The twenty who prove that politics is worth the candle Politicians, like nostalgia, ain't what they used to be

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The Independent Online
THE LAST argument I had with the late Peter Jenkins was about whether politicians were less interesting than they used to be. It was, I emphasise, an argument, not a blazing row, as in: "They were having a bit of an argument, like, and then she picks up this knife, like." Peter maintained that it was all a matter of age. We were both getting on. If I were in my thirties I should discover politicians just as exciting as I had found Anthony Crosland, Richard Crossman and Iain Macleod. I disagreed then and still do. I have picked my top 20 politicians since 1945, 10 backbenchers and 10 ministers.

Prime ministers are excluded, because they deserve a column to themselves. So are politicians who made their names principally as official opposition spokesmen rather than as backbenchers. This cuts out Hugh Gaitskell and Harold Wilson, the best opposition speaker in the whole period.

Michael Foot, however, qualifies, as he was a true backbencher before 1970 and after 1983. The same, with different dates, goes for Enoch Powell. They both filled the House. They also between them accomplished something. They prevented the so-called reform of the Lords, which would have transformed the Upper House into an even more obedient creature of the government than it was then or is now. Both have a clear place in my 10 best backbenchers.

Two who just fail to make the list are Tam Dalyell and Nigel Birch (later Lord Rhyl). It was Birch who recited Robert Browning's "The Lost Leader" ("Never glad confident morning again") during the Profumo debate in 1963 and probably did Harold Macmillan more damage than anyone else. He was also Wilson's most effective Tory critic in 1964-70, partly because he was brief, partly because he was funny. Dalyell, as the boxing posters of my youth used to say, needs no introduction.

But both he and Birch are just edged out by George Wigg. He did more than anyone else to bring the Profumo affair before the House; though (what is often forgotten) the member who first raised the matter, in coded language, was Barbara Castle. Wigg is now chiefly remembered as an elderly kerb-crawler. Indeed, he was not a very nice man in any respect. His conversation was freely lubricated with obscure racing metaphors and coarse sergeants' mess asperities, for he was devoted both to the Army and to the Turf.

Sydney Silverman was an even nastier man, in whose character vanity vied with vindictiveness, and usually won. But he abolished capital punishment in this country. David Steel, a nice man (even though he may not be quite as nice as he looks), changed the abortion laws. Leo Abse, the Cardiff solicitor who sat for Pontypool, changed the divorce laws. Gerald Nabarro is now remembered, if he is remembered at all, as a buffoonish figure who was in some trouble over a car and a roundabout. But he was also the author of the Clean Air Act and an intrepid investigator of the anomalies of purchase tax. He deserves a place too.

However, the leading positions must go to the constitutional innovators. Tony Benn enabled peers to disclaim their titles within a year of inheritance or of the passing of his Act. He gave us Alec Douglas-Home as prime minister and Quintin Hogg for the second time round. He is now Lord Hailsham, again for the second time round. Humphry Berkeley not only pioneered homosexual law reform but also persuaded Home to introduce election for the Conservative leadership. This gave us Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major twice over.

This was a mighty achievement. But it takes a backbencher of real character to bring down his own government. This is what George Cunningham, then Labour MP for Islington South, did through the "Cunningham amendment" of 1978. It erected a voting threshold which would have to be crossed before Scottish devolution could come about and so led to the Callaghan government's defeat in 1979. My list of backbenchers is: 1, G Cunningham; 2, H Berkeley; 3, T Benn; 4, M Foot; 5, E Powell; 6, L Abse; 7, S Silverman; 8, D Steel; 9, G Nabarro; 10, G Wigg.

One of the trickiest problems with the ministers' list is whether to include Denis Healey. His attractive personality and high intelligence suggest he should be in. But as Secretary for Defence he spent the first three years supporting an East of Suez policy in which he did not believe in the least. The half-way point of his Chancellorship was the national humiliation of the IMF terms of 1976. Healey's tragedy was that, for sordid reasons of party management, neither Wilson nor James Callaghan was prepared to give him the job for which he had trained himself since early manhood: that of Foreign Secretary.

Crosland's case was similar. He should have been Chancellor. But as Education Secretary he introduced comprehensive schools and so changed Britain. The changes have been deleterious on the whole. He would have done better to call the comprehensives High Schools; take the teaching unions in hand; and adopt the slogan: "A grammar school education for all." No matter: he did something.

David (now Lord) Eccles, still alive at 90, was in the officials' opinion the best Education Secretary of all. He is one of the three Conservative ministers of 1951-64 with a place. The others are RA Butler and Macleod: Macleod, because he disbanded the British Empire, and Butler, because he was good at everything he tried his hand at apart from becoming leader of the Tory party. In Lady Thatcher's opinion, however, the best Chancellor since the war was not him but Roy Jenkins. Jenkins was also at least as good a Home Secretary as Butler. They rank almost equally high as public servants, but Butler is just ahead because of his 1944 Education Act.

Quite apart from Aneurin Bevan's brilliance in debate (the same quality, by the way, which made Brian Walden a strong contender in the backbenchers' section), he must be placed high for having created the health service. But, if we include Bevan for this achievement, we must give almost equal credit to Jim Griffiths for having created the national insurance system. And Griffiths, in whom could be heard the last echoes of the 19th century Welsh pulpit, was in his way as great an orator as Bevan.

Two other representatives of that 1945 government also deserve recognition: Stafford Cripps as Chancellor, and Herbert Morrison as Leader of the House, before he disgraced himself as Foreign Secretary. When Andre Gide was asked who was the best French poet, he replied: "Victor Hugo, alas." Similarly, top of the ministers' list is Ernest Bevin, alas. It is: 1, E Bevin; 2, RA Butler; 3, R Jenkins; 4, A Bevan; 5, J Griffiths; 6, I Macleod; 7, A Crosland; 8, D Eccles; 9, H Morrison; 10, S Cripps.

Only three of the 20 are still in active politics: Benn and Steel in the Commons, Jenkins in the Lords. See them while there is still time.