Book Review: The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 300 Years of History by Ian Dale

British politics has a severe accessibility problem. Even for political junkies who have spent the last five years hooked on every minute of Brexit drama, stayed up for late-night House of Commons debates and studied those understand those arcane Erskine May rules – the workings of the British political system is a mess.

Part of the reason why this is the case – and why some may argue modern Britain has so many problems – is that the rules governing our politics are not clearly defined. There is no written constitution. There are no clear definitions for the role of Government, or Parliament, or ministers or even the Queen herself.

Instead, we have traditions, and institutions, essentially a gentleman’s agreement in place which governs the acceptable ways that things work. But as the last few years have shown, these tenuous rules can be easily ignored when politically convenient. The Prime Minister, assumed to be the most powerful person in the country, doesn’t have a defined constitutional role – instead, it’s been up to the women and men who have held the post to define it.

And this is the main theme of Ian Dale’s The Prime Ministers. Through 55 short essays from political experts, we learn how ‘climbing the greasy pole’ up to Number 10 became the main goal of all British politicians, and we learn a great deal about what makes a great Prime Minister – and what makes a poor one.

The drama of high political office is as fascinating in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries as it is today. From debates over the Corn Laws, widening the franchise, debates over role of Britain’s Empire, slavery and the creation of the National Health Service – this is a great book for those interested in the political history of the nation.

Exploring the Prime Ministers from Walpole to Johnson reveals some interesting consistencies in British political life. Communication and persuasion have been crucial skillls for Prime Ministers since the 18th century, even when the franchise was a tiny minority of elite landowners. Those who fail to convince parliament while in government, and the public during elections, will see their careers end quickly. This was as true for Spencer Compton as it was for Theresa May in 2019.

Like the Prime Ministers themselves, some essays in the collections are stronger than others. There will be times where you feel the author’s biases coming through – which can become more jarring as we move to the modern era. But the approach Dale has taken – using a new writer to cover each PM – paid off. The format stays fresh, and although we’re often reading about the same debates, there is a fresh perspective every couple of pages.

Each essay is an exciting and pacy account of each Prime Minister’s time in office. It’s packed with fascinating history throughout, casting light on some lesser-known occupants that of Number 10 Downing Street. I’d highly recommend this book to those interested in British political history; especially those looking for an introduction into past Prime Ministers and political debates through time in an informative, accessible narrative style.

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