Britain's Worst Prime Ministers

Arthur Balfour (1902-05)

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A member of the powerful Cecil family, Arthur Balfour was given prominent government posts by his uncle, 3-time Prime Minister Lord Salisbury. Balfour excelled at those positions and when Salisbury retired, he was unanimously chosen by the conservatives to lead the country. The early days of Balfour Ministry were pleasant: reform-minded new King Edward VII is on the throne. The British had just finished a calamitous war in South Africa, and Balfour and his foreign minister narrowly averted the British participation in Russo-Japanese War. However, a disastrous debate between free traders and protectionists ensued in the Commons with both groups trying to protect “British interests” in face of German and American industrialization.  Balfour mishandled the situation. He proposed retaliatory tariffs yet called for the resignation of free-traders in his cabinet, to balance the situation. Weakened, Balfour Ministry fell in December 1905, and Labor party won a landslide election a month later. Balfour himself lost his Parliament seat.

Alec-Douglas Home (1963)

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Sir Alec Douglas Home has many achievements in the office—for a trivia collector: he was the last member of the House of Lords to become Prime Minister; the last to be chosen personally by the monarch, and the only PM to have played first class cricket. (His cricket career helped him catch an egg thrown at him during a campaign) For the first three days of his ministry, he was even 14th Earl of Home, the title which he renounced to embark on the disastrous tenure in the Downing Street. His reputation already damaged for his proximity to Profumo Scandal, he spent only a year in office without, on his own admission, doing a damned thing. In 1970, he took Foreign Secretary job under Heath, establishing another record: he became the last former Prime Minister to take a Ministry in someone else’s cabinet.

Edward Heath(1970-74)

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Sir Douglas-Home’s successor at Conservative Party, Edward Heath fared no better. His time was fraught with domestic problems in Northern Ireland and horrible industrial unrests, which culminates with the infamous ‘three-day week’, and eventual banning for free school milk. He brokered Sunningdale Agreement (1973) with the Irish, but the peace was short-lived. Mr. Heath dragooned Britain into the European Common Market, a decision which was tragic at the best and calamitous at the worst. When an early election which he called for ended with inconclusive results, and Heath promptly resigned. He never tried to stage a political comeback, for good reasons.

Harold Wilson (1964-70; 1974-76)

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Edward Heath’s tenure was sandwiched by two Labor Ministries of Harold Wilson. He did preside over a period of low unemployment and economic prosperity in his first term, but his second ministry was a direct opposite and eventual reversal of everything he achieved in his first term. Wilson preoccupied himself with attempts to prevent the devaluation of the pound, and neglected to deal with the inherited problem of large external deficit. (The problem would be neglected again and again until Mrs. Thatcher came to office.) On the international scene, he fared better: he refused American President Johnson’s requests of an British intervening in Vietnam, and also refused to help minority white government of Rhodesia. However, there were even allegations that he was a Soviet spy: he withdrew the military forces from bases east of Suez, cancelled numerous defense projects (including a supersonic Harrier, a new transport aircraft American Hercules C130) and bankrupted Rolls-Royce in the process. (Rolls-Royce’s temporary nationalization began in 1971 and lasted 17 years.) He retired on his sixtieth year in 1976. He tried to enter television broadcasting, but his attempts floundered, not at least because Alzheimer was setting in.

Clement Attlee (1945-1951)

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If Harold Wilson’s negligence was astounding, that of Clement Attlee was criminal. Voted Britain’s best 20th century Prime Minster (ahead of Churchill and Thatcher) by the voting public comprises mainly of the post-war generation whose fond memories of Attlee are of his universal healthcare, Attlee nonetheless lost the British Empire for which millions gave their lives. Attlee let India and various British Asian Dependencies to have independence, severely reducing British influence at the onset of the Cold War. In the task of transforming from a wartime economy to a peacetime one, he was marginally successful, but food rations continued well into next ministry. The adoring British public voted him out in the 1951 General Election, a dramatic twist for the man who was Labor’s first leader to form majority ministry.

Anthony Eden (1955-57)

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In politics, the golden rule is never play second fiddle. The fine example was that of Anthony Eden, who served as a skilled diplomat, a stellar Foreign Secretary and capable deputy Prime Minister before destroying his entire reputation in his short ministry. Sir Anthony Eden, 1st Earl of Avon, aided Winston Churchill’s war ministry and was made a Knight of the Garter for his efforts. In 1953, he underwent a blotched operation to remove gallstones, which led to his permanent intake of painkillers and antidepressants. In 1956, General Nasser in Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. In Nasser, Eden saw a Mussolini and green-lighted an Anglo French invasion of Suez. Yielding to domestic and American pressure, Eden finally withdrew the troops, taking away with them the last shreds of dignity of the British Empire. (The Soviets, meanwhile, used the Suez Crisis as a diversion to invade Hungary.) He notably pardoned Nazi war criminals in the British prisons, and rejected the proposed idea of an economic and political union between France and Great Britain. After all, he should have taken that job as the Secretary-General of the newly-formed UN first offered to him in 1945.

