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Platinum Jubilee: The Queen’s 14 Prime Ministers

27 May 2022

The Church Times’s view of the 12 men and two women who have served since 1952. Selected by Glyn Paflin


The Queen is escorted to her car after a farewell dinner in Downing Street hosted by Sir Winston Churchill on 6 April 1955, his last night as Prime Minister

The Queen is escorted to her car after a farewell dinner in Downing Street hosted by Sir Winston Churchill on 6 April 1955, his last night as Prime Mi...

Sir Winston Churchill (1951-55)

AFTER all the ups and downs of fame and fortune which marked his career of phenomenal service to his Sovereign, his country and the world, his proud place in history is as secure as that of any man in Britain’s annals. . . The Church can lay no special claim to him. But the prophets of old would have seen nothing at all strange in the belief that he was an instrument in the hand of the Living God for the purposes of his providence, and that God is to be praised for all that Winston Churchill was inspired to do and say and write in the cause of freedom, righteousness and peace.

Summary, 29 January 1963

CREATIVE COMMONSSir Anthony EdenSir Anthony Eden (Earl of Avon) (1955-57)

SIR ANTHONY has been a familiar figure in foreign politics over a great number of years. He has been recognized throughout his career as a man of integrity of purpose and of courage in implementing his political beliefs in action. This was notably shown when his disagreement with the policy of appeasement in the Chamberlain Government dictated his own resignation. He has been known as a patient negotiator and lover of peace — but not, as he himself said in a speech concerning the recent conflict in the Middle East, “peace at any price”.

Summary, 11 January 1957

Harold Macmillan (Earl of Stockton) (1957-63)


DISCONTENT with the Government’s present performance, however justified, needs to be set against the background of what Mr Macmillan has generally done or tried to do since 1957. His main achievement may well in the end be seen to have been the awakening of his own Party and the country from unrealistic dreams of the past to face the facts of Britain’s real political and economic situation in the world to-day. Thus Mr Macmillan has subtly but firmly led people to see that the economic realities (as distinct from the emotional undertones) of the Commonwealth compel Britain to look to Europe, as well as to her old Commonwealth partners, if she is to retain her place as a leading economic power. He has shown the same realism in facing the necessity for political change in Africa. In foreign affairs, Mr Macmillan’s high hopes of an accord between East and West have been disappointed, not through his own fault, while at home he has failed, so far, to cure the country’s propensity to recurrent crises of inflation. But success may not always elude him, even in these two difficult fields. His supreme skill as a politician is beyond question. He may yet live in history as a statesman too.

Summary, 12 January 1962

Sir Alec Douglas-Home (Baron Home of the Hirsel) (1963-64)

THE new Prime Minister is a very brave man. Now metamorphosed into the comparatively plain Sir Alec Douglas-Home and due to enter the House of Commons by the confidently presumed grace of the electors of Kinross and West Perthshire, he assumes the Premiership and the leadership of the Conservative Party in a situation fraught with political difficulties of a kind quite enough to daunt most men with far greater experience in politics than he would ever claim to possess. Even before the damaging events of the past fortnight, the Party’s fortunes were at a low ebb, with many signs of electoral defeat staring the Conservatives in the face. Now a relentless struggle for the leadership has inflicted wounds which it will certainly take time to heal. . .

The new Premier is a man of remarkable character. His complete integrity, his gift for plain speech, his quiet modesty and his sensitivity, as a convinced Christian, to spiritual issues are not so common among politicians to-day that one can afford to ignore them.

Summary, 25 October 1963

Harold Wilson (Baron Wilson of Rievaulx) (1964-70, 1974-76)


ABOUT the only thing that could be said with complete certainty about the decision of the Prime Minister to resign his office, announced on Tuesday this week, is that it was the best-kept political secret of its kind for years past; nobody, it seems, had an inkling of Mr Wilson’s plans except the Queen, who has kept the knowledge to herself since he confided in her last December, and the present Speaker. But, when it came to any assessment either of the real motives which have led the Premier to take this step or of the probable effects which it will have on British politics, all was immediate uncertainty and guesswork among both political friends and foes.

If Mr Wilson’s own public statement is to be taken at its face value, then his main reason for leaving office for the back benches in the Commons (he is positive that he will neither advise on the choice of a successor nor serve in his Government) is that at the age of sixty, after thirteen years as Party leader and eight out of the last thirteen as Prime Minister, he had simply “had enough”. True as this may indeed well be, it is an explanation capable of infinite variation in detailed interpretation. What exactly is it that has made so brilliantly gifted a politician and so adroit a party manager feel overwhelmingly that he does not want to continue to fight his political battles and win his political victories any more?

