The Prime Minister: The Office and Its Holders since 1945 
by Peter Hennessy.
Allen Lane, 686 pp., £25, October 2000, 0 7139 9340 5
Show More
Show More

Peter Hennessy’s new book hasn’t persuaded me that its central preoccupation, the current dispute over prime ministerial power and its extent, is not sterile and, indeed, rather boring – yet it is a splendid read. The truth is that the Westminster system is quite inadequately democratic and transparent, and Hennessy is, if anything, too respectful and conventional in his proposals about how the office might be reformed. Party discipline, a weak Parliament, quasi-presidential power, great secrecy and the fact that the PM, invariably gifted with a safe seat, is insulated from direct electoral pressure all mean that the system is just not accountable enough. The most disappointing part of Blair’s constitutional reforms is that he hasn’t faced up to the problems of the central edifice itself. There is no separation of powers, there are far too many MPs, secrecy makes it much too easy to hoodwink Parliament and the public, the second chamber remains a patronage-based absurdity and so on.

What makes the book so riveting to read is, on the one hand, the thoroughness of Hennessy’s examination of the documents now open on pre-1970 Administrations, combined with a great many interviews and inquiries of his own, and, on the other, his investigation of the PM’s role in military and intelligence affairs. There is, however, a sharp cut-off point. What he has to say about Administrations up to 1964 is fresh and fascinating; Wilson’s Administration of 1964-70 was so voluminously covered by press leaks at the time and by endless diaries and memoirs soon afterwards that the official documents have nothing new to tell us, and the Public Record Office is still closed for the Administrations after that, so the quality and interest of the coverage fall sharply away. You read the chapters dealing with the period up to 1964 with bated breath and the ones thereafter with a yawn that becomes progressively harder to stifle as you reach the age of Major and Blair.

The prime minister alone, as Hennessy reminds us, can activate the codes for a nuclear strike. The only one to authorise such a strike was Churchill: the 1943 Quebec Agreement meant that he had to give the go-ahead for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Repeated attempts were made to get him to take the decision to Cabinet, whose Combined Policy Committee supported him, but still he refused. The framework for everything that followed was set by Attlee: he was the one who had to face the Cold War, who authorised the building of a British atom bomb and drew up detailed preparations for World War Three. The Chiefs of Staff, fearing an imminent Soviet attack, threatened their collective resignation in order to force him to keep open Mediterranean and Middle East bases from which the RAF could bomb the USSR. But Major Attlee had fought at Gallipoli and was correspondingly sceptical about what generals had to say, favouring the MI6 view that the Soviet Union would not risk a major war until at least the mid-1950s. Yet by 1949 Attlee’s inner group of ministers had launched a programme of subversive activities behind the Iron Curtain and approved war plans that included censorship, civil defence and internment camps on the Isle of Man.

Even at this distance one trembles at the description of Churchill’s return to office in 1951. It was a bizarre scene: he would take a late breakfast in bed with cold grouse or partridge and a whisky and soda. Lunch would follow with ‘enough champagne and brandy . . . to incapacitate any lesser man’, as his private secretary John Colville put it. He would talk to ministers with Toby, his budgie, alighting (and sometimes doing more than that) on their heads. He had frequent sleeps. His method of dealing with crises, he explained, was to ‘turn out the light, say “bugger everyone,” and go to sleep’. He thought he could run the Cabinet as if the war were still on, had a stroke (which was hushed up), and became increasingly senile. ‘Churchill is now often speechless in Cabinet; alternatively, he rambles about nothing,’ Macmillan wrote in 1954. ‘Sometimes he looks as if he is going to have another stroke . . . He was always an egoist, but a magnanimous one. Now he has become almost a monomaniac.’ It was into these unreliable hands that the first British atomic bomb was delivered in November 1953 – ‘an extraordinary thing’, as Hennessy points out, ‘for a man who had fought at Omdurman in 1898’. When, in July 1954, he revealed to the Cabinet that a mere committee had, several months before, taken the decision to build an H-bomb, the angry ministers walked out.

