Book Review: The Impossible Office: The History of the British Prime Minister by Anthony Seldon
Review By Canon Dr Mike D Williams
Marking three hundred years of the office of Prime Minister this book published in 2021 delves into the lives, powers and success and failure of the many holders of the office. Seldon, who is the official historian of 10 Downing Street who wrote his first book about a Prime Minster (PM) forty years ago. He has many reliable sources and hundereds of interviews to draw on in for this broad examination of how things have changed or not over time.
It starts with an imagined conversation between Walpole and Johnson about the similarities and differences across the span of three hundred years. They both attended Eton, but Walpole did not have a Foreign Secretary and he ran the Treasury himself. Walpole, whose appointment as ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ in 1721, led to the convention that the government would be run in the name of the monarch but by ministers whose head would be the First Lord of the Treasury and leader of the House of Commons or Lords.
A majority in the House of Commons was as important in 1721 as in 2021. Johnson has the ability to appoint his cabinet where historically the monarch has had that right. Relations with the Crown have changed over time. Sheldon gives a chapter to describe the ‘eclipse’ in the power of the monarch to the position now where the Queen is Head of State but keeps out of politics which is very different to the past.
The changes in the office of PM in part reflect the broader historical changes in the country. For example, the invention of the railways allowed PMs to get out of London more often. Perhaps more interesting is Sheldon’s analysis of the ‘transformational’ PMs. Knowing the powers of the office only tell you so much. Look at what they did and the enduring impact of their time results in finding eight PMs who are defined as ‘agenda changers’. Walpole and Pitt the Younger had no equals, according to Sheldon, until Robert Peel (1834-5, 1841-6) who undertook major domestic reform including banning women and children working in the mines. He cut tariffs and introduced income tax permanently in 1842. Palmerston, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Attlee, and Thatcher complete the list.
Without a written constitution a PM has considerable freedom. The sources of formal powers enjoyed by a PM have surprisingly only recently been written down. A PM can set the agenda, appoint ministers and other senior posts, lead their political parties and are the Minster of the civil service. Yet it is more the skill set of the office holder that determines their success or failure. Ranged against the PM are a multitude of constraints from institutional to political and include judicial reviews, lobbying by interest groups, the media, the economic context – and the list goes on. Sheldon concludes that the constraints have grown since the Second World War and PMs can often be hemmed in by problems that have to be solved but cannot be.
Major changes over time have been the declining political influence of the monarchy and more recently the Foreign Secretary, whilst the Chancellor and Treasury has become more powerful. A chapter on each delves into the history of the changes looking at some of the holders of those positions. Modern communications and travel have allowed PMs to become major players in international diplomacy and overshadow their Foreign Secretary. The complexity of finance and economics means that PMs have to rely on the experts in the Treasury who go out of their way to recruit the brightest and best. The relationship between the PM and Chancellor is examined with surprisingly few good examples of cooperation at the heart of government. Many recent Chancellors have been, at best, unsupportive of the PM’s agenda.
Is it an impossible office? The final chapter tackles that question. The office of PM is clearly hugely challenging, and some people are better able to handle that than others. Ranking the fifty-five from best to worst is a preoccupation for some. Sheldon does not take that route but suggests instead a number of categories by which he then judges performance. Some have been ‘transformative’ and ensured that the office has survived over time. Others have been ‘major contributors’ for a variety of reasons – he includes Heath for taking the country into European Economic Community, and Tony Blair for constitutional reform and winning three elections. There are ‘positive stabilisers’ that include James Callaghan, John Major, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Some may question the inclusion of Cameron given the Brexit referendum. There are ‘noble failures’ of Neville Chamberlain, Theresa May and others. ‘Ignoble failures’ and ‘left on the starting line’ no doubt are ones that the current incumbent is trying to avoid.
In trying to fathom what creates success Sheldon suggest the ingredients that help: they are the nature of the individual, their ideas, interests, and circumstances. Theresa May had plenty of political experience, ideas, and interests but the circumstances she inherited made her job impossible. Perhaps most worrying are the suggestions about how to improve the job of PM. Worrying because they are fairly basic. These include a reset in the relationship between Number 10 and 11 Downing Street. Sheldon argues that ‘Number 10 has been relaunched and reinvented more often in the last thirty years than Madonna: and it seldom works, because there is no institutional memory, or learning.’ Electors ‘might be shocked if they know how little incoming prime ministers and their closest advisors know about the history and operation of the office…and how the system works.’ Recent events only serve to reinforce that point.
With the current PM and his staff in Number 10 under such scrutiny for alleged events during lockdown this book provides a broader canvas in which to see the successes and failures of the office of PM. Lessons from history can teach us a lot about how to make the future better. I just hope that this book is read by the staff and office holder in Number 10.