News comment, 19 May 1976

Sir Edward Heath (1970-74)


ONLY about half a dozen members of the present staff on the Church Times remember the six hundred days (January 1948 to October 1949) that he served as News Editor, and for those who were not intimately connected with him in day-to-day affairs it is a hazy memory. But none of the survivors of those days had any doubts whatever about the probable great future awaiting Edward Heath, whose rumbustious laugh was heard reverberating up the wide staircase into the high cornices above within an hour of his arrival on a bleak January day in 1948. Heath laughed a lot, and he learned a lot — quickly. Very quickly in fact, and no one had to tell him anything twice, so speedily did his brain absorb knowledge even of the most technical matters.

Article by John Trevisick, “The New Tory Leader: A Personal Memory”, 30 July 1965

James Callaghan (1976-79)

IT IS nearly two years since the General Synod of the Church of England decided, by a large majority, to demand that in future “the decisive voice in the appointment of bishops should be that of the Church.” Now, this week, the State through the Prime Minister (who on this occasion spoke for other parties besides his own) has given its considered answer to that demand. To some it will seem a dusty answer. Severely practical considerations, however, must be considered when any alternatives to the present system of nomination by the Prime Minister, after due consultation, are to be evaluated. Among such possible alternatives the scheme now put forward is ingenious enough to be deserving of careful regard. It is uncompromising in its insistence that, if the Church of England is to remain established, its unique links with the State unimpaired and its bishops sitting by right in Parliament, then bishops must continue to be appointed by the Sovereign, constitutionally advised by her chief Minister. At the same time there is real substance in the proposal to give a greater say to the Church by leaving it, in future, to a special Standing Church committee (of which the Prime Minister’s representative would be one member) to choose two names for submission to Downing Street when a diocesan vacancy is to be filled.

Leader comment, 11 June 1976

Margaret Thatcher (Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven) (1979-90)

ARCHIVE NEW ZEALAND/CCMargaret Thatcher on a visit to New Zealand in 1976 when she was Leader of the Opposition

EVEN those who have praised Lady Thatcher this week have had to admit to the divisive character of her time in office. There were many who benefited from her emphasis on individual wealth ­creation, her promotion of a market economy, and her deregulation of financial institutions. At the same time, she showed a lack of comprehension that such policies might have victims who were educationally, financially, and geographically unable to grasp these benefits. The long shadow of her premiership can be seen in the sharply divided comments that have marked her passing this week. . .

As Lady Thatcher’s radicalism was driven by the opposition that she met from the trade unions, so the Church’s reaction became more outspoken as a result of that radicalism. More than 20 years after her fall, the Church finds itself still picking up the pieces in the communities that were destroyed during her time in office. This is just as much an indictment of her successors, whose inability to repair the collateral damage from what were often positive policies shows a lack of political imagination, and, more especially, the political courage that Lady Thatcher possessed in abundance.

Leader comment, 12 April 2013

Sir John Major (1990-97)

ccSir John Major (right) with Lord Robertson on the board of trustees of the Diamond Jubilee Trust, 2012

THERE really did appear to be a sea-change in 1990, with the arrival of new tenants at 10 Downing Street and Lambeth Palace. When Mrs Thatcher was around, criticism of any government policy was taken to be a personal attack on her. Robert Runcie was, at best, a reluctant rebel; but, with no Labour opposition to speak of, his mildest rebukes were magnified into evidence of a grand liberal conspiracy. John Major, with much practice, deflects or absorbs criticism to an extraordinary degree. George Carey, when he offers any, offers it tempered and qualified, and has shown himself keen to get on with the Prime Minister. His comments on personal morality have gone down well.

Leader comment, 10 May 1996

Sir Tony Blair (1997-2007)

WORLD ECOMONIC FORUM/CCTony Blair at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, 2005

ONE consequence of establishment is that the Church is bound up with the state’s affairs, and it would be a mistake to see the Church in isolation. At least part of this new mood of optimism must come from the political changes which have taken place this year. As autumn drew on and Labour’s hard edges were revealed, the Church became a little less comfortable. Mr Blair has signalled, through his actions over the Liverpool appointment [of the diocesan Bishop] and through the words of the Second Church Estates Commissioner, that his interest in the Church is an active one, and this has left many feeling wary.

