The United Kingdom has had fifteen Prime Ministers since the end of 1945, although just how influential they were varies. Some Prime Ministers, such as Gordon Brown and Anthony Eden were not in the job long enough to be truly influential and you will not find Theresa May’s name on this list, although perhaps at the end of her tenure we will see her as an influential. Anyway, for now let’s look at the four most influential Prime Ministers since 1945 in chronological order.
1. Clement Atlee (Labour) 1945-1951
Firstly, is everyone’s favourite and arguably most successful Labour leader, Clement Attlee. With a scope similar to Thatcher’s economic revolution during her tenure, Attlee’s welfare reforms can thus be described as a social revolution in the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister and his cabinet, which included Aneurin Bevan and Ernest Bevin, established the National Health Service to provide universal healthcare at the point of use. Just like now, the NHS had problems when it was formed in 1948. The British Medical Association opposed the institution, claiming that it would take away their independence as doctors. There was also a backbench rebellion in 1951 led by Bevin over the introduction of prescription charges in light of a funding crisis. Regardless, the effect the NHS had in the 1950s were immense as it dramatically reduced the infant mortality rate from 150/1000 in the 1900s to 45/1000 in 1950. Attlee’s welfare reforms also included the National Insurance Act. Introduced in 1946, it was a system of tax which provides payments to cover unemployment, illnesses, retirement and maternity leave. Further, the Labour government presided over the formation of NATO to protect Western Europe against Soviet aggression. Attlee also began the decolonisation process; granting India their independence in 1947.
2. Margaret Thatcher (Conservative) 1979-1990
Up next, we have chosen Margaret Thatcher. Not only was Thatcher Britain’s first ever female Prime Minister and longest-serving executive since William Gladstone in the nineteenth century, she is also Britain’s most controversial, polarising and influential leader in the post-war period. This is best illustrated by her hard-line, neo-liberal attitudes to the economy. Her monetarism policy tackled inflation and did reduce it to 5% in 1979 from 19% in 1984, but this was at the cost of unemployment which peaked for the first time at 3.4 million in 1986. Further, Thatcher believed that the government should not subsidise inefficient industries because it would mean that some other more successful area would be deprived of resources. It was such arguments like this that laid at the heart of one of Thatcher’s most defining moments: The Miners’ Strike of 1984-5. This was when the government, applying the above logic, decided to begin closing the coal pits. However, the National Union of Miners opposed this fiercely with industrial action. They believed that with genuine government commitment to coal as a long-term energy, the mines could be competitive. The result was a victory for the government, but the economic and social consequences are still felt today among the mining communities of Northern England and Wales. In another defining moment, Thatcher led the UK into its first war since 1945 to reclaim the Falkland Islands which had been invaded by Argentina in 1982. The war was not as polarising as the government’s decision to close the mines. Yet, the sinking of the battleship Belgrano outside of the exclusion zone is still controversial, especially amongst Argentinians. Thatcher is also known for presiding over the process of closer political union with Europe in 1986 with the signing of the Single European Act. This was despite lambasting the bureaucratic and undemocratic nature of the EEC a few years earlier. Yet, in a dramatic sense of irony, it was this issue of greater union with Europe, in this case with the ERM, that transpired to be the prelude to Thatcher’s resignation in 1991.
3. Tony Blair (Labour) 1997-2007
Whatever the Labour party might say about Tony Blair nowadays, he was instrumental in the party’s return to power following an eighteen-year tenure as the opposition. Blair’s ‘New Labour’ policies, which blended together both Labour and Conservative ideas, coupled with his positive public image and the general dislike of Conservative Prime Minister John Major secured Blair a landslide victory in the 1997 general election and he could even attract big name celebrities such as Oasis’ Noel Gallagher to parties at number ten. His first term (1997-2001) was a success with a peace deal in Northern Ireland, devolution and a healthy economy all highlights. Things went rapidly downhill from here however as his decision to invade Iraq backfired massively as the alleged ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were never found. His public image was shattered and has been branded a war criminal by many opponents. Eventually he resigned in 2007 as tension with Chancellor Gordon Brown proved to be too much for the Labour Party to handle.
4. David Cameron (Conservative) 2010-2016
David Cameron is a very notable Prime Minister purely for the fact that he led the first coalition government since the Second World War and to the surprise of most it stayed together for the agreed five years. Following the 2010 election Cameron’s Conservatives joined up with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats and had a fairly successful term. The coalition manged to get the UK out of recession, avoid Scotland leaving the UK and secure equal marriage rights for same-sexual couples. While there were negatives, such as the increase in tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats usually took the blame and this was reflected in the 2015 general election where Cameron secured a Conservative majority. Rather like Blair however things went downhill after this as the Conservative party became bitterly divided over the European Union and the in/out referendum that Cameron had made an election promised ultimately cost him his job. His poorly led ‘Remain’ campaign lost the vote and Cameron resigned the day after the referendum.
Elliot Humm & Cameron Eyles