Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Who was the best prime minister we never had?

A few years back I read an interesting book about the 'nearly men' who might have become prime minister but didn't. I am not talking about failed leaders of the opposition here, who have grown in number in recent years, but senior politicians who failed to make the top grade: the likes of Iain Macleod (robbed by early death), 'Rab' Butler and Dennis Healey.

In connection with its annual Awards Ceremony at the end of November the Political Studies Association is running a poll on the 'best prime minister we never had'. Of course, it's all a bit of fun, but it opens up some interesting 'what if' questions about British political history.

Let's narrow the rather long list provided by the PSA and YouGov to four contenders: three Conservatives - 'Rab' Butler, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke - and one Labour politician, Dennis Healey.

'Rab' had as many as three chances to become prime minister, although perhaps only two were credible: when Macmillan succeeded Eden and when Sir Alec replaced Macmillan. On all these occasions Rab lacked the steel to plunge the knife, and maybe that's a required quality of a prime minister: a certain toughness. Rab was the epitome of diffidence, although the death of his first wife was also a major setback for him. Incidentally, I understand that psephologist David Butler is his cousin.

'Hezza' was one of the big beasts of British politics. He has recently taken back control of his beloved Haymarket Press which I nearly went to work for in 1968. I interviewed Hezza a couple of years ago and he was in fine form. But I think that if he had succeeded Margaret Thatcher he would have torn the Conservative Party apart by trying to repudiate the Thatcher legacy. British politics would have looked very different.

Ken Clarke was the most credible leader the Conservatives had after 1997. He has a certain 'blokeish' appeal and could probably have landed some punches on Tony Blair compared with William Hague, a talented individual for whom it all came too early. But, of course, Ken is an unashamed Europhile and that makes him persona non grata in the Conservative Party these days, particularly among activists who preferred the hapless Iain Duncan Smith.

I actually gave my vote to Dennis Healey. In part this is because I like him as a person and hope to meet him again at the Awards Ceremony. He is a political bruiser, but you have to be. He is also a very cultivated man, who is proud of his intellectual 'hinterland'. The last time I met him he quoted his latest poem at me. I am not saying it was very good, but how many politicians try?

Dennis was Chancellor during a very difficult time for Britain after the first oil shock. When I last met him, Gordon Brown was at No.11 and he drew a contrast between the global circumstances Gordon was dealing with and the ones he had to face.

If Dennis had won the leadership after Callaghan stood down, he would have had a chance of winning the 1983 election. Rather than writing the longest suicide note in history in its election manifesto and getting in a race for second place with the Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance, Labour could have mounted a credible challenge to Margaret Thatcher, Falklands War or no Falklands War (the effects of which are still disputed by psephologists).

Of course, all this is the stuff of those 'what if' books you see on airport bookstalls. After a while, their alternative scenarios run out of steam. But it's an interesting form of speculation that can be instructive.


Justin Greaves said...

There are, I guess, two scenarios in which Healey could have become Prime Minister. If Callaghan had called a general election in 1978 and won (possible according to the polls) he may have stepped down half-way through the parliament allowing Healey to take over. Alternatively, if after having lost the 1979 election Callaghan had stepped down earlier he would probably have increased the liklihood of Healey taking over (and like you say of having a good chance at the 1983 election). There is the further argument as to how good a Chancellor Healey was. He may have faced difficult worldwide economic conditions but Britain suffered worst than most and his initial 'reflation' in 1974/5 may have made the subsequent downturn worse than it needed to be.

Les Abbey said...

Two Tories from the list do stand out, RAB Butler and Ken Clarke. Butler especially as Clarke was so much out of sync with most of the other Tory MPs over Europe.

From Labour I think George Brown is more interesting than Healey as we could have had a real character in Number 10.

skipper said...

I've voted fro Healey too; I interviewed him too in 98 and thought him the most amazing politician I'd ever met. Had he been Labour leader he would have changed the whole shape of the 80s, possibly winning in 87. Certainly he would have prevented labour's 18 year spell in the wilderness. He's a terrific piano player too I was surprised to discover. Mind you, he is an awful old show-off- but I found it didn't matter.

Wyn Grant said...

George Brown was certainly an interesting character but he also had what day would be regarded as a serious problem with alcohol.

Les Abbey said...

Hello Wyn, you are quite right, George Brown would have been a British Yeltsin but it's surprising how close he came to getting the leadership of the party after Gaitskell died. The second ballot was Wilson 144, Brown 103.

Politaholic said...

Best Prime Minister we never had? No contest: Harry Perkins/Ray McAnally....

Vincent Carroll-Battaglino said...

Hi Wyn,
Not related to "the best..." but what would have happened if the longest suicide note in history was not a suicide note but a general election winner...what then? Interested to see what you think.

Wyn Grant said...

One would have to go back a bit further and asked what would happened if Dennis Healey rather than Michael Foot had become Labour leader. The split within Labour would not then have happened. It is arguable that Mrs Thatcher was already doing well in 1983, although I am not sure that psephologists every conclusively resolved their argument about whether this was a Falklands effect or the product of economic recovery.