At its root, Mr Blair’s approach to the Church of England grows out of a question: Is the Church here to serve the nation or not? Part of the answer came in September when churches across the country laid on special services for the thousands who were disturbed by the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Since then, church leaders have been trying to work out what went on. If the episode had just been seen as a “mission opportunity”, nothing would have been learned. There were signs, though, that the Church was humbled, responding as best it could to people who had a very strong sense of what sort of ministering they wanted. This sort of relationship, if it can be picked up and developed, might lead to a very interesting reorienting.

Review of the Year, 26 December 1997

Gordon Brown (2007-10)

WORLD ECOMONIC FORUM/CCGordon Brown at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, 2007

GORDON BROWN’s commitment to eradicating Third World debt is rarely questioned even by his critics, and has been described as his passion since his party was in opposition. Perhaps if it were not, our interview, marking the tenth anniversary of the 70,000-strong “human chain” for debt relief, would itself have been cancelled.

A few days after Labour’s devastating results in the local elections, Mr Brown looks tense and exhausted, having come straight from Prime Minister’s Questions.

Despite this, and his tendency to drop statistics into the conversation at an alarming rate, the subject still seems to stir up that passion, as it does occasional moments of warmth. He smiles as he recalls his own first attempt at campaigning on world poverty — taking part in the “Freedom from Hunger” Oxfam campaign of the 1960s.

Feature by Rebecca Paveley, 16 May 2008

David Cameron (2010-16)

THERE are occasions when only one political party can develop a particular theory successfully. These are when that theory runs counter to the party’s traditional line. This is not hard to explain: when a theory’s fiercest detractors belong to a party that suddenly adopts it, self-doubt, combined with party loyalty, mutes their criticism. As David Cameron sets out to win people over to the notion of the Big Society, he will sense behind him the Conservative creed that built up around Lady Thatcher’s most famous quotation: “They are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women, and there are families, and no government can do anything except through people, and people look to themselves first.” Although this is often quoted out of context, it is clear that Mr Cameron is departing from the appeal to self-interest (enlightened or otherwise) that drove Conservatism in the 1980s and ’90s. But as the Prime Minister moves into uncharted territory — uncharted, that is, apart from Communitarianism, the stakeholder programme, perhaps even Socialism — he is still enough of a Conservative to know that his Big Society ideal will be made or broken by one thing: money.

Leader comment, 23 July 2010

Theresa May (2016-19)

THE hard reality of simply not having enough seats is what, above all, hindered Theresa May’s ambitions for her premiership. It will be remembered for her disastrous gamble on a General Election in the summer of 2017, and for the tragic combination of weakness and stubbornness which ensued. In her emotional speech outside 10 Downing Street last Friday, she spoke of the necessity for compromise, seemingly unconscious of the irony that her record is as an uncompromising compromiser. Her trademark heels were dug in, but they did not prove equal to a tug of war. Her successor may do no better. Compromise is a word with connotations both good and bad; and what Mrs May might have done better to commend was realism. This is what was notoriously missing from the decision to impose on Parliament, as it stood in 2016, a process over which its members would disagree fundamentally while having to produce a complex agreement on a wide range of issues with the EU. There was too much bravado at the time of the referendum, too much building of captivating castles in the air, and we can expect a revival of it in the leadership campaign.

Leader comment, 31 May 2019

Boris Johnson (2019-)

ANDREW PARSONS / No 10 DOWNING STREET/CCBoris Johnson during his weekly audience with the Queen under Covid restrictions in March 2020

AS IF it were a small thing. . . The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, reacted on Tuesday to the Supreme Court judgment with his customary bluster: the judges had come to an “unusual” judgment (that, at least, was right), one that he strongly disagreed with; it had been brought by people determined to frustrate the will of the people to have Brexit delivered on 31 October. “Of course” Parliament would reconvene; but it was business as usual. This was not a man, seemingly, who had been caught attempting to manipulate Parliament for his own political ends. A statement from a 10 Downing Street source compounded the view that Mr Johnson’s team intended to present this as another attack on the people’s will. “As always”, the source said, the Government would respect the law — then immediately accused the judges of making serious mistakes. In almost any former time, a prime minister found to have acted so dishonourably would have felt the hands of his party’s grandees in the small of his back — why use a knife when a gentle push will do? — and the next moment find himself on the steps of No. 10 reading out a letter of resignation. But many of those grandees have been denied the whip after earlier disputes about Brexit.

Leader comment, 27 September 2019

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