The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders Since 1945 by Peter Hennessy8 January 2008
Catching up after a few days of missed postings — I may end up switching over to a Tuesday/Sunday posting schedule after this week, just to spread out the backlog a bit.
I thought I’d posted this one already, but a look through my tags suggests that I haven’t. I’ve another Hennessy book coming up for review soon after this one, most likely on Sunday.
The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders Since 1945 by Peter Hennessy
Like much of the British political system, the office of the Prime Minister (and First Lord of the Treasury) of Great Britain has been sort of cobbled together over the centuries into the form that exists today. As such, there’s an intriguing amount of flexibility in its job scope and job description that quite a lot of people don’t often notice. For instance, a prime minister doesn’t necessarily have to be the leader of the largest political party in the House of Commons — in 1940, Neville Chamberlain stayed on as leader of the Conservative Party for a few months after Winston Churchill officially became PM. A study of the office of Prime Minister in the years since World War II has to look at a subject that is deceptively complex to contemplate, all the more so because each successive PM has added his or her own interpretation of the duties and responsibilities (and perks) that come with being at the top of the greasy pole. In The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders Since 1945, Peter Hennessy has written a neat and very compact analysis that incorporates insight and input from a wide range of senior officials, politicians, and media people, all of whom provide a running commentary on the changes that have taken place over the years.
Interestingly, Hennessy seems to take it as a mission to ‘redeem’ premiers that perhaps haven’t been given the credit they deserve for their achievements in their time in office. He has quite a few kind words for Clement Attlee’s seemingly unflappable outlook on governing, Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s sense of duty and determination, Edward Heath’s successful European entry negotiations, and Jim Callaghan’s deep roots in the labour movement. But he’s not above castigating a prime minister for serious flaws or failings — he points out Anthony Eden’s near-monomaniacal hatred of General Nasser and Harold Wilson’s slapdash attempts to control inter-Cabinet squabbles as special examples of leadership problems. Even Winston Churchill is dismissed as having been too old and too steeped in wartime tradition to think that he could manage Britain at peace (leaving Korea and Indochina aside for the moment, that is). As for what he has to say about Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair…well, let’s just say that he thinks their approaches to Cabinet government leave much to be desired.
As a study of the premiership and as a person-by-person analysis of those who have held the office of First Lord of the Treasury since 1945, I can only say that this book is invaluable. Even if it’s occasionally a little frustrating to look at the footnotes and see ‘Private information’ as the source for a really insightful comment or quotation, it’s rather difficult to fault the breadth, depth, or quality of Hennessy’s research on this topic.