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

British politics is often completely off-the-wall bananas. Even as a political junkie who has spent the last five years hooked on every minute of Brexit drama, stayed up for late night House of Commons debates and spent time trying to understand those arcane Erskine May rules – politics is confusing, and hard to keep on top of.

Part of the reason why this is the case – and why some may argue British democracy is so inaccessible – is that the British system isn’t really clearly defined. We don’t have a written out constitution, like the United States does. We don’t have clear definitions for the role of Government, or Parliament, or ministers or even the Queen.

We have traditions, and institutions sure, but as the last few years have shown, these can be easily ignored when politically convenient. Even our Prime Minister 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 abou what makes a great Prime Minister – and what makes a poor one.

The history is fascinating throughout. From debates over the Corn Laws, widening the franchise, the role of Britain’s Empire, debates over slavery, the creation of the National Health Service, privatisation, World Wars, Britain’s role in the EU – this is a great book for those interested in the men and women who led Britain to where it is today.

We see just how much Britain has changed over the last 300 years. In the 18th century debates where around how to manage Britain’s growing empire and dealing with the war of the day – much of the PM’s time was spent managing their relationship with the monarch, while the last third of the book deals with the end of Britain’s empire, as successive governments come terms with our new role in the world.

But what is all the more interesting is that despite how much as changed, there’s so much in politics that has stayed the same. Communication and persuasion have been a crucial skill for Prime Ministers since the 18th century. 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 is for Theresa May.

Like the Prime Ministers themselves, some essays here are stronger than others. There will be times where you feel the essayists biases coming through – much more jarring as we move to the modern era. But the approach Dale has taken – using a new writer to cover each PM – was a great choice. The format stays fresh, and despite often reading about similar debates, there is a fresh perspective every couple of pages.

If you’re interested in politics, British history or both, you’ll enjoy this book. Highly recommended!

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