Gimson's Prime Ministers

Gimson's Prime Ministers

Andrew Gimson
ARRSE Rating
5 Mushroom Heads
Gimson's Prime Ministers: Brief Lives from Walpole to May is a handsome volume in a handy size (A5). It fits easily into a briefcase or even a large overcoat pocket. If you are looking for a birthday present for an intelligent and politically-aware person, this book might be the answer. At £10.99 (hardback) it represents value for money. My only complaint is that there is no index or bibliography.

Gimson's book is instructive and fun to read. It is also a useful reference work. It offers short, readable biographies of every Prime Minister, starting with the first one, Sir Robert Walpole, who was in office from 1721 to 1742. The terse and witty text is complemented by Martin Rowson's skilful, scurrilous caricatures. The most horrible one depicts Tony Blair.

There are also helpful essays by Gimson on such subjects as the British Constitution and the requisite qualities to be Prime Minister. These include not merely courage, luck, hunger for power and eloquence, but “a different style to your predecessor, of whom people have grown sick. Soon they will be sick of you”; “an understanding of the money, which is the most important thing controlled by the Commons” and “respectability, or at least an absence of embarrassing eccentricities”.

Gimson does not mention another desirable quality: it definitely helps to be descended from Sir George Villiers (c. 1544 – 1606), High Sheriff of Leicestershire and later representing that county in Parliament as a Knight of the Shire. A startling number of Prime Ministers - including, probably, Margaret Thatcher - can trace their lineage back to Sir George. There is evidently some special additive in the Villiers DNA.

Most Prime Ministers are not very memorable and many have been forgotten. Who now recalls anything about the Duke of Newcastle or Henry Addington? Nevertheless, from time to time we need to ascertain who was the Prime Minister at a given date or time; what he accomplished or failed to do; what his most famous quotation (if any) was... if only for a pub quiz or the crossword. For these and other purposes, Gimson's Prime Ministers is an ideal resource. From Gimson's book we can ascertain, for example, who was Prime Minister when the Crimean War broke out (Lord Aberdeen); which Prime Minister was assassinated (Spencer Percival); and who was the last Prime Minister to govern while seated in the Lords (Lord Salisbury).

Gimson corrects a number of popular misconceptions. For example, the foundations of the NHS were laid before the Second World War by Neville Chamberlain, who, whatever his defects as Prime Minister, was an effective and visionary Minister of Health; not by Nye Bevan.

Likewise, John Major was responsible both for the UK's economic recovery after 1992 and for the advancement of the peace process in Northern Ireland. Tony Blair ostentatiously took credit for both. Major bequeathed to Blair a healthy economy with a budget surplus, for which Blair also took credit; he and Gordon Brown then squandered it. Major emerges well from Gimson's examination of his period in office: his failures are mainly attributed to his bolshy Cabinet colleagues. His worst misdemeanour was his affair with the appalling Edwina Currie, who disloyally revealed it in a book.

It is clear that Gimson detests Blair, who by contrast appears in a very bad light, mainly due to his gratuitously involving the UK in the USA's adventure in Iraq in 2003. Gimson notes acidly that “a huge protest march and a rebellion by 139 Labour MPs did not deter Blair, who knew that he could rely on the support of the Conservatives”. The Tories' support was based partly on their erroneous belief in the veracity of the “dodgy dossier”, which appeared to show that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction, and partly on the misplaced but genuine admiration that some Conservative MPs felt for Blair. Tories tend to worship success as a virtue in its own right. The military action in Iraq was wasteful and costly in money and lives and achieved little of lasting value. Far from enhancing the UK's status internationally, the verdict was:

“There go the Americans, charging in where angels fear to tread, with their usual running dogs, the Brits, yapping at their heels!”

Gimson's polished, pungent style is at its best when he writes uninhibitedly about dead Prime Ministers. A good example (on Lord Salisbury) is:

“In order to give Joe Chamberlain something to do, Salisbury made him Colonial Secretary. Unfortunately, Chamberlain started the Boer War.”

He has to be slightly more circumspect about the last five Prime Ministers, who are still alive and potentially litigious. Gimson must find this frustrating, because it is a racing certainty that a lot more dirt - some of it very pungent indeed - will one day be dished about Blair, but that will have to await his death.

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