Large gettyimages number 10

Book Review: 'Gimson's Prime Ministers - Brief Lives from Walpole to May' takes us on a whistle-stop tour of PMs past and present

How many British Prime Ministers can you name? How many of them have done something that has made a lasting impact on the country? Be honest, it’s a bit of struggle isn’t it? They come and they go. In my lifetime alone there have been eight of them. Six men and two women who have lived and worked in 10 Downing Street and presided over the nation’s affairs.

There’s Tony Blair, the one that fibbed about the Iraq War, but for many young people the modern political era seems to start with him. Unfairly, Mr Blair is almost solely remembered for the Iraq War, but he actually ought to be chiefly remembered for being the Prime Minister who presided over a vast public spending splurge because he couldn’t control his Chancellor.

There’s David Cameron, whose biggest political achievement was to lead Britain out of the European Union, accidently. He resigned soon after winning an election or losing a referendum, or something. There’s Mrs Thatcher of course – people still feel very strongly about her even though more and more of them don’t actually remember her as Prime Minister. Gordon Brown and John Major feature somewhere – who were they? Prime Ministers of course. Come on, keep up. Then, of course, there is Winston Churchill. We all know who he is and what he did. Enough said.

In ‘Gimson’s Prime Ministers’, Andrew Gimson brings to life the fifty-four men and women who have held the position. Gimson has form with this type of book, which is a series of quick canters, with his ‘Gimson’s Kings & Queens’. In that book, as with this one he treats his subjects with deftness and lightness of touch. Interesting facts emerge from these colourful portraits of our leaders – Tony Blair and David Cameron are two of only four people who have held the highest office without having any prior ministerial experience, for example.

The office of Prime Minister carries surprisingly few direct executive powers. Theresa May relies today on much the same techniques to push her agenda forward as the first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, did – persuasion, patronage, convening power and resilience. Much of a PM’s success is based on, then as now, authority in the House of Commons. Gimson brings into sharp relief how little has changed in the way Britain is run since Walpole’s time.

As the book progresses so the portraits lengthen, but each one is worth reading because Gimson brings each character to life with a personal insight or a telling foible.

It is perhaps surprising how many Prime Ministers gained the office by circumstance rather than by design. How unpleasant, insecure, weak and pointless so many of them have been. On the other hand some of the greatest are truly impressive – Pitt (both), Gladstone, Disraeli and Lloyd George and Thatcher.

In more recent times there are remarkable personal stories told – including Wilson, Callaghan, and Major. In a book that is otherwise impeccable for its political neutrality, Gimson shows most reverence for Mrs Thatcher and he is most gentle with David Cameron – whose portrait resembles an apology more than anything else. He regains his stride with Mrs May.

Andrew Gimson provides us with a great read and the book is also wonderfully illustrated by Martin Rowson. It should be compulsory for all school children and those seeking UK citizenship because the story of these men and women is, for better or for ill, our story too.

Mark square bw