Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership in British Politics: From Baldwin to Brexit [1st ed.] 9783030449100, 9783030449117

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Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership in British Politics: From Baldwin to Brexit [1st ed.]
 9783030449100, 9783030449117

Table of contents :
Front Matter ....Pages i-vi
Introduction (Christopher Byrne, Nick Randall, Kevin Theakston)....Pages 1-15
Disjunctive Leadership in Interwar Britain: Stanley Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald, and Neville Chamberlain (Christopher Byrne, Nick Randall, Kevin Theakston)....Pages 17-49
The Collapse of Keynesian Welfarism 1970–1979: Heath, Wilson, Callaghan (Christopher Byrne, Nick Randall, Kevin Theakston)....Pages 51-83
The Collapse of the Neoliberal Consensus 2008–2019: Brown, Cameron, May (Christopher Byrne, Nick Randall, Kevin Theakston)....Pages 85-111
Conclusion: Evaluating Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership (Christopher Byrne, Nick Randall, Kevin Theakston)....Pages 113-141
Back Matter ....Pages 143-145

Citation preview


Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership in British Politics From Baldwin to Brexit Christopher Byrne Nick Randall Kevin Theakston

Palgrave Studies in Political Leadership Series Editors Ludger Helms University of Innsbruck Innsbruck, Austria Gillian Peele Department of Politics and International University of Oxford Oxford, UK Bert A. Rockman Department of Political Science Purdue University West Lafayette, IN, USA

Palgrave Studies in Political Leadership seeks to gather some of the best work on political leadership broadly defined, stretching from classical areas such as executive, legislative and party leadership to understudied manifestations of political leadership beyond the state. Edited by an international board of distinguished leadership scholars from the United States, Europe and Asia, the series publishes cutting-edge research that reaches out to a global readership. The editors are gratefully supported by an advisory board comprising of: Takashi Inoguchi (University of Tokyo, Japan), R.A.W Rhodes (University of Southampton, UK) and Ferdinand Müller-­ Rommel (University of Luneburg, Germany). More information about this series at http://www.palgrave.com/gp/series/14602

Christopher Byrne • Nick Randall   Kevin Theakston

Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership in British Politics From Baldwin to Brexit

Christopher Byrne Department of Politics and International Relations Leeds Beckett University Leeds, UK

Nick Randall School of Geography, Politics and Sociology Newcastle University Newcastle, UK

Kevin Theakston School of Politics and International Studies University of Leeds Leeds, UK

Palgrave Studies in Political Leadership ISBN 978-3-030-44910-0    ISBN 978-3-030-44911-7 (eBook) https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-44911-7 © The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, expressed or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover illustration: Nathan King / Alamy Stock Photo This Palgrave Pivot imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG. The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland


1 Introduction  1 1.1 Introduction  1 1.2 Prime Ministerial Agency in Political Time  6 References 13 2 Disjunctive Leadership in Interwar Britain: Stanley Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald, and Neville Chamberlain 17 2.1 The Interwar Regime 17 2.2 Vulnerabilities of the Interwar Regime 20 2.3 Baldwin’s First Term 22 2.4 MacDonald’s First Term 24 2.5 Baldwin’s Second Term, 1924–1929  26 2.6 MacDonald’s Premierships, 1929–1935  29 2.7 Baldwin’s Final Term 35 2.8 Chamberlain’s Premiership 37 2.9 Baldwin, Macdonald, Chamberlain, and the Interwar Regime 40 2.10 Conclusion 43 References 44 3 The Collapse of Keynesian Welfarism 1970–1979: Heath, Wilson, Callaghan 51 3.1 The Keynesian Welfare State Regime 52 3.2 Regime Vulnerability 1970–1979  54 v



3.3 Edward Heath’s Technocratic Modernisation 60 3.4 Harold Wilson: ‘A Problem Shelved Is a Problem Solved’ 65 3.5 James Callaghan’s Pragmatic Stabilisation and Crisis Management 69 3.6 Conclusion 74 References 77 4 The Collapse of the Neoliberal Consensus 2008–2019: Brown, Cameron, May 85 4.1 Introduction 86 4.2 The Neoliberal Regime 86 4.3 Vulnerabilities in the Neoliberal Regime 89 4.4 Gordon Brown and the Financial Crisis: A Fourth Way? 94 4.5 Cameron: Blairism After the Crash? 98 4.6 Theresa May, Brexit, and Corbynism: An Impossible Leadership Situation?101 4.7 Conclusion106 References108 5 Conclusion: Evaluating Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership113 5.1 Introduction113 5.2 Refining Skowronek’s Account of Political Time115 5.3 The Agency of Disjunctive Prime Ministers119 5.4 Evaluating Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership134 5.5 Conclusion138 References139 Index 143



Abstract  This introductory chapter sets out the rationale and approach for this study of disjunctive prime ministerial leadership. In a brief review of existing models of prime ministerial power and performance, we observe that a persistent problem arises from the difficulties of reconciling structure and agency. Two principal research aims for the book follow. First, to demonstrate the potential of analysing prime ministerial performance by using a ‘political time’ approach informed by Stephen Skowronek’s work to examine ‘disjunctive’ prime ministers across the last century of British politics. Second, in acknowledging that this approach is often accused of a structuralist predisposition, we set out our second research ambition, to establish a framework in which prime ministerial agency can be understood within the context of political time. Keywords  Prime ministers • Structure and agency • Leadership styles • Statecraft • Political time

1.1   Introduction The prime minister, for good reason, is an object of fascination in British politics, and assessments of prime ministerial performance abound. Sometimes these take the form of detailed academic analyses (see Bennister and Heffernan 2011; Theakston 2002, 2007, 2011, 2012) or political © The Author(s) 2020 C. Byrne et al., Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership in British Politics, Palgrave Studies in Political Leadership, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-44911-7_1




obituaries following prime ministerial resignation or defenestration, but they also take place in real time across print, broadcast, and social media. Such assessments often draw upon public opinion polling which tracks not only the prime minister’s net ‘favourability’, but also perceptions of various, often bewildering, facets of their public persona. On the incumbent Boris Johnson’s YouGov (2019) pages, we find polling on what he ‘stands for’ as prime minister (number one item: ‘Wants tighter restrictions on immigration’), his trustworthiness, whether he is ‘Strong’ or ‘Weak’, ‘Decisive’ or ‘Indecisive’, ‘Competent’ or ‘Incompetent’, ‘Authentic’ or ‘Putting on an act’, ‘In touch’ or ‘Out of touch’. We even discover which Hogwarts house he would be placed in if he were part of the Harry Potter universe. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most respondents chose Slytherin. Prime ministers also face continual assessment on social media platforms such as Twitter (currently 1.2 million followers) and Facebook (740,000 likes), with each bit of content created generating thousands of comments from members of the public. However, the vast majority of non-academic assessments, from social media commentary to newspaper opinion pieces, are idiosyncratic, in that the criteria they employ are often implicit and dispossessed of a theoretical framework that would permit rigorous comparisons between prime ministers. This is less often a problem for academic studies. Rather, here the greater problem is the frequently unsatisfactory manner in which the structural contexts of prime ministerial action are incorporated into analysis (Byrne and Theakston 2019). This speaks to the central rationale of this study. It is clear that the prime minister is worthy of study by virtue of the fact that the holder of that office is ‘powerful’. They are not only important symbolic figures in the nation’s life, they ‘have an effect’ on the contexts that condition the possibilities open to other political agents (Hay 2002: 50). However, existing accounts of prime ministerial leadership rely on excessively parsimonious conceptions of the structural contexts in which prime ministers operate. There are at least four distinct models of prime ministerial power and leadership in the existing literature: the leadership style model, the power resources model, the statecraft model and the political time model (Byrne and Theakston 2019). The leadership style model is based on Greenstein’s work on the US presidency (2005, 2009) which has been applied to British prime ministers (Theakston 2007, 2011, 2012). This advances a highly agent-centred account of leadership, focusing on the personal ­qualities and skills of individual incumbents. On this model, prime ministers need to communicate effectively. They must possess organisational



capacity, including abilities to effectively use advisors and the government machine. They require political skills such as persuasion, conciliation, manipulation, and brokerage. This is complemented by a policy vision to provide coherence and direction. Fifth is their ‘cognitive style’—how they process advice and take decisions. A final factor is ‘emotional intelligence’, their ability to manage their emotions and employ them for constructive purposes. The power resources model of prime ministerial power and leadership advanced by Heffernan (2003, 2005, 2013) offers a corrective to the strongly agent-centred leadership style model. Heffernan argues that prime ministers can gain ‘predominance’ within British government only when ‘institutional power resources’ are accompanied by a range of ‘personal power resources’ (Heffernan 2003: 347). These institutional resources are found in the legal prerogatives accessed by the prime minister as the head of government, their control over Cabinet and its committees, command of the organisational resources of their Downing Street office and the Cabinet Office, and ability to set a political agenda via the news media. These resources are coupled with personal power resources of reputation, skill and ability, prime ministerial association with actual or expected political success, and the public popularity and intra-party standing of the incumbent. The shortcoming of these two approaches is their failure to explore in sufficient detail the structural preconditions of political leadership. The leadership style model says little about the broader context in which political leadership takes place. For example, it is not clear which personal qualities need to be ‘activated’ by structural contexts of various kinds in order for political leaders to effectively wield power. Heffernan (2003: 349) does acknowledge structures (institutions and networks) and context (economic and social environments) but provides little detail on how these develop temporally and how they interact with the other aspects of the power resources model (see Byrne and Theakston 2019). A third approach is the statecraft model, originally developed by Jim Bulpitt (1986) and subsequently applied and refined by Jim Buller and Toby James (2012, 2015). The statecraft model situates prime ministers in a context in which electoral imperatives and constraints loom large. Developing a winning electoral strategy by constructing an image and policy prospectus to mobilise a majority coalition of voters is the first component of successful statecraft. Second, prime ministers must demonstrate and maintain their reputation for governing competence. Third, they must secure support in their parliamentary and extra-parliamentary



parties. Fourth, they must win the battle of ideas and establish ‘political argument hegemony’ by dominating, if possible, the terms of political argument about policy agendas, problems, and solutions. Buller and James’ iteration of the statecraft model (2012, 2015) directly confronts the structure-agency issue by adopting a morphogenetic approach. This allows prime ministerial action to be understood not just in respect of personal leadership styles, or factors linked to the immediate institutional environment, but also in terms of broader structural factors such as the dynamics of the capitalist economy. They incorporate a fairly wide array of structures which interact with each other as well as with agents. However, incorporating the temporal selectivity of particular structural contexts into prime ministerial action remains challenging in this account (Byrne and Theakston 2019). A final approach is to adopt a ‘political time’ method, rooted in Stephen Skowronek’s (1993, 2008) analyses of American political development. This, as we show in this book, needs adjustments for constitutional, institutional, and political differences between the US and the UK. Not least the character of Cabinet government, the fusion of powers, the presence of more significant and relatively disciplined parties, and the role of an institutionalised Opposition need recognition in the UK (Laing and McCaffrie 2013: 84–89; Byrne et al. 2017: 205–206). However, we set as our first research aim in this book to show how prime ministerial leadership can be better understood and evaluated by using a ‘political time’ perspective. Skowronek’s framework proposes that the authority and power of political leaders is related to the stance adopted towards the political regime and the position of that regime in political time. A regime comprises a coalition of interests sharing a common legitimising ideology, pursuing a set of ideas, values, policy paradigms, and programmes within a particular institutional framework. Skowronek describes the dynamics of these regimes in terms of the rhythm of ‘political time’, in which regimes are established, maintained, decay, enter crisis, and are replaced. He argues that the power presidents have is a function not merely of the resources (both formal and informal) they inherit, but also of their authority—that is, the public perception of what it is legitimate for a president to do given the state of the existing regime. On this basis, he posits four broad types of political leadership: ‘the politics of articulation’, used to describe political leaders affiliated to a resilient political regime, who may attempt ‘orthodox innovation’ but never fundamental reform; ‘the politics of



disjunction’, used to describe political leaders affiliated to a vulnerable political regime; ‘the politics of reconstruction’, which refers to political leaders opposed to a vulnerable regime and who therefore have the most effective authority warrant of all; and, finally, ‘the politics of preemption’, which refers to political leaders intent on reconstructing a resilient political regime, but who encounter great difficulty because they lack the necessary authority warrants to fashion a coalition of interests capable of supporting such a reconstruction. In adopting such a political time perspective, the range of structural contexts considered in analyses of prime ministerial power is broadened out significantly, which, we aim to show, helps us to understand the potentialities of the office through a series of case studies of the politics of disjunction. The book therefore considers three crucial junctures in modern British politics in the form of the extended political and economic crisis of the interwar years, the crisis of Atlantic Fordism experienced throughout the West in the 1970s, and the still-unfolding crisis of neoliberalism triggered by the 2008 global financial crisis. However, as Milkis (1995: 488) argues, the title of Skowronek’s book (The Politics Presidents Make) can be considered a misnomer, because he arguably allows too little scope for presidents to actually ‘make politics’: they either accept the role history has marked out for them as reconstructor, articulator, or disjunctor, or fight against it in vain as a ‘preemptor’. Skowronek (1995: 523) counters this accusation of quasi-structuralism by insisting that political agency is at the centre of the political time model: presidents are not ‘assigned’ roles, but fashion them themselves, within particular structural contexts, and faced with the dilemmas presented by political time. This is to caution against viewing the political time model as a purely ‘cyclical’ theory: the crucial thing, Skowronek suggests, is to acknowledge that ‘similar roles tend to be recreated at will over vast stretches of history’ and that political leaders have performed these roles in ways that were not pre-determined, leading to meaningful secular time changes that, in turn, form part of the structural context encountered by subsequent political leaders. This is unobjectionable, but it should also be reaffirmed that all structural contexts, including the structural context of political time, are discursively mediated, and that political leaders will not necessarily be cognisant of or accept their place in political time, leading them to experience their structural contexts differently from one another. Additionally, structural contexts are agentially, strategically, temporally, and spatially selective, meaning that the objective quality Skowronek



attributes to the structural contexts forming part of his political time model is illusory and, in combination, these two factors rob it of much of the predictive capacity claimed for it by Skowronek and some of his adherents. The major advantage of the political time model is that it acknowledges the temporal selectivity of structural contexts because it shows that the effectiveness of the institutional power resources identified by Heffernan (2003, 2005) varies depending upon a prime minister’s position in political time—that is, whether he or she is affiliated or opposed to a resilient or vulnerable regime. The second main research aim of this book is therefore to explore in more depth how prime ministers employ agency to negotiate the structural contexts in which they govern. We therefore seek to provide an overview of the strategic repertoire of prime ministers, and disjunctive prime ministers in particular, by looking at six crucial sets of decisions all political leaders need to make.

