10 for No 10

As David Cameron leaves, it dawns on me that this is the 10th time the Prime Minister has changed in my lifetime. I thought I’d share with you my memories of the other changes.

When I was born, Harold Wilson was PM. I don’t remember him losing out to Ted Heath in the 1970 election because I was just a toddler. Nor do I really remember Wilson really getting back in again in 1974. I have a vague memory of walking along Dell Road in Inverness with my parents as they went to vote, though.

The first change I actually remember was in 1976 when Wilson resigned and Callaghan took over. There was no 24 hour news cycle then, and in fact telly didn’t even go all day. However, I think we were watching General Hospital (the UK version) in the afternoon when the news appeared on screen – James Callaghan is the new Prime Minister. We then got a newsflash in the commercial break.

Three years later, I was in my last weeks of primary school when I actually had an opinion about who the next Prime Minister should be. I’m not proud, because I wanted Margaret Thatcher to win. I even believed all that St Francis of Assisi stuff she spouted as she went in to No 10. In my defence, life was pretty horrible under Labour with endless strikes and pictures of these awful mass meetings where thuggish union officials watched as people voted on whether to take strike action.

I soon learned, though. Within a couple of years, I’d realised that I was and never would be a Tory.

We were stuck, however, with Thatcher until 1990 when her own intransigence got the better of her. All the drama of Heseltine’s challenge at the end of 1990 and Major’s subsequent election as Tory Leader and PM was utterly fascinating. Actually, Major wasn’t a bad PM. He led a toxically anarchic party with class and wisdom – although “back to basics” was a massive mistake. To this day, I have a lot of respect for him. Since he left office, his interventions have been reasonable, wise, well-informed and rare. During the EU referendum, he talked sense.

In 1997, after a couple of hours’ sleep, I watched Tony and Cherie Blair enter No 10. Many around me were full of hope and anticipation. It left me cold. Don’t get me wrong, I was delighted the Tories were gone, but I just didn’t trust Blair. Anything that seems too good to be true usually is. Clearly I’d learned from the experience with Thatcher.

Ten years and a massively destabilising folly in Iraq later, it was time for Blair to leave. He handed over to Gordon Brown. The Blair years had been underscored by feuding between the two men. I’m just trying to think of a time in my lifetime when Labour hasn’t spent the bulk of its time and energy on fighting each other rather than the Tories.

We flew out to Mallorca on holiday just as Brown took over. Those first few weeks were some honeymoon as he dealt well with flooding and a terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport. The shine soon came pretty quickly when he bottled the Election that Never Was. Again his premiership was marked by feuding, anger and internal dramas. I have to say, though, however profligate he may have been with the public finances – and it is true that he did create too much of a structural deficit – I am relieved that he and Darling were in power during the 2008 crash. Heaven knows what havoc and suffering an unrestrained Tory government would have unleashed.

And then Cameron took over, not as a Conservative PM, but a coalition PM. David Laws said on the BBC News Channel that he was an effective leader of that Coalition Government. It was only when he was handed a majority that things started to go pear-shaped. And so we find ourselves today. Theresa May will become the 10th PM of my lifetime, which makes me feel very old indeed.

What reflections do you have about the Prime Ministers of your life? I hope someone comes up with some memories that go further back than mine.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • What I think is really bad is that it now seems to be a pattern that a PM can resign and be replaced by an underling if they become unpopular. Really, this should be treated as an outrageously anti-democratic move and lead to demands to dissolve parliament.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Jul '16 - 4:25pm

    It’s absolutely nothing new for a new prime minister to take over in mid-parliament. Since the start of the twentieth century there have been twenty-seven prime ministers (or rather, 27 changes of prime ministers, as a few have been there more than once). Only twelve of those took over as a result of an election, while another four held elections within less than a year of taking over. The other eleven, from Asquith in 1908 to May today, have taken over in mid-parliament. The only thing that’s recent about it is the idea that there might be something wrong with this — though as we elect MPs and don’t elect the PM in any circumstance, I’m unimpressed by this idea, much less that it’s “outrageously anti-democratic”.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Jul '16 - 4:30pm

    So you missed out on Clement Attlee, Sir Winston Churchill in peacetime and Sir Anthony Eden of Suez, counting Harold Wilson once.

  • though as we elect MPs and don’t elect the PM in any circumstance, I’m unimpressed by this idea, much less that it’s “outrageously anti-democratic”.

    I think it makes the Prime Minister into far too much of a ‘presidential’ figure.

    We elect as a government a party to carry out its manifesto. The Prime Minister is simply the person who happens to be tasked with organising the governing party.

    To claim that there’s something wrong with changing the Prime Minister, when the new one is simply stepping into the same role of delivering the same manifesto that the country voted for just last year, is, I think, dangerously close to elevating the person above the job.

  • Richard Underhill 13th Jul '16 - 4:38pm

    Malcolm Todd: This is looking backwards at precedents. Liberal Democrats should be looking forwards for improvements in democracy.

  • Malcolm Todd 13th Jul '16 - 4:48pm

    Dav I agree completely.

    Richard Underhill Precedents are important (and of course they’re largely what our constitution is based on) – I’m surprised to see you suggest otherwise, since many of your postings seem explicitly intended to bring a historical perspective to current events. I think that’s worth doing – especially when it has been suggested (see Glenn’s comment that I was responding to) that a practice is new and undesirable, when the evidence suggests the opposite. Of course it doesn’t mean that we should consider ourselves bound by precedent – if we thought that, we’d be Old Tories.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Jul '16 - 6:22pm

    Caron , nice idea

    I go back to the date of the start of the great Liberal Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman although that is because I share the same birthday!

