If the second possibility seems more likely, Mr Major should console himself with one thought - lack of distinction has been the rule, and high achievement the exception, among British prime ministers. Since the notorious Lord North, who doubled the national debt and lost the American colonies, and was described by one contemporary as 'a great, heavy, booby-looking changeling', the office has most commonly been occupied by the lame, the sick, the vainglorious, the libidinous, the invisible, and the frankly incompetent.
Many British prime ministers have simply been forgettable. Modern politicians - unlike heroes of old - do not often achieve a permanent niche in the popular memory. Like pop stars, they enjoy a manufactured fame which generally dissolves almost as soon as they leave the public stage. Thus, most intelligent sixth-formers (even in Major's Britain) can reel off the names of a dozen Victorian novelists and half a dozen poets. Try them on 19th-century prime ministers, and you will be lucky to get beyond Gladstone and Disraeli. This collective amnesia extends to the present century - not many people have a mental image of, for example, Salisbury, Balfour, Campbell Bannerman or Bonar Law.
Give the dates of John Major, and list his most important achievements.
Perhaps GCSE candidates in the next millennium will find that question easy, perhaps they won't. What they will undoubtedly find difficult is placing the present prime minister in an order of comparative merit. This is because of the many possible criteria of merit and demerit, because so many prime ministers have been curate's eggs, good in parts, and because of the large number of contenders for the wooden spoon.
Choosing the top place in the present century is easy. The prize must go to the flawed but magnificent Churchill, national saviour and extraordinary human being, with Lloyd George and Attlee tying as runners-up. It is the rest of the list that provides the poser because so much depends on your political point of view.
Thus, Ramsay MacDonald (1924 and 1929-31) has been seen by middle-of-the-road historians as a respectably distinguished, patriotic and even self-sacrificing prime minister. Talk, however, to an inheritor of the oral traditions of the Labour movement about MacDonald and you will have described to you a devil incarnate, the personification of betrayal and of susceptibility to the aristocratic embrace. It also depends whether you are a prude. Lloyd George, admired by many contemporaries but regarded as shockingly immoral by others, would have raised even more eyebrows if it had been known that he kept a mistress throughout his period of office.
The anonymity cup is currently held by Bonar Law (October 1922 to May 1923), who was dubbed by his biographer 'the unknown prime minister'. Others, however, have been almost equally retiring or insulated from the problems of the real world such as the personally estimable but politically ineffable Sir Alec Douglas-Home (1963- 64), who worked out economic policy with matchsticks. The greyness award ought to go to Stanley Baldwin (1923-24, 1924- 29 and 1935-37) used by Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies as a model for a prime minister so faceless and boring that Angela Runciple failed to recognise him over the breakfast table at No 10.
Baldwin neglected to re-arm against Hitler, and was supposed to have spent much of his time on holiday or contemplating world problems while sitting in his club, reading copies of The Field. Churchill included in his war memoirs a famously vicious index entry: 'S Baldwin - confesses to putting his party before his country.' Set against the excesses of some later prime ministers, however, Baldwin's indolence came to be forgiven - and Harold Wilson greatly preferred the label 'Baldwinesque', meaning calm, shrewd, moderate and unflappable, to many of the things people called him.
The reputations of prime ministers who took Britain into world wars have naturally suffered by comparison with those premiers who brought us out of them. Asquith (1908-16) started well, at the head of a reforming Liberal administration, before losing his way in a conflict he was ill-equipped to manage, and sliding into a personal abyss of maudlin sentimentality and drunkenness.
No former leader has been more reviled than Neville Chamberlain, man of Munich and inventor of appeasement. If the name of MacDonald has become (at least on the left) a byword for treachery, that of Chamberlain is almost universally associated with gullibility and wishful-
thinking. Yet if Chamberlain erred in one direction, his arch- critic Anthony Eden is widely considered to have erred in the opposite one. The Suez fiasco - a kind of Munich-in-reverse - turned Eden's brief term of office into the most farcical of modern times.
Wilson (1964-70, 1974-76) had an unusually good press until shortly before the devaluation crisis in 1967, and an appalling one thereafter. His detractors probably continue to outnumber his admirers, but his reputation, like that of Baldwin, may also be beginning to recover. Recently, Roy Jenkins - a former colleague, rival and fierce critic - remarked that he expected the share-market in 'Wilsons' to rise. What of Macmillans, Heaths and Thatchers?
The reputations of the late Earl of Stockton and of Edward Heath seem to have improved steadily in their later years - though possibly more because of sprightly elder statesmanship than in recognition of anything they did in office. So far, Thatcher has been less fortunate.
No powerful woman since Elizabeth I has enjoyed such an exalted reputation as Mrs Thatcher in her prime: it remains to be seen how far in her own lifetime it will plunge. Some of her legacies, however, have already come into focus. During her 11-year reign manufacturing industry was permitted to collapse, mass unemployment became accepted as normal, billions of pounds (and a good many lives) were expended on an avoidable war, key aspects of the Welfare State were removed or undermined, state education was emasculated, the gap between rich and poor widened, beggars returned to our streets. On top of all this, Mrs Thatcher bequeathed to her successor a crumbling economy and a crime wave of frightening proportions.
Mr Major may go down in history as the most soporific and accident-prone prime minister of our epoch. But against such a background, he is unlikely to be seen as the most calamitous.
Ben Pimlott is the author of 'Harold Wilson' (HarperCollins pounds 20).
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