Leaders good and bad

As we’re now seeing with Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership, political debate often revolves around the characters of party leaders. Elections are portrayed as contests between leaders, voters are often asked to say which leader they will be voting for – even though they can’t, unless they happen to live in a leader’s constituency – and the media, during elections, party conferences and day-to-day politics, generally focus on the leader, sometimes, in small parties, to the exclusion of all other figures. Within their parties, even in relatively democratic institutions like the Liberal Democrats, the leader exercises considerable influence over party policy and strategy.

British Leaders jackets.indd

What qualities, then, are required for effective political leadership? Who is a good leader and who a bad? Biographies of the leaders of British political parties are legion. Studies of political leadership are much fewer in number and tend either to be theoretical in nature or to focus on a small number of examples, often drawn from presidential systems like the US. Studies of British political leadership over time and within the context of a single political party are non-existent.

It is this gap which the Liberal Democrat History Group is aiming to fill with our latest book, British Liberal Leaders – published by Biteback alongside companion volumes on Conservative and Labour leaders.

The book contains chapters on every leader of the Liberal Party, SDP and Liberal Democrats from Earl Grey, who led the Whigs through the Great Reform Act of 1832, to Nick Clegg, the first Liberal leader to enter government for more than sixty years. Chapters cover such towering political figures as Palmerston, Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George; those, such as Sinclair, Clement Davies and Grimond, who led the party during its darkest hours; and those who led its revival, including David Steel, Roy Jenkins and Paddy Ashdown. The book also contains interviews with Steel, Ashdown and Clegg on their experiences in leadership.

But these aren’t just biographies. We have attempted to identify the key characteristics which leaders need to possess to prove effective, and to judge all the leaders against them. We identified five criteria: communications and campaigning skills; the ability to develop and articulate a vision; party management; to what extent they achieved the objectives of Liberalism (for the party or the country); and whether they left the party in a better or worse shape than they found it. The first chapter in the book rates every leader as ‘good’, ‘poor’ or ‘mixed’ against each of these criteria, and then aggregates them in this summary table (within each category, leaders are listed in chronological order):

Good: Russell, Palmerston, Gladstone, Campbell-Bannerman, Grimond, Ashdown

Mixed: Grey, Melbourne, Granville / Hartington, Asquith, Lloyd George, Thorpe, Steel, Jenkins, Owen, Maclennan, Kennedy, Clegg

Poor: Rosebery, Harcourt, Samuel, Sinclair, Davies, Campbell

Of course, this is very far from an exact science, and we’re sure readers will disagree with some of our judgments (indeed, the second and third chapters in the book set out slightly different ways of assessing leaders, using a common methodology across all three books). This doesn’t matter: what we aim to do is encourage debate and discussion about what makes a good party leader. We hope Tim Farron will read it with interest!

British Liberal Leaders is available now from the Liberal Democrat History Group website, and will be on sale at the History Group’s exhibition stand at conference, for £25 (£20 for subscribers to the Journal of Liberal History). Simon Hughes, Paul Tyler and Menzies Campbell will be launching the book at our fringe meeting on Sunday (1300–1400), in the Deauville Suite, Trouville Hotel. All welcome.

Duncan Brack, Robert Ingham and Tony Little (co-editors, British Liberal Leaders)

* Duncan Brack is a member of the Federal Policy Committee and chaired the FPC’s working group that wrote Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe.

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This entry was posted in Books.


  • Fascinating, and, yes, much food for thought.

    Disappointed Herbert (or Henry as Margot preferred) Asquith not in the good list. How he kept that collection of disparate prima donnas together in the 1908-14 Cabinet is an example of political genius. His virtues, judgement (except on votes for women) and calm far outweigh his odd personal weakness. Good Yorkshire “Brains” indeed.

    Interesting too to make comparisonss of the rows about conflicting demands for social reform (welfare), public expenditure (Austerity/social liberalism) and defence (Dreadnaught/Trident) then as now.

    Odd though that today’s Orange Bookers often want austerity and to cut public expenditure but tend to go along with Trident….. not a position John Morley would have understood.

    Political history should be compulsory for all aspiring politicians. Would have made Blair (and Clegg) a bit wiser.

