The Greatest British Prime Ministers: Gladstone, Lloyd George, Attlee and Thatcher
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Refresh and try again. Open Preview See a Problem? Details if other :. Thanks for telling us about the problem. Return to Book Page. Who is the greatest British Prime Minister? Polls regularly hand the prize to Winston Churchill. But if you put his claim to one side on account of the exceptional circumstances of World War Two, who should claim the title? In this provocative, fascinating essay, historian George Chamier assess the rival claims of four great Prime Ministers. William Gladstone, the 'Grand Old Man' of the Victorian age - four times Prime Minister, an MP for an astonishing 63 years and unique as a politician in that his ideas became more radical as he grew older.
David Lloyd George, the 'Welsh Wizard' and the 'Man who Won the [First] War' - a fiery orator and a fighter for social justice whose dynamic leadership was accompanied by an often scandalous private life. Clement Attlee, the unassuming socialist who held together the talented but difficult individuals in Labour's first majority government and created the modern Welfare State.
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Finally, Margaret Thatcher, the first woman Prime Minister and the longest serving of the 20th century, the 'Iron Lady' whose policies shook up every institution in the country and who dedicated herself to putting the Great back into Britain. All four changed the political weather of their own day and left a rich legacy behind them. This short book makes a case for each as the greatest, looking at their personal style, their political skills, their policies and their impact on the country, before coming to a conclusion about who was the greatest of them all.
George Chamier was formerly Head of History at Bradfield College and now works as a tutor, editor and examiner. Endeavour Press is the UK's leading independent digital publisher Get A Copy. More Details Credited with saving the monarchy, Baldwin is also condemned for failing to begin re-arming when it became clear that Nazi Germany was building up its armed forces. Ramsay MacDonald , Labour, - MacDonald began his second term at the head of a minority government one that does not have an outright majority and with the economy in deep crisis.
Britain was still in the grip of the Great Depression and unemployment soon soared to two million. With fewer people able to pay tax, revenues had fallen as demand for unemployment benefits had soared. Unable to meet the deficit, by it was being proposed that benefits and salaries should be cut. Labour ministers rejected the plan as running counter to their core beliefs.
MacDonald went to the king, George V, to proffer his resignation. George suggested MacDonald to try and form a 'national government' or coalition of all the parties. This is the last recorded direct political intervention by a British monarch. The National Government was formed, with MacDonald as prime minister, but Stanley Baldwin, leader of the Conservative Party, the de facto 'power behind the throne'. MacDonald is still considered by many in the Labour Party as their worst political traitor. Stanley Baldwin , Conservative, - In May , the Trades Union Congress called for a general walkout in support of a coal miners' protest against threatened wage cuts.
It was the first and, to date, only general strike in British history. The strike affected key industries, such as gas, electricity and the railways, but ended after just nine days due to lack of public backing and well-organised emergency measures by Baldwin's government.
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Far from succeeding in its aims, the General Strike actually led to a decline in trade union membership and the miners ended up accepting longer hours and less pay. It also gave impetus to the Trade Disputes Act, which curtailed workers' ability to take industrial action. Baldwin's government also extended the vote to women over 21 and passed the Pensions Act, but eventually fell as a result of the Wall Street Crash of , and the Depression that followed. It was the first party to gain power with the express purpose of representing the voice of the 'working class'.
An MP since , MacDonald was respected as a thinker, but criticised by many within his own party as insufficiently radical despite appointing the first female cabinet minister, Margaret Bondfield, in His opposition to World War One had made him deeply unpopular and he continually suffered a torrid time at the hands of the press. The publication by two newspapers of the 'Zinoviev letter' did much to damage his chances in the run up to the election. The letter which he had seen but decided to keep secret purported to be from Soviet intelligence and urged British communists to commit acts of sedition.
He lost by a wide margin. The letter is now widely accepted to be a fraud. Stanley Baldwin , Conservative, During his very brief first term as prime minister, Stanley Baldwin bumped into an old school friend on a train. Asked what he was doing these days, Baldwin replied: 'I am the prime minister. Andrew Bonar Law , Conservative, - Branded the 'unknown prime minister' by his bitter political rival HH Asquith, Canadian-born Bonar Law is principally remembered for a single speech he made in The Conservatives had been part of a coalition under the Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, since Many were considering joining Lloyd George permanently, but Bonar Law's speech changed their minds.
Instead, the Conservatives withdrew from the coalition and Lloyd George was forced to resign. The king, George V, asked Bonar Law to form a new government. Reluctantly he accepted, despite still grieving two sons killed in World War One and - as it turned out - dying of throat cancer. He held office for days before resigning due to ill health.
He died six months later and was buried at Westminster Abbey, upon which Asquith commented: 'It is fitting that we should have buried the Unknown Prime Minister by the side of the Unknown Warrior. Nicknamed the 'Welsh Wizard', he was also less kindly known as 'The Goat' - a reference to his countless affairs. Scandalously, he lived with his mistress and illegitimate daughter in London while his wife and other children lived in Wales.
