord Salisbury, at the helm as Britain entered the new century, would, thinks Eric Midwinter, look at modern Britain with its 4X4 owners opting out of state schooling and health and "rejoice that the class war had not yet been lost". So much for John Major's classless society. Paul Routledge claims of Harold Wilson that "when he was in Downing Street, Britain became a less intolerant and more agreeable place to live", but Clare Beckett points out that his most enduring legacy, the Open University, was only saved from Tory cuts by, of all people, Margaret Thatcher. The regular length of each book works to the advantage of the lesser known prime ministers. Roy Hattersley points out in his excellent study of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Liberal leader in the party's landslide victory in 1906 (second from left, above), that a prime minister's worth is not necessarily best measured by the length of time in office.

"CB" (the cumbersome surname was imposed on him as a condition of a rich legacy) was a formidable figure who had the courage to stand up and criticise the "methods of barbarism" being employed by British forces in the Boer War.

Andrew Bonar Law (far left, above), whose posthumous nickname is The Unknown Prime Minister, emerges in this short study by Andrew Taylor as a political firebrand and a tricky political operator: the first leader since Cromwell to have threatened the country with civil war. Even John Major gets his due for a real breakthrough in Northern Ireland and holding his fragmenting party together for longer than any of his predecessors except Lady Thatcher and Lord Liverpool.

Some of the most revealing incidents come from their schooldays. Next time the tabloids rant about knife crime and bullying in state schools, bear in mind that Lord Salisbury was bullied mercilessly at Eton and Churchill was stabbed in the chest at Harrow.

Heath persuaded his grammar school head to let him take his exams two years early. And guess what? Heath had no friends. Douglas-Home charmed his way effortlessly through Eton, Harold Wilson nearly died from drinking typhoid milk at a scout camp, and Tony Blair made himself "a complete pain in the backside" at Fettes, Edinburgh. His Ugly Rumours band weren't that good either. Meanwhile, Lady Thatcher was learning the real lessons of life not at school, where she nearly missed out on Oxford because she didn't have Latin, but in her father's shop.

Apart from a rather cliche-ridden volume on Blair, these are well written studies. History teachers will welcome an invaluable survey of Chamberlain's changing fortunes at the hands of the historians. Inevitably, there's a bit of special authorial pleading, for Eden ("The word 'tragedy'

is much over-used. But Anthony Eden's life surely deserves the word"), Baldwin (he "understood how to persuade people to believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts") and Bonar Law ("cannot and should not be reduced to a historical footnote"). Even Labour's arch-traitor Ramsay MacDonald "helped consolidate (the party's) collective sense of identity", though the preceding image of a Labour supporter angrily tearing Ramsay Mac's portrait to pieces perhaps rings truer.

The incessant parallels with Iraq are irritating, the pictures in the later volumes are rather dull and I found at least two instances of "lead" for "led". See me afterwards.

Overall, this is a quick and easy guide to the holders of the top job in the land, which will be warmly welcomed by students and teachers aliken Sean Lang is a research fellow in history at Anglia Ruskin university and Historical Association honorary secretary

Salisbury by Eric Midwinter, Balfour by Ewen Green, Campbell-Bannerman by Roy Hattersley, Asquith by Stephen Bates, Lloyd George by Hugh Purcell, Bonar Law by Andrew Taylor, Baldwin by Anne Perkins, Ramsay MacDonald by Kevin Morgan, Chamberlain by Graham Macklin, Churchill by Chris Wrigley, Attlee by David Howell, Eden by Peter Wilby, Macmillan by Francis Beckett, Douglas-Home by David Dutton, Wilson by Paul Routledge, Heath by Denis MacShane, Callaghan by Harry Conroy, Thatcher by Clare Beckett, Major by Robert Taylor, Blair by Michael Temple.

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