1.2   Prime Ministerial Agency in Political Time In an extensive literature on the British premiership, prime ministerial agency has attracted little direct and systematic attention. The fierce debates on prime ministerial, cabinet, and presidential government have comprehensively specified the powers of the office. However, as Norton (1987: 327) noted some time ago, ‘Knowing what those powers are does not, however, help us understand the exercise of those powers nor why their exercise achieves, or fails to achieve, the outcome desired by the occupant of the office.’ To appreciate how prime ministers exercise agency some understanding can be gleaned by piecing together insights from a variety of literatures on British politics. Yet where Hennessy (2011), for example, could identify 47 functions of the modern UK prime minister, there has, as yet, been no comparable attempt to draw together insights concerning prime ministerial agency into a single, integrated framework. Such a framework is essential if we are to make meaningful assessments of prime ministerial leadership. It is insufficient to specify the structural constraints present at particular points in political time. We also need to understand the range and limitations of action associated with prime ministerial agency. Drawing upon several literatures, including those associated with governance and policy design, we can understand the general characteristics of prime ministerial agency in relation to six major domains of political



decisions. First, prime ministers possess agency in how they frame political problems. Second, they can choose whether to act or not. Third, assuming that they decide to act, they then possess discretion over when to act. Fourth, they may select where to act, nominating the political forum most advantageous for their purposes. Fifth, they can choose how to act from a variety of policy instruments. Finally, they decide on what terms they will justify their decisions. 1.2.1  Framing Political Problems Prime ministers at all points in political time encounter social, economic, and political problems and they exercise agency by interpreting these developments, aiming to establish a dominant narrative. In this sense prime ministers engage in ‘diagnostic framing’ (Benford and Snow 2000). They attempt to define how the nature, severity, and significance of problems are understood. In addition, they attribute causality and responsibility for these developments. However, prime ministers do not frame problems without challenge. They engage in ‘framing contests’. Their partisan opponents, the media, and other organisations within civil society engage in counter-framing in an attempt to wrest control of the social and political meaning of events. In such contests an important consideration is the ‘resonance’ of the frame. Resonance depends on how consistent the framing is with the beliefs, behaviours, and actions of those articulating the frame. The credibility of both the articulator and the claims advanced further conditions whether frames resonate. 1.2.2  Whether to Act A fundamental choice confronting prime ministers is whether or not to act. As Barber (2017) suggests, inaction is often preferable. He suggests inaction may follow from fear of the electoral consequences of action, from the philosophical or ideological commitments of politicians, or through lack of the resources necessary to deliver action. Moving beyond Barber’s account, we can identify further potential grounds for inaction. First, prime ministers may encounter issues which spring from what Clarke (2014) described as the ‘too difficult box’. When confronted with complex problems which they may find themselves ill-equipped to deal with, prime ministerial inaction may follow. Second, there are limits to the



institutional capacity of regimes. Taking action in one area may consume much of the available institutional bandwidth, meaning that inaction in other areas is inescapable. Third, inaction may follow from the framing of problems. Inaction is more viable when a problem is framed as possessing minimal significance, is ranked below other more salient priorities, or is presented as originating in causes lying beyond government jurisdiction and agency. However, counter-pressures also apply. Path dependence matters. Inaction is less credible if previous prime ministers have already engaged with the issue. Inactivity, or the perception of inaction, can also be a high-­ risk strategy. Once an issue is framed as a significant problem it becomes challenging to disavow the need for action. The scope for inaction diminishes if other actors oppose the regime. A reconstructive opposition leader will usually seek to ensure that regime vulnerabilities remain on the political agenda, rendering inaction less tenable. 1.2.3  When to Act If prime ministers conclude that inaction is impossible, they nevertheless exercise some choice over when to act. Although certain political timetables operate outside prime ministerial control—for example, some of those associated with parliamentary procedures, or the ultimate duration of the electoral cycle—many possibilities remain to deploy time as a political resource. The ability to determine when, and in what sequence to act, is a matter of strategic political calculation (Schedler and Santiso 1998). For example, by acting quickly, the advantages of pre-empting opponents and setting the terms of debate may follow. Alternatively, slowing the tempo of decision-making may be helpful. It may buy time, during which conflicts can be de-escalated or unfavourable conditions may change. A prolonged sequence of incremental decisions may circumvent the opposition generated by one-off, transformational actions. By allowing the clock to run down, delay may reduce the options available to resolve matters in a way which favours prime ministerial preferences. 1.2.4  Where to Act Multi-level governance and ‘depoliticisation’ have proven fertile areas for research over the last two decades of British politics. Their significance for the British premiership has not gone unnoticed. For example, Rose (2001)



highlighted the ‘intermestic’ character of contemporary prime ministerial decision-making. However, we can recognise the impact of these processes more systematically if we consider them as choices of where prime ministers act. ‘Venue-shopping’ is a strategy well-known to scholars of interest groups and multi-level governance. However, it has gained less purchase among students of executive politics. Yet prime ministers have similar capacity and incentives to move decision-making to forums where they anticipate a strategic advantage. A prime minister may shift venues vertically, either ‘uploading’ by taking action in supra-national or international venues, or by ‘downloading’ decisions to institutions below central government. A horizontal shift can either take the form of ‘lateral loading’ by shifting decisions to non-elected state bodies, or ‘offloading’ decisions to non-­ state actors (Banaszak et al. 2003). Prime ministers may select a venue for several reasons. Particular policy issues are often assigned to a specific venue (Paquet and Larios 2018). For example, a nation’s external commitments and security are often pursued in international institutions dedicated to these purposes. However, strategic considerations may also come into play. First, prime ministers may seek to sidestep veto players or interests with entrenched strength in particular institutions. Second, they may calculate that venue shifting will enhance the prospects for successful implementation of a decision. For example, co-ordinated international economic action may have better prospects than unilateral action. Third, they may aim to strengthen their and the regime’s authority. Venue-shifting can co-opt other actors to support the prime minister, enhancing the legitimacy of their actions. However, the risk associated with all forms of venue shifting is that the prime minister cannot find amenable collaborators in the new venue. 1.2.5  How to Act Prime ministers also possess choices of how to act in pursuit of their objectives. These actions are best understood in relation to the various policy instruments available. As Howlett (2011) suggests, we can categorise these in terms of organisational, authoritative, financial, and information-­ based instruments. Prime ministers may act by implementing organisational changes. These include structural changes to government organisation, for example the creation, reorganisation, or abolition of government departments and



agencies. Such reforms are highly visible, but potentially costly in terms of resources and organisational disruption. An alternative is procedural reform, for example enhancing the central executive’s analytic capacity. These are less visible but also less costly measures. A third option is organisational co-option of groups or individuals. This can perform a gatekeeping function by managing demands on government. In addition, since individuals or organisations consent to co-option, this enhances the government’s legitimacy. However, participation may be tacitly premised on the expectation that concrete benefits will follow. If co-optees subsequently withdraw, this is likely to prove damaging. Authoritative instruments involve the use, or threat to use, state-­ enforced sanctions to compel action or behaviour. In most cases, this ‘stick’ requires a prime minister to pass primary or secondary legislation. Besides the ‘stick’ of legislation, prime ministers can use the ‘carrot’ of financial instruments. Such instruments include changes in the allocation of resources for particular services and benefits. They may also include changes in government subsidies or changes to levels of taxation and public spending. Prime ministers can use such financial instruments to incentivise, or dis-incentivise, behaviours and activities by actors in the regime. They may also employ financial instruments to reward supporters, court the unaffiliated, and punish opponents. Finally, besides the ‘carrot’ and the ‘stick’, prime ministers may deliver ‘sermons’. Such use of information to influence actors within the regime can take several forms. Prime ministers may seek to promote particular norms and beliefs. They may make direct efforts at exhortation, moral suasion, or reasoned argument to persuade particular groups within the regime. Alternatively, they can initiate information campaigns, which, by highlighting the positive and negative consequences of particular actions, attempt to change the behaviour of actors within the regime. In addition, there is a ‘dark side’ to such instruments. Prime ministers may engage in disinformation, for example attempting to discredit regime opponents. Information may also be withheld or selectively released to prevent or minimise disclosures which are damaging to the prime minister and the regime. 1.2.6  How to Justify Decisions The final domain of agency concerns how prime ministers justify their decisions. As Majone (1989: 31) argues, ‘To decide, even to decide



correctly, is never enough in politics. Decisions must be legitimated, accepted and carried out. After the moment of choice comes the process of justification, explanation and persuasion.’ If diagnostic framing defines problems, prognostic and motivational framings are central to how prime ministers justify their response. Prognostic framings identify ‘a proposed solution to the problem, or at least a plan of attack, and the strategies for carrying out the plan’ (Benford and Snow 2000: 616). Prime ministers must convince actors elsewhere in the regime that they possess appropriate and feasible measures to resolve problems. Finally, prognostic framing allows a prime minister to set expectations regarding how fully, and how quickly, problems will be resolved. Failure to set these expectations appropriately will compromise prime ministerial credibility. In addition, motivational framing is often necessary. Motivational framings represent ‘a “call to arms” or rationale for engaging in ameliorative collective action’ (Benford and Snow 2000: 617). The success of many prime ministerial decisions is contingent on the support and action of actors elsewhere in the regime. Accordingly, it is important that these actors possess a sense of efficacy and motivation to implement and support these measures. This, naturally, represents an ideal and simplified typology. It is not exhaustive of every choice available to prime ministers. However, we anticipate that it encompasses the principal kinds of decisions and provides a comparative framework for analysis. We also recognise that prime ministers will often combine choices across several domains. However, there is merit in the separate ideal types since they provide heuristic devices for categorising, comparing, and understanding real-world prime ministerial choices. Our broad proposition is that these choices are essentially generic. The range of options available to prime ministers at one point in the cycle of political time does not differ fundamentally to those before their counterparts at other points in political time. Nor are prime ministers prisoners of the circumstances of political time. However, the perceived feasibility, political costs, and effectiveness of these options will vary according to whether the regime is vulnerable or resilient and whether the prime minister is an affiliate or opponent of that regime. We propose that disjunctive prime ministers confront particular constraints in successfully employing many of these options, much more so than prime ministers of resilient regimes or their reconstructive counterparts. This arises, first, as a consequence of their status as regime affiliates.



The regime has an established institutional framework, modes of governance, and preferred policy instruments. For example, a regime with neoliberal foundations lacks the institutional capacity to implement dirigiste policies. In addition, a regime has standard operating procedures and established methods of managing political and societal conflicts. Regime affiliates, by their nature, operate within the constraints of these conventions and are instinctively cautious of options which might compromise the regime’s integrity. Second, regime vulnerability increases the costs and diminishes the effectiveness of these options. This is particularly important because each regime is sustained by a coalition of interests and a coalition of electoral supporters. A disjunctive prime minister must maintain these coalitions. Yet the capacity to satisfy supporters and meet social demands is likely to be compromised by the vulnerabilities of the regime. Efforts to stabilise such a regime often directly challenge the interests, prerogatives, and benefits of those who have previously been beneficiaries and affiliates of the regime. The structure of the book is as follows. In Chap. 2 our attention turns to the economic, political, and international vulnerabilities afflicting the first ‘postwar settlement’ between 1923 and 1940, such as Britain’s relative economic decline, the 1926 general strike, the economic crisis of 1931, mass unemployment, and the emergence of expansionist regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan. In that chapter the disjunctive leadership of Stanley Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald, and Neville Chamberlain is considered. In Chap. 3 we move forward to the crisis-prone 1970s, exploring vulnerabilities in Keynesian welfarism in the form of persistent stagflation, industrial unrest, and electoral dealignment, and the strategies deployed as part of the disjunctive political leadership of Edward Heath, Harold Wilson, and James Callaghan. Chapter 4 focuses on the neoliberal regime that emerged out of the crisis of Keynesian welfarism, and the leadership dilemmas faced by Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Theresa May. After 2008 fundamental problems with the Anglo-liberal growth model and the reorientation of British politics around an emergent cosmopolitan—communitarian political divide generated considerable challenges for these disjunctive political leaders, illustrated by the unexpected outcome of the 2016 EU membership referendum and increased volatility at recent UK general elections. In the final chapter we review and extend the analysis of the preceding chapters. First, we show how these case studies invite a number of refinements to Skowronek’s account of political time. Second,



we review how these nine prime ministers acted in each of the six domains of agency outlined above. This not only allows us to identify a repertoire characteristic of disjunctive leadership, it permits us to make a meaningful evaluation of how effectively these prime ministers negotiated the challenge of disjunctive prime ministerial leadership.

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Hay, C. (2002). Political Analysis: A Critical Introduction (1st ed. 2002 ed.). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Red Globe Press. Heffernan, R. (2003). Prime Ministerial Predominance? Core Executive Politics in the UK. British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 5(3), 347–372. Heffernan, R. (2005). Exploring (and Explaining) the British Prime Minister. British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 7(4), 605–620. Heffernan, R. (2013). There’s No Need for the ‘-isation’: The Prime Minister Is Merely Prime Ministerial. Parliamentary Affairs, 66(3), 634–645. Hennessy, P. (2011). Written Evidence Submitted by Professor the Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, FBA, Queen Mary, University of London. House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee. Retrieved April 22, 2019, from https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/ cmpolcon/842/842vw03.htm. Howlett, M. (2011). Designing Public Policies. Principles and Instruments. Abingdon: Routledge. Laing, M., & McCaffrie, B. (2013). The Politics Prime Ministers Make: Political Time and Executive Leadership in Westminster Systems. In P.  T. Hart, P. Strangio, & J. Walter (Eds.), Understanding Prime Ministerial Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Majone, G. (1989). Evidence, Argument and Persuasion in the Policy Process. New Haven: Yale University Press. Milkis, S. (1995). What Politics Do Presidents Make? Polity, 27(2), 485–496. Norton, P. (1987). Prime Ministerial Power: A Framework for Analysis. Teaching Politics, 16(3), 325–345. Paquet, M., & Larios, L. (2018). Venue Shopping and Legitimacy: Making Sense of Harper’s Immigration Record. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 51(4), 817–836. Rose, R. (2001). The Prime Minister in a Shrinking World. Cambridge: Polity. Schedler, A., & Santiso, J. (1998). Democracy and Time: An Invitation. International Political Science Review, 19(1), 5–18. Skowronek, S. (1993). The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to George Bush. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press. Skowronek, S. (1995). [Milkis, Arnold, and Young]: Response. Polity, 27(2), 517–534. Skowronek, S. (2008). Presidential Leadership in Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas. Theakston, K. (2002). Political Skills and Context in Prime Ministerial Leadership in Britain. Politics & Policy, 30(2), 283–323. Theakston, K. (2007). What Makes for an Effective British Prime Minister? Quaderni Di Scienza Politica, 14(2), 227–249. Theakston, K. (2011). Gordon Brown as Prime Minister: Political Skills and Leadership Style. British Politics, 6(1), 78–100.



Theakston, K. (2012). David Cameron as Prime Minister. In T.  Heppell & D. Seawright (Eds.), Cameron and the Conservatives: The Transition to Coalition Government (pp. 194–209). Basingstoke: Palgrave. YouGov. (2019). Boris Johnson Popularity & Fame [Online]. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/explore/public_figure/Boris_Johnson.


