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Tom Greeves

Splendid article. Your writing just gets better and better Peter.

I didn't see the programme, but quite coincidentally was thinking about who was greater out of the Lady and Winston last night.

She made such great strides in domestic policy and in bringing freedom to much of Europe that I am tempted to put her ahead of the great man.

We'll never know, of course, but I suspect she would have been stoic in WWII, if not quite as charismatic as Churchill. I even wonder if she would have found a way to avoid handing half of Europe over to the Reds!

Simon Denis

Yes - most interesting, but in Lloyd George's defence, the Versailles Treaty was not the handiwork of one man. A committee of four old gentlemen, criss-crossing a gigantic map of Europe on all fours, flourishing cigars and orating at each other - that was the creature which came up with Versailles. Obviously, it was less than perfect, but what was the alternative and who could have done better? True, Germany should have either been forgiven and reinstated, like post-Napoleonic France or decisively smashed. But the horrors of the war, the attempt to "bleed France white", the deliberate infection of Russia with Lenin - these prevented an easy reconciliation. Equally, the exhaustion of will and manpower militated against the plans of Marshal Foch for another six months of fighting. So what could they do?
Add to this that the forgiving and stern sides of the argument found eloquent voices in Wilson and Clemenceau and Lloyd George can be seen as in a fix. It was his legendary flexibility, brilliance and charm which held the whole thing together and brought at least a period of peace and the chance of something more lasting. We should salute his efforts.

Peter Franklin

Tom -- most kind, I also think that Margaret Thatcher would have made a formidable war time leader.

Simon -- you are quite right that Ll-G was just one of the players, and represented the middle position between Wilson and Clemenceau. He himself said that he had been "seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon". We'll never know what would have happened if he had sided decisively with either the hawks or the doves, but I suspect that what we got was the worst compromise between the two.


Peter --

You have made an elementary mistake in excluding PALMERSTON from the great 20th century PMs.

A man so far ahead of his time should clearly be eligible for competition with later peers.

Similarly, I look forward to a David Davis permiership which will qualify as one of the great 20th century PMships, no doubt, on a similar basis.

Simon Denis

But Peter, to crush Germany would have required Wilson's support whilst to conciliate her would have needed the backing of Clemenceau. Each was partially hobbled by their own recorded views and the attitude of their respective countries and could not have gone further than they did. Lloyd George and his Foreign Office were therefore given only the most limited room for manoeuvre. He might have been called a wizard but he couldn't work miracles.


Its wrong to include Churchill as a great Prime Minister. Whilst he made a few good speeches, against a very common enemy, his domestic record was poor. He effectively fell asleep on the watch allowing Labour to socialise the UK under the pretense of war conditions during 1940 to 1945. His decision to invade Italy and tie up troops there that could have ended the war earlier is highly questionable. He was ineffective at quickly ending rationing and reducing taxes when PM again in 1951, having lost 2 general elections to a poor Labour government, and only winning 1951 by the skin of his teeth. He should have resigned due to ill health long before 1955, and his failure to do so prevented fundamental reforms being implemented.

And to include Attlee and Thatcher in the same breath? Attlee was PM during the fuel crisis, the 1947 devaluation, he failed to cut taxes on ending the war, he maintained rationing even when it had ended in Germany, he presided over the disasters surrounding the partition of India and he hindered the UK's economic recovery from the war by nationalisation. The Attlee government's record on women in the workplace was also poor. The Attlee government's record and legacy was the key reason why post-war UK economy remained firmly behind the USA and much of previously war-torn western Europe.

The twentieth century simply had very few good Prime Ministers. Its hard to look beyond Thatcher as the best, whilst the average administrations of MacMillan and Baldwin are the next best, a long way below.

David Lindsay

Has it occurred to you that surrounding himself with capable people was an integral part of Attlee's greatness? Everyone has to go sometime, and Attlee always knew that if he were to be hit by bus then there would be no shortage of people with both the ability and the experience to succeed him. By contrast, look at the government that succeeded Margaret Thatcher.

Tax Cutter makes a good point about Churchill: he was not a great Prime Minister as such, and the electorate recognised that fact in 1945. None of this detracts from his greatness generally, although even that must not be confused with absolute indefectability.

Lloyd George is underrated because of his colourful private life, his sale of honours and peerages (imagine!), his eventual government through a defunct party and its pretended opponents (again, imagine!), that Hitler business late in his life (whereas Churchill's praising of Mussolini is ignored), and the fact that his World War was far less morally clear-cut, or popular after the event.

In fact, for those of us who believe in One Nation politics with an equal emphasis on the One and on the Nation, Lloyd George is in a class of his own, the pioneer of our political creed. All of the above charges are true, but they are far outweighed by this wider context.

As for Thatcher, he we go again! Yes, she was massively influential. I do not deny the ongoing effects of the Single European Act, the ERM, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, the replacement of O-levels with GCSEs, the rise of Political Correctness in the 1980s, the destruction of the economic base of patriarchal authority in (initially) working-class communities, or the shift in public sector employment and trade unionism from real things like coal and steel to the administration of the administration of administration.

But she left intact most of what had been bequeathed by the far greater Lloyd George (assisted by Churchill) and Attlee (quickly accepted by Churchill). Unfortunately, though, she made vastly more people dependent on benefits than had previously been the case, thereby creating a culture of such dependency, a culture which neither Lloyd George, nor Attlee, nor Churchill could possibly have envisaged, and of which they would all have disapproved in the strongest possible terms. Don't you?

The Culture  Warrior

It's difficult to rank Prime Ministers unless you've got some set basis of doing so. If you're going for effectiveness, Thatcher is first, and Churchill way behind. Both were leaders for their time; before the war, Churchill was in the wilderness, and remember Thatcher's comment that 'no woman will be prime minister in my lifetime'. I remember that list some people produced, juding a PM on their success, and Thatcher came top, Attlee second.

