The Greatest…?

26 09 2008

An image on the BBC Homepage caught my eye as I was performing my usual review of frequented websites this morning. The caption beneath the image read “Who’s our Greatest Post-War PM?”.

Certain names immediately present themselves. Thatcher, Blair, Churchill (although his post-war legacy is somewhat sketchy), Attlee. All have a certain iconic status to them. All contributed to shaping Britain, however much you may disagree with what they did and how they did it.

The article asks you to list in order of preference, who you consider to be “the greatest”. It’s a simple task really, which PM do you like the most?

The trouble is, it is not a simple task for a plethora of reasons. I will list but three:

1. Few people who will vote will remember all the candidates (there are comments to be made here about the average age of internet users, and the age of people who will be able to remember all the candidates). Therefore the judgements they make will be based upon books/ recordings/ papers etc, ie, all second hand material (I will return to this point later).

2. It very much reflects the political views of those who vote, that is, if more Conservative voters take part in the poll, there will be inevitable skew (almost certainly in favour of the Iron Lady).

3. A good leader and success rarely go hand in hand (Churchill was, I believe, a good leader, but his overall record, as mentioned above, was sketchy). Leaders will get judged more on their failings than their successes (perhaps this is the right way to do it?), and for example Blair’s reputation will be forever tarnished with the gloomy spectre of the Iraq war, despite some notable success (Ireland for example).

So, it is with difficulty that one can choose who is “the greatest”, which, in itself is something of a misnomer as it encourages people to compare like with like (obviously impossible as the Britain of Macmillan, for example, is hugely different to that of Brown.)

Returning therefore to my first point of contention, the use of second hand material to judge people. The whole issue of source material is one which, as a history scholar, I have become very aware of during my academic life.  Warnings from teachers to not take the source at face value seem a long time ago, but still are (and forever will be) hugely relevant. When reading a newspaper, or watching the television, I seem to be thinking more about the angles things are portrayed at now than ever previously. I think you have to be very careful about so nonchalantly critique-ing people based on the value of a brief synopsis of their career written by a hard line left-winger, for example.

I therefore have refrained from voting in such a poll simply because it is a simple piece of time-wasting which companies such as the BBC can leap upon and claim that “Thatcher is the Greatest Post-War PM” (replacing ‘Thatcher’ with any such suitable candidate – for the record, I do think Thatcher will win such a poll, with Chuchill and Blair completing the top three). Obviously the poll is entirely inconclusive, and reflective of little more than the people who vote (shock horror, for example, that a poll in which 59% were Conservative voters, Thatcher won).

If, unlike me you do wish to vote in this poll, the link is here. Perhaps you are confident of making an informed, unbiased decision on who was the greatest post-war PM. I can’t, and I’m reasonably certain most people couldn’t either.

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