Disjunctive Leadership in Interwar Britain: Stanley Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald, and Neville Chamberlain

Abstract  This chapter presents a first case study of disjunctive prime ministerial leadership, focused on the period between 1923 and 1940. It begins by specifying the characteristics of the interwar regime and then moves on to identify the general vulnerabilities this regime encountered after 1923. The premierships of Stanley Baldwin, Ramsay MacDonald, and Neville Chamberlain are then considered in sequence to examine how these prime ministers engaged with the dilemmas of disjunctive leadership. It is argued that each prime minister possessed agency but that economic, ideational, and institutional constraints rendered many potential options problematic. While Baldwin and MacDonald managed to preserve the interwar regime in an enervated state, Chamberlain was unable to manage the intersection of the regime’s domestic and external vulnerabilities. Keywords  Stanley Baldwin • Ramsay MacDonald • Neville Chamberlain • Interwar Britain • Crisis management

2.1   The Interwar Regime The end of the Lloyd George coalition in 1922 marked a moment when many conflicts and challenges that destabilised early twentieth-century Britain had abated or been defused. With Ireland’s partition in 1922 a

© The Author(s) 2020 C. Byrne et al., Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership in British Politics, Palgrave Studies in Political Leadership, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-44911-7_2




persistent threat to political and civil order diminished. Extension of the franchise in 1918 halted the suffragette challenge. Syndicalism and industrial unrest had peaked by 1921. In the moment of the coalition government’s collapse we can therefore see the interwar regime’s contours. This regime does not submit to neat specification (Nottingham 1986). It developed ad hoc. Unlike the regimes established by Attlee and Thatcher, there are no detailed blueprints, intellectual tracts, or think tank pamphlets that aid us in surveying its features. Rather, its parameters were shaped by two instincts. First, a desire, wherever possible, to restore the ideas, policies, and interests that had embodied the successful elements of the regime before 1914. Second, a recognition that reconstruction of the pre-war ideal faced pragmatic limits. Adaptation of the pre-1914 regime was accepted where necessary. The features of the regime are clearest in its political economy. Here Booth (1987: 517) identifies a ‘postwar settlement’ in place by 1921. This rested on four key policy preferences: free trade, capital mobility, fixed exchange rates, and balanced budgets (Daunton 2007). Orthodox opinion deemed these necessary to restore Britain’s pre-war position as the leading international economy. These commitments also established a sequence of policy priorities. Avoidance of inflation and reducing the national debt took priority over addressing unemployment. In industrial relations there was a desire to retreat from the more direct state intervention of the war and restore the separation of the political and industrial spheres. The system of collective laissez-faire which assigned government responsibility for ‘holding the ring’ of voluntary relationships between unions and employers was to be re-established. However, there was a pragmatic acceptance that the gains made by organised labour during the war could not now be overturned. A similar pragmatic dynamic applied to social policy. Between 1906 and 1911 the state accepted responsibility for the assistance of the unemployed, elderly, and sick. After the war it was recognised that responsibility had to continue if distress and social disorder were to be contained. The administration, funding, and benefit levels of welfare generated significant conflict after 1922. Yet, no prime minister contemplated abolition of the system.



The regime also rested upon a series of beliefs about Britain’s external affairs. These were particularly important because foreign and domestic problems were believed to be intrinsically interlinked. The objectives of British foreign policy after 1922 could be succinctly stated. As a Foreign Office memorandum of 1926 put it, ‘Our sole object is to keep what we have and live in peace’. This meant maintaining an Empire which, in 1922, had reached its zenith. None sitting on the Treasury bench during this period could contemplate or endorse the disintegration of the Empire (Thomas et al. 2015: 21). However, unlike some of those sitting behind them, governments of this era believed the Empire had to evolve if it was to be consolidated and remain an anchor of stability in a chaotic world. Cautious reform of imperial relationships, a search for reliable local collaborators, and calibrated concessions to nationalist demands were favoured techniques for managing the imperial regime. Living in peace was the related imperative. Another global conflict was expected to endanger civilisation (Davis 2012). There was a widespread conviction that a new conflict would destroy the Empire (Posen 1984: 141). Regime affiliates also feared that war would deliver reconstructive domestic change. As one Conservative cabinet minister articulated it in 1938, ‘whether we win or lose [the next war], it will be the end of everything we stand for’ (Nicolson 1966: 359). However, whereas later regimes possessed a clear consensus on external policies, the interwar regime accommodated a range of approaches and policies, many of which could, and were, combined. These included preserving peace through alliances, pursuit of a balance of power, strategies of deterrence, multilateral disarmament, and collective security through international institutions. The regime’s electoral politics were shaped by two developments. First, the electorate expanded significantly in 1918 with transition to full adult suffrage a decade later. Second, electoral cleavages were also in flux. Electoral behaviour was shifting from its pre-war religious cleavage towards socio-economic issues. For the parties this new electoral environment was an uncertain one, demanding electoral trial and error (Taylor 2005; Beers 2011). Nevertheless, after 1922, both Conservatives and Labour shared a common strategic goal. Both sought to secure their own parliamentary majorities and to govern independently of the Liberals. This meant that each party needed to retain their existing core voters while winning over former Liberal voters. Both parties needed to construct broad cross-class



electoral coalitions. As Tiratsoo (2000: 295–296) has shown, in the 1920s Labour strategists understood that robust support among the urban working class was insufficient to secure a majority. Accordingly, Labour needed to devise appeals to gain votes in rural areas and middle-class suburbs. Correspondingly, the Conservatives recognised that to prosper electorally in a mass democracy they would need to respond to the concerns of working-­class and female voters recently brought into the electorate. A key challenge for interwar governments was reconciling these electoral dynamics with the regime’s sectional and institutional supports. After the First World War, commercial and financial interests became more cohesive and a close alliance between the City, Bank of England, and Treasury developed. Industrial interests in contrast lacked this cohesive collective voice within the regime (Moran 2008: 66). Nevertheless, as the Liberals declined, so the Conservatives came to represent business interests within the regime. The trade union movement, allied with the Labour Party, was strengthened by the war. That sectional and electoral interests could coincide reinforced the resilience of some regime commitments. For example, orthodox economic policies often united the City, property owners, and the salaried middle classes. Yet, regime stability required the integration of the working classes. Hence maintenance of social expenditure became a parallel demand on the regime.

2.2   Vulnerabilities of the Interwar Regime As we consider each prime minister’s responses to the disjunctive dilemma particular regime vulnerabilities will be examined in greater depth. However, some observations about the regime’s general vulnerabilities and their trajectories are in order. This is particularly so because Baldwin, MacDonald, and Chamberlain faced interlocking economic, political, and international challenges to the regime to which they were all affiliated. After the armistice Britain was heavily indebted and faced high costs in servicing its debt. National debt had increased 12 times and annual interest payments in 1920 were around one-third of the yield from taxation (Constantine 1980: 48). The war and subsequent changes to the international order had also disrupted the international economy to Britain’s detriment. Britain struggled to regain its pre-war markets. She faced increased competition in her export markets, while revolution and impoverishment disrupted Russian and German markets. These postwar economic circumstances proved particularly challenging for Britain’s staple export



industries of textiles, coal, shipbuilding, and heavy engineering. Consequently, Britain’s economic growth remained anaemic throughout the 1920s. These conditions also generated a continuous and high level of unemployment throughout the period, distinct from any that preceded or followed. Unemployment never fell below a million until Chamberlain’s final month in office. At its peak in August 1932, 2.9 million (23 per cent) were without work (Denman and McDonald 1996: 6). As noted above, the state accepted some responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. But economic circumstances tested the delivery of these commitments, particularly where unemployment maintenance was concerned. This had been designed to cope with short-term cyclical unemployment. However, a combination of changes to the scheme and structural and long-term unemployment eroded the scheme’s financial foundations. The circumstances of the interwar period also rendered the Empire fragile (Gallagher 1982). The constraints of the interwar British political economy frequently generated a conflict of defence, economic, and political priorities between Empire and Europe (Holland 1981). During the 1930s such pressures became acute as Italian and Japanese expansion threatened Imperial security. The rise of metropolitan and international anti-imperialist sentiment presented additional problems. The growth of nationalist sentiments in the Dominions and anti-colonial movements in the rest of the Empire added to these challenges. The 1920s were, compared to the following decade, a period of relative international calm. Nevertheless, the European peace was widely viewed as an unstable and vulnerable one. Delivering stability by addressing the issues of postwar debts, reparations, and mediating between France and Germany was a consistent pre-occupation of prime ministers of the 1920s. The 1930s, as is well-known, saw the escalation of external threats to Britain and its Empire. The emergence of bellicose, expansionist regimes in Germany, Italy, and Japan presented the forbidding prospect of war on three fronts in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Far East. Britain’s political institutions were also under challenge. The government had fallen in 1922 amidst unease about the conduct and integrity of British government. Contemporary critics of the coalition accused it of debasing the standards of political morality. Profligate sale of honours encouraged a belief that corruption was endemic in British public life. Lloyd George’s displacement of Cabinet government and disregard for Parliament were believed to have created constitutional disequilibrium.



There was also widespread anxiety about the print media’s impact. Newspapers were believed to have degraded public discourse. Populist proprietors were widely attributed with a brazen and alarming degree of political influence (Bingham 2013: 651–652). Furthermore, as Britain’s institutions struggled to tackle the regime’s vulnerabilities, so their capacity and resilience came to be increasingly questioned in more fundamental terms. Various individuals and organisations questioned the efficacy of Britain’s parliamentary institutions (Wharton 1960). In some quarters these defects warranted authoritarian solutions. Others searched for new political alignments and trajectories to resolve regime difficulties. Relatedly, the regime had to accommodate profound and potentially destabilising electoral changes. The 1918 and 1928 franchise reforms increased the electorate from 7.7 to 28.9 million. Regime affiliates were profoundly concerned that these new recruits to the demos might prove unreliable and succumb to reconstructive appeals. There was also the parallel challenge of electoral de- and re-alignment. Pimlott (1986: 4) aptly described the 1920s as a period of ‘electoral anarchy’. The four elections of that decade were held at more frequent intervals than any decade before or since. Uniquely, each election also resulted in a change of government. The 1930s witnessed a countervailing pattern. The death throes of the three-party system concluded by bringing greater parliamentary stability. The National Government secured substantial majorities in 1931 and 1935. Indeed, in retrospect, the 1931 election proved to be a realigning election (Close 1982; Thorpe 1991), establishing a Conservative vs. Labour two-party electoral dynamic that would persist until the 1970s.

2.3   Baldwin’s First Term Following the collapse of the Lloyd George coalition the premiership changed hands three times in fourteen months. Andrew Bonar Law led the Conservatives to victory in the 1922 election on a commitment to ‘tranquillity and stability both at home and abroad’ (Dale 2000: 23). However, terminal illness compelled his resignation after just 211 days in office. Stanley Baldwin succeeded him on 22 May 1923. His premiership lasted just 245 days. Baldwin was a prolific and masterful public speaker. This allowed him to articulate a clear and well-developed public philosophy (Schwarz 1984; Williamson 1999; Taylor 2015). This body of public address confirms his credentials as a regime affiliate. Indeed, these convictions were present in



the earliest moments of his premiership. A week after succeeding Bonar Law, he enjoined his party to follow Disraeli’s canons of maintenance of the constitution, promoting the welfare of the people, and the development and unification of the Empire (The Times 1923a). On the whole his pragmatic views fitted comfortably within the policy commitments of the regime. He was a paternalistic capitalist and, although open to a more active state, instinctively opposed nationalisation and dismissed the potential of public works. He endorsed the majority of the political-economic orthodoxies of the day. The exception was protectionism but, as we shall see, he adapted his convictions to the political demands of the times. Baldwin saw class conflict as a threat to the economic and social order and so sought industrial peace. He therefore accepted the place of moderate trade unions as an integral feature of interwar society. However, he would not countenance them usurping the community interests or challenging the constitutional order. Bonar Law could contemplate no remedy for unemployment except the revival of world trade. Baldwin, in contrast, envisaged a bold departure from a key policy commitment of the regime. In October 1923 he proposed to the Cabinet, and later to the public, that free trade should be sacrificed. There is little evidence that a desire to out-manoeuvre Lloyd George or to reconcile the Chamberlainite coalitionists primarily motivated Baldwin (Self 1992). Rather, his rationale addressed the need to resolve the regime’s chief vulnerability, one which he feared could threaten social order (Ball 2011: 290; Williamson and Baldwin 2004: 112–118). Accordingly, Baldwin acknowledged unemployment as ‘the most crucial problem of our country’. With no European economic revival on the horizon, the problem would continue to defy the government’s emergency measures. Consequently, ‘if we go pottering along as we are we shall have grave unemployment with us to the end of time’. He concluded that ‘the only way of fighting this subject is by protecting the home market’ (The Times 1923b). Since his predecessor had excluded ‘any fundamental change to the fiscal system of this country’ (The Times 1922) in the 1922 Parliament, Baldwin presented his policy as demanding a new electoral mandate. He envisaged a spring election to ‘give the electorate time to examine the Government’s economic policy carefully before they were called to vote on it’ (CC51(23)3). But election speculation gained momentum, and, at the mercy of events, Baldwin called an election for December 1923. The Conservatives were ‘forced into a defensive and apologetic campaign’



(Cook and Stevenson 2014: 129) in which Baldwin failed to provide direction on his new policy (Cook 1975). However, beyond these tactical mistakes, Baldwin failed to recognise the strategic shortcomings of his approach. Although protectionism enjoyed significant support among Conservative MPs, it ran counter to the interests of key regime supporters. Some industries supported tariffs, for example textiles and iron and steel, but Baldwin’s policy was opposed by the majority of commercial, financial, and manufacturing interests (Garside 1998: 50). The Trades Union Congress (TUC) was hostile, as were much of the national and provincial press (Cook 1975; Hyde 1973: 195). In an electoral contest, the Liberals found it straightforward to warn voters that Baldwin’s policy would increase their cost of living. The outcome of the election was that the Conservatives, although still the largest party, lost 86 seats, sacrificing Bonar Law’s majority of 73. Two important implications followed for the regime. First, Baldwin’s failure to persuade the electorate meant that protection was now foreclosed as an option until ‘public opinion was disposed to reconsider its judgment’ (The Times 1924). Second, although the parliamentary arithmetic permitted various governments, both Baldwin and Asquith concluded that Labour should govern. Ramsay MacDonald and the Labour Party’s attitudes to the regime were to be tested.

2.4   MacDonald’s First Term That MacDonald should be identified, in Baldwin’s company, as a regime affiliate may seem counterintuitive. But many have drawn attention to his similarities to, and shared instincts with, Baldwin (see, e.g., Taylor 1960: 66; Morgan 2006: 116). Addison (1975: 14) identifies that ‘A species of consensus had existed between Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s: a consensus to prevent anything unusual from happening.’ MacDonald’s socialism shared much in common with Eduard Bernstein’s revisionism (Tanner 1991). It rejected Marxism and syndicalism. For MacDonald society was an evolving organism and socialism would emerge in a gradual, teleological fashion. MacDonald critiqued capitalism in moral terms and foresaw the need for nationalisation and an enhanced role of the state. But it was through a process of moral evolution that capitalism would ultimately be replaced. This determinism discouraged MacDonald from developing detailed policies for the interregnum. MacDonald’s approach also rested on a view of class struggle as pathological



with no role in engineering social change. Indeed, his was an encompassing view of socialism. As an ethical and evolutionary creed, all social groups could support socialism. Alliances with any group were permissible if they helped improve social conditions. However, if Labour was to appeal to these varied groups, again, a detailed programme would be a hindrance rather than an asset. The result was that MacDonald was a regime affiliate almost by default because he lacked a distinctive set of policies with which to operationalise the transition to socialism which he ostensibly sought. MacDonald’s first premiership was almost as brief as Baldwin’s. However, it proved time enough to confirm his credentials as a regime affiliate. MacDonald appointed a moderate and respectable government. John Wheatley and Fred Jowett were the sole representatives of the left among 20 Cabinet members. The 1923 manifesto had made no reference to socialism. Its few radical commitments were quickly jettisoned. Appointment of a committee to examine the national debt and taxation sidestepped a commitment to a capital levy. Public ownership of the mines, railways, and electricity industries was deemed unfeasible without a parliamentary majority. MacDonald’s government was not without constructive achievements (Shepherd and Laybourn 2006). Local authority house building was encouraged by more generous central government subsidies. Administrative improvements were made to the provision of pensions and unemployment maintenance. But MacDonald’s government struggled to address the fundamental regime vulnerability it confronted. A Cabinet committee was quickly appointed to examine the question of unemployment. However, the government’s commitment to fiscal orthodoxy limited its options. Loans and credits guaranteed to exporters were modestly increased. A series of public works programmes were approved. MacDonald’s government nevertheless remained reluctant to spend on large-scale relief works. Rather, as the Cabinet committee quickly concluded, the most hopeful solution of the Unemployment problem lies in the re-­ establishment of normal peaceful conditions throughout the world, and, in particular, in the removal of all impediments, whether political or otherwise, to the full reopening of normal trading relations with countries where such relations do not at present exist. (CC11(24)4)



To its credit, the MacDonald government made efforts to remove such impediments to trade. MacDonald’s diplomacy was significant in securing support for the Dawes Plan. By addressing the reparations problem and the occupation of the Ruhr this removed an obstacle to economic recovery. However, it was another of MacDonald’s efforts to restore normal trading conditions that provided the impetus for his departure from office. Having granted diplomatic recognition in February 1924, MacDonald sought further rapprochement with the Soviet Union. Draft Anglo-Soviet treaties were negotiated by August 1924. These established most-favoured nation status and held out the prospect of a UK government-backed £30m loan, most of which would be spent in Britain. However, when the treaties were laid before the Commons the Conservatives and Liberals united in hostility. The MacDonald minority government was now destined to fall. In the event, the Campbell case pre-empted defeat on the treaties. MacDonald’s mishandling of the prosecution of the editor of the Workers’ Weekly for publishing a seditious article led to defeat in the Commons on 8 October. Having made the issue a matter of confidence, MacDonald tendered his government’s resignation. In office for just 287 days, MacDonald’s first ministry had little prospect of addressing regime vulnerabilities. In January 1924 unemployment stood at 11.9 per cent; by October it had barely fallen to 10.8 per cent (Denman and McDonald 1996: 6). This, in many senses, was representative of the government’s broader record. MacDonald’s first premiership did not leave the regime significantly more vulnerable. Yet its defects were also no nearer to remedy either. However, MacDonald had at least defied forebodings in some quarters (Boyce 1987: 50) that his government would overturn the foundations of civilised life. MacDonald had shown that Labour could be trusted with stewardship of the regime.

