Who are the greatest Liberal Prime Ministers who never were?

Mark Pack reviewed Francis Beckett’s new counterfactual collection, The Prime Ministers Who Never Were, on the Voice earlier this week — 14 ‘Big Beasts’ who, had the chips fallen differently, might have become premiers.

The list is mostly inevitable with a couple of intriguing outsiders: Austen Chamberlain, J R Clynes, Lord Halifax, Oswald Mosley, Herbert Morrison, Hugh Gaitskell, Rab Butler, George Brown, Norman Tebbit, Michael Foot, Denis Healey, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and David Miliband.

Voice readers will notice one evident fact: there’s not a single Liberal (or SDP) name among them. In some ways it’s not that surprising. After all, the party has been at some remove from power for the best part of a century until last May, though it’s certainly not beyond the bounds of counterfactual credulity to imagine a scenario when the Alliance might have gained power in 1983.

But it set Mark Pack and myself thinking: Who are the greatest Liberal Prime Ministers who never were? Our list of possibles is below, in chronological order…

  • Herbert Fisher (1865-1940) – the only Liberal cabinet minister in this list, Fisher was Lloyd George’s President of the Board of Education, representing Nick Clegg’s seat of Sheffield Hallam.
  • Jo Grimond (1913-93) – the Liberal leader who inspired a generation of activists to ‘march towards the sound of gunfire’, he led the party back from the brink in the 1950s to once again become a major national force in the ’60s.
  • Nancy Seear (1913-1997) – a formidable, campaigning Liberal: PM Seear would have taken great delight in setting cats among pigeons.
  • Roy Jenkins (1920-2003) – first leader of the SDP, Roy might have become a Labour PM in 1976 after Wilson’s resignation (he came third in the MPs’ ballot), and was the Alliance’s ‘PM-designate’ in 1983.
  • Shirley Williams (1930-) – one of the ‘Gang of Four’, might she have become SDP leader in 1983, rather than David Owen, if she hadn’t lost her Crosby seat? And if she had would the Alliance with the Liberals under David Steel become a rather closer affair?
  • Paddy Ashdown (1941-) – the Lib Dem leader who doubled the party’s number of MPs in 1997, and who might well (but for the Labour landslide) have joined Tony Blair’s cabinet; though it may be as well for his subsequent high reputation within the party that he did not.
  • David Penhaligon (1944-86) – highly popular Cornish Liberal MP, whose political life was cut tagically short by a car accident. Regarded by veteran political commentator Hugo Young as having “a closer grasp of national electoral politics … than any other Liberal MP”.

Do you agree or disagree? And are there obvious omissions? Let us know what you think…

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  • One of the things that being in coalition should have taught us is how unprepared we were as a party for national power. I have been very critical of Nick Clegg over the tuition fees fiasco, which at a stroke destroyed the party’s reputation with a large proportion of its constituency, and although he has made many other mistakes as deputy prime minister he seems to be bearing up well under a barrage of ferocious attacks and is not self-evidently less capable than David Cameron. However, I have grave doubts that Grimond, Seear, or Penhaligon, much as I loved them all, could have done the job, and I don’t think that Paddy is temperamentally suited for the job either. Roy Jenkins, and to a lesser extent Shirley Williams, would probably have been excellent Prime Ministers, both because of their natural abilities, but more because they had both had a lifetime in power or as contenders for power and therefore knew the realities of having to wield it which no Liberal has had to do in a hostile political environment at national level for nearly a hundred years.

  • Chris Black – sorry, I can never see Freddie Mercury performing without thinking of fascism!

  • I would not say that Paddy Ashdown’s record running Bosnia suggests he was a great loss.

    Here’s an interesting name – Russell Bretherton.

    More generally though, these counterfactuals show up an interesting trend in Prime Ministers. There were only three ‘great’ PMs in the last century – great being having the full power of the office and using it to its fullest. Lloyd-George, Attlee and Thatcher. All of those three left their parties pretty much destroyed.

  • Philip Rolle 3rd Apr '11 - 4:39pm

    Would mention of David Owen be out of place? He was SDP after all.

  • David Owen? Well, he would certainly have left his party pretty much destroyed!

  • Old Codger Chris 4th Apr '11 - 12:19am

    A bit hard on Paddy, aren’t you?

    Only 3 great PMs in the last century? Doesn’t Churchiil count?

    As for leaving their parties destroyed, it can be argued that Asquith was more at fault than Lloyd George who was a far better (if admittedly less honest) PM.

    I’m not sure you can blame Attlee for the splits in the Labour Party through the 1950s and early 60s. Losing power in 1951 coincided with the deaths or old-age of the big beasts who had held the party together, and nobody else commanded the same loyalty until they scented victory as the Tory government imploded.

  • Old Codger Chris –

    I take it that you have never been to Bosnia!

    On the rest: Churchil was a great war-PM, but I meant ‘great’ in the more conventional sense. Churchill hardly covered himself in glory as Home Secretary, and his time as PM in the 1950s was not marked by the height of the powers of the office.

    Labour 1945 was more about the movement than the man, that much is true. But Attlee used the full powers of the office and haemorrhaged seats. Arguably he was the last real Labour PM.

  • Leekliberal 4th Apr '11 - 12:05pm

    For vision courage and achievement and the ability to write lucid political biographies it can only be Roy Jenkins!

  • Ed Maxfield 4th Apr '11 - 10:29pm

    Tony Hill, as always you hit the nail on the head. Learning the difference between community activism and national government is a tough challenge for many Lib Dems.

    The problem with ‘great leaders who never were’ is that there is usually a good reason why they never made it. I adore Shirley but I cannot picture her as PM. Nancy Seear is a political hero of mine but does the ideological stubborness that made her stick with the Liberals rather than make a career in one of the other parties mark her out as not suitable to be PM? Even Jenkins, the closest we have to the ‘best PM post-war Britain never had’ failed to become PM because he bottled out of challenging Wilson when he had the chance. Doesnt that lack of killer instinct mean he was not right for the job? Perhaps we should allow him to rest on his laurels as a great liberal legislator.

  • Malcolm Baines 4th Apr '11 - 10:42pm

    There aren’t really too many plausible occasions when a different Liberal might have become PM.

    1) If Gladstone had not kept coming back from retirement – but is is hard to see either Hartington or Harcourt being a great Liberal PM.
    2) If the Relugas compact had succeeded we would never have had Campbell-Bannerman as PM – instead Asquith would have become PM two years earlier. Who knows how that would have turned out – would Asquith have gone earlier due to tiredness from office allowing Lloyd George to become leader unopposed and avoiding a split in the party?
    3) Lloyd George to become Britain’s wartime leader in 1940 instead of Churchill – hard to see that being a success.
    4) I agree Roy Jenkins as PM following the Alliance’s success in 1983.
    5) As someone said above, the Clegg bubble realised on polling day 2010 – Lib Dems have the most votes and able to insist that he is PM in the hung Parliament, probably with Labour support.

  • Old Codger Chris 5th Apr '11 - 12:09am

    No I’ve not been to Bosnia so I’ll bow to your knowledge unless others are able to contradict you.

    Labour’s loss of seats under Attlee was due in no small measure to our rotten electoral system. With only 2 real parties to choose from – indeed only 2 candidates in many constituencies – both Labour and Conservatives piled up huge percentages of the popular vote, but it was the system which beat Labour in 1951.

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