  • Looks fascinating, will be ordering ASAP.

    Have to say good on Ming for helping to launch a book that rates him a poor leader 🙂

  • How on earth can a man who has nearly destroyed the party (Nick Clegg) be in the same category as Charles Kennedy?

  • John Nicholson 15th Sep '15 - 11:57am

    I am inclined to agree with Malc. How can the leader who lost us 49 Parliamentary seats be given the same rating as the leader who led us to the largest number of seats since the 1920s? Surely electoral success counts for something?

  • Because Nick actually put party policy into effect as part of a national government for the first time since before even my parents were born. GE2015 was a disaster, but the pupil premium and raising the income tax threshold were not.

  • ATF

    If you want Nick to take credit for any good that was done by the last government then he must also take the blame for the bad – he voted for both.

  • Nick Collins 15th Sep '15 - 4:36pm

    “The first chapter in the book rates every leader as ‘good’, ‘poor’ or ‘mixed’ ”

    Typical of liberals to go for three categories and to put as many in the middle one as in the other two combined. I’d have preferred the “1066 And All That” binary: categorising them as “a good thing” or ” a bad thing”, or even as “memorable” and “not memorable”.

  • @malc

    Absolutely agree, that is just a matter of fact.

  • Duncan Brack 15th Sep '15 - 9:09pm

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments. Remember that the book judges the individuals on their period in leadership, not the whole of their political career (although the biography chapters do cover their whole careers). If Asquith had dropped dead, or resigned, in 1914, or even in 1916, unquestionably he would have been in the ‘good’ category. But the last ten years of his leadership, up to 1926, were pretty disastrous. Similarly, some leaders’ achievements were more impressive in the rest of their career than during their leadership – David Lloyd George and Menzies Campbell are good examples.

    We only included the aggregated table in this article; the book rates all the leaders separately on all five criteria, and (if you buy the book!) you’ll see more variation between them in the individual categories. Inevitably this is a very crude method of judging them, and putting them all into just three measures disguises a fairly wide spread between them. If we were to list them all in order, Kennedy would be at the top of the ‘mixed’ category and Clegg near the bottom, whereas Campbell would be at the top of the ‘poor’ category. But we thought that would give an impression of spurious precision – this is hardly a science, after all!

  • @John Marriott….. sorry to be pedantic John but it was WW1.

    HHA is a fascinating character one would have loved to meet. tho’ when I was a student in London I was lucky to have had a long conversation with his daughter, Agree with Duncan Brack about 1916 ….. sadly, shades of dear Charlie K.

    If you want to find out more I suggest you read : ‘Letters to Venetia Stanley by H.H. Asquith’ , Michael Brock, Eleanor Brock, Edited by Michael and Eleanor Brock (ISBN: 9780192122001) ….. also ….. ‘ Asquith as War Leade’r by George H. Cassar (ISBN: 9781852851170)

    Maurice Hankey, the first Cabinet Secretary, wrote a lovely appreciation of HHA. : “Asquith’s resignation was an overwhelming blow to all those who worked with him.. Not only was he gifted with a peculiarly kindly nature, but his character was essentially one to inspire respect. His encyclopaedic knowledge (always bursting out, unexpectedly), high statesmanship, disregard of purely party considerations when great matters of state were at issue, untiring patience in dealing with difficult colleagues, unswerving loyalty to both colleagues and subordinates. His perfect judgement, serenity and unfailing courage in all circumstances compelled admiration. Even his contempt of personal attacks was an endearing quality. He always treated them with indifference and even jocularity. Such was his disregard that he would rarely even take the trouble to use such influences as governments can extend to get on the right side of the Press so far as he personally was concerned”.

    Yes, there was a very nasty right wing press in those days. That’s it…end of tutorial…. off to bed…..

  • Why was Ming Campbell rated as ‘poor’? Is the judgement that all the ageist lampooning was justified?

    (p.s. I am not holding my breath waiting to seen the same cartoonists giving a Zimmer frame to Corbyn)

  • @ John Marriott Thanks for the clarification , John.

