What Makes a Prime Minister?
A few days ago I checked out the YouTube video of 91 year old Harry Smith addressing the Labour Party Conference about his life experience and the NHS. If you have seen it you will understand that Harry’s words were very moving to his audience and many who have watched it subsequently on YouTube. What I saw made me wish that I had been alerted to his comments earlier, but nevertheless it set me thinking about my own experiences. Now I’m hardly Harry’s age but let’s just say my life experience covers quite a lot of prime ministers and administrations and while my comments won’t have specific reference to the NHS it will include the period of its formation and before. Some 16 prime ministers in total including the present incumbent.
I remember hearing about the invasion of Poland by Germany prior to the involvement of this country in what was to be known as the World War Two. As a small child I played marching into Poland in the family garden. I grew up over that war period under the coalition government led by Winston Churchill with Labour’s Clement Attlee as his Deputy Prime Minister. When Peace was declared in 1945 Labour called for a General Election which they won by a landslide, some three weeks in fact after I had reached the great age of 10 years, and the same Clement Attlee formed the Labour post-war reforming administration which introduced the welfare state and the National Health Service.
At that age I certainly had no political views of my own and what I understood was drawn from the information available from the radio, the conversation of my elders and the family newspaper which at the time was the News Chronicle (now defunct it ceased publication in October 1960 being absorbed into the Daily Mail and to the horror of my family it was automatically delivered by the local newsagent – I don’t think I have purchased a Daily Mail since). But it was true to say that Winston Churchill now lionised as a war-hero and the saviour of this country was not always regarded in such a light. He was in fact seen by many as a war-monger: his reputation as I later found out would not have been aided by his actions many years before as a Liberal Home Secretary in quelling the Tonypandy Miners uprising (1910). But great events bring forth great leaders, or perhaps it is more accurate to say that people require such a man in calamitous times and Churchill, who had flitted between parties and was not particularly liked by all in the Conservative Party was to be that man.
Clement Attlee was seen more as a fairly normal rather dull personality by comparison but yet again with hindsight it perhaps becomes obvious that such a personality is necessary if the peace is to be built. And build the peace he certainly did over a period of office which stretched from 1945 to October 1951 and in six short years Attlee did what was necessary and led a government which transformed this country (commonly referred to as ‘the Post-War Settlement’).
‘Sir’ Winston Churchill was to become leader of the new Conservative Government replacing Attlee in 1951 and continued in office until being replaced by his Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden on his retirement in 1955. Eden had cut a dashing figure as Foreign Secretary with a reputation largely garnered from his diplomatic skills in the 40s and 50s and the period when he opposed appeasement in the 30s. However it was the failure of his Middle East Policy in 1956 which brought an end to his premiership. Indeed it was only then in my student years that I first found myself drawn into the political debate in the run-up to the invasion of Suez. You might say it was my ‘Iraq’ moment!
The Egyptian Leader Gamal Abdel Nasser had been promised funding for the Aswan Dam and when that funding was withdrawn by the United States Nasser proceeded to nationalise the Suez canal (then jointly owned by Britain and France). In response, Britain and France, in collusion with Israel, invaded Egypt in November 1956. In October 1956, Guy Mollet, Sir Anthony Eden the British Prime Minister and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion met and concluded a secret agreement that Israel should attack Egypt, thereby providing a pretext for an Anglo-French invasion of Suez.
The coalition won a military victory, but the United States pressured Britain and France to withdraw. This was subsequently seen as highlighting the decline of Britain as an imperial power and re-awakened its reputation as perfidious Albion and brought an end to Eden’s Premiership. His replacement as Conservative Prime-Minister Harold Macmillan, the First Earl of Stockton, was seen as a bluff pipe-smoking safe pair of hands and is famously recalled now through his comment of ‘events dear boy, events’ (a response given to a journalist about what is most likely to blow a government off-course). That this clearly applied to the Premiership of Sir Anthony Eden there can be no doubt.
I have written at length about this period as it was the earliest time that I recall being politicised and at the College of Art in Cheltenham where I was a student there was a certain amount of sympathy and support for my position on Suez. That however evaporated after supportive students had returned home at the weekend, (the Telegraph reading parent carried sway among recalcitrant youth). But from that time on my sympathies were on the left of the political spectrum. Here it is worth saying that background and parental influence can often play a strong part in a person’s emerging political beliefs, but it is not always so as I have a feeling that as often as not it really is a question of the way your brain is wired. And for that reason I have always found it difficult to condemn someone of a different political belief to my own. The fact is/or should be that under a democracy, all other things being equal, the honestly expressed views of the voting population expressed through the ballot box is intended to be the glory of our democracy.
My earlier comment is grounded in there being a level playing field and of course there increasingly is not. Here we depart the scene post Suez with the avuncular pipe smoking Harold Macmillan in charge and turn to the present time. And with ownership of the press in fewer hands, albeit with a much reduced circulation, and those owners unafraid to intervene in national politics even though many of them live elsewhere or are not British nationals, there are clear risks to the democratic process. And when the national broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation, with funding under constant threat slavishly follows the lead of a popular right-wing press in its news and editorial comment, then the ability of the electorate to form an accurate political judgement is threatened and our democracy is jeopardized.
That the BBC should lead every day and repeat frequently throughout the day features such as ‘What the Papers Say’ or ‘The Papers’, I put down partly to laziness and partly to the fact that it is cheap TV. That ‘The Papers’ more often than not features commentary by columnists from those same right-wing newspapers only compounds the issue. #BBCbias is occurring frequently now on Twitter and, if for no other reason BBC executives should be re-considering their news-gathering and editorial philosophy.
