Prime ministers play Jenga, not Space Invaders

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


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.;

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Plumber

£22000 - £25900 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is expanding and th...

Recruitment Genius: Corporate Account Manager

£27000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Corporate Account Manager is ...

Recruitment Genius: Chef de Partie

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This award winning conference venues provider...

Recruitment Genius: Admin Assistant

£12000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding Insurance Brokerag...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Hollywood: Stop trying to make Superman cool. The world needs a boy scout in blue

Matthew James
A man enjoys the  

If you really want to legalise cannabis, then why on earth would you go and get high in a park?

Peter Reynolds
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders