All roads in the Constitution lead to the Prime Minister.
– Sir Ivor Jennings, 1965.
Unlike the Queen’s representative, the prime minister is a supremely political person. In the democratic era, he or she is vested for a time with the full lease of the people’s authority, receiving under the electoral ‘mandate’ a lease of authority from the people which is limited in time and scope, and may be revoked at the next election.
– Graham Maddox, Australian Democracy In Theory and Practice, (Longman, 1996), p218.
The prime minister is political because, to win that lease of authority, he or she must court the people through election campaigns and otherwise prove to be an acceptable leader. Both before and during a term of office, however, a prime minister must have an eye to his or her political fortunes. In a democracy, politics is necessarily an art of compromise, and a totally unbending leader who takes no heed of popular feeling will not last long. Inevitably, in the contest for office, some ideals are sacrificed, and even some unpalatable policies adopted. At the same time, however, no leader who appears as a cynical courtier of public opinion is likely to be retained in office.
– Graham Maddox, Australian Democracy In Theory and Practice, (Longman, 1996), p218.
The office of Prime Minister within the institutions of Parliament and Cabinet cannot be divorced from the influence of the political party. The forces of party organisation and loyalty naturally support the person identified with its success. And these factors are strongest when it is in office, offering the greatest potential for power to a Prime Minister who has won a resounding majority in Parliament for his party.
Since in modern Australian elections the voters see themselves as selecting a Prime Minister and government rather than a Parliament, electoral contests have increasingly developed into battle between parties, and essentially between party leaders. The Leader will have toured the country, have been the prime focus of the mass media and the campaign, and as a result become the symbol of the party. Any rival within the party or the Cabinet starts at a disadvantage.
– Dean Jaensch, The Politics of Australia, (Macmillan, 1999), p166.
The skills needed to perform these various [prime ministerial] roles are diverse, and not many Prime Ministers possess them all. To be an effective national leader, a Prime Minister may require considerable personal stature of charisma. To be an effective government leader, a Prime Minister may require a clear sense of policy objectives, and an ability to master mountains of paperwork. To be an effective party leader, a Prime Minister may need negotiating skills to balance the demands of conflicting points of view and interests. To lead the party in Parliament, the Prime Minister may need to be a skilled debater, who can convey the impression of being in charge.
A Prime Minister who is remarkably skilled in some areas may be deficient in others. Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, succeeded because he was best able to combine these various skills. By contrast, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam had clear policy objectives and was an effective parliamentary performer, but at the same time was a capricious administrator and an inefficient negotiator, whose personal style alienated the very groups upon which his prospects for success depended.
– Lovell, McAllister, Maley & Kukathas, The Australian Political System, (Longman, 1998), p77.
Peter Hennessy’s new book [“The Prime Minister: The Office And Its Holders Since 1945”] 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.
..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.
..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”.
..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.
– R.W. Johnson, “The Guardian”, October 12, 2000