Will we ever see such a giant-filled Cabinet again?

Over the Christmas break I enjoyed “The Tortoise and the Hares“, the enormously readable account by my colleague Lord Giles Radice of the relationship between Clement Attlee and the giants in his 1945-51 Cabinets like Ernest Bevin, Herbert Morrison, Stafford Cripps, Hugh Dalton, Aneurin Bevan and Hugh Gaitskell.

The book focuses on the relationship between the quiet, unassuming Attlee and the extraordinary figures around him in the leadership of the Labour Party and the Labour Government.  Attlee’s ability to play off those around him, so that he was always able to head off the frequent challenges to his leadership by one or other of them, but at the same time giving each of them the space to deliver fundamental change in their respective policy areas, was quite remarkable.

However, even more striking is the formidable nature of the individuals making up those Cabinets.  Today, we have become used to Parties led by strong figures with other leading members being clearly several steps behind.  The situation in Attlee’s Cabinet was rather, if taken forward fifty years, as though Tony Blair had had four figures of the calibre and strength of Gordon Brown filling the major offices of state, all seeking ownership of the government’s direction.  The change seems to have occurred after the 1979 General Election when Margaret Thatcher came to completely dominate her Cabinet.  There was something of a reversion under John Major – although none of the figures in the 1990-97 Cabinets could really be described as of huge substance.  Then from 1997 onwards, we again had pre-eminent Prime Ministers.  And in the (unlikely) event of a Conservative Government being elected later this year, it is hard to see any of the present Shadow Cabinet having the stature to affect the authority of David Cameron.

So has the change come about because of the individuals holding the office of Prime Minister?  Or do we no longer have the same supply of dominating figures in the front-rank of politics?  I rather suspect it is the latter – although if few of the present Cabinet are in the mould of the Bevins and Morrisons of the 1940s, they are giants compared with the pygmies on the Tory front-bench.

Of course, politics sixty years ago were very different.  Today, it is hard to envisage a senior Cabinet Minister having to resign, as Hugh Dalton did, for briefing a member of the press before an announcement in the House of Commons.  Nor is it possible to imagine that the wife of a prominent Cabinet member might have tea every Friday afternoon with a Sunday newspaper correspondent and give him near-verbatim accounts of Cabinet discussions (as was the practice of Isobel Cripps) without the source of the leak rapidly becoming known (according to Giles Radice even the security service failed to identify her).

Even more striking is how ill some of the major figures were much of the time.  The book describes the mission to the United States in 1949 to discuss the sterling exchange rate led by Cripps and Bevin.  The two men sailed to the US on the RMS Mauretania, because as the book describes it:

“Both Cripps and Bevin were in poor health: Bevin could not travel by air because of his heart and stayed in bed resting, while Cripps used the boat journey to prolong his convalescence (from acute colitis which had incapacitated him for months).  Curiously the two ministers did not actually meet for the first three or four days.  Cripps rose at 4am, often pacing the deck till dawn, and retired to bed early at around 4 or 5pm.  Meanwhile Bevin did not rise until late afternoon.  It was not until well into the voyage, when Cripps agreed to stay up a little later, that … (the civil servants) … had the opportunity to brief the two statesmen together.”

It is not clear that politicians are allowed to be unwell these days.  (This, of course, was not just a factor for Labour figures – Churchill was frequently indisposed even during the War and his devastating strokes in 1949 and when he was again Prime Minister in 1953 were kept secret for months.)  Attlee, of course, outlived all the hares in the book and Churchill.

12 thoughts on “Will we ever see such a giant-filled Cabinet again?”

  1. I doubt if many of the political giants of yesterday could survive today’s 24/7 media attention and the public’s clamour for perfection, celebrity and scandal. There seems to me to be very little incentive for anyone to enter politics nowadays. Real power can be had and fortunes made more surely and more anonymously in business, the media, the law etc. It can only get worse following the MPs’ expenses “scandal”. Oh dear….

    Happy New Year

  2. Not only the 24/7 media attention but also the cult of The Leader which appeals to simples everywhere mitigates against ministers appearing to be equal in stature to the PM.

    Curiously Chameleon has tried to present himself as collegiate and a fuhrer: his ideal would be to be the leading light in a group of fellow Old Etonians and ex Bullingdons, such as he essayed when first elected Tory Leader I suspect. Osborne seems to have quite a lot of say, his recommendations re personnel seem to over ride all good sense.

    Gordon Brown would most likely prefer a kitchen cabinet, such as Harold Wilson sometimes employed. But little choice when Iraq and subsequently the Recession reduced the power of HMG so that hanging on to the rudder is a fair part of his duties.

    Elect the Lords! http://bit.ly/8kugy5 <- Re 1910, may interest you Tobes.

    Happy and Prosperous Teens to all!

  3. I seem to recall Giles Radice was a right wing candidate in the ’60s and after election, was preferred by neither Harold Wilson nor Jim Callaghan.

    “After his retirement in 2001 Radice, a prolific writer, wrote an acclaimed triple biography of three modernisers from an earlier generation — Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, and Anthony Crosland, arguing that their failure to work more closely together had harmed the modernising cause.”

    Wilson’s cabinets did include these and other substantial figures, whatever Lord Radice thinks of their acumen.

    Britain had become less important than it was post WW2. Attlee of necessity included some who had served under Churchill and Bevan of the rest, so he had a big advantage over Wilson twenty years later.

    If one makes a comparison of Wilson with Mrs Thatcher’s time we find each PM had another subsequent PM in their cabinet – Callaghan & Major, but Healey vs Howe is a no contest, Crosland vs whassisname whom they named teacher’s preparation day after (Baker) likewise, and who would anyone put up against Jenkins? I suppose Benn and Tebbit might fight out a draw.

