Who are the greatest Liberal Prime Ministers who never were?

by Stephen Tall on April 3, 2011

Mark Pack reviewed Francis Beckett’s new counterfactual collection, The Prime Ministers Who Never Were, on the Voice earlier this week — 14 ‘Big Beasts’ who, had the chips fallen differently, might have become premiers.

The list is mostly inevitable with a couple of intriguing outsiders: Austen Chamberlain, J R Clynes, Lord Halifax, Oswald Mosley, Herbert Morrison, Hugh Gaitskell, Rab Butler, George Brown, Norman Tebbit, Michael Foot, Denis Healey, Neil Kinnock, John Smith and David Miliband.

Voice readers will notice one evident fact: there’s not a single Liberal (or SDP) name among them. In some ways it’s not that surprising. After all, the party has been at some remove from power for the best part of a century until last May, though it’s certainly not beyond the bounds of counterfactual credulity to imagine a scenario when the Alliance might have gained power in 1983.

But it set Mark Pack and myself thinking: Who are the greatest Liberal Prime Ministers who never were? Our list of possibles is below, in chronological order…

  • Herbert Fisher (1865-1940) – the only Liberal cabinet minister in this list, Fisher was Lloyd George’s President of the Board of Education, representing Nick Clegg’s seat of Sheffield Hallam.
  • Jo Grimond (1913-93) – the Liberal leader who inspired a generation of activists to ‘march towards the sound of gunfire’, he led the party back from the brink in the 1950s to once again become a major national force in the ’60s.
  • Nancy Seear (1913-1997) – a formidable, campaigning Liberal: PM Seear would have taken great delight in setting cats among pigeons.
  • Roy Jenkins (1920-2003) – first leader of the SDP, Roy might have become a Labour PM in 1976 after Wilson’s resignation (he came third in the MPs’ ballot), and was the Alliance’s ‘PM-designate’ in 1983.
  • Shirley Williams (1930-) – one of the ‘Gang of Four’, might she have become SDP leader in 1983, rather than David Owen, if she hadn’t lost her Crosby seat? And if she had would the Alliance with the Liberals under David Steel become a rather closer affair?
  • Paddy Ashdown (1941-) – the Lib Dem leader who doubled the party’s number of MPs in 1997, and who might well (but for the Labour landslide) have joined Tony Blair’s cabinet; though it may be as well for his subsequent high reputation within the party that he did not.
  • David Penhaligon (1944-86) – highly popular Cornish Liberal MP, whose political life was cut tagically short by a car accident. Regarded by veteran political commentator Hugo Young as having “a closer grasp of national electoral politics … than any other Liberal MP”.

Do you agree or disagree? And are there obvious omissions? Let us know what you think…