2.5   Baldwin’s Second Term, 1924–1929 In the 1924 election, Baldwin’s appeal to voters to deliver ‘a solid Unionist majority’ (Dale 2000: 36) was well met. The Conservatives and their allies gained 154 seats delivering a parliamentary majority of over 200. However, Baldwin’s second premiership demonstrated that effective management of a vulnerable regime required resources beyond parliamentary support. In the winter following electoral victory, Baldwin approved the decision in principle to return to the gold standard. The decision had been long anticipated. Despite industrialists’ misgivings, there was a widespread



welcome when Churchill formally announced the decision in his first Budget (Boyce 2004). This was a decision intended to bolster the regime’s long-term prospects. It was a further step towards reconstructing the pre-­ war liberal economic order. Orthodox opinion also hoped returning to the gold standard would promote the recovery of world trade. However, the decision reduced the range of options for regime management. It ruled out employing lower interest rates or devaluation to stimulate the economy. The decision also contributed to high unemployment. Sterling was overvalued, reducing the competitiveness of British exports and exposing domestic markets to increased import competition. Since defence of the exchange rate required high interest rates, the decision also negatively impacted industrial investment and increased the burden of government debt repayments. In the short term, the decision forced another threat to the regime to the surface. Falling demand and declining exports, exacerbated by the return to the gold standard, led the mine owners to give notice in June 1925 of their intention to cut wages. Baldwin’s response, against the opposition of Cabinet hardliners, was to play for time. The government temporarily subsidised miners’ wages until a Royal Commission could report on the industry. The report, published in March 1926, satisfied neither unions nor owners since it proposed wage cuts in the short term and the reorganisation of the industry in the longer term. A general strike had been threatened on several occasions since 1919, but following the collapse of negotiations, during which Baldwin refused to countenance a second subsidy, the TUC mobilised in support of the miners. The general strike lasted just nine days. The unions bore their share of the responsibility for the outcome. They were ill-prepared. The TUC was also reluctant to forthrightly challenge the government. That they were uneasy, however, owed much to Baldwin’s success in defining the character of the conflict and his role within it. Baldwin presented the general strike as an attempt to subvert the constitutional order. He could not ‘surrender the safety and security of the British Constitution’. Yet, he also sought to maintain his self-appointed role as a conciliator, ‘a man of peace…longing and working, and praying for peace’ (TUC 1926: 3). Baldwin was also assisted by the fact that the government was well-­ prepared to cope with the disruption. The Supply and Transport Organisation created in Baldwin’s first term was developed in the second and proved effective in minimising shortages of essential supplies. Baldwin



also had the advantage of the support of key regime affiliates, particularly business and the print media, during the strike (MacDonald 1975). The implications of a trade union victory would have been difficult for the regime to accommodate (Jacques 1976). As such, the strike’s outcome not only strengthened the government’s authority but also bolstered the regime. If it cannot wholly account for the shift, it also marked the transition towards a more moderate outlook in the union movement. Trade union militancy did not significantly threaten the regime thereafter. The second Baldwin government had other achievements. It completed Britain’s transition to a mass electorate by extending the franchise to women on a basis equal to men. Baldwin frustrated attempts to restore the powers of the House of Lords. Although there may have been substantial continuity in Conservative fund-raising (Pinto-Duschinsky 1981; Hyde 1973: 289), legislation in 1925 addressed the flagrant abuse under Lloyd George. The government endorsed pragmatic interventions in the market such as the creation of the Central Electricity Board and the BBC. The Poor Law was significantly reformed in 1929 and pensions were improved and extended. An important issue was left unresolved, however. A suggestion that it should address the solvency of the Unemployment Insurance Fund in place of extending pensions was, as the Cabinet minutes record, ‘not generally approved’ (CC31(25)4). Indeed, unemployment continued to frustrate Baldwin’s government. Although the increase in unemployment following the general strike was soon addressed, the ‘intractable million’ remained. As noted above, the return to the gold standard denied Baldwin lower interest rates and devaluation to address unemployment. However, having ruled out a general tariff in the 1924 election, Baldwin had also surrendered the opportunity to employ significant protectionist measures. There remained the option of introducing safeguarding duties to protect industries from ‘unfair competition’. However, these were extended only cautiously for fear of compromising Baldwin’s election pledge (CC48(25)6). Between 1925 and 1929 just 9 out of the 49 industries that applied for safeguarding were approved. The result was that by 1929 only 8 per cent of British imports faced import duties (Boyce 2004: 229). Fiscal restraint also limited the already unenthusiastic commitment to relief works. The resources available to the Unemployment Grants Committee fell significantly between 1925 and 1928 (Perry 2000: 46). There was some policy innovation, particularly in the latter stages of the government. Economic links with the Empire were promoted. A scheme



to assist movement of the unemployed from depressed areas to those with job opportunities was introduced in 1928. Yet this had little effect. Only 45,000 were assisted in finding work by 1929 (Harris 2004: 209). Efforts were made to create jobs by reducing the rates on industry and agriculture. However, these measures lacked a discriminating impact on the areas worst affected by unemployment. Baldwin’s handling of the general strike was his outstanding achievement during his second premiership. Baldwin managed the crisis well, effectively meeting the threat which industrial militancy posed to the regime. The shortcomings of his second term were that the return to the gold standard and the failure to resolve the finances of the unemployment insurance fund would have a profoundly destabilising impact on the regime after his departure. The other significant failure was the continuing vulnerability of the regime given its incapacity to generate prosperity and reduce unemployment. Amidst a complacent election campaign Baldwin’s failure to deal with unemployment saw the Conservatives punished by the electorate. The seats gained in the 1924 landslide were lost and Labour became the largest parliamentary party for the first time.

2.6   MacDonald’s Premierships, 1929–1935 The spectres of economic recession and mass unemployment soon visited the returning prime minister. The Wall Street crash followed just four months after MacDonald formed his second minority government. International trade sharply contracted and Britain’s exports almost halved by 1931 (Stevenson and Cook 1998: 9). The inevitable result was growing unemployment. In September 1929, the unemployment rate stood at 9.9 per cent (1.2 million) and rose continuously for the next seventeen months. Two million were unemployed by July 1930 and it would be July 1935 before it fell back below this figure. Between January 1931 and May 1933 over 20 per cent of workers were without employment (Denman and McDonald 1996: 6, 10–11). The problem of unemployment haunted MacDonald. In December 1929 he noted that ‘Unemployment is baffling us…I sit in my room in Downing Street alone & in silence. The cup has been put to my lips—& it is empty’ (Marquand 1977: 537). The measures MacDonald and his colleagues had to hand failed to provide deliverance. Public works programmes were pursued, but only cautiously (Middleton 1985: 165) and with limited effect. The £101 million spent on public work schemes by



April 1931 provided work for just 226,500 when unemployment stood at 2.5 million (Skidelsky 1970: 336). More ambitious loan-based public work schemes such as those proposed by Lloyd George and Mosley were rejected as unrealistic, inflationary, and detrimental to business confidence. Rationalisation of industry was promoted, but this risked increasing unemployment in the short term and was inadequate to address the scale of the problem in the longer term. MacDonald was not wholly a prisoner to orthodoxy. In January 1930 he created an Economic Advisory Council. Its members represented ‘just about the best problem-solving team that could be mustered at the time’ (Hennessy 1988: 83). However, this organisational innovation failed to deliver viable economic solutions. Its diverse membership meant consensus was rare (Durbin 1985: 64). It also shaped its recommendations to conform to ministerial economic prejudices (Howson and Winch 1977: 154–156). MacDonald also contemplated a significant breach with regime policy commitments. During 1930 MacDonald considered departures from free trade (Marquand 1977: 554–564). The economic malaise was diminishing the political and electoral obstacles to protection that Baldwin had encountered in 1923. Indeed, the Conservatives had resolved to introduce tariffs by October 1930. However, MacDonald could not overcome the free trade convictions of his Chancellor, whose resignation would have proven catastrophic. Even had MacDonald overcome Snowden, the Liberals would have withdrawn support for the government (Tanner 2007). MacDonald therefore struggled in the first eighteen months of his second term to identify policies that were both politically acceptable and capable of addressing the deteriorating economic situation. This was the state of play when MacDonald was forced to respond to what Williamson (1992: 1) identified as ‘the greatest peacetime crisis in Britain’ of the twentieth century. In reality, MacDonald faced three interlinked crises (McKibbin 2010: 69–70). The first concerned the budget deficit. Government revenues had fallen with the Depression. A growing deficit on the Unemployment Insurance Fund also strained finances. In making the scheme more generous and comprehensive, governments since 1920 had undermined its actuarial foundations. Rising unemployment, particularly long-term structural unemployment, generated additional pressure. Accordingly, the cost to the Treasury grew from £12m to £125m between 1928 and 1931. MacDonald’s response was ‘to defer taking the kind of action which would



have had some direct effect on the finances of the insurance scheme’ (Garside 1990: 56). The fund’s borrowing limits were successively increased. As a further delaying tactic (Skidelsky 1970: 293–295) MacDonald appointed a Royal Commission which, when it reported in June 1931, recommended limiting and means-testing benefits. The second crisis arose from a European banking crisis. With British assets frozen in Austrian and German banks that collapsed in May 1931, and with limited gold reserves, the Bank of England came under pressure. It began to lose reserves at an alarming rate. Had they not been heretical to the regime, exchange controls might have addressed this problem. As it was, the MacDonald government’s actions escalated this liquidity crisis into a third crisis, one of confidence in the government. In February 1931, MacDonald had bought breathing space and Liberal support by agreeing to an independent committee to advise on reduction of expenditure. However, the Chancellor appointed ‘a committee of their political opponents’ (Cole and Postgate 1938: 579) intending their orthodox conclusions to frighten the Cabinet into endorsing public expenditure cuts (Thorpe 1991: 65). The May Committee duly delivered a pessimistic and exaggerated analysis, prophesying a (then alarming) budget deficit of £120 million. The report’s timing was as catastrophic as its conclusions. It was published the day before the start of the parliamentary recess and there was no statement of government policy to reassure the markets (Marquand 1977: 609). Furthermore, it confirmed the economic vulnerabilities of the regime to foreign bankers at exactly the moment when the government needed to enlist their support. The rest of the story has been well-recorded and therefore needs no detailed retelling here. The Bank of England continued to deplete its reserves in a failing attempt to defend sterling. For MacDonald and Snowden, the collapse of sterling was too catastrophic to contemplate. Looking into this abyss they foresaw hyperinflation, industrial collapse, even higher unemployment, and, given Britain’s reliance on food imports, even starvation (Thorpe 1991: 12, 74). They concluded that expenditure cuts to restore the confidence of the financial community were, in this context, the less destabilising option. However, MacDonald’s Cabinet and party were unwilling to impose cuts on their core constituency of a scale that would satisfy the markets, the City, and the opposition parties. With an imperative to act quickly, MacDonald then chose to resolve matters by forming a National government to implement the necessary economies.



MacDonald’s actions have habitually been seen from the perspective of their impact on the Labour Party. However, our concern is with their impact on the regime. It is clear that the regime had been unstable after 1925 and that these instabilities converged to produce a moment of crisis in 1931. MacDonald and his colleagues bore some responsibility for allowing these vulnerabilities to develop and deepen, but their predecessors were also complicit. Turning to the management of that crisis, it is clear that MacDonald had options and choices available to him. But, as a regime affiliate, he found many of these difficult to endorse. Other options were untenable because he led a divided, minority government, reliant on other parties for parliamentary survival. It is, in any case, uncertain that any of these alternatives represented more feasible solutions for the regime’s difficulties (see, e.g., McKibbin 1975). Although MacDonald may have been ‘a prisoner of circumstances beyond his control’ (Marquand 1977: 580), his mistakes, drift, and inaction between June 1929 and August 1931 allowed the regime’s vulnerabilities to deepen. MacDonald sought to defend the regime even at the cost of splitting his own party and the ruin of his reputation. So, the third key consideration is the impact of MacDonald’s decisions on the subsequent trajectory of the regime. In the short term, MacDonald’s National Government failed in its purpose of regime stabilisation. It possessed the political capital and determination to implement the economies rejected by the Labour Cabinet. Yet, Snowden’s budget of 10 September 1931 failed to restore confidence. The result was that on 21 September Britain was driven from the gold standard. The markets were now seeking reassurance that Labour would not return to office and reverse the new government’s measures (Dimsdale 2014: 122). This prospect was duly removed by the electoral avalanche of the October 1931 election. The parties supporting the National Government returned with 554 seats and 67.2 per cent of the vote. Labour were reduced to 52 seats and 30.6 per cent of the vote. Although MacDonald’s prestige was high during the election campaign, it is doubtful whether his leadership was critical in delivering this scale of victory. Furthermore, in the premiership that followed, MacDonald became a less powerful actor. He was frequently ill or attending international conferences, requiring Baldwin to deputise for him. Chamberlain drove much of the government’s domestic agenda. After 1931 MacDonald was also hostage to the ranks of Conservative MPs who sat behind him in the Commons. Nevertheless, viewed from the moment of 1931, MacDonald’s



role in forming, leading, and legitimising a National Government had significant long-term implications for the regime. Williamson (2010: 86) correctly concludes that the National Government ‘re-stabilised government, party politics, the financial system and economic policies’. That MacDonald’s final term as prime minister was associated with these outcomes owed much to the abandonment, under duress, of the gold standard. Far from triggering national ruin, it expanded the options for managing the regime’s economic vulnerabilities. The value of sterling fell, to the benefit of exporters, and a managed floating exchange rate was established. Restrictions on capital movements could be used to protect the exchange rate, allowing more flexible use of interest rates. These were lowered to 2 per cent in 1932 with the aim of promoting domestic recovery (Peden 2000: 258) and reducing the cost of servicing government debts. The turn to an ‘insular capitalism’ (Daunton 2007) was completed with the adoption of tariffs. The principal political obstacles to protection had largely been swept away by the Depression, and the Import Duties Act of 1932 introduced a general minimum duty of 10 per cent on goods entering Britain. The relative contributions of these particular changes in policy to economic outcomes have been much debated by economic historians (see, e.g., Dow 1998; Dimsdale 2014). Where there is greater agreement is that many other government measures proved considerably less successful. International economic diplomacy notably fell short. The Ottawa Conference of 1932 debunked the hopes of those who believed common purpose in the Commonwealth would resolve their mutual economic difficulties (McKenzie 2017). Likewise, the World Economic Monetary Conference in 1933 ended in failure. The Treasury continued to remain sceptical about the value of public works in reducing unemployment. The Special Areas Act of 1934 acknowledged the regional unevenness of unemployment but the resources and the projects permitted were both limited. Any assessment of MacDonald’s final years as prime minister must acknowledge that they witnessed a recovery, albeit a modest one, from the depths of the Depression. The recovery that began in 1932 was quicker and stronger than those of the US, France, or Germany. However, the underlying and continuing economic fragility of the regime also shaped responses to emerging external threats to the regime. The international situation began to deteriorate in 1931 with the Japanese seizure of Manchuria. This arose after a long period of declining



defence expenditure. In a climate of budgetary constraint defence spending had fallen by 85 per cent during the 1920s. This had provided governments with the headroom to avoid tax increases and deep cuts to social spending. In March 1932 the Committee of Imperial Defence called for the ‘ten year rule’—which assumed that Britain would not fight in a major conflict in the next decade—to be abandoned. However, in a pattern that would be repeated, the Treasury argued, today financial and economic risks are by far the most serious and urgent the country has to face and… other risks must be run until the country has had time and opportunity to recuperate and our financial situation to improve. (CP105(32)1087B)

