‘The Prime Ministers’: An Exposition of the Tragedy of Power Leaders' Experiences
By NOAH KEATE
I have long believed that any analysis of politics needs to start from a recognition that framing an understanding around one individual will, given limited dividends. The structures and sheer volume of international institutions that frame how people live their lives meant I’ve seen the focus on ‘great’ leaders as providing only some benefit. However, Steve Richards’ ‘The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to May’, a tour de force reflecting on modern Prime Ministers, superbly highlights how leaders are just so influential in framing the agenda and direction of a country.
Richards devotes a chapter to each of the modern Prime Ministers which have framed his life, starting with Harold Wilson. With his childlike observation of the 1960s Labour leader making a speech to following Prime Ministers as a renowned political journalist, Richards has been able to paint a striking, well-rounded picture of leaders. Indeed, despite their many differences, the book makes it clear they are all united by the pursuit of power. Though avoiding a subjective ranking of Prime Ministers, which would weaken the book’s desirability and interest, where Richards instead brings his analytical strengths is in altering the easy, quickly-judged assessments of leaders.
For example, Edward Heath and Gordon Brown are often seen as Prime Ministerial failures. Winning one and no election respectively, they served in office for a short period of time which saw wide political and economic crises. Yet it is little known that both were avidly involved in student politics at university. Able to make and hold arguments from a young age, translating this on a national level was clearly a greater channel. Indeed, Richards highlights how both fell down simply from a lack of clubbability with colleagues, often viewing fellow politicians in a dismissive manner. It demonstrated just how far one can go politically without the requisite skills.
It’s clear Steve Richards is an admirer of Harold Wilson, a Labour leader whose electoral success is often eclipsed by Tony Blair, despite Wilson winning four elections. The most recent Prime Minister to serve over two terms, it becomes clear that he finds the second two victories in 1974 a burden, rather than a form of liberation. Wilson is also unique in being the last Prime Minister to leave on his own terms, partially due to health reasons, rather than being forced out. What a rarity that is today.
Richards discusses Jim Callaghan in a fascinating way. Neither he nor John Major, a later Prime Minister, attended university. Yet Callaghan is, so far, the only individual to have served in all four Great Offices of State. He should have been the most prepared Prime Minister there was. Yet again, as Harold Macmillan said, events, dear boy, events, came to define his premiership. With the Winter of Discontent, frequent strikes and continued economic crises, the eerie prescience of today is striking. Indeed, Richards makes a clear and decisive case for how much leaders are shaped by circumstances around them and just how tricky implementing a convincing agenda is.
There is often a perception of Margaret Thatcher as the Iron Lady. The first female Prime Minister was a pejorative term given to her by the Soviets. Yet she embraced it as a badge of honour, portraying an air of confidence and certainty about every aspect of her policy agenda. Yet Richards turns this assumption on its head, highlighting how, beneath the surface, she was far less assured about aspects of her economic agenda. The combination of this facade Thatcher presented and the divided nature of her opponents was what ensured her continued victories.
Reading more and more about the New Labour years, across numerous books, it becomes damning just how much time and attention of their government was taken up by conflicts between Blair and Brown. With the latter feeling betrayed about how long the former was remaining in power, the administration often sounds like more of a psychodrama than a component government. Richards was unique in being able to speak to both Blairite and Brownite camps, something which really adds to the book’s strengths here. In particular, Richards helped to change my mind on Iraq. Where I had simplistically viewed the conflict as a calculated act of criminality, I now realise it was instead a grave error of judgment.
Though I aspire to work in the media in the near future, ‘The Prime Ministers’ makes the important case for not viewing media perceptions of leaders at face value. David Cameron for example was not lazy, but simply had little interest in policy detail, preferring to mirror Blair in style, if not substance. Theresa May gave an attitude of confidence as Home Secretary which was impossible to replicate as Prime Minister. Now, as Boris Johnson struggles to keep his premiership on the tracks, Richards’ forthright, measured and articulate journalistic narrative which prioritises examining leaders - warts and all - in depth has never felt more timely.
The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards is available to pre-order here: https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-prime-ministers/steve-richards/9781786495884
Image: Allen and Unwin Book Publishers