Review: The Prime Ministers, Steve Richards

Rating: 3 out of 5

This book is a journalist’s look into the latest Prime Ministers. Going back about fifty years, we start with Harold Wilson and make our way through Heath, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron, to end up with May. This company is united by the fact that they made it to the top of their respective parties, and were then able to hold on to become Prime Minister.

Why I emphasised that the author is a journalist is that this bears very much on how the subjects are treated. From the start, the author has a connection with Wilson who he saw giving a speech. For the later PMs, this connection rather relates to the professional environment and how they were perceived in the media. These factors also influence the choices for who were included: Macmillan was left out because he did not have to contend with ‘the modern news cycle’ (though the same is also said of Wilson). Conversely, the different PMs’ attitudes towards media are also described along with how they communicated with the press.

To a degree, the emphasis on media is well tuned for Britain. Media exerts a lot of influence in how they cover a person or their policies, and the author tries to investigate this. Therefore, the way these Prime Ministers themselves treated media is relevant. However, in some cases the substance of the policy that is more relevant longer term gets lost under the minutiae of media coverage. This is especially true for the more recent PMs, whose long term impact is much more difficult to assess. It almost feels as if the author should have had a final cut-off, say the advent of social media in politics, to prevent this becoming so much of an issue.

However, what was more to my chagrin was the author’s style of enunciating the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ in what had been done. If a PM had been successful, we had ‘a leadership lesson’. If a PM had been unsuccessful, this was time for another ‘leadership lesson’. These ‘leadership lessons’ quickly became dull—with a few memorable exception such as Brown’s ‘don’t insult the public even if they insult you’—but for the majority, the good intentions of the author come through in a shallow way.

Other than this, Mr Richards also proposes some interesting theories. One of the oddest was that Thatcher’s 1982 election shouldn’t be counted as a khaki election because she had started preparing the Government for an election prior to the Falklands War. This sounds like a roundabout argument to me as later on the author himself goes on to explain how a PM must always be ready to go to the polls. Other similar things may have cropped up, but for the majority of the people this book covered, this was my first in-depth look at them, and even then the depths are no very great.

As such, I think the book serves as a very good introduction into modern Prime Ministers though for a deeper understanding of their times much more comprehensive monographs should be studied.

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