Hoping that the Geneva disarmament conference might avoid the need for rearmament, no immediate action was taken. However, following Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations and the disarmament conference, inaction was untenable, and a Defence Requirements Committee was established. When it reported in March 1934 it recommended a rearmament programme of £71.3 million. Chamberlain, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was determined that rearmament should proceed only at a pace that would not compromise the economy, and with a view to its acceptability among the public. He refused to contemplate taking an imperial defence loan (Roth 2010: 109) and persuaded Cabinet to revise the proposals of the Chiefs of Staff and accept a reduced £50 million programme. An imbalanced programme of rearmament was the consequence. While the RAF expanded, the army were deprived of funds, limiting their capacity to commit forces to the defence of continental Europe. By this point, however, MacDonald was an exhausted and ill man, and he handed the premiership back to Baldwin on 7 June 1935. As he did so, it was clear that, economically, the regime had been stabilised during his premiership. However, its fundamental vulnerabilities remained. Although unemployment was falling, over 2 million remained jobless. Moreover, policies pursued after 1931 stored up long-term problems such as growing cartelisation and poor productivity performance (Crafts 2018). However, with significant shifts in the international environment, the regime now faced multiple and often conflicting challenges.



2.7   Baldwin’s Final Term Baldwin’s final election campaign, in November 1935, demonstrated how innenpolitik complicated prime ministerial responses to external threats to the regime. The 1935 election was well-timed by Baldwin. The economy was recovering, and the government could capitalise on the mood generated by the Jubilee and Labour’s divisions on rearmament (Kyba 1983: 162; Stannage 1980: 114–127). Baldwin had been convinced of the need for rearmament during MacDonald’s premiership but was concerned it would be challenging to sell to the electorate. He had interpreted, probably incorrectly, the October 1933 East Fulham by-election as evidence of ‘a stronger pacifist feeling running through this country than at any time since the War’ (HC Deb 12 November 1936  vol. 317, col 1144). The ongoing opposition of the Labour and Liberal parties to rearmament encouraged further caution. In addition, in June 1935, the results of an unofficial referendum organised by the League of Nations Union were released. A total of 11.5 million (37 per cent of the electorate) participated in the Peace Ballot. The results were contradictory but demonstrated clear support for the League of Nations and for negotiated multilateral disarmament. This meant that Baldwin took particular care in framing his warrant for authority on foreign affairs and defence during the election (Kyba 1983: 167; Williamson 1999: 312). He sought to reassure supporters of the League that his government remained committed to collective security, particularly given the ongoing issue of Abyssinia. However, he also argued that rearmament, albeit on a limited scale, was necessary to meet that commitment. He would ‘never stand for a policy of great armaments’. Rearmament would be ‘no more than is sufficient to make our country safe and enable us to fulfil our obligations’ (The Times 1935). The election returned 432 Conservatives and delivered a government majority of 247. Baldwin had articulated and secured a warrant for rearmament without punishment from the electorate. With Italy emerging as a growing concern to British interests in the Mediterranean, the defence position was reassessed in 1935. A more ambitious rearmament programme followed in early 1936. As in 1934, however, Chamberlain sought to resist the army’s demands for a European expeditionary force. That Chamberlain subsequently authorised £400 million in borrowing for the programme signalled that it was possible to overcome some obstacles of financial orthodoxy. However, a National



Defence Contribution which would have taxed business profits proved a heterodox step too far for regime interests (Smart 1999: 149). Furthermore, if the financial constraints on rearmament eased, the Treasury still preached caution on economic grounds. It feared that rearmament would distort the economy, generate shortages of skilled labour, and threaten the balance of payments. Baldwin’s final year as prime minister saw him confront the ‘most difficult and delicate constitutional problem to vex a Prime Minister since the Parliament Act of 1911’ (Blake 1960: 65). From the perspective of the twenty-first century, it may be difficult to understand why the events leading to Edward VIII’s abdication generated such contemporary anxiety. This was because the episode threatened the regime in three significant ways. First, the Crown’s role as a symbol of constitutional order and national unity (Williamson 2007) was jeopardised. Second, since a shared monarchy now represented the Empire’s principal remaining constitutional bond, it possessed the potential to trigger an imperial crisis (Murphy 2013: 18–30). Third, it provided mavericks and malcontents, like Churchill and the press lords, and reconstructive outsiders like the British Union of Fascists (BUF) and the Communist Party (CPGB), with the opportunity to foment political discord. As Pugh (2006: 250–251) has shown, there is evidence that the King enjoyed some popular sympathy during the crisis, as well as among the Beaverbrook and Rothermere press. The full details of the crisis are well-covered elsewhere (e.g., Phillips 2016). Ultimately, Baldwin’s crisis management was assisted by Edward VIII’s unwillingness to fight for the throne (Smart 1999: 142; Williamson 2007: 239) and the support of other key actors and interests in the regime. Baldwin co-opted the support of the leaders of the opposition parties, and he had the support of the majority of Dominion governments. Nevertheless, Baldwin took care to control matters throughout. He sought to direct Edward VIII from actions with the potential to escalate the crisis. He prevented the King from broadcasting to the nation, a course which might have further divided the public. He also closed down the option of a morganatic marriage, whereby Mrs Simpson would become his wife without sharing royal privileges and duties. Whereas Churchill encouraged the King to play for time, Baldwin sought a quicker resolution that aimed to prevent further escalation. Matters were concluded in characteristic fashion. Baldwin delivered a masterful speech to the Commons. This presented the Duke of Windsor in the most favourable light, with the aim of



protecting the monarchy and easing the succession of George VI (Cannadine 2003: 165). Having witnessed the new King’s coronation, Baldwin resigned and passed the premiership to Neville Chamberlain. Baldwin thought his handling of the abdication to be his concluding triumph. But in addition, many of the regime’s vulnerabilities had diminished, although not disappeared, during his final premiership. The British economy expanded by almost 20 per cent after 1933 (Crafts 2018). Unemployment remained a significant problem but had fallen from 15.4 to 10.7 per cent. Baldwin had also carefully secured an electoral warrant for rearmament. However, as the successive reports of the Defence Requirements Committee testified, Baldwin had been unable to arrest the troubling external threats to the regime.

2.8   Chamberlain’s Premiership Chamberlain, like his two predecessors, was a regime affiliate. He lacked Baldwin’s felicity in articulating his personal credo. However, his attitudes to the regime diverged little from Baldwin’s. Chamberlain carried with him a family tradition of conservative social reform throughout his career. He had been the principal author of the ‘New Conservatism’ which Baldwin had articulated following the Conservative’s defeat in the 1923 election. Having chosen the Ministry of Health over the Treasury, he then delivered 23 of the 25 measures of social reform which he had presented to Baldwin’s Cabinet in November 1925. Chamberlain also inherited his family’s faith in Empire. But the associated commitment to protectionism demonstrated that his commitment to the economic status quo was not total. Nevertheless, his approach to economic matters was highly orthodox in most other respects. A belief in balanced budgets was a particular article of faith. In line with such beliefs, Chamberlain’s government undertook modest domestic reforms. There was relaxation of some of the restrictions relating to the Special Areas in 1937, although probably only 50,000 jobs were created (Constantine 1980: 70). The trend of unemployment nevertheless continued downward. A Factories Act improved health and safety standards. A slum clearance programme began. However, understandably it is the response to external threats to the regime during Chamberlain’s premiership which has attracted, and demands, most attention.



At the risk of stating the obvious, by the time of Chamberlain’s departure in May 1940 the regime had failed to contend with its principal external threats. As noted at the outset of this chapter, ‘keeping what we have and living in peace’ was the interwar regime’s overriding foreign policy aim. Chamberlain’s premiership was the moment at which living in peace proved to be no longer tenable. Even if it was not apparent when Churchill took office, forces had been unleashed whereby Britain would lose much of what it had. Beyond this, the regime to which Chamberlain was affiliated would not survive the conflict. When this war ended the electorate and Clement Attlee would ensure that the regime was reconstructed. The key consideration, of course, is the extent to which Chamberlain’s premiership was responsible for this state of affairs. Here it is useful to focus on three aspects of Chamberlain’s premiership. First, the rearmament programme and the question of Britain’s capacity to meet its external threats militarily. A second consideration is Chamberlain’s strategy for avoiding war. The third aspect is Chamberlain’s war leadership between September 1939 and May 1940. Taking the first of these concerns, we must acknowledge that Chamberlain inherited a rearmament programme begun and expanded under MacDonald and Baldwin. However, as noted above, Chamberlain had been instrumental in shaping that programme. He had accepted the need for rearmament but had shaped it to prioritise the RAF and to limit the army’s capacity to act in the European theatre. During Chamberlain’s premiership these considerations continued to apply. In late 1937 the Cabinet accepted the Treasury’s argument that economic stability represented ‘a fourth arm in defence’ which would provide Britain with the endurance to defeat Germany. This persuaded them that air defence and the defence of trade routes and overseas territories should have priority over the defence of the territories of Britain’s allies (Peden 2010: 286). The consequences of these decisions are not straightforward. Rearmament failed to have the desired deterrent effect on Germany. But, equally, the rearmaments completed by May 1940 provided Britain with a military capacity that prevented its capitulation. The priority accorded to the RAF meant that the Luftwaffe could not establish air supremacy in August 1940. However, a high price accompanied the inability to wage land warfare in Europe. A second set of issues relate to the strategic decisions undertaken by Chamberlain between 1937 and 1939. In summary, until March 1939, Chamberlain pursued a dual policy. Rearmament continued with the intent of both deterring aggression and enhancing Britain’s bargaining



position. Alongside, Chamberlain rejected multilateral approaches in favour of direct approaches, initially to Italy, and then from 1938 with increasing attention to Germany. These approaches sought to engage with Italian and German grievances and demands in the hope that a lasting peaceful settlement could be secured. From March 1939, Chamberlain belatedly attempted to construct alliances. That there were alternative strategies to those pursued by Chamberlain is well-established. Although the large literature which considers these ‘missed opportunities’ cannot be explored here (see, e.g., Aster 2008; Stedman 2015), there were significant shortcomings with many of the options canvassed as alternatives. Collective security was problematic given the collapse in confidence of the League of Nations and the absence of major powers from Geneva. The construction of alliances was beset with problems including distrust of the French, American isolationism, and doubts about Soviet military capacity. As noted above, perceived economic obstacles inhibited a more expansive or earlier rearmament programme. Earlier confrontation with Germany might have led to a less but still negative outcome. It would have also had to overcome stronger public opposition to conflict than in 1939. It is indeed ‘possible that there was “no good or ‘correct’ policy” available in the circumstances of the 1930s’ (Dutton 2001: 218). Ultimately, what remains incontrovertible is that Chamberlain’s chosen approach failed and that disastrous consequences for the regime followed. However, Chamberlain’s premiership was ended not by his failure to preserve peace, but by his shortcomings in prosecuting the war. Although Chamberlain persuaded Churchill and Eden to join the government, the Labour Party and the Sinclairite Liberals refused to be co-opted. That Chamberlain had been unable to heed Baldwin’s advice and disguise his disdain for the Labour Party doubtless did not help. This inability to form an inclusive coalition government meant that Chamberlain remained vulnerable to the accusation that he was an obstacle to national unity. Misgivings mounted about Chamberlain’s leadership from late 1939. The belief grew that the mobilisation of the nation’s resources lacked urgency and that Chamberlain’s government was unwilling to abandon pre-war orthodoxies (Newton 1996). This particularly applied to the war economy. Chamberlain continued to believe that economic stability was essential both to victory and winning the peace. Economic mobilisation was therefore calibrated to maintain exports and to avoid national bankruptcy (Maiolo 2013). Demands that Chamberlain appoint a Minister



for Economic Co-ordination were rejected on the basis that this would undermine his and the Treasury’s authority (Jeffreys 2002: 9). The failure of the Norway campaign seemed to confirm these misgivings and saw Chamberlain’s authority finally collapse. It suggested that Britain risked defeat unless it was prepared to fully mobilise and wage war with energy, intensity, drive, and resolution. With Labour unprepared to join a coalition under Chamberlain’s leadership, Winston Churchill became prime minister on 10 May 1940. When Chamberlain addressed the Commons on the outbreak of war he acknowledged, ‘Everything I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins’ (HC Deb 3 September 1939 vol 351 col 292). At the moment given, his speech marked the public acknowledgement that his policies of appeasement had failed. From the perspective of political time, Chamberlain’s statement takes on a slightly different meaning. We can see that Chamberlain, the last disjunctive prime minister of the interwar era, was also delivering an epitaph for the interwar regime.

