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The Impossible Office? by Anthony Seldon with Jonathan Meakin and Illias Thoms; and Duty and Destiny, by Gary Scott Smith

30 July 2021

Michael Wheeler reads two accounts of prime-ministerial endeavour

AS HONORARY historical adviser to 10 Downing Street, and a former Master of Wellington College and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham, Sir Anthony Seldon is an Establishment insider, author of many books on contemporary historical themes and on or around British prime ministers. Yet his determined advocacy of well-being at Wellington, and his vice-chancellorship of a private university also make him something of a maverick.

Although the preface to this book is written in the first person singular, the author is actually a co-author, his two younger colleagues both being professional researchers who have researched and written for and with him before.

The book’s sources on recent prime ministers include a fine array of printed books, and hundreds of interviews, some of them conducted by Seldon in 2020 — presumably online, as the book was written during lockdown.

The author (or is it authors?) is/are to be congratulated on producing a readable, lively, amusing, and serious account of the office of prime minister. Once past a whimsical and decidedly Seldonian dinner-party discussion between Sir Robert Walpole, the first politician to be labelled PM, and Boris Johnson, the 55th office-holder, the reader is invited to reflect on the similarities and differences between their positions and their times. Walpole travelled no further than Norfolk, whereas Johnson can fly to an EU capital and be back in a day. Walpole received news from around the country and from abroad gradually, whereas Johnson is bombarded with updates every minute of the day, even in the air. How one envies Walpole.

An interesting chapter on “The Liminal Premiership” considers the ways in which “chief ministers” such as Thomas Cromwell foreshadowed the prime ministers who served from 1721. The premiership of William Pitt the Younger consolidated the position in the 1780s, and the rest is history.

Fox PhotosChurchill, in a photo from The English Spirit (1942), a book of BBC radio talks

Perhaps the most engaging chapter follows, as eight prime ministers are singled out here as the ones who have “changed the agenda of British politics and left a long shadow under which their successors operated, trying to be either like them, or unlike them, but incapable of escaping their shadow”.

In what smacks of another dinner-party game, there is no place for Churchill or Blair among the “first rank”, the “game-changers”, the “galvanisers” and “innovators”, all of whom are “ground-breaking” and all of whose periods of office end unhappily. Enter (roll of drums) Walpole, Pitt the Younger, Peel, Palmerston, Gladstone, Lloyd George, Attlee, and Thatcher. Discuss.

Innovative chapters follow on a range of topics: the power and resources that prime ministers have available to them; the constraints within which they operate; and their relationships with the monarch, the Foreign Secretary, and the Chancellor of their day. In each case, we review the same historical time-span, and so a degree of repetition is inevitable.

Many readers will go straight to the final chapter, which looks at the position of the prime minister today. Only someone with Seldon’s unique access to No. 10, and to some of the great contemporary commentators such as Lord Hennessy, to whom the book is dedicated, would risk recommending five changes to the office of prime minister which would better equip it in its fourth century.

Religion gets short shrift in The Impossible Office?, a title that might better apply to Archbishops of Canterbury than to prime ministers. The Church is presented as one of the constraints on a prime minister, but less so now than ever before. Yes, religion was a “powerful factor in nineteenth-century politics”: Gladstone’s political energies were “fired by a deep religious zeal that shaped his moralistic view of the world and ferocious industry and hard work”; and even “areligious” politicians such as Palmerston and Disraeli “knew how to manipulate religious sentiment to their advantage”. The Church also played a significant part in the abdication crisis.

But, today, influence continues only in the House of Lords, “with twenty-six ‘Lords Spiritual’ having a permanent berth in the Upper House”. Nevertheless, prime ministers remain “personally and politically sensitive to criticisms from religious figures, which they are anxious to avoid”.

“The death of religion has been much exaggerated,” we are assured. Where, then, in this engaging book, is a discussion of the spiritual health of the nation, and of the “remarkable individuals” who have assumed the office of prime minister, from Walpole to Johnson?


IN SHARP contrast to Anthony Seldon’s book on 55 British prime ministers, where religion gets short shrift, Duty and Destiny puts “faith” up front and centre in a study of just one prime minister, Winston Churchill. Significantly, Gary Scott Smith hails from a country in which religion still counts, politically and culturally, and where many voters want their leaders to have faith in God and to seek his guidance and direction.

Smith is professor of history emeritus at a private Christian college in Pennsylvania, and specialises in the religious lives of American presidents. Churchill, he argues, “had a profound sense of his own destiny, but who or what he believed determined his destiny — God or fate — is ultimately unclear”. This war hero’s “unconventional faith” grew deeper after 1940, when he “drew upon the Christian experiences of his youth” and helped to save “Christian civilisation” from the onslaught of both Nazism and Communism. In the final analysis, however, Churchill’s faith is an enigma.

Having carefully recorded the divided opinions of previous historians and biographers on Churchill’s faith, including Andrew Roberts’s conclusion that he “had no belief in any revealed religion”, Smith launches into a Seldon-like review of seven “prominent British leaders” who had a deeper and “more conventionally Christian” faith than did Churchill.

Potted biographies of William Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, Gladstone, Salisbury, Baldwin, Thatcher, and Blair provide the basis for Smith’s argument that Churchill “shared some of their assumptions and convictions”. Like them, he often expressed the belief that God governed the world and directed events, and, like them, he was motivated to improve the lives of the destitute and vulnerable.

We are then offered a chronological account of Churchill’s life and career, interspersed with references to the highs and lows (mainly lows) of the great man’s faith. Like other privileged Victorians, he considered the ministry as one of four possible careers during his schooldays at Harrow, along with the military, law, and politics.

In the summer of 1891, he wrote to his mother: “I feel less keen about the Army every day. I think the church would suit me better.” Smith joins other scholars in dismissing this statement as a ruse to avoid work, such as studying French in France. Randolph Churchill had fun fantasising about his father’s taking Anglican Orders, becoming a Roman Catholic, and, finally, becoming the first English pope since Adrian IV, leading to the political unification of Europe under the dual leadership of London and Rome.

Later chapters review the hair-breadth escapes for which Churchill is famous. Much of this is familiar territory, as is the perception that an early living faith soon gave way to a generalised respect for the value of Christian ethics among the English-speaking peoples and the social bonds associated with church affiliation. This from the man who never went to church, even at Christmas, but who was surprised to find Billy Graham most engaging when the evangelist met him at 10 Downing Street.

Voted the “greatest Briton” in a BBC poll of 2002, Churchill is now denigrated as a racist imperialist by some influencers. In Smith’s view, this English aristocrat with an American mother bestrode the Atlantic like a Colossus. Whether he would have felt at ease lecturing at Grove City College is a moot point.


Dr Michael Wheeler is a Visiting Professor of English at the University of Southampton and author of The Athenaeum: “More than just another London club” (Yale, 2020) (Books, 9 April 2021).


The Impossible Office?: The history of the British Prime Minister
Anthony Seldon with Jonathan Meakin and Illias Thoms
Cambridge University Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

Duty and Destiny: Life and faith of Winston Churchill
Gary Scott Smith
Eerdmans £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.69

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