PAST PRIME MINISTERS

I’ve been thinking about Prime Ministers recently and thought you might have been too. So here’s a handy list of trivial things you might not know about past British Prime Ministers. To cheer you up, or not, as the case may be. Since we’ve all had enough of you know what, I’m only dealing with Prime Ministers up to 1975. Here goes:

  • The First PM was Robert Walpole in 1721.
  • Shortest holder of the office was William Pultney, Earl of Bath who lasted from 10-12 February 1746. A contemporary commentator reported:

“And thus ended the second and last part of this astonishing administration which lasted 48 hours and three quarters seven minutes, and eleven seconds; which may truly be called the most honest of all administrations; the minister to the astonishment of all wise men never transacted one rash thing; and what is more marvellous left as much money in the Treasury as he had found it.”

  • Youngest to take on the office – the younger Pitt at the age of 24 in 1783
  • Average age of PMs on first appointment 52 years and six months.
  • Educational backgrounds:  (1) Schools – Eton 20, Harrow 7, Westminster 6, and the only other school to boast more than one is Glasgow High School with Campbell- Bannerman and Bonar Law. (2) Universities – Oxford 24, Cambridge 14, Edinburgh 2, Glasgow 2. (3) Colleges – Christ Church – 14, Trinity (Camb) 5, St John’s (Camb) 4.
  • Wealth of PMs  on taking office? Wealthiest probably 14th Earl of Derby with  a rent roll of £100, 000 pa in the 1850s. According to A.J.P. Taylor one of the few to ‘leave office flagrantly richer than when he entered it’ was Lloyd George.
  • Sexual morals – highly variable. When Melbourne was cited in a divorce suit his brother wrote to his sister: ‘Do not let William think himself invulnerable for having got off again this time. No man’s luck can go further.’ Lloyd George lived openly with his mistress.
  • Responses on becoming PM: Churchill felt he was ‘walking with destiny’. Stanley Baldwin asked people to pray for him. Gladstone who was cutting down a tree when informed of the arrival of the Queen’s Private Secretary said it was his mission to pacify Ireland. Disraeli was flippant and slightly cynical announcing that he had ‘climbed to the top of the greasy pole at last’. Melbourne said it was a ‘damned bore’ and was minded not to accept until his secretary ‘Ubiquity’ Young said: ‘Why, damn it, such a position was never occupied by any Greek or Roman, and if it only lasts two months it is well worth while to have been Prime Minister of England.’
PMs on plate

Three PMs on a plate: Disraeli (centre) Gladstone (bottom left) Salisbury (bottom right)

And what could be said to make up the mystery of the  perfect Prime Ministerial temperament?

“To define that temperament would not be easy. Courage, tenacity, determination, firm nerves, and clarity of mind are some of the qualities. So too are a certain toughness of the skin and a certain insensitivity. Nor should a Prime Minister be worried too much by scruples and doubts. And if tact and the power to manage men are there too, so much the better. No doubt few Prime Ministers have had every one of these virtues, but if they have not had most of them they have not got very far.”

Robert Blake in The Office of Prime Minister *

And finally, here is Macaulay writing to his father about the death of Canning in 1827 after only 4 months in office:

“To fall at the very moment of reaching the very highest pinnacle of human ambition! the whole work of thirty chequered years of glory and obloquy struck down in a moment! The noblest prize that industry, dexterity, wit and eloquence ever obtained vanishing into nothing in the very instant in which it had been grasped. Vanity of vanities – all is vanity.”

Letters of T. B. Macaulay (ed) Thomas Pinney.

That greasy pole is currently looking – well, pretty greasy, isn’t it?

*All the above from The Office of Prime Minister by Robert Blake (aka Dad).

TALKING TO DAD ON ELECTION DAY

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Harold Macmillan and Robert Blake feasting!

Elections – how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Well, maybe not quite so much now as at the very beginning but basically it would be true to say that I do love an election. This has very little to do with an innate love of politics. I am as likely as the next person to be cynical and depressed about the state of the nation. My love of elections has more to do with talking to my father. He died in 2003 but, as we all know, we do not stop talking to our parents simply because they’re dead.

He was the politics don at Christ Church College Oxford for many years and that is a college with a very proud political heritage. Of the twenty-six prime ministers produced by Oxford thirteen came from Christ Church. He taught people who went on to be politicians and political journalists. He wrote books on politicians. His first book was on Bonar Law – The Unknown Prime Minister. He then edited the volume of Anthony Eden’s diaries that covered Suez. Next came a hugely well received biography of Disraeli followed by A History of the Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher. So politics  was what he did for a living. When he was younger there had been the suggestion that he become an MP. However my mother did not think this would suit his personality or perhaps she did not fancy being an MPs wife. Sensible woman!