2.9   Baldwin, Macdonald, Chamberlain, and the Interwar Regime Our categorisation of Baldwin, MacDonald, and Chamberlain as disjunctive prime ministers rests upon two key assessments. Although we have established their credentials as regime affiliates, we must also demonstrate that they left the regime untransformed. We must confirm that the ideas, values, policy paradigms, and programmes of the regime were not remodelled, nor were the coalition of political interests and institutional supports of the regime reconstructed. The second proposition to address is that their actions failed to satisfactorily resolve regime vulnerabilities. The most obvious and significant change to the regime between 1922 and 1940 was the modification of its political economy after 1931. Under force majeure, the regime’s commitments to free trade, capital mobility, and fixed exchange rates were discarded. The attempt to restore the liberal international economic order was abandoned. The City and the Bank of England, as key interests supporting these objectives, suffered a significant defeat. These changes to the regime should neither be under- nor over-­ estimated. First, although their preferences were sacrificed, no reform of



the Bank of England, no fundamental restructuring of the City and the financial system, or any reordering of relations with industrial capital followed (Ingham 1984). Second, many orthodox ideas and policies remained stubbornly in place after 1931 and frustrated the acceptance and implementation of potentially more successful alternatives from outside the regime paradigm. As Booth (1987: 518) has noted, the barriers to Keynesian demand management remained in place under the National Government. The state’s economic role had grown after 1922. For example, there had been pragmatic extensions to public enterprise in broadcasting, electricity transmission, public transport, and civil aviation. It was also increasingly recognised that the market could not be wholly relied upon to deliver modernisation and rationalisation. But intellectual and institutional barriers to the direction of industry and economic planning persisted. Above all, the commitment to sound money was a resilient one. As Newton (1996: 37) notes, ‘budgetary orthodoxy was as central to economic policy after the departure from gold as it had been before.’ Similar observations apply to social provision where the state’s role in providing and financing social services grew. Those covered by unemployment insurance and contributory pensions grew significantly. Yet, if Britain’s social services were world-leading by 1939 (Addison 1975: 33; Stevenson and Cook 1998: 37) they had developed piecemeal, into a complex system capable of delivering subsistence basis benefits only. There was a considerable distance yet to travel to the universal, redistributive welfare system of postwar Britain. It would have been extraordinary if the regime had been held in stasis over these two decades. Change did take place and the regime adapted to changing circumstances and conditions. The events of 1931 recalibrated the regime with the result that ‘The politics of the 1930s “fitted” social and economic reality as the politics of the 1920s did not’ (McKibbin 2010: 88). However, it would require the political and social forces generated by the Second World War and Clement Attlee’s leadership to reconstruct the regime. Given these observations, the extent to which Baldwin, MacDonald, and Chamberlain could not resolve regime vulnerabilities also requires careful consideration. Here a comparative perspective calibrates assessment. As Huntington (1991) observes, Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922 began a reverse wave of democratisation which lasted until 1942. Britain’s polity was not among those submerged in this wave, despite its regime vulnerabilities.



We should not overstate prime ministerial agency in accounting for this outcome. For example, Thorpe (1989: 10) recognises that ‘Security from invasion, economic and demographic factors, the maintenance of Britain’s self-esteem, and a workable constitutional system all helped Britain to avoid communism and fascism between the world wars.’ The shortcomings of the CPGB and the BUF left them unable to exploit regime vulnerabilities. The provision of social services moderated conflict and limited the appeal of populism (Stevenson and Cook 1998: 290–300). Nevertheless, the patrician style of democratic leadership of the three prime ministers, and Baldwin and MacDonald’s crisis management, cannot be discounted in delivering this outcome. Yet, if a recalibrated regime under the leadership of MacDonald, Baldwin, and Chamberlain did not collapse into authoritarianism, it does not follow that its vulnerabilities were satisfactorily resolved. Living standards improved, and the economy recovered after 1931, more strongly than in many other nations. This particularly benefitted the middle classes and southern England. Yet the regime persistently proved incapable of providing a level of economic prosperity that would allow it to meet the needs of all classes and all regions. Nor was the interwar regime ever able to resolve the problem of high and long-term unemployment. Even as Chamberlain left office close to a million remained out of work. Indeed, it was the memories of this interwar mass unemployment which were to serve as reference point and motivation for postwar regime reconstruction. Had war not come, Chamberlain would have probably secured a third electoral victory for the National Government. In such circumstances the regime could have continued in a state of enervation for some time. However, the circumstances of Chamberlain’s departure in 1940 expose that the interwar regime had, at its core, a further fundamental unresolved vulnerability. In the absence of significant external threats, the regime had demonstrated a limited capacity to ameliorate but not resolve domestic problems. However, when acute external threats emerged, the capacity of the regime to respond to multiple and conflicting challenges was attenuated. We need not dismiss Chamberlain’s agency, or overlook his mistakes, to acknowledge that the combined pressures of innenpolitik and aussenpolitik rendered managing and reconciling regime vulnerabilities considerably more challenging between 1937 and 1940.



2.10   Conclusion Watts (1996: 4) argues that ‘Inter-war Britain was not a period of great leaders’. Mowat (1968: 142) drew a similar, albeit more vituperative, conclusion claiming, ‘the rule of pygmies, of the “second-class brains” began [in 1922], to continue until 1940.’ However, reviewing the Baldwin, MacDonald, and Chamberlain premierships from the perspective of political time and the dilemma of disjunctive leadership suggests more complex and measured conclusions. These premierships cover a seventeen-year period. Baldwin served as prime minister on three occasions and MacDonald twice. This intensity of the regime’s vulnerabilities, the options available to prime ministers, and the quality of the leadership nevertheless possessed a degree of variability that can often be overlooked. Arguably there were two significant domestic crises in this period, the 1926 general strike and the crisis of 1931. Unlike the 1936 abdication crisis, both were portentous because regime stabilisation directly challenged the prerogatives of, or withdrew resources from, key societal groups. Ordinarily, the regime would not have challenged the interests, in the first instance of the unions, and in the second of the unemployed, of those at risk of unemployment, and public sector workers. As Jenkins (1995: 63–64) observes, Baldwin ‘was good at crises provided they did not occur frequently’. Indeed, Baldwin emerges as a first-­ class crisis manager in 1926. Although Baldwin may have subsequently earned the suspicion of union activists, he prevented the permanent alienation of the union movement from the regime. This stands in contrast with Baldwin’s rather less distinguished decisions to seek a mandate for tariffs in 1923 and to return to the gold standard in 1925. The events of 1931 place MacDonald in a slightly more equivocal light. His handling of the crisis was less surefooted, although he ultimately re-­ stabilised the regime. The unemployed were never permanently alienated. Indeed, they had their benefits restored in 1934. If the departure from the gold standard was a defeat for the City, neither were they alienated from the regime. Rather, MacDonald’s crisis management perhaps had the greatest impact on the Labour Party, initiating a trajectory that would see it adopt a reconstructive agenda. The examples of 1926 and 1931 also remind us that each premiership was associated with different resources and constraints. The 1924–1929 government and those after 1931 had solid parliamentary majorities. It is



reasonable to suppose that the crisis of 1931 would have played out differently had MacDonald possessed a secure parliamentary majority. Had Baldwin led a minority government in 1926, then handling the general strike would have presented greater challenges. If Chamberlain possessed a smaller or no parliamentary majority, then critics of his foreign policy might have had greater and earlier influence. In comparing these three prime ministers, similarly situated in political time, we also see the significance of path dependence. For example, the return to the gold standard had profound consequences for the regime. Similarly, that rearmament proved so difficult a matter of regime management owed much to the path-dependent consequences of a long-term decline in defence spending. The unwillingness of successive prime ministers to address the finances of the Unemployment Insurance Fund demonstrates the significance of non-decision and delay. Nettles such as these, which are not grasped by disjunctive prime ministers, often have luxuriant growth. Throughout we have also seen that each prime minister had alternative courses of action available to them. They possessed agency. However, we have also seen how, as regime affiliates, ideational and institutional constraints made these alternatives uncongenial to them. Within these constraints, Baldwin and MacDonald managed to keep the show on the road and preserve the regime in an enervated state. It was Chamberlain’s misfortune to hold office at a moment when the domestic and external vulnerabilities of the regime intersected. The failures of these prime ministers were not those of ‘second-class brains’ but those all too common among the affiliates of vulnerable regimes.

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The Collapse of Keynesian Welfarism 1970–1979: Heath, Wilson, Callaghan

Abstract  As prime ministers in the 1970s, Edward Heath, Harold Wilson, and James Callaghan grappled unsuccessfully with the deepening vulnerabilities, tensions, and contradictions, and the breakdown of the mixed-­ economy Keynesian welfare-state regime. Faced with growing public disillusion, they seemed unable to develop successful strategies for rebuilding or reconstructing the crumbling electoral coalitions supporting their parties. Union militancy, strikes, and confrontations over pay policy put a serious question mark against the established tripartite corporate settlement between government, labour, and capital. The international economic scene was volatile and challenging, and the emergence of ‘stagflation’ posed a fundamental challenge to the established Keynesian ‘conventional wisdom’. Heath’s government (1970–1974) failed to solve any of the major governing challenges of the time, and his actions in office undermined support for the regime within the Conservative Party. Wilson (1974–1976) steered some difficult decisions through but could not resolve the central economic problems, only buying time. Nor was Callaghan (1976–1979) able to chart a new course for his party, government, or the regime, and his pragmatism was in the end ineffective and overwhelmed. Keywords  Edward Heath • Harold Wilson • James Callaghan • Post-war consensus • Keynesianism • Crisis management © The Author(s) 2020 C. Byrne et al., Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership in British Politics, Palgrave Studies in Political Leadership, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-44911-7_3




3.1   The Keynesian Welfare State Regime Much of the discussion and analysis of the post-1945 British policy regime and political order has been framed in terms of the well-known debate around the origins, existence, configuration, and rise and fall of the so-­ called postwar consensus (see Kavanagh and Morris 1989; Pimlott 1989; Lowe 1990; Kavanagh 1992; Seldon 1994; Marlow 1996; Harrison 1999; Kerr 1999; Fraser 2000). Broad economic and welfare policy continuity across successive governments of both main parties could certainly be detected in the two to three decades after the critical juncture of the 1945 election, although this coexisted with continuing underlying ideological disagreements and fierce adversarial party competition at, and between, general elections (Beer 1969; Finer 1980; Gamble and Walkland 1984). The central economic task of government became the management of a mixed economy, in which about a fifth of the economy was in public ownership, and with state spending accounting for 35 per cent of GDP in 1958 (compared to 28 per cent in 1938), increasing to 43 per cent in 1968 and 48 per cent in 1975. Underpinning the regime’s political economy was the commitment to maintain full employment, with unemployment not exceeding 3 per cent in any year from 1948 to 1970. International economic growth and the postwar expansion of world trade provided a generally favourable external context. With some differences in the use of specific policy instruments or tools, Labour and Conservative governments operated within a broadly Keynesian framework in the pursuit of full employment, low inflation, economic growth, a stable external balance of payments, and a strong pound. The ‘stop-go’ economic cycles and periodic policy crises of the 1950s and 1960s testified to the trade-offs involved and the difficulties of combining these goals, though in many ways British economic performance was, overall, better than contemporary and later critics often suggested. In the 1960s, both Conservative (Macmillan) and Labour (Wilson) governments developed expansionist, modernisation, and planning strategies to foster growth in attempts, as ‘orthodox innovators’, to revive and revitalise the regime. However, sustained success remained elusive, generating a growing debate about the causes of, and responses to, supposed relative economic decline (Gamble 1981; Tomlinson 2000; English and Kenny 2000). With performance compared unfavourably to other advanced industrial countries and the UK’s European counterparts in particular, entry to the European



Economic Community (EEC) emerged as a key policy response under governments of both parties in the 1960s. The postwar regime also expanded the role for the state as a provider of ‘cradle-to-grave’ welfare and social security for all citizens as a right, on a comprehensive and universalist basis. While the Beveridge Report (1942) stood as a founding text for this system of social citizenship, the National Health Service was the core institutional pillar of the welfare state. If there is a sense in which this settlement, particularly in its welfare dimension, was social-democratic, reflecting Labour Party goals and values, then it was probably more acquiesced to by the Conservatives on pragmatic grounds of electoral expediency (McKibbin 2016: 455; Moran 2017: 48). Much of the increase in postwar state spending was directed to the welfare state, underlining the importance of economic growth to the functioning of, and public support for, the wider regime. Continuing great power notions and global commitments continued to drive relatively high UK defence spending, though this fell from 29 per cent of government expenditure in 1954 to 10 per cent by 1975, while social spending grew from 44 per cent to 52 per cent over the same period (Harling 2001: 169). At the electoral and political levels, the regime operated in a two-party system underpinned by clear patterns of class voting and strong party identification. Labour and Conservatives accounted for 92 per cent of the vote in general elections from 1945 to 1970, and an even larger share of parliamentary seats (Norris 1997: 18, 39). Although the electoral pendulum did not swing regularly or evenly, each party enjoyed seventeen years of government office over the period from 1945 to 1979. Class was seen as the basis of party politics (Pulzer 1967: 98), with the majority of the middle class voting Conservative and the majority of the working class backing Labour. However, class alignment was never total and both parties had to construct cross-class appeals and electoral coalitions in an electorate being reshaped by growing affluence, ‘embourgeoisement’, and public/private sector and regional divisions and conflicts of interest. The system seemed more stable and predictable than it really was, however, with signs of change and decay in its economic and social props already emerging in the 1960s (McKibbin 2016). The close City—Bank of England—Treasury nexus that was a feature of the interwar regime (Chap. 2) continued in the postwar period as a powerful sectional/institutional support and vehicle for the priority given to short-term financial and commercial interests (particularly around the exchange rate and the balance of payments) over longer-term industrial



investment. The regime was also marked by extension and intensification of the consultation, bargaining, negotiation, and interest brokerage involving the state, trade unions, and employers’/business organisations that had been developing since the 1920s. The National Economic Development Council was created in 1962 to manage tripartite discussions on economic management and planning. More broadly, the system of ‘corporate bias’, incorporating organised labour and organised business as ‘governing institutions’, sought to co-ordinate a regime consensus, avoiding or mitigating class and industrial conflict, and managing crises (Middlemas 1979). But, again, stresses and strains were becoming apparent in the 1960s, with the ability of the corporate institutions and interests to compromise starting to decay, and with the Labour government (1964–1970) reacting by attempting to reassert state authority by limiting trade-union power, pursuing wage restraint, and introducing an incomes policy.

3.2   Regime Vulnerability 1970–1979 Although recent historical work has contextualised, qualified, and debunked some more simplistic characterisations of the crisis-ridden 1970s, the period remains one of fundamental importance in the political and historical trajectory of modern Britain (Black et al. 2013; Black 2012; Pemberton 2009; Porion 2016; Morgan 2017; Robinson et al. 2017). It was not that 1970 itself neatly marked ‘a major break in British history’ (Harrison 2010: xv). Regime decomposition and failure was, rather, a process traceable in many respects from the late 1960s through to the end of the 1970s. This was a turbulent period of challenge, change, crisis, and adjustment across several fronts not just affecting Britain but apparent on a global scale (Black et al. 2013; Ferguson et al. 2010). Thus, in terms of the periodisation of British policy regimes and of regime crisis and change, Middlemas (1979: 430, 459) identified a ‘crisis of the state’ and symptoms of breakdown, instability, and ‘disturbances’ in the system over the period 1964–1975, in a later study referring to a ‘mid-­1970s crisis’ and ‘time of disjunctions…disorder…[and] disintegration’ (Middlemas 1991: 4–5). Beer (1982) traced the breakdown of ‘hubristic Keynesianism’, the problem of ‘pluralistic stagnation’, and the ‘political contradictions of collectivism’ back into the mid-1960s, setting the scene for the ‘self-defeating politics’ of the 1970s. While noting emergent problems in the late 1960s, Studlar (2007: 8–12) described



1970–1979 as a ‘transitional period of turmoil and confusion’ in the shift of postwar Britain’s political eras and orders from the collectivist consensus period of 1945–1970 to the neoliberal order after 1979. Reviewing the experience of the embattled Conservative and Labour governments of the 1970s, Bogdanor (1994, 1996, 2004) noted the concatenation of challenges to the state’s authority; the collapse of the underlying assumptions of the postwar settlement; changing social attitudes, civic cohesion, and group behaviour undermining the settlement from below; and ‘paradigm change’ in which one policy dispensation was succeeded by something quite different. Meanwhile, Matthijs (2011: 31, 99) appears to date the tilting point between regime resilience and vulnerability to 1972 and the Heath ‘U-turn’, describing Conservative policy after 1972 as ‘crisis containment’ and dating the final unravelling and disintegration of the postwar consensus to the period of the 1974–1979 Labour government. Regime vulnerabilities manifested themselves in several ways in the Heath, Wilson, and Callaghan years. Public support for the Conservative and Labour governments in the 1970s was never particularly robust. Heath personally was not a popular leader. He was never an electoral asset to his party and his prime ministerial approval ratings (averaging 37 per cent) were the lowest of any postwar premier until John Major. After a brief political honeymoon in 1970, opinion polls mostly showed Labour leading the Conservatives (in 39 out of 49 Gallup polls during the Heath government) and voter dissatisfaction with the Heath government’s record (only two out of 42 polls showing positive net voter approval) (Kavanagh 1996: 377–378; King 2001: 10–11, 169–170). Subsequently, the Conservatives led Labour in terms of voting intentions in most opinion polls after March 1976 (a Conservative lead in 33 out of 43 Gallup polls during the Callaghan government). Most (50 out of 61) monthly polls between 1974 and 1979 indicated net voter disapproval of the Labour government’s record, though this was partly counter-balanced by Wilson and Callaghan’s personal popularity (measured in ‘who would make the best prime minister?’ polls) (King 2001: 11–13, 170–172, 198–199). Whereas Heath achieved a net positive satisfaction rating for his performance as prime minister in only 5 out of 42 monthly polls in the period 1970–1974, Wilson did so in 50 per cent of the equivalent polls in the period 1974–1976 and Callaghan in nearly three-quarters of the polls in the period 1976–1979 (in 26 out of 36 monthly polls) (King 2001: 189–191).