    The meja recall Thatcher’s decade via “The Sun wot won it” and Wilson hardly at all.

    Perceptions are much of all this, and Lord Radice may have his own prejudices at heart.

  4. René Levesque’s first Quebec Cabinet 1976, had half a dozen PhDs, and most had Masters Degrees, only Levesque had a mere law degree! Time magazine named it brainiest cabinet in the world. Contained 5 future PMs and each leader of PQ 1976-2009.

  5. Attlee I recall had a poor second, Churchill none. Blair’s degree was a second while Cherie, who obtained a first, beat Blair & was top in that year’s Bar Exams. Major got as far as “O” levels.

    Anyone who insisted on high academic honours from all his/her ministers would have almost as strange an outlook as David Chameleon (who obtained a First, as Gordon Brown did) whose original Front Bench was half either Old Etonian or former Bullingdon Club or both.

  6. #quietzapple What was interesting was less than a quarter came from french-speaking elite (most of whom supported Federal Liberals) the rest were either first or second generation graduates. One third from working class homes. Quebec is very egalitarian.

    Didn’t say led to better governance, heavy on policy debate, but quality of legislation was high, public consultation very high and had broad support throughout society.

    My other point was the high number of big beasts of 76-80 who went on to be Premier.

    Today seen as out of touch upper middle class party with strong anti-immigrant bias. It is squeezed between federalists and emergent radical ‘left’ and populist right party.

  7. Another message might be that Prime Ministers who pick pigmies and cut would-be giants down to size achieve little of lasting significance. Those who pick giants and support them in implementing that on which they can collectively agree, can acheive a great deal. Put more simply: “Fuhrers Fail.” – and do enormous damage on the way.

  8. @paulstpancras Surely Quebec is a little like your eponymous railway station – quite exceptional, but not an entirely typical example of the genre? “What were they trying to do?” is often an illuminating question.

    @Philip Virgo It has been rare I think that “giants” – even those who seem to imagine they are such – are excluded except when they intend to be b impossible:

    Lord Randolph Churchill, Joseph Chamberlain, Winston Churchill.

    The only giant I recall excluded unwisely was Asquith, and he acquiesced in that after lloyd-George was suborned by the Tories in WW1. After Heath lost to Thatcher he was quite cleat that it was Thatcher who should have been excluded, and he was right.

    One occasionally reads suggestions that Frank Field is such a giant, but this is entirely tendentious. He and Tom Harris may find places in HMG again, but many of those who seek to promote them are tory trolls without much imagination I fear.

    When Mrs Thatcher excluded the wets no Giants were felled, nor when Macmillan wielded his long knife. Only in Southampton was Thorneycroft a giant, and he and his treasury team excluded themselves.

    Enoch Powell was sacked by Heath and never served HMG again, but, personally, while I find him an interesting character, his measure is that he and Lord Hailsham (Quintin Hogg) were rivals in specious games, and neither had the temperament to become Leader as they desired.

    The lost giants are Macleod & Crosland – felled by premature mortality in my view.

  9. Interesting definition of Giants.

    Howe v. Healey is indeed no contest. Healey made made much the bigger splash but Howe is likely to be viewed as much the more successful Chancellor – for the changes he made before he was cut-down and driven out by his leader.

    Going back to the theme of the review: perhaps the big difference is that Bevin and Morrison were political leaders before they became MPs while Major Attlee (Haileybury and Oxford) survived Gallipoli and was the last-but-one man off Suvla Beach (the General was the last) before he returned to local politics.

    A recent study by the Industry and Parliament of candidates selected for the seats likely to change hands appears to show that next election will see the largest intake since 1946 of those who have had careers outside politics.

    Or will the selection for “safe” seats of those without a previous career outside “professional” politics reduce the likely intake of potential giants, able to survive the media pressures of today.

  10. #quietzapple “what were they trying to do?”

    Create a modern social democratic state where education and health was provided by the state and not the Church or private sector. Create a social, economic and political space in which French Canadians could aspire to run banking, industry, health, social services, civil service, education and universities in their own province if not country.

    For the most part they succeeded. Indeed, so well that they subverted the need for ‘Independence’.

    In 1980, the PQ had some 440,000 members out of 4 million voters. Levesque ran a Swedish style Social Democratic government, his successor an essentially New Labour style government.

    My sense of British politics is that we have become obsessed with a ‘presidential’ system to the detriment of the parliamentary system. Presidents are not collegial by nature nor do they suffer ‘strong ministers’ gladly. Giants and Big Beasts have joined the do-do. So I agree with the premise, we won’t see an Attlee or Wilson style cabinet again.

    Our 24/7 media focuses attention on the PM as source of all power. Perhaps we do need to move to a directly elected PM or Chancellor as in Germany and an old English position? Then we can seperate executive from legislative and enhance the powers of Parliament.

  11. @Paulstpancras Quite so, Labour is not trying to do that because we are not starting from the same point, nor is secularisation one of the goals to be scored, which I personally regret. There is far less agreement than there was in Quebec, or in 1945 UK.

    We should be moving towards a new constitutional settlement however – Bill of Rights, Elect the Lords, then referendum on Monarchy and changes, including those already enacted. Should be room for a programme centring on such.

    In the oft disputed matters with which Jack Straw deals I believe he will be regarded as a giant btw. One would find as many complaining and objecting to Lloyd-George’s measures under Asquith as to Straw’s supposedly anti Liberty ones.

    It is often forgotten that Attlee, Bevin, Morrison & co decided to build Britain’s bomb – ogres rather than giants in my view.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *