Prime ministers play Jenga, not Space Invaders

The launch of the Walkman in 1980 meant more to most than monetarism

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Once, the Labour Party was afraid of fridges. Well, let me rephrase that. After the party lost the 1959 election, Hugh Gaitskell, the leader, addressed its annual conference and spoke about how Labour had to adjust to improvements in living standards: "The changing character of labour – full employment, new housing, the new way of living based on the telly, the fridge and the car and the glossy magazines – all these have had an effect on our political strength."

This is not, I promise, another New Labour diatribe about how the party failed to grasp people's desire to better themselves until Tony Blair showed up to lead it out of the wilderness. No, this is about a different point: that the things that make most people's lives better or worse often have only the most distant connection with any part of politics.

The reason I bring this up is because David Cameron said that Margaret Thatcher was "the greatest British peace-time prime minister", a claim with which the British people tend to disagree, according to our ComRes poll today. It is the kind of claim that Jon Davis and I like to put to our "New Labour in Government" class at Queen Mary, University of London. One of our seminars is an attempt to rank British prime ministers in order of merit, and to slot Blair and Gordon Brown into their rightful places in the pantheon. Usually, we start in 1945 and exclude Winston Churchill on the grounds that, as a leader in a war of national survival, he is in a category of his own. And, usually, Thatcher comes top of the list, with either Clement Attlee or Blair second, depending on whether or not the students have heard my "Myth of the Sainted Attlee" lecture. In summary, this goes: went behind the backs of his Cabinet to build a nuclear deterrent; nationalised too much; kept the pound too high; badly handled the partition of India; his government exhausted itself and blew out after five years.

The purpose of the seminar, however, is to ensure that the students leave it more confused than when they came in. If they haven't realised how hard it is to assign a single position or score to a prime minister, then we haven't done our job. Because the trouble with claiming that Thatcher, or anyone else, was the "best" PM is that it requires such drastic simplification.

I accept that, on balance, her government made necessary reforms of the economy, but the idea that she "saved" the country is based on the assumption that Britain was a basket case. That bears no relation to my experience of living through it. The way people talk about the winter of discontent – "when the dead were left unburied" – you would think it was like living in North Korea, but I don't remember whether our rubbish was collected or not. It wasn't important. Britain's decline in relation to America and Germany was a common theme, I suppose, and those Austin Allegros with square steering wheels were a bit embarrassing, but the music was good and the launch of the Sony Walkman in 1980 was more important to more people than the political arguments that raged over monetarism.

Just as, in the 1950s, the "new way of living" that Gaitskell identified, based on the fridge, among other things, was what mattered to people, so in Thatcher's time it was Space Invaders and what were originally called microcomputers. Political leaders can associate themselves with some of these trends, as Harold Macmillan did: "most of our people have never had it so good". And the Labour Party could do quite a good job of dissociating itself from the kinds of material advances that normal people like, which was Gaitskell's point. But many of the changes are quite independent of politics. No one associates Tony Blair's time as prime minister with the spread of mobile phones and the internet.

Which leads to the next problem with the "league table" approach to history, which is that it assumes each prime minister begins a new game of Space Invaders and tries to get a highest score. In fact, each carries on much of what his or her predecessor did, even if the contrasts seem more apparent at the time. Thus the prosperity of which Macmillan boasted was built on the welfare state created by Attlee. Thus, too, Blair kept much of what Thatcher had done, but rebalanced it in favour of public services and social liberalism. Then the Tories couldn't win again until David Cameron had accepted Blairism, although he adapted it to a new fiscal climate. And so on: prime ministers are links in a chain, not separate rings.

They are also part of a team, even if one of the simplifications of politics is that each prime minister personifies their government. It was interesting watching Kenneth Clarke on the BBC's Question Time last week, being affable and describing himself as a wet. He served in Thatcher's government throughout, and yet little of the hatred that attaches, still, to her attaches itself to him.

There is nothing wrong with trying to assess the contributions made by political leaders, and especially by prime ministers, to the nation's history, but we ought to remember the limits of the part they play in national life.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/johnrentoul

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