Disraeli by Robert Blake

Disraeli by Robert Blake

My father was a very nice man and he was also viscerally conservative. He had considerable charm and generosity along with a wry sense of humour but small talk was not really his thing. Like many experts in their field he was used to people asking him questions and then answering. He lectured for a living, he wrote articles for papers and he appeared on radio and TV. So one way to connect with him was to ask him political questions. He would talk. I would listen. Some of it went in. It wasn’t necessarily that I was always interested exactly but I think I realised from a very young age that it was a way to engage his attention. So if that involved asking him about the single transferable vote when he was Chairman of a Hansard Committee on Electoral Reform so be it.

A plate of Disraeli, Gladstone and Salisbury advertising champagne!

A plate of Disraeli, Gladstone and Salisbury advertising Moet et Chandon champagne!

My childhood was spent surrounded by politicians, both real and antique. My mother was not a woman to pass an antique shop without going in and my father’s interests became hers. Plates, cups, pressed glass were all covered in politicians. I knew what Disraeli looked like from a young age because there he was hanging on the wall and on the cover of my father’s book. I also knew that if I’d been a boy I would have been called Benjamin after him. That focuses the mind. I went on to meet all kinds of politicians in the flesh: Alec Douglas-Home appeared at the back door one day like a very charming wraith; Ted Heath had a huge amount of medals across his chest and a very plummy voice. Later, as PM, his arrival was preceded by sniffer dogs and the kind of red telephone that Almodovar would have approved of. My mother had flu during that visit and was, if not A Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, a woman who could not care less if the cake forks had gone missing. ‘Cake forks?’ she said grimly from her sick bed. ‘He can use his fingers.’ Harold Macmillan, very elderly and very handsome, declined to watch himself on television but stayed talking to my mother. Michael Foot was a rarity in being a Labour politician but he had a fascination with Disraeli so he and my father got on like a house on fire, the archetypal odd-couple.

‘SUCCESS IS THE ABILITY TO GO FROM FAILURE TO FAILURE WITHOUT LOSING YOUR ENTHUSIASM.’

WINSTON CHURCHILL

So Dad loved elections. He only missed one campaign in its entirety and that was the first one Thatcher won in 1979. He’d been offered a place to write abroad and we flew out of the country on the day the election was announced and the pilot told the passengers the result on the plane as we flew back. As I remember it, the whole plane burst into applause. Ignorance was bliss. I was about fifteen at the time and I remember being pleased that my father had cheered up. While we were away he was supposed to be writing a book, Disraeli’s Grand Tour, and I suppose some writing was done but he did also exhibit all the signs of a man wishing he was somewhere else. He was not a man who travelled very well at the best of times. In the mornings there would a feverish search for English newspaper and in the evenings he became rather morose. Cut off from friends, London life and club gossip he pined to be back in the centre of things. The company of the BBC World Service, me and my mother was little compensation. As soon as we arrived back in England, he was a man transformed.

‘ONE SECRET OF SUCCESS IN LIFE IS FOR A MAN TO BE READY FOR HIS OPPORTUNITY WHEN IT COMES.’

BEMJAMIN DISRAELI

So on May 7th when I use that stubby pencil to vote I will be missing my father. And I will be reminding myself that there was a time before google when there were experts who could access extraordinary amounts of information not at the press of a button but from their own elegant and incisive minds. I will also remember fondly the short period of time (Iraq war onwards) when our political views coincided (although for entirely different reason) in a hatred of Tony Blair.

Will I stay up? Usually I intend to but then get driven to sleep by pure boredom and irritation around 2 o’clock. However over the next few days I will be having many conversations with my Dad.

  • Do you like Cameron or do you think he’s just a PR man at heart?
  • What coalition would you prefer? Tory-Lib, Lab-SNP, Tory minority, Labour minority etc…etc…
  • Do you think the Tories will vote tactically in Sheffield to keep Clegg in?
  • If Clegg and Danny Alexander lose their seats then who negotiates a coalition?
  • Can you really imagine the blond buffoon as PM? You can’t can you? Please tell me you can’t.
  • Do you think after another hung parliament we’ll finally get some electoral reform?

I wonder what he’ll reply?

What do/did you talk to your Dad about?