Premier League: From "Bad Ted" Heath to Well-Meaning John Major, Britain's 20th-Century Prime Ministers Have Shared Little beyond Their Famous Address. Simon Hoggart Remembers the Charmers, Bullies and Posers of Downing Street

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One of the perks of being a middle-aged political hack is that you can remember a lot of people. For example, I have met--sometimes just shaken hands with, occasionally talked to at length--every British prime minister from Macmillan onwards. And what a disparate bunch they have been. You might imagine there would be some thread in common: restless ambition; adeptness at wielding power; even, if only briefly, a certain idealism. You can find connections between two individuals: Blair and Thatcher share a ruthless streak; Attlee and Douglas-Home fell unexpectedly into the job; Wilson and Major were more concerned with staying in their post than achieving anything very much while there. But nothing binds them. As Macmillan said to a colleague who was working on a book about the British aristocracy: "You might as well write a book about all the people whose names begin with the letter D." Now Haus Publishing's series The 20 British Prime Ministers of the 20th Century presents them in all this intriguing and sometimes puzzling variety.


Macmillan was a tremendous poser. When he spoke at a Young Conservatives gathering a few years before he died, he was guided--stooped, with stick in hand--to the podium, where he gravely told bemused delegates that "the arrows of death are plumed with the feathers of ambition". Afterwards, the young man who had brought him on stage--his grandson, I think--confided that he had marched briskly up to the wings and only then assumed the stick and the hobble for public consumption. He devoted his final years to the pleasures of being rude about his successor-but-two. ("We have a new car. It says 'put your seat belt on', or 'slow down'. It's a very bossy car. We call it Margaret Thatcher.")

Douglas-Home was diffident beyond measure. At some point in the 1970s, he was in the first-class compartment of a train to Scotland. A middle-aged couple in the corridor did a double take, then the wife said: "My husband and I think it was a tragedy that you were never prime minister." He replied courteously: "As a matter of fact I was. But only for a very short time." Interestingly, in a new Tory conference video, he was the only 20th-century leader not to be mentioned.


Harold Wilson was typically found with brandy and cigar in hand, sitting around at night with his kitchen cabinet. He was the last of the long-serving premiers, by and large, who let his cabinet get on with it. An adviser who worked with him told me: "I really don't know what he finds to do all day. He doesn't seem to have any work." Well, he kept the Labour Party together; in those days, that was thought an end in itself.

Edward Heath, meanwhile, was a Jekyll and Hyde. The "good Ted" could be marvellous and surprising company--he once turned up to a formal lunch in a turquoise and orange Miami Dolphins sweatshirt. The "bad Ted" was mean-spirited and vengeful. When one of his Treasury ministers, John Nott, approached him in the lobby to warn him about rising inflation, Heath refused to listen, growling: "If you want to resign, put it in writing." His successor, James Callaghan, quickly realised that the forces of change were about to sweep him away. He described private meetings with Thatcher, then leader of the opposition: "She wags her finger at me, and I have to remind myself who's prime minister."

This was not a problem any of us had while she was PM. While still in opposition, Thatcher made a remark that sums up everything about her, including her upbringing and her attitude to authority. She was guest of honour at the parliamentary press children's Christmas party and came upon a small boy crying into his dessert bowl. "They've given me blancmange, and I don't like blancmange," he sobbed. "That," she replied, "is what parties are all about--eating food you don't like." (I know that story is true because the Father Christmas told me. …