What has brought these thoughts to a head for me has been the avalanche of editorial attacks in the press taken up avidly by the BBC on the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband. We are told that, somehow he looks odd, he isn’t prime ministerial, he lacks charisma. Many column spaces are taken up by photographs snatched when he is eating to emphasize the point (eating can be a pleasant experience, but is rarely a pretty one). Such photographs of course are in support of an agenda by a hostile press. That the BBC should give credence to such nonsense, I admit still amazes me! But the press have form here with the demolition of Neil Kinnock by the ‘Murdoch’ press at the time of the 1992 election. The BBC played a part also in the undermining of then prime-minister Gordon Brown during the 2010 Election with repeated air time being given to a recording of the then Prime-Minister’s off the record comments captured on a lapel microphone while he was in his official car. Such techniques I imagine would have been familiar to certain eastern bloc countries during the cold war.
Looking back at earlier prime-ministers I wonder how many of them came under the same level of scrutiny. I once met Harold Wilson at the foundation stone laying ceremony for a Birmingham school with which I was involved. I observed him with interest, after all he was Prime Minister, but to me he seemed a normal kind of guy. Prime Ministerial, well yes if you say so, but charisma there was none, though one member of our party was peeing himself in either fright or awe, I didn’t ask. At various times my jobs also required me to meet up with a number of cabinet ministers from the main parties. Were they charismatic? You could have fooled me – and perhaps they did. We know that Clem Attlee, author of the post-war settlement and widely regarded as one of Britain’s greatest leaders, was regarded as a boring little man and of course attempts were made to unseat him as lacking energy and drive before the election of 1945. He won that with a massive majority of 145 seats. So much for not being prime-ministerial and lacking charisma. We don’t know of course what he looked like when he was eating. The press hadn’t quite descended into the gutter at that time and the BBC, though Sir John Reith had stepped down as Director General in 1938, was still heavily influenced by his philosophy. We do know however that Winston was fond of a tipple, but that’s alright, it’s Winnie, and he was born to rule after all. Oh yeah!
Ridiculous though it may seem that perhaps is still, underneath all of the froth, what it is all about. Cameron may not have been born to rule – but in the way he acts he certainly thinks he was! An old Etonian and Bullingdon Club member he carries all of the self confidence and innate superiority that such an education is really all about. You might think that such qualities would be useful if you are to make a living in the world of PR, the only real job that David Cameron had before becoming a politico and leader of the Conservative party. But the thing about PR is you are equally adept at promoting whatever your masters pay you to promote. You don’t have to hold any beliefs of your own, and indeed to have any would be considered a disadvantage. Not so if you are Prime Minister. Successful leaders in the past all had beliefs and a strong sense of mission: Churchill, Attlee, Wilson,Thatcher among them. Those perceived as carrying the natural authority of the right education and in the charmed circle rarely in fact became successful prime ministers: Sir Anthony Eden and Lord Home for example. John Major who was a grammar schoolboy, was frequently derided by his own cabinet as being ‘boring’, but has since acquired a reputation as being an effective prime minister in a then turbulent party, although I have to admit I always found him boring too
The truth is that it is only when you are actually fulfilling the role of prime minister that you become prime ministerial and power can bring with it confidence and charisma.
Of course if deep down you have a belief in your own superiority and right to rule, then that often expresses itself in an arrogance towards others such as that we frequently observe in the manner of Prime Minister Cameron at Prime Minister’s Question Time, and if I was once an admirer of David Cameron, and I was, then I must admit to being a victim of an earlier version of the David Cameron that he sold the population in his ‘green’ and ‘hug a hoodie’ period. But the pressures of office reveal the true man and the David Cameron that we see today in all of its sneering and angry red-face arrogance in the House of Commons and his bellicose, table-thumping, outbursts at meetings of the leaders of the European Union, lead me to consider him as among the least fitting holders of the office of prime minister.
And yet – – – Cameron is apparently seen as more prime ministerial than the Leader of the Opposition: the man who having offered a referendum to Scotland on independence brought the United Kingdom to within panic stations of a break-up, the man who in his weakness as a party leader endangers the unity of Europe as he is pushed remorselessly to the European Union exit door by virtue of his rash promise of a referendum on membership of the European Union should he win the next election in 2015, the man whose poor judgement, in spite of warnings at the highest level, persisted in employing in Downing Street someone who has since been found to be a criminal, now languishing in jail, in order to ingratiate himself with press baron Rupert Murdoch.
Given what we know about the form of the current prime minister, the coming general election is certain to be pivotal for this United Kingdom. And to those who may express doubts about the current leadership of the Labour Party, I would say to them from my own experience of politics, leadership is not about being caught out eating a bacon sandwich, it is instead about having firm beliefs of your own and a vision of what you want to achieve. Ed Miliband reflects carefully before coming to a decision and that is right and that is good. It is one of the prime qualities that a leader must possess. A leader should not allow himself to be buffeted about by any passing media induced storm as is clearly the case with the present incumbent. The Labour Party now putting together a strong critique of the present government has built for itself a solid programme of realistic policies to address the obvious inequalities arising from the actions of the present administration. Disunity amongst the governing party as a result of their obsession with the European issue may be a given but for the Labour Party any perceived disunity will not be lightly excused or forgiven by a country that at this moment is in need of a united opposition. For the Labour Party in the face of a hostile press and a weak BBC the necessary leadership will have to come not only from Miliband but from all levels of a united Parliamentary Labour party and out in the country as well. That is how elections have been, can be and are won.
Illustrations: Harold Wilson MP Prime Minister with Councillor Eames laying the foundation stone for the new Smallheath Community School (photograph by the author). In the other image Harold Wilson is featured with the councillor for Smallheath and Dennis Howell (Minister for Sport and MP for Smallheath). The Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 occurred while Councillor Eames was Lord Mayor and his ‘calm leadership’ in the aftermath was widely praised.