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Rating British Prime Ministers

Published:29 November 2004
Fieldwork:27 September - 5 November 2004
Sub-Theme:Satisfaction with Government / Party Leaders
Source:University of Leeds
Keywords:Politicians, Prime Minister
(Click on keywords to find related Research)

There have been many surveys, going back to the 1940s, of American academics — historians and political scientists — producing league tables of presidential performance in the White House and of the 'best' and 'worst' presidents. A survey of nearly 100 Canadian academics in the 1980s rated the performance of Canadian prime ministers.

But until this MORI/University of Leeds survey, research has lagged behind in Britain. A BBC Radio 4 poll in December 1999 of only 20 'prominent historians, politicians and commentators' produced the verdict that Churchill was the best British PM of the 20th century, with Lloyd George in second place and Clement Attlee (Labour PM 1945-51) in third place. The worst PM in that survey was judged to be Anthony Eden. In 2000 the British Politics Group — a network of UK and American scholars of British politics — ran another poll which attracted only 22 responses, with the top three ranked in order as Churchill, Attlee and Lloyd George.

Neither of those surveys included Tony Blair (now in his seventh year as Prime Minister) and both were based on small samples. We wanted to see how Blair measured up against other PMs (while recognising that he has not yet completed his term of office) and to get the opinions and judgments of a much larger group of experts. MORI/University of Leeds therefore polled 258 academics, with 139 answering the survey questions in full, making this the first large-scale survey of British academic experts in British politics and/or modern British history, asking them to rate all the 20th century British Prime Ministers in terms of their success and asking them to assess the key characteristics of successful PMs.

Respondents were asked to indicate on a scale of 0 to 10 how successful or unsuccessful they considered each PM to have been in office (with 0 being highly unsuccessful and 10 highly successful). We were then able to calculate the mean score for each PM and work out the league table.

Ranking Prime Minister Mean score
1 Clement Attlee (Lab. 1945-51) 8.34
2 Winston Churchill (Con. 1940-45, 51-55) 7.88
3 David Lloyd George (Lib. 1916-22) 7.33
4 Margaret Thatcher (Con. 1979-90) 7.14
5 Harold Macmillan (Con. 1957-63) 6.49
6 Tony Blair (Lab. 1997- ) 6.30
7 Herbert Asquith (Lib. 1908-16) 6.19
8 Stanley Baldwin (Con. 1923-24, 24-29, 35-37) 6.18
9 Harold Wilson (Lab. 1964-70) 5.93
10 Lord Salisbury (Con. 1895-1902) 5.75
11 Henry Campbell-Bannerman (Lib. 1906-08) 5.01
12 James Callaghan (Lab. 1976-79) 4.75
13 Edward Heath (Con. 1970-74) 4.36
14 Ramsay MacDonald (Lab. 1924, 29-31, 31-35) 3.73
15 John Major (Con. 1990-97) 3.67
16 Andrew Bonar Law (Con. 1922-23) 3.50
17 Neville Chamberlain (Con. 1937-40) 3.43
18 Arthur Balfour (Con. 1902-05) 3.42
19 Alec Douglas-Home (Con. 1963-64) 3.33
20 Anthony Eden (Con. 1955-57) 2.53

That the MORI/University of Leeds survey results placed Attlee rather than Churchill in first place as the most successful 20th century British PM was the first surprise of the poll. Respondents were asked to give their views on the greatest domestic and foreign policy successes and failures of the 20th century, and the majority of those responses singled out the Attlee government's welfare state reforms and the creation of the NHS as the key 20th century domestic policy achievements. Churchill and Lloyd George are the two great world war winners, while Attlee helped to make the post-war consensus which Margaret Thatcher 'unmade' and then recast in the 1980s.

At the bottom of the league table, Neville Chamberlain is forever associated with the failures of appeasement, Balfour saw his party split and sent crashing to a landslide defeat, Douglas-Home was a stop-gap compromise leader who served as PM for only a year, and Eden's premiership and his reputation were both sunk by the Suez crisis.

