Maggie rated best Prime Minister of the 20th Century
Margaret Thatcher was the best Prime Minister of the 20th century, according to an article due to be published in the September issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale 29 August.
Margaret Thatcher, who held office as a Conservative Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990, received the highest rating from author and historian Francis Beckett. Beckett commented: “Margaret Thatcher took one sort of society, and turned it into another sort of society. She broke the Attlee settlement, which had lasted more than 30 years, largely by force of will. Today few people under 40 remember a time when trade unions were a real force in the land; when the public sector controlled large swathes of the economy; when local councils controlled education and other local services; when benefits were considered rights of citizenship. The defeat and destruction of the once-powerful National Union of Mineworkers was a key moment in the history of the last half decade.”
Margaret Thatcher shares the top spot alongside Clement Richard Attlee who led a Labour government between 1945 and 1951.
At the other end of the scale, Neville Chamberlain, who was the Conservative Prime Minister from 1937-40, came in as the worst Prime Minister of the 20th Century alongside Robert Anthony Eden, Conservative Prime Minister 1955-7.
Beckett commented: “He [Chamberlain] utterly failed in his principal objective of averting war. The moment which appeared at the time to be his biggest triumph – the Munich agreement with Hitler of 1938 – is seen in retrospect as a disaster. He said at the time that it was ‘the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace’. He never had the chance as prime minister to do much about his domestic agenda.”
Our current longstanding leader, Tony Blair, came in midway. Although he has had the biggest ever Labour majority, and has been re-elected twice, the unpopularity of his actions in the Iraq war might have affected his ability to fulfil his aims.
Beckett commented: “Blair made a lot of progress in his chosen direction right up to the time of the Iraq War. The private sector has now been brought even into the running of schools and hospitals, and since the Conservatives agree with it, this will probably be a relatively permanent change. The unpopularity of the Iraq War, and the fact that the reasons given afterwards for going to war were not those given at the time, have undermined Blair’s ability to implement his vision, probably permanently.”
The 20th century prime ministers were judged by Francis Beckett on their effectiveness as change managers based on two criteria. Firstly, if they had a clear idea of how they wanted to change Britain and how far the succeeded in doing so. And secondly, how effective they were at simply managing, rather than creating, change.
Dave Musgrove, Editor of BBC History Magazine, says: “The important point here is that we’re not judging these leaders on their policies, but rather on how well they implemented them – did they do what they said they would? Mrs Thatcher undoubtedly scores highly on that front. I know many people take issue with what happened to the nation when the Iron Lady was in power, but no one can deny that she did what she set out to.”
The article “Who was the best 20th Century PM?” will be published in the September issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale Tuesday 29 August.
20th Century Prime Ministers
[Rated 0 (worst) – 5 (best)]
5 Margaret Thatcher
5 Clement Richard Attlee
4 Edward Heath
4 Winston Churchill
4 Harold Macmillan
4 Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
3 Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil [later Lord Salisbury]
3 Herbert Henry Asquith
3 David Lloyd George
3 Stanley Baldwin
3 James Harold Wilson
3 Tony Blair
2 James Callaghan
2 Arthur James Balfour
1 Andrew Bonar Law
1 James Ramsay MacDonald
1 Sir Alec Dounglas-Home
1 John Major
0 Robert Anthony Eden
0 Neville Chamberlain
Francis Beckett is a journalist and historian. He is general editor of a series of 20 biographies of 20th-century prime ministers, and author of the volume on Harold Macmillan [Haus Publishing, Autumn 2006].