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The first 'working class' prime minister, Lloyd George had risen to prominence by solving the shortage of munitions on the Western Front. It was his desire to get to grips with the requirements of 'total war' that led to his split with then Liberal Prime Minister HH Asquith. It also brought him closer to the Conservatives, with whom he formed a new coalition government when Asquith resigned.
That coalition would disintegrate six years later in the midst of a scandal. One list even included John Drughorn, who had been convicted for trading with the enemy in Lloyd George resigned in October HH Asquith , Liberal, - Asquith's government had shown great longevity, but disintegrated in the face of the unequalled disasters of the Somme and Gallipoli.
But in the preceding eight years, the two politicians had together overseen one of the greatest constitutional upheavals of the 20th Century and ushered in some of the predecessors of the Welfare State. But when Lloyd George attempted to introduce a budget with land and income taxes disadvantageous to the 'propertied' classes, it was thrown out by the House of Lords. The stand-off resulted in two general elections during , the second of which the Liberals won with a 'peers against the people' campaign slogan.
The budget was passed and, in , the Parliament Act became law. The Act stated that the Lords could only veto a Commons bill twice, and instituted five-yearly general elections. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman , Liberal, - Arthur James Balfour , Conservative, - The nephew of the Marquess of Salisbury, Balfour had none of his uncle's political skills despite a long period of mentoring. He was instead something of a philosopher, publishing several weighty books, including 'A Defence of Philosophic Doubt', 'The Foundations of Belief', and 'Theism and Humanism'. Following a cabinet split Balfour resigned, gambling that the Liberals would be unable to form a government and that he would be returned to power.
He was wrong. Marquess of Salisbury , - , Conservative Salisbury came to power for the third and final time when the weak Liberal government of the Earl of Rosebery fell. The political climate was one of rising resentment among the lower and middle classes, who demanded better conditions, social reforms and proper political representation.
Bitterly divided, the Liberals would nonetheless experience a revival as they sought reforms of the squalid, disease-ridden British 'concentration camps' used in the Boer War. But it was the founding of the Labour Representation Committee LRC on 27 February that signalled a quiet, yet highly significant sea-change in British politics.
This coalition of socialist groups would win two seats in the general election and 29 seats in Despite failing health, Salisbury agreed to stay on to help Edward VII manage the transition following the death of his mother, Queen Victoria. He resigned in favour of his nephew, AJ Balfour, in the first months of the new King's reign. Notably, he was the last serving prime minister to sit in the Lords. Earl of Rosebery , Liberal, - Rosebury reluctantly became prime minister on the insistence of Queen Victoria, despite still mourning the loss of his wife. Desperate to have a minister she actually liked, Victoria had taken the unusual step of not consulting the outgoing PM, William Gladstone, about his successor.
Rosebery, who always loved horseracing more than the 'evil smelling bog' of politics, was gratefully allowed to resign a year later. Notably, he is the only prime minister to have produced not one, but three Derby winners, in , and Despite his aversion to politics, Rosebery was no stranger to scandal. The Prince of Wales had reputedly once intervened to prevent him from being horsewhipped by the Marquess of Queensbury, with whose son Rosebery was believed to be having an affair.
William Ewart Gladstone , Liberal, - Gladstone's fourth term as prime minister was completely overshadowed by his insistence on introducing a third bill on the subject of 'Home Rule' for Ireland. The Conservative-dominated House of Lords threw the bill out and generally obstructed Liberal attempts to pass legislation. With his cabinet split and his health failing, the 'Grand Old Man' stepped down for the last time. The public was, in any case, exhausted with Home Rule and instead wanted reforms to working conditions and electoral practices.
Meanwhile, out on the political fringe, the Independent Labour Party had been set up under Keir Hardie to represent the working class and 'secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange'. Marquess of Salisbury , Conservative, - William Ewart Gladstone , Liberal, Gladstone came to power for the third time with 'Home Rule' devolution for Ireland still the dominant issue. A bitter election battle had seen the Conservative government fall after Irish Nationalist members of parliament sided with the Liberals to defeat them.
Instead, the Liberals formed a government in coalition with the Irish Nationalists and Gladstone tried to push through his second attempt at a Home Rule bill. The bill split the Liberals and Gladstone resigned. He lost the general election when the 'Liberal Unionists' - those who wanted Ireland to be ruled from Westminster - broke away from Gladstone's Liberals to fight the next election as a separate party.
Most Liberal Unionists were of the 'Whig' or propertied faction of the party, which meant that when they went, they took most of the money with them.