The profile of the survey respondents help shed some light on the survey findings. In terms of academic specialism, 55 per cent describe themselves as politics experts, 37 per cent as historians, and 8 per cent as other. The top four PMs — Attlee, Churchill, Lloyd George and Thatcher — are ranked in the same order by political scientists and by historians. However, there are some key differences between the two groups. Political scientists rank Blair as 5th, but historians rank him as 10th (below Baldwin, Macmillan, Asquith, Wilson and Salisbury in that order). Both groups placed Eden in bottom place, but whereas political scientists place Chamberlain in 19th place out of 20, historians put him more towards the middle of the table, in 14th place. Historians place Major in 17th place, but political scientists judge his performance perhaps a little more favourably and place him as 14th.

MORI/University of Leeds also asked respondents to indicate how they would vote if there were a General Election tomorrow. Among those who named a party (75% of total respondents), half say they would vote Labour (50%), with 27% supporting the Liberal Democrats and 11% the Conservatives. When the results are split out by type of academic, there are some marked differences in overall ratings. Conservative academics rate Thatcher most highly (in fact nine of the eleven rate her as either a 9 or 10 out of 10). Blair makes the top 5 among Labour academics, but the strength of support is not as high as among Conservatives for Thatcher. Among Labour academics, none give Blair a 10 out of 10 rating, and just 9 out of 52 give him a 9 out of 10 rating) The top five PMs for each party group is as follows:

  Labour academics (n=52) Conservative academics (n=11) Liberal Democrat academics (n=28)
1 Attlee (8.48) Thatcher (9.18) Attlee (8.32)
2 Churchill (8.00) Churchill (8.36) Lloyd George (7.42)
3 Blair (7.35) Attlee (8.20) Churchill (7.36)
4 Lloyd George (7.16) Lloyd George (7.80) Wilson (6.29)
5 Thatcher (6.94) Baldwin (7.30) Macmillan (6.25)

Source: MORI / University of Leeds

Blair (6.09 = 8th place) Blair (5.32 = 9th place)

The bottom of the league table by each party group is as follows:

  Labour academics Conservative academics Liberal Democrat academics
17 Balfour (3.66) Major (3.64) Bonar Law (3.05)
18 Douglas-Home / Chamberlain (=) (3.62) Balfour / Heath (=) (3.30) Chamberlain (2.93)
19     Douglas-Home (2.74)
20 Eden (2.79) Eden (2.80) Eden (2.46)

Source: MORI / University of Leeds

For all groups, the bottom four PMs are all Conservatives. But whereas Labour supporting academics rated Heath in 13th place and Major in 14th, Conservative supporting academics were much more critical.

In addition to asking to rate individual performance, respondents were asked to select up to three out of a list of 20 characteristics that they think are most needed for a Prime Minister to be judged successful. The top answers are:

  • leadership skills (picked by 64 %)
  • sound judgement (42 %)
  • good in a crisis (24 %)
  • luck (23 %)
  • decisiveness (23 %)
  • stable parliamentary majority (20 %)
  • good quality colleagues (18 %)
  • understands the problems facing Britain (16 %)

Rated less important were:

  • integrity (11 %)
  • practices Cabinet government (10 %)
  • charisma (picked by 9 %)
  • in touch with ordinary people (8 %)
  • ruthlessness (6 %)
  • poor state of the opposition (5 %)
  • strong convictions / ideology (4 %)
  • high-level ministerial experience (3 %)
  • understands world problems (2 %)
  • understands economics (1 %)
  • down-to-earth (1 %)
  • honesty (1%)
  • patriotism (0%)

Given the great deal of contemporary discussion and concern about politics and politicians, it is perhaps surprising that honesty is seen as the least required characteristic needed for a Prime Minister to be defined as successful.

Technical details

The survey was conducted online between 27 September and 5 November 2004. In total, 139 academics specializing in 20th century British history and/or politics completed the questionnaire, out of a total of 258 who were initially invited to take part (giving a response rate of 54%). A more detailed analysis paper of the results is being prepared and will be presented at the PSA Conference at the University of Leeds in April 2005.

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Professor Kevin Theakston
University of Leeds
t: 0113-343 4391
t: 0113-278 3357
m: 07762-606 174
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