How Reputations Change

Thursday 24th October

I have resisted the urge to follow up yesterday’s post about Ugly Men with one about Women; women are never ugly, I will concede that some are less superficially attractive than others, but each has an inner beauty infinitely more glorious than that belonging to my own sex.

I want to talk today about reputations.  Of Prime Ministers actually.  Winston Churchill, even at his supposedly finest hour was never loved.  It was accepted that the old warhorse was the only man for the job, and the Tories were re-elected in 1951 despite him not because of him.  His reputation has grown long after his death, and he is revered by people who cannot remember his premiership or who were not even born until he died.  Similarly with Clement Atlee, never really popular at the time; it was only later that he was seen as a great reforming leader.  Eden and Hume, incredibly popular at the time, were failures as PM, and are largely discredited now.  Macmillan on the other hand was both popular and now considered a good man.  Heath was and still is regarded as an unmitigated disaster, though he did have a brief flurry of popularity.  Harold Wilson was immensely popular while PM, but is still waiting to be granted some sort of posthumous re-evaluation, most commentators prefer to ignore him completely.  Jim Callaghan left office almost in disgrace but is now looked upon as some sort of kindly uncle to the nation.

Thatcher, the most divisive leader ever, was worshipped and hated in equal measure; the arguments still rage as to how much good/damage she caused to Britain.  We may have to wait many years for the dust to settle and we can come to some sort of settled opinion.  Blair won three elections and was incredibly popular, but after Iraq his reputation has been on the slide.  Gordon.  Poor Gordon had his reputation shredded long before he left office, though I suspect that given time his actions at the time of the financial crash may be seen as heroic.

That leaves John Major.  Never an easy task to follow Maggie, but he quietly got on with the job.  He grew in unpopularity and won an election despite being seen as boring.  Gradually the impression of the grey man and the antics of his fractious party meant he left office with a poor reputation.  But he was everything Thatcher wasn’t, and has quietly grown in stature.  Now his words are treated with respect, and is seen by followers and opponents alike as one of our better Prime Ministers.

We will have to wait awhile to see how Cameron is remembered.  It is quite possible that he will still be PM after the election, again most likely in tandem with Clegg and the rump of LibDems, or he may be beaten – it is impossible to get a real feel of things at the moment.  I suspect that win or lose he will be seen overall as quite a good PM though.  Reputation is a strange and fickle beast.