A marked Liberal Party revival proved damaging to the Conservatives in February 1974. This signified a crack in the established two-party system—the Labour/Conservative vote share fell from 89.4 per cent in 1970 to 74.9 per cent, with the Liberals increasing from 7.5 to 19.3 per cent (gaining nearly 4 million more votes). Nationalists significantly increased their vote in Scotland in 1974, prompting a panicked Labour government to introduce devolution legislation to defend the party’s Scottish base. Little changed in October 1974, with the Labour/Conservative vote share totalling 75.0 per cent, the Liberals falling back slightly to 19.3 per cent, and the SNP vote further increasing (the SNP share of the Scottish vote surging from 11.5 per cent in 1970 to 21.9 per cent in February 1974 and then 30.4 per cent in October 1974, when they won 11 seats). After the February 1974 election delivered a minority government, the October 1974 election marked the first occasion since the 1920s that a government achieved an overall majority (albeit of only three seats) with less than 40 per cent of the vote. All this was expressive of growing disillusion with the two governing parties during the 1970s. Against this background, neither Heath nor Wilson nor Callaghan seemed able to develop successful strategies for rebuilding or reconstructing the crumbling electoral coalitions supporting their parties. Exploiting popular anxieties over immigration, as an insurgent party of the extreme right, the National Front saw membership growth in the first half of the 1970s, followed by a decline, and patchy electoral success, particularly in some local contests (Fielding 1981; Taylor 1982). In the midand late 1970s, although the National Front gained more votes than extreme left parties at general elections, and its percentage share of the total national vote increased over the decade, it never exceeded 0.6 per cent (in 1979) before collapsing in the 1980s. Arguably, Thatcher’s remarks in a 1978 television interview about people being afraid of the country being ‘swamped’ helped to contain the National Front electorally (Schofield 2012: 106–107). Simultaneously, changes in the social and electoral underpinnings of the wider party system were becoming apparent. Evidence grew of a weakening of the strength of party identities and of the social class/party nexus, a more dealigned electorate, and a shift in public attitudes on economic and welfare issues, and towards the trade unions (Särlvik and Crewe 1983; Norris 1997). At a deeper level, the stabilising and supportive elements of the traditional ‘civic culture’ seemed in decline: as Kavanagh (1980: 370) put it, ‘the traditional bonds of social class, party, and common nationality



are waning, and with them the old restraints of hierarchy and deference.’ Schoen (1977: 232–239) also noted a growing ‘general political disillusionment’ in Britain, starting in the late 1960s, including evidence of dissatisfaction with the political system and government failure to solve national problems, popular discontent with politicians and the major parties, falling confidence in party leaders, a growing gap between mass and elite opinion, and increasing public fears of the breakdown of traditional values and standards. The existing system and political machinery seemed increasingly remote, irrelevant, and incompetent. The themes of ‘overload’ and of Britain ‘becoming harder to govern’ became staples of contemporary political science (King 1976). Beer (1982: 119) suggested that the failure or inability of the political system to adapt to new expectations and attitudes undermined government legitimacy and effectiveness and the wider collectivist regime. Public concerns over law and order, rising crime, and student protests fed social malaise, moral panic, and disarray, together with the seemingly out-of-control violence in Northern Ireland and other incidents of domestic and internal terrorism. Several shadowy groups believed the parliamentary system was incapable of dealing with national problems. Across the political spectrum and the British ‘establishment’, there were, in the mid-1970s, anxieties about the threat of ‘ungovernability’, a sense of paranoia, and concerns about suspected plots, militancy, and threats to the political and social order. In disjunctive conditions, populist and maverick figures often focus disaffection with the established regime. During the Heath years it was Enoch Powell who articulated an alternative Toryism and the need for a reconstructive solution. However, he remained a divisive figure and isolated at the parliamentary level (particularly after defecting to the Ulster Unionists in 1974), more a ‘voice’ and a regular backbench dissenter than a factional leader, though nevertheless a magnet for the disaffected at party grassroots level and in the wider electorate (Shepherd 1996: 406). But analysing Powell’s public appeal in this period, Schoen (1977: 40–41) found that the widespread support for his stance on immigration did not translate into support for his views on other key issues such as denationalisation and prices and incomes policy. Labour’s counterpart to Powell was Tony Benn, an enthusiastic technocratic figure in the 1960s who reinvented himself after 1970 as a charismatic ‘populist guru of the left’ (Morgan 1987: 305). Arguing that revisionist social democracy, the managed economy, and welfare capitalism had reached an impasse (Shaw 2002: 204), he championed the left’s ‘alternative economic strategy’ of



further nationalisation, industrial democracy, increased state intervention, planning agreements, and import controls (Wickham-Jones 1996). But Benn’s increasing popularity with Labour’s left-moving grassroots activists did not translate into an effective role in government after 1974. Wilson and Callaghan managed and contained his disruptive potential, and his greatest influence in the party came with the return to Opposition after 1979. The wider climate of intellectual opinion in the early 1970s was still supportive of the Keynesian consensus, backing high public spending and state intervention, even as the limitations and the problems with that policy paradigm were becoming apparent in practice. There was, however, no credible alternative available at that time, and a major shift in opinion had not yet occurred, unlike in the Thatcher years in the 1980s. By the late 1960s and early 1970s commentators like Peter Jay and Samuel Brittan popularised monetarist ideas, but the free-market economic counter-­ revolution was still in its infancy in the years of the Heath government (Thompson 1996: 64–65). Whitehall and Treasury thinking remained broadly Keynesian (Kandiah 1995: 197). Apart from the Institute of Economic Affairs and some followers of Enoch Powell, there was little interest in monetarist economics and explanations of inflation (Kavanagh 1996: 361), and ‘in 1970–74 monetarism’s time had not yet come’ (Cairncross 1996: 125). Few Conservatives were seriously interested in ‘consensus-busting’ in the early 1970s (Garnett 1994: 279), with figures like Jock Bruce Gardyne and Nicholas Ridley, and economists like Alan Walters, talking about monetarism. The creation of the Selsdon Group in 1973 to call for a change of direction and to champion economic liberalism was a sign of growing dissatisfaction in Conservative circles not just with the Heath government but with the whole politics of consensus, corporatism, and Keynesian economics (Cockett 1995: 212–213). The failures and the fall of the Heath government, together with the course of events under the Labour government after 1974, seemed to vindicate these alternative ideas, and groups like Keith Joseph’s Centre for Policy Studies and the National Association for Freedom now made the ideological running and did much to change the climate of opinion in the Conservative Party and the country in the second half of the 1970s, helping open the door to a politics of reconstruction under Margaret Thatcher (Cockett 1995: ch.7). Trade union shop-floor militancy and strikes had been increasing since the late 1960s but the ‘pitched battles’ (Taylor 1996: 170) and ‘open



warfare’ (Porter 1996: 39) between the Heath government and the unions between 1970 and 1974 put a serious question mark against the postwar settlement between government, labour, and capital (Middlemas 1990). A record number of working days were lost due to strikes and industrial action: in 1972 alone over 23  million days were lost in stoppages and strikes, the highest figure since the 1926 general strike, with the bitter miners’ strike in early 1972 leading to a state of emergency, power cuts, and a three-day week. Heath’s fall after calling the February 1974 ‘who governs?’ election against the background of another miners’ strike and three-day week seemed to underline that no British government could govern without union consent. But five years later, Labour’s experience during the ‘winter of discontent’ (Shepherd 2013) showed that ‘a government could not necessarily govern with them either, largely because of the lack of union leaders’ effective control over their members’ (Kavanagh 1996: 367). The international economic scene could hardly have been more difficult or volatile. The stable international currency and financial system, based on fixed exchange rates, which was established at Bretton Woods after the war collapsed. World-wide inflation and dramatically rising commodity prices followed. Then the massively disruptive shock of the 1973–1974 oil crisis resulted in a quadrupling in oil prices and cutbacks in production, further accelerating inflation and deepening recession. In this context, Britain—although it was experiencing a strong sense of national crisis and ‘decline’, seeing itself and being seen by others as the ‘sick man of Europe’—was not uniquely challenged in the 1970s. Other countries also experienced a deterioration in economic performance, with slowing growth rates and higher inflation and unemployment. The postwar boom years—the ‘golden years’—were over (Coopey and Woodward 1996: 3) and, inevitably, in many states this ‘undermined the policy regimes that had developed in the period of prosperity’ (Gamble 1988: 3). Domestically in Britain, the emergence of stagflation—simultaneously increasing unemployment and inflation—posed a fundamental challenge to the established Keynesian ‘conventional wisdom’ and policy paradigm, as well as intractable problems of economic management as ‘the traditional macro-­ economic methods stopped working’ (Bogdanor 1994: 359). These new conditions undermined the postwar economic policy goals of full employment, stable prices, and growth, along with prevailing understandings of how to run the economy and achieve these goals.



3.3   Edward Heath’s Technocratic Modernisation Edward Heath was broadly in the middle ground of post-war Conservatism—the ‘One Nation’ Conservatism of Churchill, Eden, Butler, and Macmillan. As prime minister during 1970–1974, he set out with a broad vision of what he wanted to achieve and with a raft of detailed policy commitments planned in Opposition, but without strong underpinnings in political philosophy or economic theory. He was never deeply interested in ideas, ideologies, or abstractions as opposed to facts, policies, and action. He was also disposed to believe that reasonable people, working patiently together, could find rational solutions to problems or be persuaded to act in the wider public interest. He had a technocratic, managerial, problem-solving approach to government. Never a laissez-faire right-wing Conservative, Heath was more a believer in the post-war consensus policies, seeing a role for government in economic and social policy. Recognising its increasing strains, he wanted to rework the mixed-economy Keynesian welfare-state system, by modernising the state and galvanising British industry, and by taking the country into the EEC (Campbell 1993). In retrospect the 1970 party platform and the tough language of competition, free markets, less state intervention, union controls, tax and spending cuts, more selectively targeted welfare, and the rejection of incomes policy—the so-called Selsdon Man policies—neither added up to nor were intended by Heath to mean a fundamental ideological break. Heath sometimes sounded like an abrasive radical, but, essentially, he wanted a changed course, a different governing style, a modification of attitudes, and, in a sense, to renew and update the status quo, and make it work better, not to overturn it entirely. ‘Are you moving to the right?’ he was asked in 1970. ‘Just a bit’, he replied, ‘but we have to stay in the centre’ (Whitehead 1985: 40). Unlike Thatcher after 1979, Heath did not reject the basic institutional and conceptual framework of the post-war settlement. He did not envisage any significant redrawing of the boundaries of the mixed economy. He had no truck with the ideas about privatisation that a party group under Nicholas Ridley (a future Thatcherite minister) drew up in Opposition, and he did not espouse monetarism or untrammelled free-market capitalism. With a practical and managerial cast of mind, and instinctively an interventionist, he responded pragmatically to events and changing circumstances after 1970, overseeing some damaging policy reversals and U-turns.



Had Heath been intent on regime reconstruction, we would have expected him to repudiate post-war governing practices. But, on the contrary, he repeatedly invoked the record of the 1951–1964 governments as testimony of Conservative competence and credibility. These were ‘years of achievement’ rather than the ‘thirteen wasted years’ of Labour taunts (Conservative Party 1965: 24) and ‘the Conservative years of rising prosperity’ in which the economy was successfully managed, inflation and unemployment were low, taxes were cut, and social services were expanded (Conservative Party 1970). In particular, he defended the Conservative attempts after 1962 to break out of the stop-go economic cycle: ‘expansion, more modernisation, greater competition, intensive regional development—all these together formed a coherent policy’ (Conservative Party 1965: 142). Nor did Heath identify fundamental and structural defects of the regime, but instead assigned primary responsibility for the nation’s difficulties to the quality of leadership provided by Harold Wilson and the Labour government. As Heath saw it, Wilson’s chief concerns were short-­ term publicity and the partisan advantage of the Labour Party, and his addiction to gimmickry, such as the National Plan, delivered inertia and trivial government—‘froth and frivolity’ and dodging the real issues facing the country, as he damningly put it (Heath 1969). With tough and honest leadership there was every prospect of reinvigorating the regime. Despite Heath’s commitments to free enterprise, he maintained that ‘the Tory Party never has been laissez-faire, and isn’t laissez-faire at the moment’ (BBC Interview 1965), later dismissing ‘old fangled 19th century doctrines of laissez faire’ (Conservative Central Office 1969) and the ‘soulless laissez-faire’ of that era (Heath 1968). While he dismissed Labour’s National Plan, he saw continued value in the indicative planning apparatus established under Macmillan and did not foresee it as an impediment to liberation of the forces of competition. Heath remained committed to the maintenance of full employment and accepted the government’s responsibility to maintain economic demand. While hostile to the state propping up declining industries, he believed it had to enable private enterprise to adapt by policies to promote redeployment and retraining. Government would also remain responsible for an active regional policy ensuring prosperity was shared by all parts of the nation. EEC membership also featured in this broader strategy of modernisation, restoring a sense of national purpose, and fostering competition and dynamism and the larger export markets and new opportunities for cooperation across



high-technology sectors, necessary to deliver accelerating economic growth. As prime minister, Heath’s response to the disjunctive dilemma relied on some tried and tested means of resolving crises including the discursive articulation of crisis conditions, so as to manage expectations surrounding his government; valorising governing technique; and adopting a highly pragmatic policy stance, which accounts for his government’s reputation as a frantically U-turning administration. Although the crisis narrative was multifaceted, at its core was an image of an economic malaise which, in the early years, was attributed to the failures and mistakes of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. The economic problems inherited by the Conservatives meant, according to Heath, that ‘our room for manoeuvre is limited’ (Heath 1970). But the focus was also on underlying reasons for Britain’s long-term relative economic decline—mainly that other European countries and Japan redesigned their industrial base from scratch after the Second World War, and that Britain was outside the new engine of European economic growth that was the EEC. Then, in the final few years of the Heath premiership, worsening international economic conditions beyond the government’s control came to the fore. These included a recognition that the US was proving increasingly incapable of performing the role of global hegemon and the disastrous inflationary consequences of the 1973 oil shock (Kavanagh 1996). Heath emphasised this deteriorating world economy to dampen expectations on his government and to buy time, plainly stating in the February 1974 manifesto that the country faced the gravest crisis since the war (Conservative Party 1974). Closely linked to the economy was a crisis centred around recalcitrant trade unions. Heath made much of the fact that the outgoing Labour government had presided over an annual record of strikes in 1969. Other facets of this crisis narrative included the threat to the territorial integrity of the UK in the form of Scottish nationalism and the growing Troubles in Northern Ireland, and an image of a breakdown of law and order, which Heath saw largely as a consequence of the profligate, over-extended, and ‘antiquated’ Keynesian welfare state (Heath 1968). These separate strands coalesced into an overarching crisis of governmental ‘overload’. This left government unable to achieve even its most basic objectives of economic expansion and social peace due to the over-extension of the state by Labour governments and Conservative ones reacting to Labour’s political