    Actually Caron and I are more or less the same age. I was already doing impressions and cartoons of politicians as a tiny tot and remember doing both of Wilson and Heath!

    I am kinder on Cameron, was once keener on Blair, than Caron , and now converge on Major, his appearance on Marr in the referendum the best on tv of anyone ,and truly a gent.

    On a personal note, though , his, Sir Sir Johns, first act as prime minister, was , according to the press , sending a memo of good wishes to ten year old Anthony Mellor, child performer son of David Mellor ,Majors then Cabinet colleague, who started on stage that week in 1990, in a charity production of Oliver in which I played Fagin ! A very dramatic week for me as a young actor not that long out of university and for us all as a nation !

  • Stevan Rose 13th Jul '16 - 7:18pm

    I can add, but not remember, Macmillan and Douglas-Home. My school was used for the counts of the local constituency so Ted Heath would hang about on election nights. There’s a certain pride that goes with having the PM as your MP, so if I recall we all sulked in sympathy (for lost special favours) when Thatcher deposed him. As a young voter moving from Liberal to SDP and then New Labour when John Smith took over. I can recall Major’s time as being particularly dreadful to the extent of being an active activist for the first and only time. So I remember Blair’s victory as a night of incredible relief and celebration. But Iraq mistakes drove me back to Lib Dems. Brown’s tenure seemed worse than Major’s and my local Labour MP’s expenses make me regret ever lifting a finger to help him. I can’t dislike Cameron, he’s been OK, a sense of humour and comparatively competent. I’ve not really had a good impression of May up to now but I guess we’ll see. Given the alternatives I suppose she was least bad. I’d like to believe her speech this evening but then Thatcher’s St Francis of Assisi quote didn’t exactly pan out did it. Judgement reserved and relief it’s not Leadsom or Gove.

    Interesting how Major, whose term was so destructive and appallingly divisive, now seems partially rehabilitated, a bit like Jimmy Carter, whilst a man who was once one of the most popular PMs in history and won 3 elections, could probably have won a 4th had he held on, seems now almost universally reviled.

    I have absolutely no problem with the way PMs change. I don’t think it is undemocratic under our parliamentary system.

  • David Warren 13th Jul '16 - 8:52pm

    My memories are similar to yours Caron.

    I recall picking up the paper for my mum the day Wilson resigned in 1976 and then wanting Michael Foot to succeed him.

    In 1979 I hoped Labour would hold on, I was only 15 but frightened by the Tories and Thatcher in particular.

    I campaigned hard for a Foot led Labour party in 1983 only to witness a terrible defeat.

    Having lived through 13 years of Conservative government I couldn’t believe it when Major hung on in 1992.

    By the time Blair came along I was pretty turned off from party politics and hated New Labour.

    Through all this the Liberals/Liberal Democrats had leaders I liked and by 2010 my journey took me in a new direction.

    The question for me now is how we fight effectively for a more liberal UK.

  • Ed Shepherd 14th Jul '16 - 6:57am

    The seventies were pretty good: free higher education, subsidised further education, free healthcare, free prescriptions, free eye-tests, new legislation to protect consumers, new legislation for race relations and gender equality. Strikes and industrial disputes were disruptive and sometimes frightening but at least it indicated that people had jobs, pension schemes and trade unions. There had probably never been a better time to be alive in Britain and British people had never had so many opportunities. Many of these benefits continued into the early nineties but current Britain is a much poorer, more miserly and more insecure place to live.

  • Richard Underhill 14th Jul '16 - 7:39am

    After Margaret Thatcher resigned as PM there were three candidates for Tory Leader, Heseltine, Major and Hurd. Major came first, but there was provision for another round of voting using the Single Transferable Vote. I kid you not. John Major’s friend Edwina Currie did not believe it either. It did not happen because Douglas Hurd withdrew, having come (rhyming) third and then Michael Heseltine withdrew, having come second.

  • Ah, memories…….

    I’m afraid my memories of PM’s numbers 14. I clearly remember the 1950 cliff hanger when the Attlee Government hung on with a five vote majority. I remember Mum laughing, “Winnie will have to put his top hat away” when Churchill didn’t quite make it over Clem Attlee….. but WSC got it out 20 months later. With hindsight I now think the Attlee Government was the greatest of the 20th century given their courage and radical changes. At the time the Libs were a Celtic fringe sideshow although Donald Wade (a really decent & kind man) was our local Lib MP in Huddersfield.

    The first PM I actually spoke to was also from Hudders – Harold Wilson. Dad and I had connections with the football club “The Town” (for whom our Uncle Harry had played in the 1920’s). I remember a delightful conversation with H.W. and Mary W. in the Scilly Isles when Harold W. pulled a photo out of his wallet of the 1926 title winning Town team – with said Uncle Harry in it. Always had a soft spot for that wily old bird ever since. Can’t imagine Thatch the Snatch doing a thing like that.

  • My first PM memories are of Winston Churchill.
    I could hardly wait for my first voting opportunity after I was 21 in 1965.
    I was also ‘allowed’ to fill in a pools table. Odd times they were!
    Very exciting and interesting times now.

  • Gwyn Williams 14th Jul '16 - 2:37pm

    I was born when Harold Macmillan was PM. My first recollection of a General Election was 66. In 1970 I remember a news report of Harold and Mary Wilson leaving No 10 and thinking how sad that they had been turned out of their home. The February 74 election result seemed to drag on for what seemed an eternity. The defining image of a failed Government was Ted Heath’s grand piano being unceremoniously man handled out of the back of No10. After that Caron I think you have captured the changes with a truly Liberal eye.

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