Above all, Churchill clung to office. He despised Anthony Eden, his heir apparent, who, he said, had ‘gone native’ among the ‘shuffling scuttlers’ at the Foreign Office. The last of the Yalta Big Three, he was determined to end the Cold War by personal diplomacy. The Cabinet was horrified to discover that, returning from the US by ship, he had shot off a sheaf of telegrams to the new (post-Stalin) Soviet leadership, causing Lord Salisbury to threaten resignation for the umpteenth time. But it was all foolish and in vain. When he heard he’d won the Nobel Prize (in 1953, for his war memoirs) he became tremendously excited until told that it was for Literature: ‘His face fell. He’d wanted the Nobel Peace Prize.’ He ran the Government in a wholly self-indulgent manner, and had little idea about peacetime problems, saying, for example, of his time as Chancellor under Baldwin: ‘I was Chancellor of the Exchequer . . . for five years and . . . I never understood it.’ Not long before leaving office he suggested to the Cabinet that, in the face of increasing ‘coloured immigration’, a good campaign slogan would be ‘Keep England White’. Somehow he staggered through four years in this way, confiding to Colville on his last night at No. 10: ‘I don’t believe Anthony can do it.’

Given that Churchill’s opinion was quite widely shared, it seems surprising now that Eden was allowed to succeed. Lord Swinton had already told Churchill that ‘anybody would be better than Anthony’ – who ‘would make the worst prime minister since Lord North’. ‘But,’ Swinton added, ‘you announced him as your successor more than ten years ago.’ ‘I think it was a great mistake,’ Churchill conceded. Within a short time of Eden’s accession, the Russians were threatening to bombard the country with rockets as a result of a crisis he had insisted on provoking.

Eden was an impossible fusser, pestering ministers with as many as twenty notes a day and ringing them up at every turn: Selwyn Lloyd had to endure thirty calls over the Christmas weekend of 1955. On top of this he had a violent temper. Civil servants were scared of taking issues to him: ‘they knew it would worry him and cause an explosion. Always at the back of everything was the fear that he would lose his temper and we should be sworn at.’ He raged against his ministers, against journalists, against the Americans and against ‘the Communists in the BBC’. Anthony Nutting, a junior minister at the Foreign Office, told Hennessy how, on the eve of Suez, Eden called him:

The telephone rang and a voice down the other end said: ‘It’s me.’ I didn’t quite realise who ‘me’ was for a moment. However, he gave the show away very quickly by starting to scream at me. ‘What is all this poppycock you’ve sent me about isolating Nasser and neutralising Nasser? Why can’t you get it into your head I want the man destroyed?’ I said: ‘OK. You get rid of Nasser, what are you going to put in his place?’ ‘I don’t want anybody,’ he said. I said: ‘Well, there’ll be anarchy and chaos in Egypt.’ ‘I don’t care if there’s anarchy and chaos in Egypt. Let there be anarchy and chaos in Egypt. I just want to get rid of Nasser.’

Everything that followed – the crazy invasion, ignoring Eisenhower’s strong warnings against it, deceiving the Cabinet, lying to Parliament and the ultimate dénouement – was inevitable: the Government was in the hands of a demented narcissist. The greatest criticism of the Cabinet system in the entire period under review is that no one acted to stop a man who was clearly out of control, completely lacking in judgment – and in charge of a nuclear arsenal.

Britain being Britain, there was a closing of ranks. Selwyn Lloyd lied like a trooper throughout the rest of his political life about his collusion with the French and Israelis, which didn’t prevent him being hailed as a great statesman; and for years on end ministers stoutly denied that US pressure or the run on sterling had anything to do with the retreat from Suez. Hennessy did well to get Douglas-Home – many years later – to give the game away:

What really turned the scale and made the Chancellor . . . so terribly anxious was the American action in putting the Sixth Fleet alongside us in the Mediterranean, for all the world to see, and therefore announcing in effect that America was totally against us. And the effect on sterling as a result of that was catastrophic. It was the actual effect on sterling [that did it].

The dramas that Hennessy reveals peak with Macmillan. It is nice to be reminded of the Supermac style. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, called on Macmillan to tell him that whatever he did, he must not appoint Michael Ramsey as his successor, adding that he knew Ramsey well, had indeed been his headmaster at Repton. ‘Thank you, Your Grace, for your kind advice,’ Macmillan replied. ‘You may have been Dr Ramsey’s headmaster, but you were not mine.’ Some years later, of the Kentish boy, Ted Heath: ‘Hengist and Horsa were very dull people. Now, as you know, they colonised Kent; consequently the people of Kent have ever since been very slightly – well, you know . . . Ted was an excellent Chief Whip . . . a first class staff officer, but no army commander.’ Mac pushed Concorde through by regaling his ministers with the story of his great-aunt’s Daimler, which had travelled ‘at the sensible speed of thirty miles an hour . . . Nowadays, alas, people had a mania for dashing around. But that being so Britain ought to cater for this profitable modern eccentricity.’ Everyone was charmed, laughed, agreed, it was over in minutes. But Macmillan could also be morose, telling Woodrow Wyatt that his son Maurice ‘was much nicer than me. I was always a shit. Maurice wouldn’t be one so that’s why he didn’t get on in politics like me.’

