The top job: delving into Prime Ministerial history
There was an enforced change of topic for the Society’s first meeting after our summer break, as our speaker on Roman Life had to cancel due to a family bereavement. Instead, at short notice, Society members Janet Seaton and Barry Winetrobe presented their updated talk on Prime Ministers, which couldn’t have been more topical.
Drawing on years of experience as House of Commons research staff, Janet and Barry gave us an overview of the 55 Prime Ministers we have had (at the time of writing!), starting with Sir Robert Walpole in 1721, to Boris Johnson’s first 40 days in office, including the introduction of Dilyn the dog joining Larry the cat in No.10 Downing Street..
Their analysis covered both political events and personal insights into the people who have risen to the top of British politics’ greasy pole. They brought out little known facts, quirky anecdotes, quotes and images relating to both well-known and lesser-known figures.
Some myths were dispelled, such as the mistaken belief that modern Prime Ministers routinely come to power by winning a general election, as events in 2016 and July 2019 demonstrate. They recounted their witnessing of momentous parliamentary events such as Sir Geoffrey Howe’s resignation speech in 1990, which led to the fall of Margaret Thatcher.
Family backgrounds, both humble and grand, were explored, as well as pets and hobbies – Sir Alec Douglas-Home enjoying flower arranging, and Boris Johnson making model buses, for example. Places of birth and death were discussed – many having been visited by the speakers. Interesting details were revealed about Boris Johnson’s birth in a New York hospital.
They ended with examples of the much more organised commemoration of prime ministers in other countries such as Canada and Australia, and the impressive Presidential Library tradition in the USA. They suggested that by comparison, UK Prime Ministers were often consigned to history without the recognition that they were owed through having held – successfully or otherwise – ‘The Top Job’.