  • peter tyzack 16th Sep '15 - 10:43am

    For Heaven’s sake, Clegg did NOT nearly ‘destroy the Party’. HE didn’t take the decisions which brought about the loss of MPs and councillors, WE did in our internal decisions and policy making (but of course some people need a scapegoat); the electorate did in the way they acquiesced to the corrupted message of British press and their off-shore driven agenda.
    Have you noticed how little we are seeing of Farron at the moment? THAT is entirely down to the media, because Tim is certainly getting about and doing the business, but being ignored by them.
    If we are to have ‘fairness’ in British politics then we need to start first with fairness in our own hearts, and fairness in our media.

  • John Marriott – f or those, like me, who should get out a bit more that contribution is not boring AT ALL! I love Roy Jenkins’ euphemisms on Venetia and Asquith, he refers primly to an “epistolary friendship”.

  • Ruth Bright 16th Sep '15 - 2:22pm

    If only we knew for sure. It’s the Liberal version of the John Brown/Queen Victoria question isn’t it? Interesting that in the history of Liberal leadership women only get a look in through which relationship they might or might have not had with a Liberal leader!

  • “peter tyzack 16th Sep ’15 – 10:43am
    For Heaven’s sake, Clegg did NOT nearly ‘destroy the Party’. HE didn’t take the decisions which brought about the loss of MPs and councillors, WE did in our internal decisions and policy making”

    Wrong, wrong, wrong, and in clear defiance of all the facts. See http://i100.independent.co.uk/article/nick-clegg-was-offered-a-pass-on-a-rise-in-tuition-fees-by-george-osborne-and-apparently-turned-it-down–WJQXsBQkLg

    Time and time again, Lib Dem conference voted the right way, and Clegg over-ruled them, despite the wishes of Lib Dem members. Clegg wasn’t forced into his fees U-turn by the Tories or by anyone else; the Tories were actually willing to concede that to us. The only reason the catastrophic U-turn on fees happened was that Clegg made that decision, and then lied about it in public, on top of his having lied all throughout the election. We are paying the price for the disastrous decisions of his awful “leadership”.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Sep '15 - 4:29pm

    Duncan Brack | Tue 15th September 2015 – 10:32 am Duncan Brack 15th Sep ’15 – 9:09pm
    Does the Prime Minister get any credit for the free vote in 1917 on extending the franchise before the 1918 general election?
    Did Asquith like a tipple? If so did it affect his judgement?

  • John Marriott 16th Sep '15 - 4:45pm

    Good analogy, Ruth. What did Lord Steel say about the Rennard business, “Only the Lib Dems could have a sex scandal without the sex”?
    As for Clement Davies, didn’t he have a battle with the bottle? Mind you, he had much to be sad about as, I believe, not only did the Liberal Party reduce to 6 MPs during his leadership but he lost several members of his immediate family under tragic circumstances.

  • John Marriott 16th Sep '15 - 4:47pm

    I don’t know about Herbert, but Clement certainly did!

  • Nick Collins 16th Sep '15 - 4:54pm

    @ Richard Underhill. The answers to your last two questions are “yes” and “probably”. I wonder if that has a bearing , too, on the question raised by John Marriott and Ruth Bright (cf Act 2 Scene III of ‘The Scottish Play’); any thoughts, Duncan?

  • Richard Underhill 16th Sep '15 - 5:13pm

    The National Trust allows visitors to touch some exhibits (!!!) including http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0316725374/?tag=libdemvoice-21+hattersley+edwardians.
    Hattersley makes the point that there was a long conflict between campaigning priorities, extending the male franchise for MPs versus the female franchise for MPs.
    A modest proposal would have been to do both at the same time.

  • Nick Collins 17th Sep '15 - 2:54pm


    That’s about the size of it.

  • Nick Collins 17th Sep '15 - 8:41pm


    But did he prefer the pen because it was mightier than the sword, or because he had no lead in his pencil?

  • Sorry guys, but unlike Lloyd George’s Radical wing, Asquith and Co were very lukewarm and passive, especially in economic policies. Things like Central Electricity Board (delivered by Stanley Baldwin) and 1928 Britain’s Industrial Future (delivered as a result of Lloyd George’s effort) would have been unthinkable under Classical Liberals and Asquithian Liberals.

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