Book review: The British Leaders Series

Written by Keith Simpson on 25 September 2015 in Culture
How should we assess British political leadership? In these books, Charles Clarke and his co-editors attempt to provide an objective set of criteria beyond merely subjective analysis.  

Edited volumes with academic contributions are frequently disappointing. If the contributors have no central theme then it will be a mish-mash of opinions.

These three books on British Political Leaders do not fall into that category. The two on Conservative and Labour Leaders arose from a collaboration between the University of East Anglia and Queen Mary University of London and have been very well edited, primarily by Charles Clarke and Toby S James.  

The Liberal Leaders volume is separate in the sense that it forms part of a series of Liberal history source books and assesses leadership by slightly different criteria.  The editors could argue that the very nature of the history of Liberal leaders – not have been Prime Minister since 1916, required this.  

But the structure of the Conservative and Labour leader volumes is more rigorous and satisfactory. The purpose of these volumes was to think about how we can assess party leaders.

In the words of Charles Clarke, a former Labour Cabinet minister: "The quality of political leadership is important. History is not driven only by inevitable forces, important though they are. The decisions and actions of political leaders make a difference and can change outcomes, with big consequences for people’s lives”.  

In attempting to assess British political leadership the editors have attempted to provide an objective set of criteria beyond merely subjective analysis.  

Two introductory chapters for Conservative and Labour leaders – there is a slightly different approach by the editors of Liberal leaders – consider what constitutes “Statecraft” – a framework for assessing Party Leaders.  

This contextual approach consists of five factors – a winning electoral strategy; governing competence; party management; political hegemony and bending the rules of the game.  No theoretical verbiage here, but based on the individual contributions by experienced academics and journalists of those political leaders.

The second introductory chapter measures the success or failure of political leaders by the General Election test. Charles Clarke assesses political leaders by an analysis not only of whether they won or lost General Elections but by the increase or decrease in the number of seats in Parliament, and the increase or decrease in the share of the vote.

He comes to some interesting conclusions based on these criteria. For the Conservatives the league table places Peel, Salisbury, Cameron, Thatcher and Baldwin in the top five places.

The subjective judgements of historians, MPs and journalists rate the performances of Churchill and Macmillan significantly higher.

For Labour the league table is Attlee, Blair, Wilson, Callaghan and MacDonald.  For the Liberals, and given the more limited time line and the splits after 1916, show Campbell-Bannerman, Russell and Palmerston at the top of the league.

Now this approach can be questioned but it opens up a fascinating debate, and is addressed in individual chapters by some, though not all the contributors, in their assessment of their chosen leader.

Of course, for those leaders who became Prime Minister an important criterion must be their success or failure in government and whether they were “transformational”. Here there appears to be agreement that Attlee, Thatcher and Blair fit into this category.

In previous league tables both Lloyd George and Churchill were rated highly, because they were war leaders and led war time coalitions.  As Kenneth Morgan shows in his chapter on Lloyd George and John Charmley in his on Churchill, neither were tribal Party leaders and each wanted to see some form of “fusion” between political parties with themselves as leaders “above party politics”.  

Both were outstanding wartime leaders, but their success as Party leaders was fairly indifferent.  Lloyd George only won the 1918 election with the Conservative majority and the “coupons” whilst Churchill fought three elections as leader – 1945, 1950 and 1957, and only won the last narrowly.

Many of the individual chapters on Party leaders are, understandably, the case in mitigation as with Stuart Ball on Chamberlain, Andrew Holt on Douglas-Home and Mark Garnett on Heath for the Conservatives.  Phil Woolas on Clynes, Brian Bruvati on Gaitskell and Steve Richards on Brown for Labour.  Robert Ingham on Thorpe, Tudor Jones on Owen and Greg Hurst on Kennedy for the Liberals.  

The particular and peculiar development of political parties in the period covered by this book – effectively from the Great Reform Act until 2015 – reveals how leaders emerged, were appointed and ultimately elected – a slow process.  For Labour there was no formal leader until 1922.  For the Liberals the post 1916 splits and the various permutations in the 1980s have been challenging.

One criterion not used by the editors as part of their framework is “ruthlessness”.  To be a successful political leader, or for that matter businessman or general, ruthlessness is a real requirement, although in democracies it must be concealed as far as possible.  Ruthless in ambition, ruthless in sacking colleagues and ruthless in destroying political opposition.

By the very nature of the political leaders considered all are men, with the exception of Thatcher, and briefly for Labour, Harriet Harman, as acting leader.

All three of these books have been published in the aftermath of the 2015 election and the surprise victory for Cameron, the resignations of Miliband and Clegg, the election of Farron and more surprisingly of Corbyn.  For Labour MPs and activists the required reading in these volumes is Timothy Heppell on the leadership of Iain Duncan Smith.

Politicians, academics and journalists love drawing up league tables for Prime Minister and Presidents. David Herbert Donald, a biographer of Lincoln recalls meeting President Kennedy in 1962 who was dissatisfied with historians who glibly rated some of his predecessors as “below average” or “failures”. 

With real feeling he said to Donald: “No one has a right to grade a President not even poor James Buchanan – who has not sat in his chair, examined the mail and information that comes across his desk, and learned why he made his decisions”.



British Conservative Leaders (eds) Charles Clarke, Toby S James, Time Bale and Patrick Diamond (Biteback £25)

British Labour Leaders (eds) Charles Clarke and Toby S James (Biteback £25)

British Liberal Leaders (eds) Duncan Brack, Robert Ingham and Tony Little (Biteback £25)


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