The great drama of Macmillan’s premiership – he was the first to have thermonuclear weapons at his disposal – was the Cuban missile crisis. The previous year the V-bomber force (the Victors, Vulcans and Valiants) had received a new set of procedures, counting down from Condition 5 (peace) to 1 (placing 25 per cent of the bomber force at five minutes’ readiness). As the tension increased in October 1962 the force was moved to Condition 3. The plan was to annihilate thirty to forty Soviet cities with an assumed 16 million casualties: big cities like Moscow and Leningrad would get two or three H-bombs each. Nearly half the V-bombers were loaded with bombs and made ready, as were 59 Thor missiles, all with nuclear warheads. It seems likely that Air Marshal Cross took the initiative to increase the bombers’ readiness to a mere 15 minutes from take-off. The pilots and crews slept on camp-beds next to the planes and all switches were set to allow a rapid engine start; they believed they would be able to take off in under 8 minutes. The weekend of 27-28 October – the worst of Macmillan’s life – was ‘the defining moment of the postwar period in nuclear terms’.

It is intriguing to read of the great nuclear shelter for VIPs under the Cotswolds, to learn that the royal yacht Britannia was a fully fledged command and control centre with washdown facilities to deal with nuclear fallout, but the most striking thing is that neither the public nor Parliament was ever told how close the country was to nuclear war. We didn’t know that American action in the Caribbean would automatically lead to the V-bombers being fitted with Yellow Sun Mk IIs (as the H-bombs were called, though we weren’t even told that at the time) and dispersed round the country ready to attack – and therefore didn’t know how very close we came to the nightmare of Dr Strangelove. And, of course, there would have been no nonsense about alerting the public about what was up by declaring war. As Hennessy points out, the last time Britain declared war was against Siam in 1942: every war since – Korea, the Falklands, endless colonial conflicts, the Gulf, Kosovo – has been fought without Parliament getting a chance to agree to it.

Fast forward to April 1982: Macmillan ‘doing his old man act’ visits Mrs Thatcher as the Falklands War escalates. She had cleared all the furniture away ready to receive a big deputation of backbenchers that evening. Mac, seeing the empty space, jumped to conclusions about the family silver. ‘You’ve sold it all off, I suppose.’ He had just one question about the Argentinians: ‘Have they got the Bomb?’ Assured they didn’t, he talked of administrative matters and left with a mixture of admiration for her backbone mixed with disdain for her lack of background: ‘she should have had more . . . knowledge – at least 150 years, perhaps 500 years, of the history of the country concerned.’ The idea of Mrs Thatcher having a deep appreciation of Argentinian history is almost comic and says more about the scholarly Macmillan than it does about her. Mrs Thatcher recalled how, as a young MP, she had heard Macmillan say that, not having a department of their own to run, prime ministers had a lot of time for reading. He recommended Disraeli and Trollope: indeed, he liked to talk of ‘going to bed with a Trollope’. Mrs Thatcher ‘sometimes wondered if he was joking’.

Douglas-Home’s premiership still has some old world charm. He described his time as Prime Minister as ‘a terrible intrusion into one’s private life’. His friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter told how Home believed government would be best carried out by 12 upper class families, of which 9 should be Scottish. Douglas-Home told Dominic Harrod that he’d had a letter from Harrod’s father, the economist, ‘about inflation . . . or deflation – or something’. The most intriguing revelation here is that, had he won the 1964 election, he would have recalled Enoch Powell to the Cabinet with a brief to reform Whitehall. This would doubtless have produced a historic slaughter, the Tiber foaming with much blood, but it’s unlikely that even Powell would have won that one. Almost all ministers, and prime ministers especially, become great admirers of the Civil Service over time – the exception being, as usual, Macmillan. ‘Civil servants are really more dangerous when they are good,’ he once said. ‘They are against the aristocracy; the successful businessman; and the adventurer . . . They are like the clergy in pre-Reformation times. It was against them rather than against any theological doctrine that our ancestors revolted.’

