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A political commentator is like being a dramatic critic


Clement Attlee: the greatest Prime Minister of 20th century
Anthony Howard Writer
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To be a successful politician, it’s very difficult to say what you need. I mean, I think there’s no point in being a politician if you are not able to perform. I.e., if you’re hopeless as a speaker, forget about being a politician. If you are no good as a debater, forget about it. If you have complete kind of nondescript qualities, forget about it. I’ve said all that, and what do I now have to say?

Who was the greatest Prime Minister of the 20th century? Clement Attlee. Attlee had no kind of, sort of, you know, messianic qualities about him at all. He was a very poor speaker, he sounded as if he was sort of like a country bank manager, he couldn’t… he had no sense of command. I remember him coming to the Oxford Union once, and he made a long speech and the last words of it were, 'All men are brothers'. And he sat down. And it was hopeless, hopeless. His wife had the sense to go to the cinema while he was speaking, and only joined up with him afterwards. He was a very, very poor speaker. Yet, there he was. And in the politicians’ trade union, he is very highly regarded. People like Harold Macmillan thought he was a wonderful Prime Minister. And I think he was very good at being Prime Minister.

When the day he was elected… I may have told this story already, but Dalton wrote in his diary that night, 'And a little mouse shall lead them'. And the little mouse did lead them, and a very effective mouse he became.

So having said that, I mean I think I’m broadly right, but you have to make exceptions. Now how much is politics a performing art? I think probably I incline to overrate the performing side of it, but it seems to me to be a successful politician, you’ve got to be a bit of an actor. You’ve got to be able to lay on a performance. Now other people would say, no, no, what matters is intellectual firepower, and I think that does matter. You’ve got to be able to understand what’s going on, particularly in this day and age. You know, if you’re Minister of Defence or if you’re Chancellor of the Exchequer, you’ve got to understand what all these things are about, and they’re quite complicated. So intellectual firepower does come into it. But I think more important, myself, because there have been a lot of politicians with very little brain, but quite successful public careers behind them, and a lot of politicians with very big brains who’ve gone nowhere. Keith Joseph, poor old Keith Joseph, you know, great intellectual, but no good as a politician, in my view. Dick Crossman, to some extent, a very formidable intellect, but a failed politician, really.

So I don’t think intellect is as important, myself, as showmanship, as I might call it rudely. I think that’s all important, and of course if you want to go into public life, you must be a bit of an extrovert. It really won’t do if you’re shy and diffident and, you know, backing away from the limelight. None of that stuff will work if you want to go and be a public figure. So I’m amazed at the number of politicians there are who seem to me ill-equipped by nature for the trade they’ve chosen. And sometimes, they don’t do all that badly. But, you know, the really successful politicians, it seems to me, whether you choose Lloyd George or whether you choose Michael Heseltine or whether you choose Joseph Chamberlain, they’ve all been a bit of a showman, really, and that is an adequate, or an integral, part of the equipment of the successful politician.

You can, of course, be a quiet showman. You don’t have to be noisy. Stanley Baldwin was a great politician. Stanley Baldwin wasn’t a great, sort of, matinee idol or anything like that. He didn’t have any tremendous kind of showbiz qualities, except he was a very good broadcaster. But he understood the character of the British people, knew how they liked to be talked to, you know, and I think, in his own way, was a quiet showman. John Major, well, very quiet showman, but nonetheless, clearly a… well, you know, he got to be Prime Minister. I mean, you know, a successful politician in those terms. Other people with much more flashy kind of, you know, qualities, whether you look at somebody like Bob Boothby, never got anywhere. Defects of character there, I’m afraid, but, you know, one might have thought he would have been up there with the greats. One might have thought, I suppose, someone like Gerald Nabarro, long since forgotten, a man with handlebar moustaches, loud voice, show-off, all that kind of thing. Didn’t do him any good, never got any office anywhere. So it’s not enough. It’s not a sort of sine qua non. You can do without it, probably, but on the other hand, if you are not in some ways outgoing, I don’t see any purpose in going into that business.

You can become a librarian, you can become a schoolteacher, you can become a… I don’t know, a scholar. But don’t go into politics if you don’t actually enjoy being with other people and, as it were, showing other people that you know what they want. And that’s what, I suppose, what a politician has to do, is to have to register with the public that he understands what their aspirations are. And if you’re a shrinking violet, that doesn’t often happen.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Prime Minister, Clement Richard Attlee, Maurice Harold Macmillan, Edward Hugh John Neale Dalton, Richard Howard Stafford Crossman, Dick Crossman, Keith Sinjohn Joseph, David Lloyd George, Joseph Chamberlain, Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine, Stanley Baldwin, John Major, Robert John Graham Boothby, Bob Boothby, Gerald David Nunes Nabarro

Duration: 5 minutes, 23 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 21 May 2018