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One reason so few past prime ministers have had a clear agenda is that most of them — both Whigs and Tories — saw their job as preserving and conserving things, not changing them. When grievances emerged, they had to be redressed. Threats from abroad had to be countered. But the unspoken assumption was that Britain was blessed with an invaluable constitution which guaranteed our freedoms, internal peace and stability. It should be altered only reluctantly to accommodate new forces — the rise of the industrial towns, the growth of the middle class, the emergence of a respectable working class, the aspirations of women, and recurrent unrest in Ireland — which might otherwise threaten it.

Consequently, a frequent pattern among the first 30 or so prime ministers is resistance to change followed by accommodation to change — often giving prime ministers difficult challenges in party management.

It is only during the last half-century that the idea took root — at least among the political class — that “change” should be an end in itself. Ask any aspiring politician what they want to do and they will parrot words about “changing things for the better”. Even evolved institutions which work perfectly satisfactorily must be changed to conform to an abstract formula. It is now almost unheard of for anyone to say their aim is to preserve what is good against unnecessary or malign change. (The only exception being in local politics where even self-proclaimed radical politicians whip up nimbyist opposition to all planning proposals.)

In this climate, political leaders feel obliged to have an agenda for change. But politicians who have no clear convictions of their own are likely to find themselves the agents of other people’s views. As Heinrich Heine warned: “Mark this well ye men of action: you are nothing but the unwitting agents of the men of thought who, often in quiet self-effacement, mark out most exactly all your doings in advance.”

Even Churchill, normally open to new ideas, found himself the captive of the conventional wisdom when as Chancellor of the Exchequer he made return to the Gold Standard his goal. Once opposition to appeasement hardened into a doctrine, Eden — famous above all for rejecting appeasement to Hitler — felt he had to resist Nasser by force. But he then succumbed to American financial pressure because he was a prisoner of the doctrine of fixed exchange rates. As Gimson is one of the few to recognise, he could simply have let the exchange rate take the strain and burn the Americans’ fingers.

The most remarkable modern example of a leader without an agenda of his own is Blair. He won an almost unparalleled majority yet had no idea what to do with it. In his first parliament he largely implemented the pledges he inherited from John Smith: devolution plus dismantling the elements of an internal market in health and education which Major had put in place. Then he spent the next two parliaments reinstating them under new labels. Tony Blair — Grand Old Duke of York. Effectively he had become the “unwitting agent” of the dominant paradigm of that period which was Thatcherite neo-liberalism.

Gimson rightly emphasises how important the personality of each of our prime ministers is. He quotes Canning’s famous words in defence of Pitt: “Away with the cant of ‘measures not men’, the idle supposition that it is the harness and not the horses that draw the chariot along.” But even more powerful than either measures or men is the force of ideas. Leaders strong enough to question the prevailing wisdom of the age decide the direction of the chariot. Others merely drive it with varying degrees of skill along roads determined by the “men of thought”. As Daniel Jones said, “If we don’t have ideas, ideas have us.”
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