10 Greatest Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom
It is not uncommon for the holder of the British Prime Minister job to be included in the list of powerful and influential people on earth. The office, which did not come to being as a result of any passage of legal statutes or constitutional law, dates back about 300 years. And as the years have rolled by, British prime ministers have become more and more accountable to not just the British monarch who appoints them but to the entire electorate in the United Kingdom.
In the course of British history, some very astounding and brave men and women have occupied the hot seat at No. 10 Downing Street. These British leaders stood for values that propelled the country to great heights.
Judging them on the basis of the amount of change (as well managing the change itself) they were able to effect in the country, Worldhistoryedu.com presents (in a descending order) to you the UK’s 10 greatest prime ministers of all time.
DAVID LLOYD GEORGE
Born: January 17, 1863; Lancashire, England
Died: March 26, 1945; Caernarvonshire
Term in office: 1916-1922
Political party: Liberal
Member of Parliament for: Caernarvon Boroughs (1890 – 1945)
Prior to becoming prime minister, David Lloyd George was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Herbert Henry Asquith’s government. Many British historians consider him one of the greatest to serve in that position. As Chancellor, he etched his name in British history by being the first Chancellor to roll out state pensions. Many of the policies he instituted were directed towards fighting poverty.
At the start of World War I, he served as the Minister of Munitions and Secretary of State for War. He had a very productive relationship with trade unions, which in turn allowed the nation to increase manufacturing output throughout the war.
In December 1916, he went on to become the first and only Welshman to hold the Prime Minister’s job. He was tasked to lead the wartime coalition government, which was largely made up of Conservatives.
As prime minister, many of the reforms that Lloyd George launched were miles apart from the ones instituted by his predecessors. As a result, he was described as a radical politician. For example, he helped pass the Education Act of 1918 which pegged the mandatory school leaving age at 14. He also banned the use of child labor (children below the mandatory school leaving age) in labor-intensive industries such as mining, building, transportation and railways.
Born: November 30, 1874
Died: January 24, 1965
Tenure: 1940 – 1945, 1951- 1955
Political party: Liberal (1904-1924), Conservative (greater part of his life)
Member of Parliament: represented five constituencies between 1900 and 1964
Sir Winston Churchill was a two-time prime minister of the United Kingdom who served for a total of nine years. His first stint on the job came during World War II, where he led his nation and the Allied forces to victory over Nazi Germany. It is for this reason many political science scholars and historians believe that Churchill was not just the greatest British Prime Minister of all time but in fact the greatest Briton of the 20th century.
He picked up vast experience serving as the Lord of the Admiralty in both WWI and WWII. He had war stints during the Anglo-Sudan War (1881 – 1899) and the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902) (also known as the South African War). In 1908, he was a government minister and later a trade official in Prime Minister H.H. Asquith’s government.
His time as the First Lord of the Admiralty during WWI did not bring him much success as he infamously lost to the Ottomans at Gallipoli in 1915.
All in all, Churchill is most remembered for his brave leadership during WWII. He is truly the greatest wartime leader the UK has ever seen. His captivating speeches were absolutely inspiring to the troops and nation as whole.
However, like many greats of the past, Churchill’s legacy is not without its fair share of blemish.
Born: January 3, 1883; London, UK
Died: October 8, 1967; London, UK
Political party: Labour
Term in office: 1945- 1951
Member of Parliament: Limehouse
Predecessor: Sir Winston Churchill
Successor: Sir Winston Churchill
Only a few British leaders come close to matching the Honourable Clement Attlee’s legacy. As the leader of the British Labour Party from 1935 to 1955, Attlee established tremendous social programs across the country of which Brits today continue to reap the benefits.
An astute politician in every sense of the phrase, Attlee’s legacy was characterized by many welfare reforms. The most famous of those reforms came in the form of the creation of the NHS (National Health Service). It was Attlee who laid the right foundations for the NHS to become one of the best in the world. Utterly brilliant considering the heroic efforts of the NHS during the Corona Virus pandemic of 2020.
Clement Attlee became Prime Minister of the UK at a time when the country was licking its wounds from WWII. He certainly had big shoes to fill, i.e. in the person of Sir Winston Churchill. However, the position at No. 10 Downing Street did not overwhelm Attlee. He kept his cool and steered his country into brighter days. His time on the job saw the nationalization of many public utility firms.
Prime Minister Attlee also sped up the independence process of India, a process which ultimately resulted in the partition of India and Pakistan. To explain just how much he is loved and revered by his countrymen, Clement Attlee was voted in a 2004 survey as the best British Prime Minister of the 20th century.
HERBERT H. ASQUITH
Born: September 12, 1852
Died: February 15, 1928
Political party: Liberal Party
Predecessor: Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
Successor: David Lloyd George
Herbert Henry Asquith was generally known as the last Liberal Party Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He was instrumental in the passage of reform acts of the early 20th century. He even called for reforms within his own Liberal Party. His crowning achievement came during his time as prime minister, which saw him successfully curtail the power of the House of Lords.
After the breakout of the First World War, Asquith proved himself as a sound organizer, introducing policies in conscription, finance and overall war strategy for the war.
However, as the war raged on, he quickly made a mess of Britain’s war efforts in WWI. The country experienced shortages in many sectors of the war economy. Throw in Britain’s disastrous showing at the Gallipoli Campaign (at the hands of the Ottomans and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) and one cannot imagine the barrage of criticisms that came Asquith’s way. In 1916, he resigned after he could not hold on to his job.
Regardless, Henry Asquith still holds quite a favorable spot in the collective hearts and minds of the British public.
LORD ROBERT SALISBURY (ROBERT GASCOYNE-CECIL)
Born: February 3, 1830
Died: August 22, 1903
Political party: Conservative
Tenure: 1895 – 1902
Predecessor: The Earl of Rosebery
Successor: Arthur Balfour
Member of Parliament for: Stamford (1853 – 1868)
Born Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord Robert Salisbury served three times as UK’s prime minister, that is: 1885, 1886-1892, and 1894-1902. In total, he spent 13 years steering the affairs of the British government.
Doubling as Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Salisbury promoted Anglo-German relations. He reasoned that approach was the best way to achieve peace on the continent. Additionally, he maintained what was termed as “splendid isolation”, a foreign policy that did not push for any particular alliance with any country in Europe. As prime minister, Lord Robert Cecil invested heavily in the Royal Navy, making it arguably the most powerful in all of Europe.
During the “Scramble for Africa” (an era that saw many European powers pitted against each other for greater stake and control in Africa), Robert’s calm demeanor and effective foreign policies steered Britain away from any potential conflict. Bear in mind Britain carved the biggest portion of the African continent for itself. In 1902, he stepped down from the prime minister’s job after suffering criticism for the Boer War (1899-1902). His successor was Arthur Balfour, who was by the way his nephew.
MARGARET HILDA THATCHER
Born: October 13, 1925
Died: April 8, 2013
Tenure: 1979- 1990
Political party: Conservative
Member of Parliament for: Finchley (from 1959 – 1992)
Free-market, deregulation, privatization, anti-union, and trade liberalization. Those were just half of the policies Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher championed. And they are exactly the reasons why she is considered one of the most divisive but influential British leaders of the 20th century.
Prime Minister Thatcher, who was by the way the first female to hold the position, called for reduced controls and regulations from Westminster. She prioritized individualism over strong unions. Her strong values of patriotism is what probably led her to take a stand during the Falkland War (April 2-June 14, 1982), as Britain’s superior might helped it reclaim the islands just off the coast of Argentina. The victory at the Falklands and the positive economic figures from the early 1980s enabled Thatcher to get reelected in 1983.
She famously earned the nickname “The Iron Lady” due to her strong and unflinching approach to dealing with foreign leaders. She was also most noted for working very well with US President Ronald Reagan in the stance against the Soviet Union and communism across the world.
As a result of her complete abhorrence of unions in the UK, her popularity among the working class voters shrunk. The electorates were also not too pleased with her for her Eurosceptic approach to foreign relations. In the end, she stepped down in 1990, leaving a number of Conservatives in the country very satisfied with her performance.
Unable to match the challenge of Michael Heseltine, Thatcher resigned both her positions as prime minister and party leader in November 1990.
Throughout the 20th century, no other British politician stayed longer as UK’s Prime Minister than Margaret Thatcher. She spent close to 11 years at No. 10 Downing Street.
Born: March 11, 1916
Died: May 24, 1995
Political party: Labour Party
Tenure: 1964–1970, 1974-1976
Predecessor: Edward Heath
Successor: James Callaghan
After the death of Labour Party leader Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson became the leader of the party. With the wind in the sails of the party, Wilson led his party to win the 1964 general election. He then became prime minister.
Although the nation was in a relatively sound economic position, i.e. low unemployment and positive growth figures, Britain could not shake of its balance of payments issues. Prime Minister Harold Wilson made this his priority.
On the foreign front, he deployed British soldiers to Northern Ireland to keep the peace. In 1970, he was defeated by Edward Heath at the 1970 general election. However, his time in opposition lasted for only four years. In 1974 general election, Harold Wilson reclaimed the Prime Minister position.
Unable to adequately manage the looming economic crisis, he tended in his resignation to Queen Elizabeth II in 1976. Harold Wilson is best remembered for his moderate socialist ideologies. He brushed of pressures from some extreme left members of the party. And during the highly controversial Vietnam War (1955-1975), he showed considerably good leadership, communicating clearly to the British public about what the government was doing in Vietnam.
Born: September 7, 1836
Died: April 22, 1908
Political party: Liberal
Predecessor: Arthur Balfour
Successor: H.H. Asquith
Member of Parliament for: Stirling Burghs (from 1868 to 1908)
From 1899 to 1908, Henry Campbell-Bannerman served as the leader of the Liberal Party. His was the first person to be officially called “prime minister” in Britain. Prior to this term, the position was simply called First Lord of the Treasury.
Campbell-Bannerman, commonly known as “CB”, was a long admirer of free market principles and trade. He also voiced his support to Irish Home Rule. As a liberal, he also supported social policies that alleviated the conditions of the masses. It was because of ideas of those nature Campbell-Bannerman was able to lead his Liberal Party to a landslide victory in the 1906 general election. The Liberals strolled into the House of Commons with overall majority.
Campbell-Bannerman’s premiership was characterized by radical reforms such as the introduction of the first state-run old age pension. He also invested heavily in education, providing free school meals for British children. He basically created a welfare state, which won him the applause of many deprived communities across the nation. His critics from the Conservatives were absolutely livid by such reforms.
Largely because of the death of his wife Charlotte Bruce in 1906, his health started to deteriorate. He tendered in his resignation in April 1908. Campbell-Bannerman was succeeded by H.H. Asquith.
Born: February 10, 1894
Died: December 29, 1986
Political party: Conservative
Predecessor: Sir Anthony Eden
Successor: Sir Alec Douglas-Home
Member of Parliament for: Bromley (1945–1964), Stockton-on-Trees (1931-1945, 1924-1929)
Coming in 9th on the list of greatest UK Prime Ministers is Harold Macmillan. The London-born politician was described by many as very practical and energetic man. He was even nicknamed “Supermac” because of his wit.
Macmillan came into the job at No. 10 with very rich military and political background. For example, he fought with the Grenadier Guards in WWI and even sustained injuries in the Battle of Somme (1916). In 1924, he became a member of parliament for Stockton-on-Trees.
The reason why Harold Macmillan is regarded as one of the greatest UK Prime Ministers is because he came into office at time when the nation was in dire need of a sound foreign policy direction. After the disastrous Suez Crisis, Macmillan replaced Prime Minister Anthony Eden. Prime Minister Macmillan quickly introduced an array welfare programs.
As part of a strategy to fix Britain’s reputation post-Suez Crisis, Prime Minister Macmillan favored policies that hastened the decolonization of many countries in African and Asia. He in effect dismantled the British Empire, an empire that was quite frankly on the decline.
He also worked to position Britain as the broker of peace between the Soviet Union and the Americans. And as the Cold War intensified, he negotiated the nuclear test ban treaty with the US.
Harold’s government brought in relative economic growth and succeeded in reducing unemployment in the country.
His downfall came in the aftermath of the Profumo Affair, a political scandal that saw his Secretary of State for War, John Profumo engage in an extramarital affair with Christine Keeler. His government could not survive the damage the scandal inflicted on it. Hence, Harold Macmillan resigned in October 1963. He was succeeded by the Right Honourable Sir Alec Douglas-Home.
Born: May 6, 1953, Edinburgh, UK
Political party: Labour
Predecessor: John Major
Successor: Chancellor Gordon Brown
A quick look back at the controversial events that our country had to go through during the Tony Blair years would make the BREXIT crisis of the 2010s look like child’s play. The question is: why then has Tony Blair consistently ranked in the top tier of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers?
Regardless of the political aisle one finds him/herself in, it is undeniable that Mr. Blair had the backing of the British public prior to taking office in 1997. First and foremost, he blew his competition away in the biggest landslide election. Secondly, he stayed on the job at No. 10 for a decade!
So what made Tony Blair such an influential prime minister? Tony Blair’s entry into office coincided with a time when people were getting very fed up with the remnants of Thatcher’s economic policies. Blair rose up to the challenge by using better and targeted economic tools to fix the nation’s economy. Notable reference can be made of his critically-acclaimed minimum wage policy (i.e. the National Minimum Wage Act 1998), which alleviated the suffering of millions of Brits. He abandoned deeply entrenched socialist ideologies of the party in favor of moderate capitalist methods.
Aside from his laudable domestic policies, Blair had some pretty sound foreign policies in his arsenal. His leadership played an important role in mitigating very volatile events in Kosovo, Ireland and even Iraq. Yes, Iraq! Prior to the Iraq Invasion by American-led coalition forces, Blair worked extremely hard to bring Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, the war hawks in Washington succeeded in luring Blair into a war that he was initially hesitant to get his nation involved in.
The office of the British Prime Minister holds a distinctive place in the political landscape of the United Kingdom. It is central to the functioning of the UK’s parliamentary democracy.
Here are some major facts about this important position:
- Origins: The title “Prime Minister” originally was a term of derision or insult, implying that the named person was overly ambitious. Over time, the title became formalized.
- First Prime Minister: Sir Robert Walpole, serving from 1721 to 1742, is traditionally recognized as the first British Prime Minister, although the title was not officially used during his tenure.
- Official Residence and Office: The Prime Minister’s official residence and executive office is at 10 Downing Street, London. Commonly referred to as “Number 10”, it’s one of the most iconic political buildings in the world.
- Head of Government: The Prime Minister is the head of the UK government. However, they are not the head of state, which is a position held by the monarch.
- Party Leadership: The Prime Minister is usually the leader of the political party (or coalition) that has the most seats in the House of Commons.
- Appointed by the Monarch: Formally, it’s the monarch who appoints the Prime Minister. However, this is usually a formality, and the monarch typically chooses the leader of the party with the most seats in the House of Commons.
- Cabinet Head: The Prime Minister is the head of the Cabinet and decides the membership of this governing body, which includes various Secretaries of State and other ministers.
- Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs): Every Wednesday, when the House of Commons is in session, the Prime Minister answers questions from MPs in a session known as PMQs. This is a key fixture in the British political calendar and provides an opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition, as well as other MPs, to challenge the Prime Minister.
- Term Limits: There are no term limits for a Prime Minister in the UK. They can remain in office as long as they maintain the confidence of the House of Commons.
- Resignation: A Prime Minister can resign from office, usually when they no longer command a majority in the House of Commons or following significant electoral defeats or internal party dissent.
- Historical Role: The role and powers of the Prime Minister have evolved over time. Earlier in British history, the monarch had a much more active role in governance, but over centuries, the balance of power shifted, giving rise to the prominence of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
- Key Decisions: The Prime Minister plays a crucial role in major national decisions, including on issues of defense, foreign policy, and national emergencies.
- Wartime Leaders: The UK has seen Prime Ministers like Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George play pivotal roles during World Wars, underlining the significance of the office during critical junctures in history.
- International Representation: The Prime Minister represents the UK at various international fora, including the United Nations, G7, and other diplomatic summits.
- Historic Prime Ministers: Apart from Churchill and Walpole, other significant figures have held the office, including Margaret Thatcher (the first female Prime Minister), Clement Attlee (who oversaw the establishment of the National Health Service), and more recently figures like Tony Blair and Boris Johnson.