The ten greatest prime ministers of all time – and the five worst
Marquess of Salisbury , Conservative, - William Ewart Gladstone , Liberal, - Having failed to force Gladstone to serve under Lord Hartington, Queen Victoria reluctantly accepted 'that half-mad firebrand' as prime minister for the second time. He had only lately returned to politics from retirement after his so-called 'Midlothian Campaign', in which he spoke to large crowds - a practice considered by polite Victorian society to be 'undignified'. His campaign did much to discredit Disraeli's government and had clearly struck a chord with a public eager for social and electoral reform.
The Ballot Act in had instituted secret ballots for local and general elections. Now came the Corrupt Practices Act, which set maximum election expenses, and the Reform and Redistribution Act, which effectively extended voting qualifications to another six million men. There were other burning issues. The United States had just overtaken Britain as the world's largest industrialised economy, and 'Home Rule' devolution for Ireland continued to dominate.
Gladstone resigned and was replaced by the 'caretaker government' of the Marquess of Salisbury. Benjamin Disraeli , Conservative, - After a brief taste of power in , it had taken Disraeli six years to become prime minister again. He wasted no time in bringing about the social reforms he had envisaged in the s as a member of the radical Young England group. His Acts included measures to provide suitable housing and sewerage, to protect the quality of food, to improve workers rights including the Climbing Boys Act which banned the use of juveniles as chimney sweeps and to implement basic standards of education.
In , Disraeli was made the Earl of Beaconsfield, but continued to run the government from the Lords. He persuaded Queen Victoria to take the title 'Empress of India' in and scored a diplomatic success in limiting Russian influence in the Balkans at the Congress of Berlin in He retired in , hoping to spend his remaining years adding more novels to his already impressive bibliography, but died just one year later. William Ewart Gladstone , Liberal, - Upon taking office for the first time Gladstone declared it his 'mission' to 'pacify Ireland' - a prize that was always to elude him.
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Nonetheless, Gladstone was to become the dominant Liberal politician of the late 19th Century, serving as prime minister four times despite earning Queen Victoria's antipathy early in his career. She famously complained that 'he always addresses me as if I were a public meeting'.
He had started his career as an ultra-conservative Tory, but would end it as a dedicated political reformer who did much to establish the Liberal Party's association with issues of freedom and justice. But Gladstone also had his idiosyncrasies. He made a regular habit of going to brothels and often brought prostitutes back to 10 Downing Street.
In an era when politicians' private lives were very private, his embarrassed colleagues nonetheless felt it necessary to explain his behaviour as 'rescue work' to save 'fallen women'. Benjamin Disraeli , Conservative, On being asked to become prime minister following the resignation of the Earl of Derby, Disraeli announced: 'I have reached the top of the greasy pole'.
He immediately struck up an excellent rapport with Queen Victoria, who approved of his imperialist ambitions and his belief that Britain should be the most powerful nation in the world. Unhappily for the Queen, Disraeli's first term ended almost immediately with an election victory for the Liberals. Despite serving as an MP since and twice being Chancellor of the Exchequer, Disraeli's journey to the top was not without scandal. In , he was forced to apologise in court after being accused of bribing voters in Maidstone. He also accrued enormous debts in his twenties through speculation on the stock exchange.
Disraeli suffered a nervous breakdown as a result, but eventually paid off his creditors by marrying a rich widow, Mary Anne Wyndam Lewis, in Earl of Derby , Conservative, - The introduction of the Reform Act made Derby's third term as prime minister a major step in the true democratisation of Britain. Simply put, it created more than 1. Versions of the Reform Act had been under serious discussion since , but had always foundered on Conservative fears. Many considered it a 'revolutionary' move that would create a majority of 'working class' voters for the first time.
In proposing the Reform Act, Benjamin Disraeli, Conservative Leader of the House of Commons, had warned his colleagues that they would be labelled the 'anti-reform' party if they continued to resist. The legislation was passed, and also received the backing of the Liberals under their new leader, William Gladstone. Earl Russell , Whig, - Viscount Palmerston , Liberal, - Earl of Derby , Conservative, - The property qualification - the requirement that a man must own property in order to stand as a member of parliament - was finally abolished during Derby's second term as prime minister.
It meant that members of parliament MPs were no longer drawn exclusively from the 'propertied' classes and could realistically be 'working class'. This fulfilled one of the six conditions set out by the Chartists - supporters of the Third Chartist Petition, written in It demanded universal male suffrage votes for all adult men , secret ballots rather than traditional open ballots , annual parliamentary elections, equal electoral districts some had less than voters, while others had many thousands , the abolition of a property qualification for MPs, and payment for MPs which would allow non-independently wealthy men to sit in parliament.
Clement Attlee. Sir Winston Churchill. David Lloyd George. Margaret Thatcher. Harold Macmillan. Stanley Baldwin. Harold Wilson. Lord Salisbury.
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. James Callaghan. Edward Heath. Ramsay MacDonald. Neville Chamberlain. Arthur Balfour. Alec Douglas-Home. Anthony Eden. Gordon Brown. Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Sir Anthony Eden. David Cameron. Robert Walpole. Earl of Wilmington. Henry Pelham.