But we're not talking about most effective, we're talking about best. In that respect, I'd have to put Thatcher and Churchill tied. Both had indomitable spirit at a time when it was so desperately needed; both were brutally honest politicians of conviction in their relative fields ('never surrender', 'there is no alternative'). If more politicians were of their calibre, apathy would be a slain beast. Even if you don't agree with their politics, you can't help but respect their leadership (something which transcends party politics, I think).

I agree with your thesis that a movement away from laissez-faire was inevitable, and that therefore does weaken Lloyd-George and Attlee's positions. Thatcher and Churchill are, undoubtedly, the two greatest premiers of the twentieth century, two of our greatest ever, and two of the greatest world leaders humanity has been graced with. He saved our independence, she saved our economy...I wonder who is going to save our society?


Yes - Churchill's heroic leadership did help to ensure Britain's sovereignty, if not its economic power. By contrast, Heath & Thatcher ensured the loss of that very same sovereignty through their European misadventures. To use your own words - "A tragic end to the story of Britain itself".

Paul Morris

Surely Palmerston was a nineteenth century PM?

Sepoy Agent

I do so agree with Peter's praise of the programme. When it was over, terribly late, I had a warm feeling that I had just watched something really worth seeing.
But the lasting feeling, sadly, was the difference in approach to it by the five men and the one woman.
The five men discussed each candidate objectively. The one woman, (and bearing in mind who it was I suppose it was inevitable), could not stop herself from a political rant. The comments she made about Margaret Thatcher were just so unpleasantly political, and seemed very out of place when compared with the others.


Anyone know where a copy of this can be found? Ive tried the standards (youtube, googlevideo etc) but no luck.

On a similar not I found the entire 1999 documentary "The Mayfair Set" about the rise and fall of Goldsmith/Slater and Co. One of those lefty pieces that actually glorifies capitalism. just google/video Mayfair Set for four episode special

Yet Another Anon

That leaves six contenders, of whom two are clearly lagging thanks to their war records: Herbert Asquith and Tony Blair. The top four, therefore, are David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher.
If you are referring to The War in Iraq then certainly Margaret Thatcher and Clement Attlee, probably also David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill would have been glad of the opportunity to remove the Ba'athist regime in Iraq.

Yet Another Anon

One way or another, a welfare state was always going to be built in course of the Twentieth Century.
It wasn't in Japan and it wasn't to the same extent in USA.


I really don't see how you can dismiss Salisbury so easily. He has a very good claim to being the greatest Prime Minister. Before then as Foreign Secretary he was responsible with Disraeli for postponing the First World War by 40 yrs. His policy of Splendid Isolation if followed and not dropped by that idiot Asquith would have kept us out of WW1 altogether and saved Western civilisation in this country.

Objectively the 20th century was a series of unmitigated foreign, domestic and economic policy disasters that converted the largest richest most powerful Empire in the world in 1907 into the debt ridden, shrunken euro-satrapy which we call home in 2007.

The only Prime Minister who made any attempt to own up to the failures and halt the rot was Mrs Thatcher. Every other Prime Minister either went with the flow or was the cause of the trouble in their own special way.

Churchill was an inspiring war leader but fighting the second world war alone was the finish of Britain. And for what - so that the Germans and the French can rule us through the EU now.

Ellesmere Dragge

It was a fine (and cheap, one suspects) piece of educative television. On the whole the arguments were balanced and judicious. Marr was, as usual, comfortable and comforting.

Inevitably, it came down to "horses for courses": who, when, why, how?

One thought, though, which is touched on by several previous contributors: the Churchill/Attlee comparisons.

The two men have one thing in common: the ability to delegate, while remaining in control. This may be one of the more difficult tricks in managing the democratic state. After all, in passing reponsibility and control, one is less of a leader than a chairman, and (in intra-party terms) is liable to be encouraging one's own successor (and, perhaps, deposer).

Hence the tendency to a Führerprinzip seen in some of our Prime Ministers. Margaret Thatcher's problem lies therein: she believed her own PR, and sowed the seeds for what came after - two (or more) decades when her Party hankered for more of the same, and therefore lacked the ability to gel and collaborate. Compare the exchange at the start of act III of 'Antony and Cleopatra':
Better to leave undone, than by our deed
Acquire too high a fame when him we serve's away.
Caesar and Antony have ever won
More in their officer than person...
Who does i' the wars more than his captain can
Becomes his captain's captain: and ambition,
The soldier's virtue, rather makes choice of loss,
Than gain which darkens him.
I could do more to do Antonius good,
But 'twould offend him; and in his offence
Should my performance perish.

So, for me, the greater Prime Ministers have instinctively been collaborators.

Churchill, wisely, left domestic affairs to those Titans (mostly Labour men) around him. Indeed, the nature of the coup of 1940 meant that many rivals in his own Party were eclipsed, permanently. To that extent, he was the begetter of the social reforms of the Labour Government. Equally, he left Party management to others: again, since he was always more popular in the country than in the Party, perhaps he could do no other. The consequence of that was the emergence of a posse of bright young men in Central Office, who would carry the weight of the 1950s and after.

Attlee was of a similar bent. His first problem was managing the egos (some overweening) around him. The second was bringing through a new generation of intellectuals and managers who ought (but didn't) recast the Labour Party into a more Social Democrat framework: that would take at least one more generation than it should have done. Not entirely relevant here, but a useful parallel, I find it remarkable that Vic Feather was so progressive in designing the post-war West German trade unions, while so resistant to similar reformism at home.

If there was a bottom line to this programme, it is that most of us are achieving a better sense of proportion of the history of the last century. And that means a less partisan, 'warts and all', approach.

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