“I think it’s a damned bore,” Lord Melbourne cried, on being told, in 1834, that he was to be called to the Palace to form a government; he was, he said, “in many minds what to do”. But his secretary persuaded him to accept. “Why, damn it, such a position never was occupied by any Greek or Roman, and if it only lasts two months, it is well worth while to have been prime minister of England.” “By God, that’s true,” Melbourne replied. “I’ll go!”
No recent occupant of No 10 would have shared Melbourne’s doubts. Indeed every MP, perhaps every candidate, has a prime minister’s baton in his knapsack. Whether prime ministers enjoyed the job once they got there is another matter. Lord Rosebery, prime minister from 1894 to 1895, declared that there were “two supreme pleasures in life”. He said: “One is ideal, the other is real. The ideal is when a man receives the Seals of Office from his Sovereign. The real is when he hands them back.” “I can’t see why anyone should want the job,” the Queen apparently remarked to Boris Johnson when appointing him.
Mark Garnett’s book is a study of prime ministers from Thatcher to Johnson. On the latter, the jury is still out. The other premierships all ended in tears. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Theresa May were pushed out by their parties, John Major, Gordon Brown and David Cameron by the voters. Garnett’s central argument is that tears are inevitable. For the job of prime minister has become so difficult as to be almost impossible. A number of villains are fingered – rebellious MPs who made Major’s and May’s lives a misery – also the media, a universal scapegoat, for personalising political debate and for being both intrusive and abusive. In consequence, prime ministers seek to “manage” the media, using for the purpose a plethora of special advisers. But this cure is worse than the disease, since the advisers are concerned less with policy than with presentation.
But it is we, the people, who are Garnett’s prime villains, since we are too easily bemused by slogans at the expense of long-term, well-thought-out policies. In consequence, we elect populist prime ministers such as Thatcher, whose position, Garnett believes, rested more on the acclaim of the people than of her colleagues. They distrusted but supported her largely because they believed her to be, until the poll tax disaster in 1990, an election winner. With Johnson, by which time leaders were chosen by party members as well as MPs, his popularity among his colleagues was due to the fact he alone enjoyed the support of party members as well as of the wider electorate who wanted “to get Brexit done”.
It is we, the voting public, Garnett believes, who constrain prime ministers with our susceptibility to presentation and our excessive expectations of what governments can do. In a media age, prime ministers are more prominent than they were, but, representing a medium-sized power in a globalised world, their ability to fulfil popular expectations is bound to be limited. Our rage when they fail is that of Caliban peering at the looking glass.
Garnett is, I think, too harsh on us, the voters. We show more of a sense of purpose than he would admit. We knew in 1979 that Labour wasn’t working, in 1997 that the Conservative government had run its course, in 2010 that Labour had run out of steam, and in 2019 that Jeremy Corbyn was a nasty piece of work, while canons of democracy required Brexit to be completed. British democracy at its best has a collective wisdom that neither the media nor the spin doctors have been able to undermine.
The trouble is, Garnett does not suggest improvements. He just says the job of prime minister has become impossible. The implication is that things would improve only if politicians suppressed the special advisers and the media – though Enoch Powell once said that for a politician to complain about the media is like a sailor complaining about the sea. As for us poor benighted voters, perhaps he could adopt Bertolt Brecht’s solution to the workers’ uprising in East Germany in 1953: that the government should dissolve the people and elect another. The British Prime Minister in an Age of Upheaval is an easy read, laced with wit and irony, though its sneering tone towards prime ministers is not to my taste. Still, Garnett makes a challenging and thought-provoking case, which it is difficult entirely to dismiss.