John Marriott: Three Prime Ministers we may always live to regret

In this mid to late Summer lull and, with a bit of time on my hands, given that my 76th birthday is not far away and now that I am not a member of any political party, I though I might try to entertain some of the more cerebral The Lincolnite readers by listing a few of our prime ministers, whose actions while in power, in my humble opinion, have left us with legacies we could have done without. Thank goodness, it’s not a very long list.

Let me say firstly, that I am limiting my selection to those prime ministers, who have held the office in my lifetime, who, by their actions in office, might possibly qualify for the title of our worst prime minister. I’ve come up with three. I have to say that all had redeeming features.

But, with one exception, it’s what happened after them that causes me the most grief. I thought of adding a fourth, namely Sir Anthony Eden, later Lord Avon, mainly because of the Suez debacle, but part of the blame for this lies with Churchill for hanging on too long after his sell by date. By the time Eden succeeded him, Sir Anthony was a sick man, whose judgement apparently had been impaired by the medication he was taking, which consisted mainly of amphetamines. Besides, in his favour, he had, like Churchill, seen the danger of Hitler in the 1930s, when most politicians just wanted the quiet life that they thought appeasement would provide.

So, the two prime ministers whose legacy seems to me to have had the most detrimental impact on our national life, are Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron. If I start with Cameron, I’m afraid that I just must mention Brexit, or at least within the context in which we currently find ourselves.

Whatever your views, you have surely got to admit, that, for what ever reason, our country is in one hell of a mess. Yet, at the beginning of this decade, opinion polls showed that ‘Europe’ featured at around number 14 in people’s concerns. Whatever he did as leader of our first, but possibly not our last, coalition government since WW2, David Cameron will surely be remembered as the prime minister who started the Brexit ball rolling, by putting a commitment to an in/out referendum into his party’s 2015 election manifesto.

He did this quite cynically to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his own party because he thought that he would never have to implement it, as he was assuming that another coalition with the Lib Dems would emerge and that he could blame them for a failure to proceed. It’s ironic that he should have thought this as Lib Dem, Nick Clegg, a few years earlier, had briefly floated the idea of such a referendum before thinking better of it.

You must ask therefore why in that case did the party pour such large sums of money into their campaign in the West Country to unseat so many Lib Dem MPs? We all know what happened. Cameron emerged with a majority after the votes were counted and had no choice but to go through with his ‘pledge’, never believing for one moment that leave would come out on top. And the rest, as they say, is history. Where is Dave now? Besides possibly coining it on the lecture and consultancy circuit, he is probably still ensconced in his Shepherd’s Hut putting the finishing touches to his long promised memoirs. He’s OK.

The second PM on my list is Lady Thatcher, but with a caveat. I remember writing a piece for our local newspaper back in 1989 on the centenary of the birth of Adolf Hitler. In it I quoted a former Hitler Youth member interviewed at the time who said, that, if Hitler had been assassinated in 1938, when the first attempts on his life had taken place, he would probably have been remembered as “one of the greatest Germans, who had ever lived.” The same, could be said, I argued at the time, for Margaret Thatcher.

Just imagine what might have happened if she had lost the 1987 general election. By then she had shaken some sense into our more militant trades unions, the same unions, who had been the bane in the life of successive governments in the 1960s and 1970s, she had seen off the Argentine Junta in the Falklands War and the benefits of North Sea oil had started to flow. It was after 1987 that the full effects of the ‘Big Bang’, monetarism and the ‘Loads o’ Money’ culture in the City were felt as unemployment in our former manufacturing industries was cushioned by the receipts from North Sea oil.

By 1989 there was also the disastrous Poll Tax, from which we are still paying the price to this day. It was this conviction that “you can’t buck the market” and the mistaken belief that, as long as you keep taxes, inflation and unemployment low, ordinary people will largely turn a blind eye to the massive sums being raked off by the superrich. These were some of the major causes, in my opinion why we voted the way we did in 2016. Thanks, Maggie, for nothing!

That brings me to my final choice, one Anthony Charles Lynton Blair. He’s there for me primarily, not for what he did when in office but rather for what he didn’t do when he had a majority to die for. Following the sad death of John Smith, Blair became the ‘breath of fresh air’ that people said they craved. By the time of the 1997 general election, the writing was on the wall for the tired Tory government, which many people thought would have fallen in1992 until Labour leader Neil Kinnock famously snatched defeat from the jaws of victory at that infamous rally in Sheffield just before polling day.

You could see how bad it was in true blue Lincolnshire, when, in 1995, the Labour Party became the largest group on the North Kesteven Council and, two years before, for the only time in its history, the Lincolnshire County Council failed to have any Tories in its administration. As someone who still wants to see our country’s institutions reflect the 21st Century, I was hoping that, with his majority, we could have expected a radical reform of the voting system, devolution to the whole of the UK, a completion of local government reform, a Written Constitution (oh, how we could do with one today), a Bill of Rights, the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected Senate, admittedly not things that most people bother much about, but something I still believe would make our country more at ease with itself, whatever happens in the future.

Instead, Blair and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, stuck to the previous Major government’s spending plan, presumably for fear of frightening away the newly won middle classes, while sucking up to the high rollers in the City. No, Labour did NOT cause the 2007/2008 financial crisis, but its reliance on the markets meant that our economy was more vulnerable than those in other countries when things got rough.

By 2010 Labour had had enough. As the handwritten note said that departing Minister Liam Byrne left for the incoming Lib Dem Treasury Secretary, David Laws, “I’m afraid that there is no money left”. It reminds me of the note allegedly left by Tory ex Chancellor, Reggie Maudling, to Labour’s incoming Jim Callaghan back in 1964, “Good luck, old cock. Sorry to leave it in such a mess”. There, they’ve both been at it! The Blair led government did many positive things, building schools and hospitals, albeit leaving the PFI legacy for which we will be paying for many years. However, we must also not forget the disastrous Iraq war, which did much to awaken militant Islam. Like Nick Clegg and tuition fees, Blair’s legacy will always have the Iraq war hanging over it, no matter how much good it achieved.

Of the three Prime Ministers I have named, all of whom in their way have left negatives vibes, the one that disappoints me the most has got to be Tony Blair, for the reasons I have already outlined. However, by next year, there might just be a new name to conjure with, although perhaps not in this county! No prizes for guessing who that might be!