It isn’t just the absence of documents that makes it so dispiriting to move from the incumbents of the early postwar period to Wilson and Callaghan, Major and Blair. Hennessy, while admitting that many of the early premiers often broke the rules of cabinet government, is almost at a loss confronted by Thatcher and has an even worse time with Blair. His notion that the system was somehow vindicated by the fact that Thatcher got her come-uppance in the end is not convincing: it took 11 years to happen, after all, and allowed a degree of monomania which, if the system worked, would have been checked long before. In fact, if it really worked it would not have accepted a drunken and senile Churchill for so long or allowed an unstable personality like Eden to take office. It is comforting to believe in the inevitability – and thus security – of collective responsibility and, ultimately, collective action, but more often than not it’s a fiction.

An American President is constrained, above all, by a written constitution and the separation of powers. The truth is that, lacking a formal set of restraints, a premier like Thatcher could and did play fast and loose with the system. She could, for example, declare that she intended ‘to go on and on and on’, something no American President could do. Blair has carried presidentialism even further but there is something embarrassing and hollow about the whole business: at least Thatcher was using all that power to make huge changes. Why does Blair need to concentrate such power around him? The country is not at war, he’s not ramming through Attlee-scale reforms and his majority is large enough for him to allow Parliament a strong say and still know he’ll win. At the end of the day, a great deal of this presidentialism is quite obviously smoke and mirrors, PR without content. Can academics like Anthony Giddens, who took ‘the Third Way’ seriously, now refrain from blushing? British premiers are usually frauds when they philosophise. Attlee and Thatcher stand out as premiers because they inaugurated an age in their image and changed the terms of debate, but neither was a philosopher – Thatcher’s pretensions in that regard were simply embarrassing.

One is driven, ineluctably, to wonder about the sadly inverse nature of political leadership. When the American republic was young and the population still tiny, the Presidency produced Washington, Hamilton, Jackson, Jefferson and Lincoln. Two hundred years and two hundred million people further on, with everyone far better educated, richer and more sophisticated, it could only produce the likes of Nixon and Ford, Reagan and Clinton.

Britain is the same: when the population was under five million it produced Walpole and the two Pitts. Later, still with a poorly educated population under thirty million, it produced Palmerston, Peel, Disraeli and Gladstone. After it reached fifty million – of far better educated people – it produced the likes of Wilson, Callaghan, Major and Blair. Some strange law of historical diminution is at work here. Even the monstres sacrés like Churchill look wonderful by contrast. He might have helped France at one time, De Gaulle said of Churchill, but in truth he would always be France’s opponent because ‘within him breathes the soul of Pitt.’ As we look at our modern crop of leaders it is difficult to imagine that within them breathe even the souls of Ramsay MacDonald or Stanley Baldwin.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 22 No. 22 · 16 November 2000

In his review of Peter Hennessy’s The Prime Minister (LRB, 19 October), R.W. Johnson tells us that when ‘the American republic was young’, the Presidency produced, among others, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was never President, and indeed was not strictly eligible for the post. Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution (ratified in 1788) states that no naturalised citizen can become President, and the 12th Amendment (ratified in 1804) extends this prohibition to the Vice-President. The politicians of the day knew how to look after themselves, however, and so the restriction was ‘grandfathered’: those who were citizens at the time of ratification were allowed to stand for office. This meant that Hamilton (born in Nevis) was eligible for the Presidency, but it was an office he neither sought nor held.

Johnson’s error is useful in reminding us how fiercely Americans cling to ancient Constitutional restrictions. These prohibitions mean that J.K. Galbraith, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and John Shalikashvili may sit in the innermost councils of their country, but may never share in the honours which it bestowed on George M. Dallas, Hannibal Hamlin, Garret A. Hobart and Spiro T. Agnew.

It is possible only to speculate why Johnson elevated Alexander Hamilton to Presidential status. Perhaps he is attracted by Hamilton’s view that the American head of state should be President for life, and the Senate ‘a permanent body’, consisting of ‘the rich and well-born’. I wonder where Hamilton got those ideas.

Ron Haggart

Vol. 23 No. 1 · 4 January 2001

My letter about Alexander Hamilton (Letters, 16 November 2000) originally stated that Hamilton would not be eligible for the post of President were he alive today. It is not correct to say – and I did not say – that he ‘was not strictly eligible for the post’ during his lifetime. The passage that followed made it clear that Hamilton (born in Nevis) was eligible for the Presidency, but naturalised citizens after his time were not.

Ron Haggart

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences