Worst Ministers since the War

by Harry on March 17, 2004

Oliver Kamm has a fun post (and ensuing discussion) giving his nominations for the worst UK ministers since the WWII. Some of his nominations are obvious — Michael Foot for worst leader of the opposition (not, of course, a ministerial post, but you get the idea), Anthony Eden as worst prime Minister (though Churchill is overrated, and why have Major rather than Callaghan as runner up?). Others seem to get the nod simply because bad things happened on their watch, which it is not really reasonable to blame them for — like Nick Brown for Agriculture, and Byers for Transport. They handled their crises badly, to be sure, but is it fair to condemn them rather than the numerous lightweights who never had a crisis to handle? Other still mystify me perhaps because of my ignorance — why is Douglas Hurd the worst FS? One of the commentators rightly takes Kamm to task for leaving George Brown off the list — maybe he just deserves a special award of his own. Finally there are nominees who are simply political: Shirley Williams, I presume, is blamed for comprehensivisation despite the fact that it was set in process by her predecessors Tony Crosland and Margaret Thatcher (yes, that’s right, that Margaret Thatcher). I believe (though somebody could correct me) that more LEAs went comprensive under the preceeding Heath government than during Williams’s time at the DES, and the evidence against comprehensive schooling is mostly hype. Why not John Patten, a truly awful education secretary, and surely at least more deserving of runner up than Kenneth Baker? (not that I have any agenda against him…).



john b 03.17.04 at 8:29 pm

I believe Douglas Hurd is mostly disliked for his decision in ex-Yugoslavia to neither intervene nor allow the Muslims and Croats to arm themselves.


William 03.17.04 at 8:38 pm

I was confused by Douglas Hurd’s nomination, too — was it because he was Foreign Secretary at the time of Maastricht, which comes in for a lot more flak from the right than the earlier Single European Act although its incremental effect was much less?

Also confused by the nomination of Mo Mowlam as worst Northern Ireland Secretary. I would have thought Humphrey Atkins deserved that for the conduct of the hunger strikes. Mo Mowlam clearly has her own issues, but she has to get at least some of the credit for the Good Friday Agreement.

I haven’t read Oliver Kamm’s blog much. On the basis of this thread, I suspect that most of Oliver Kamm’s readers are pretty much against everything to do with Europe and everything to do with the Good Friday Agreement, and that explains a lot. (I doubt sympathy for the Croats has much to do with it, but I’d be pleasantly surprised if it did).


push 03.17.04 at 9:49 pm

edwina currie?


Jonathan Derbyshire 03.17.04 at 9:58 pm

John is right. Hurd more than merits his place for his appeasing of Milosevic in the early 1990s. For a sense of just how craven British foreign policy towards ex-Yugoslavia was under Hurd, see Brendan Simms’ splendid book, ‘Unfinest Hour’.


Matthew 03.18.04 at 9:41 am

Jim Callaghan was an excellent PM!

The worst post-war government was Mrs Thatcher’s last term, 1987 to 1990. That involved the poll tax, 10% inflation, 15% interest rates, ERM entry at the wrong rate or the wrong time, bodged privatisations, the Iraq arms scandal etc.

John Patten was an awful education secretary too.


Matthew 03.18.04 at 10:47 am

On comprehensives it is the case that Mrs Thatcher created more than any other education secretary.

The reasons for this are similar to the reasons why some Conservative local authorities were the first to go comprehensive. The grammar school system basically hit on the Conservative supporting middle and working classes. The rich basically paid their way out of the system, and the very poor had low expectations of the system (rightly) anyway. It was the Conservative middle classe familes for whom it was a great burden, often with children beeing split into different schools and greatly different life chances. Comprehensive schools (often with ‘streaming’) were greatly supported by the Conservative party for decades for this reason.

For more see and excellent article in the LRB by Ross McKibben



harry 03.18.04 at 12:11 pm

Thanks for the link, Matthew — its great.
Were you being flippant about Callaghan? I’m completely ready to reconsider my off-the-top-of-my-head view…


Matthew 03.18.04 at 1:55 pm

Well I don’t think as a PM he was that bad. He was played a very bad hand, the economy was much better than it had been under Heath/Wilson, he was strong on defence (especially the Navy), tough on terrorism (particularly the IRA).

Though to be fair he himself said he might get the tag, ‘worst PM’.



Tom Runnacles 03.18.04 at 9:57 pm

Well, on reading the title of the post, my response was instantly John Patten – he really was truly dreadful.

Mind you, if we want to complicate matters we could also go for a ‘Shadow minister facing an open goal who still managed to screw things up’ category: Ann Taylor shadowed Patten, and was, it seemed to me, sufficiently thick to let him get away with murder for way, way, too long.

(JP was my MP in the early ‘nineties. Ugh.)


harry 03.19.04 at 1:34 pm

Here’s a conjecture: the truly awful ministers are nonentities who are promoted way above their competence (e.g. JP) rather than party grandees who get cabinet posts because thats the way politics works, when they really shouldn’t (George Brown, and, dare I say, probably Shirley Williams). But the nonentities don’t last long enough to do too much damage usually, and therefore get forgotten quickly, so don’t show up in the polls for worst minister. I mean, even I can’t remember many of details of Patten’s awfulness, though I remember knowing it all in detail even before the libel case etc.

I agree that Callaghan was played a bad hand, and its possible that I am letting my view of him as a party leader influence my judgment about him as a PM.

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