Archibald Primrose (1894-1895)

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Liberal statesman Archibald Primrose was the last Prime Minister to be chosen by the sovereign against the will of the government. Chosen because Queen Victoria detested other leading liberals, the 5th Earl of Rosebery formed a ministry which was idealistic in vision, but unsuccessful in reality. His domestic policies were defeated at the House of Lords, while his foreign policies (expansion of the fleet and expeditions to Africa) were killed by his own liberal party. He resigned, retired to write biographies, and eventually became harshest critic of ensuing ministries. By the time of his death, he not only died rich (as the richest Prime Minister England had ever had) but fulfilled his three aims in life: to breed a horse that win the Derby, to marry an heiress, and to become Prime Minister.

Andrew Bonar-Law (1922-1923)

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During the Great War,  King George V asked Canadian-born Andrew Bonar-Law to lead the country. He deferred the Premiership to David Lloyd George—which is the only good decision Bonar-Law made in his career. However, when David Lloyd George tried to use armed force against Turkey in the Chanak Crisis, Andrew Bonar-Law set an anonymous letter denouncing the act. This and internal strife caused Lloyd George’s resignation and Bonar Law was given the ministry. Amid the post-war financial crisis and war debts, Bonar Law formed a new cabinet, which was referred to as “the Second Eleven” because it excluded many leaders of the Conservative Party. Stanley Baldwin, his inexperienced Chancellor of the Exchequer, agreed to repay war debt of £40 million per annum to the USA rather than feasible £25 million and announced the deal to the press before the Cabinet could review it. In poor health since 1921, Bonar Law was deprived of his speech due to a terminal throat cancer. He resigned and King George agreed to invite his handpicked successor, one-and-only Stanley Baldwin, to form the new government. When he died later that same year, Herbert Asquith famously eulogized that they had buried the Unknown Prime Minister next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

John Stuart (1762-63)

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Even the title ‘Unknown Prime Minister’ will fare better when compared to an appellation ‘stupid person’. But that is exactly what ‘Jack Boot’, the term for Earl of Bute’s ministry, meant. John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, was a close friend (and alleged lover) of Augusta, Dowager Princess of Wales. When her son became George III, he was appointed Prime Minister. His manipulative reign of tyranny was so far-reaching that the king himself was once criticized from reading from an official speech written by the Earl.

The Earl of Liverpool (1812-27) and Viscount Sidmouth (1802-04)

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The Earl of Bute’s manipulation of the royal family pale in comparison to Robert Jenkinson, the 2nd Earl of Liverpool’s gambit with the nation. Liverpool presided over repression and recession which accompanied Napoleonic Wars. Liverpool engaged as his Home Secretary Henry Addington, Viscount Sidmouth (above right) who served as Prime Minster from 1802-04. Sidmouth got his ministry in 1802, because Pitt the Younger was defeated after his failure to achieve Catholic emancipation. Sidmouth did achieve a peace (albeit unfavorable) with France in the Treaty of Amiens, which it was short-lived. His management of war was so terrible that it led to restoration of Pitt ministry within two years.
Under Liverpool, Sidmouth worked behind the scenes to direct a police state with spies, informers and coercive legislation. He brutally crushed radical opposition, was responsible for the suspension of habeas corpus (1817), the Peterloo Massacre (1819) and the repressive Six Acts later that year. For the remainder of his life, he waged war against both Catholic Emancipation and Reform Acts, and his last speech was in opposition to Catholic Emancipation in 1829.

The Other Unknown Prime Ministers

Originally, since the office of the Prime Minister is crown-appointed, people held the office for a long time. The first Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole’s term lasted nearly 21 years. However, not all royal picks are as fortunate:
Walpole’s successor (and Britain’s rare celibate Prime Minister) Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington (1742-3) served as a mere titular head of so-called Carteret Ministry dominated by Lord Carteret, Earl of Grenville only for a year before succumbing to his illness.
The Earl of Bath was asked to form a government but was unable to find more than one person who would agree to serve in his cabinet. His ministry lasted for only two days: 10-12 February 1746. A satirist commented: “the minister to the astonishment of all wise men never transacted one rash thing; and, what is more marvellous, left as much money in the Treasury as he found in it.” The 2nd Earl Waldegrave was prime minister for four days, from 8 June to 12 June 1757.

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