advances, which badly undermined the Conservative Party’s hard-earned reputation for governing competence (Kavanagh 1987). The projection of administrative and governing competence was central to Heath’s political identity and conception of leadership (Lockwood 2019), and was also presented as key to dealing with the regime’s crises. In this view, Heath was thus ‘basically a super management consultant’ whose policies, priorities, and methods were aimed at ‘improv[ing] the performance of Great Britain Ltd’ (Trewin 2008: 12). He could be seen as a dynamic and modernising statesman closer in kind to a British Roosevelt or de Gaulle than to his ‘accommodationist and defensive’ Conservative predecessors (Bogdanor 1996: 387). In terms of managing the economy, the need for a more conciliatory approach from all of the industrial partners was a key theme for Heath, becoming increasingly important as Britain’s economic and political malaise worsened. The Conservatives’ Industrial Relations Act aimed to stabilise industrial relations and reduce union conflict and strikes but instead had the opposite effect, provoking a confrontation with the TUC and even more union strife and stoppages. The unions rendered the Act unworkable, and it was in the context of the confrontations and disorder over its implementation and enforceability that media commentators started to ask whether Britain was becoming ‘ungovernable’ and to talk of ‘a major attack upon its constitutional principles and freedoms’ (Economist 1972; Sunday Times 1972). Heath urged the industrial partners to put aside partisan or sectional interests and act responsibly, and although there was a willingness evident early on during the Heath government to take ‘tough decisions’, this faded quickly. In particular, after the 1972 miners’ strike Heath petitioned much more vociferously for ‘a more sensible way to settle our differences’ involving more consultation and cooperation between government, unions, and employers to try to make a ‘corporate’ or ‘tripartite’ system of economic management work (Campbell 1993: 420). But the problem was that the ‘social partners’—the TUC and the unions on the one hand, the CBI representing business on the other— were unable or unwilling fully to cooperate, share responsibility, and ‘deliver’. At the centre, Heath argued, the problem was the competence of the machinery of state and a system of decision-making and administration which was ‘outmoded in its structure’ and ‘outdated in its techniques’ (Heath 1968). Promising a ‘new and better style of government’, he made several significant changes to Whitehall machinery and institutions. These



were rooted in a period of serious policy development while in Opposition, making the incoming Heath government perhaps the best prepared of any since the end of the Second World War. Heath favoured ‘giant’ departments and a smaller Cabinet, sharper policy analysis and a more strategic approach, ‘hiving-off’, the importation of businessmen and business practices into Whitehall, and a more dynamic and efficient civil service (Theakston 1996). Rational, analytical, a master of details and technicalities, Heath was in truth more interested in and better at government and administration than at politics and party management. He practiced a top-­ down, disciplinary, command-and-control style of leadership, neglecting (in the end, fatally alienating) his backbenchers. He came across as a dry technocratic manager and was a wooden communicator. Heath’s critics accused him of being too much like a civil servant and believed he was over-influenced by senior officials. He certainly preferred to surround himself with senior mandarins, and to rely upon their advice, rather than looking to Cabinet colleagues, party advisers, or political cronies (see Theakston and Connelly 2018: ch.6). But he exaggerated what could be achieved by reforms of the bureaucratic machine and was in office for too short a time to embed the ‘new style of government’ he wanted. Intending the Cabinet to be ‘a rational process for policy formation and analysis’ so that some of the seemingly intractable problems facing government could be rationally solved (Hennessy 2000: 344), he ran government in a business-­like way. Sometimes described as authoritarian and intolerant, he was in fact very correct about the processes of Cabinet government, though he was a dominant prime minister who, to a much greater extent than in most governments, was able to control and direct the main thrust of economic policy. While personal deficiencies, misjudgments, and mistakes as a leader contributed to his problems and ultimate defeat, in office, Heath faced in the early 1970s some of the most difficult circumstances and challenges ever endured by a British government in peacetime. He performed a series of major ‘U-turns’ in response to events. Rolls-Royce and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders were taken into public ownership despite pledges that the government would not rescue ‘lame ducks’. Then earlier objections to state-directed economic planning and regional development were also reversed, with the 1972 Industry Act and the creation of the Industrial Development Executive. The initial ‘hands-off’ approach to industrial relations was abandoned and a policy of tripartism adopted following defeat at the hands of the striking miners in 1972. A statutory prices and



incomes policy then followed. This was perhaps the starkest of all the U-turns, given that the 1970 Conservative manifesto stated that ‘Labour’s compulsory wage control was a failure and we will not repeat it.’ Finally, the government U-turned on its stated intention to reduce public expenditure with the ‘Barber Boom’ (which then fell victim to another U-turn with the spending brake applied in late 1973) (Ball 1996: 328–330). All this put paid to any semblance of a coherent policy vision undergirding the Heath government. But it did not turn Heath into an opponent of the existing policy regime. Heath’s overriding objectives were always full employment and social peace, and although he had ambitious designs in Europe and was willing to U-turn when under pressure, he never went beyond being an advocate of a ‘better consensus’ (Hennessy 2000: 336). Meanwhile, poor communication and self-promotion, and lack of political capital with the party and the media, cost Heath particularly dearly—though it should be noted that in several cases resistance to changing course was anticipated at the time to have the potential to destabilise the regime even further.

3.4   Harold Wilson: ‘A Problem Shelved Is a Problem Solved’ Harold Wilson was a dominating figure in British politics from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. However, his record of major policy achievements was rather limited. While initially seeming a dynamic, reforming, and modernising figure of apparent radical promise at the start of his first period as prime minister (1964–1970), he ended up in his last term of office (1974–1976) having little to offer beyond a sort of Baldwin-esque quiet life, hoping something would turn up. He is often written off as a shabby and unprincipled manager of economic decline and a practitioner of political expediency and gimmickry, but in another light, winning four elections and as PM for eight years in total, he was one of the great—if battered—survivors of Downing Street. Wilson was consistently committed, over his political career, to a mixed economy, with a role for an interventionist and modernising state. Upon becoming party leader in the 1960s he had opportunistically latched on to fashionable reformist ideas. He brilliantly used a vague but compelling rhetoric of modernisation and reform of supposedly outdated and inefficient institutions and practices. This captured the contemporary public



mood, wrong-footing the supposedly old-fashioned and out-of-touch Tories. It also bypassed Labour’s bitter internal arguments over nationalisation, nuclear disarmament, and the meaning of socialism, providing a platform both wings of the party could subscribe to. Wilson was, at this time, an ‘orthodox-innovator’ (Skowronek 1993: 41–42) who aimed to head a moderate government pursuing moderate policies of progress and gradualist reform within the prevailing system. Later, in the 1970s he attacked what he depicted as Conservative free-market obsessions and dogma (Wilson 1970, 1971). The combination of rising inflation and unemployment he attributed to the Heath government’s incompetence and policy failures (Wilson 1972), mocking the Tories as ‘pre-Keynes’: ‘while we [Labour] have moved on from Keynes, vintage 1936, our opponents argue as though he had never even existed’ (Wilson 1974). Party unity was always a primary concern for Wilson. Fudging, trimming, or deviousness was justified if it kept the party together, bridged political differences, avoided difficulties, splits or resignations, and kept Labour electable. In the 1970s Labour’s internal ideological and factional divisions—on left/right issues and over Europe—became more intense and fractious. Bernard Donoughue (2005: 11) saw up close how Wilson ‘exhibited consummate skills in holding together a fissiparous party which was increasingly just a loose coalition of different and often conflicting interests and beliefs…it was…a remarkable feat of party management.’ Wilson himself said graphically he had to ‘wade through shit’ to hold Labour together on the Common Market issue (Healey 1989: 360). ‘I’m at my best in a messy middle-of-the-road muddle’, Wilson remarked in the middle of one political row in 1975 (Benn 1990: 305). But the gulf between Wilson and the increasingly left-dominated extra-parliamentary party, and the left at the parliamentary and Cabinet levels, articulating a different, reconstructive approach to resolving the regime’s difficulties, grew wider in those years. Arguably, his concern with trying to preserve party unity only delayed rather than averted the all-out conflict between Bennite left-wingers and Labour’s social democrats, manifested in the SDP split and the fierce infighting of the 1980s. Wilson tried to manage rather than confront head on Labour’s internal tensions and divisions, and to resolve what sort of party it was or should be, and what it stood for. It was probably the only thing he could realistically do, but it brought him little thanks then or later. Wilson’s politics are often depicted as more about positioning and manoeuvre than ideology and doctrine, which he tended to dismiss as



‘theology’. A master political tactician, not a strategist, he practised a short-term, pragmatic ‘keep-the-show-on-the-road’ style of politics. In this sense, Richard Crossman (1976: 159) described him as ‘an opportunist, always moving in zig-zags, darting with no sense of direction but making the best of each position he adopts.’ His political agility and skills were seen to best effect when he had a knife-edge majority in 1964–1966 and later when finessing the Common Market issue in the 1970s. The drawback with that approach was also noted by Crossman, who almost as soon as he entered the Cabinet in 1964 was complaining that ‘what we lacked was any comprehensive, thoroughly thought-out Government strategy. The policies are being thrown together’ (Crossman 1975: 39). The critical narrative of broken promises, ditched manifesto pledges, disillusionment, and ‘failure’ in the Wilson years is familiar and fairly easily put together, but often overdone (Ponting 1989; Coopey et  al. 1993; Dorey 2006). He did not lead great reforming governments; staying afloat and survival were more the order of the day. Not least the reason for this was that on both occasions when Wilson entered Number 10—in 1964 and again in 1974—he inherited massive economic crises. He certainly made serious policy errors of his own in handling these problems, but the extent to which much was beyond his control has to be acknowledged. The battle between 1964 and 1967 to deal with the balance of payments crisis and avoid devaluation of the pound entailed the sacrifice of Labour’s much-trumpeted plans for economic growth, rounds of painful public spending cuts and deflation, a squeeze on wages, and clashes with the unions. Wilson again took over in conditions of economic crisis in 1974— having to deal with ‘stagflation’, the impact of the oil price hike, another huge balance of payments deficit, and industrial unrest, and in a wider context of disjunctive regime crisis. Britain’s ‘most dangerous crisis since the war’ was how the Labour’s October 1974 manifesto described the situation, one made ‘all the more desperate because it was set in the context of a continuing world upheaval’ (Labour Party 1974). Concerned to manage expectations, Wilson emphasised the constraints of tough economic challenges and threats, and the ‘unparalleled problems and crises’ (Wilson 1974, 1975). Politically, he was also in a tight corner, heading a minority government from March 1974 and then winning only a tiny Commons majority of three in the October 1974 general election. Many have depicted Wilson as a fading and failing figure during his 1974–1976 premiership, one whose powers were declining and whose leadership was ‘erratic, directionless and indeed tawdry’ (Seldon and



Hickson 2004: 1). But for all his limitations he handled the disjunctive dilemma, and in particular the party management aspects, with some skill in this period. Ambiguity was a key Wilson tool in this respect (Bogdanor 2004: 6; Saunders 2018: 63). Above all, it was key to his major achievement in this term of office—navigating his way through the European Common Market issue minefield through skilful political management and timing (Donoughue 1987: 57). His own application to join had been vetoed by the French in 1967, but after 1970 the logic of Opposition politics and the current of opinion in the Labour Party had driven him to come out against the terms Heath had negotiated rather than the principle of membership. In practice, Wilson did not want to pull out of the EEC but wanted to keep his party united and in power (Pimlott 1992: 635–636). His balancing act was designed to keep pro- and anti-­marketeers on board and put back the day of reckoning. Back in government, he cleverly engineered a fairly cosmetic, but not entirely negligible, ‘renegotiation’ of Britain’s membership terms. Crucially, this gave doubters ‘permission to change their minds’ (Saunders 2018: 377). He then called a referendum in 1975, allowing ministers to argue their pro or anti cases in public, keeping the party uneasily together and resulting in an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote—perhaps his last great political ‘fix’. While there is a strong case that Wilson had himself ‘run out of ideas on what he could do for Britain’ when he returned to office in 1974 (Hennessy 2000: 359), it is clear that he was unenthusiastic about and opposed to the radical ideas for more state control, nationalisation, and intervention in private industry developed by the resurgent Labour left in the early 1970s and featured in the party’s 1973 policy programme, probably the most left-wing one since the 1930s (Pimlott 1992: 602–603; Taylor 2004: 73). Presenting himself as the ‘guardian of the manifesto’, particularly when facing party audiences, he moved in practice to shear off its most radical policies. He wanted to pursue a more consensual approach to industry (Artis et al. 1992: 44), and back in office, moved to neutralise and contain Tony Benn, allowing Whitehall and the Treasury to rewrite and water down the industrial policy. The ‘social contract’ agreed with the unions in Opposition allowed Wilson to present Labour as the party that could work with the unions, uniting rather than (like Heath and the Conservatives) dividing the nation, and involving voluntary wage restraint rather than a statutory incomes policy. Politically, it did the trick in February 1974, and Wilson quickly settled the miners’ strike and could again emphasise the themes of



consensus, compromise, conciliation, and moderation when he went back to the electorate in October 1974 (Ziegler 1993: 400–401), promising ‘a bit of peace and quiet’ (Butler and Kavanagh 1975: 112). But an accelerating wage-price spiral exposed the fact that the Labour government was unprepared for the scale and nature of the economic problems it faced (Tomlinson 2004: 56). There was no serious discussion or action on economic policy by the Labour Cabinet for the first twelve months of the government’s life (Donoughue 1987: 51). But the drift was ended with clear changes of budget policy in April 1975 and then with the adoption of an incomes policy a couple of months later. Cuts to public spending plans, the introduction of cash limits that further squeezed government spending, and the shift in priorities from reducing unemployment to containing and cutting inflation demonstrated the government’s recognition of the economic realities it faced. When Wilson left office in 1976 inflation was falling, the balance of payments was improving, and public expenditure was coming under control (Artis et al. 1992: 46). However, international market confidence remained a major problem, as Callaghan discovered in the 1976 sterling crisis, and the discontents, anomalies, and frustrations built up over the next three years of wage restraint eventually blew the lid off the incomes policy and fatally damaged his successor’s government.

3.5   James Callaghan’s Pragmatic Stabilisation and Crisis Management With his deep roots in the Labour movement, long parliamentary apprenticeship, a reassuring public image, and wide experience in major offices of state and executive ability, James Callaghan was well-equipped for the disjunctive leader’s tasks of crisis management and political brokerage when he succeeded Wilson in April 1976. A shrewd operator, a realist, a tough pragmatist, and a skilled fixer, he was a successful practitioner of the politics of survival, holding his government and party together and surmounting a series of economic and political crises that could have wrecked his administration long before it finally hit the rocks in 1979. Callaghan had built his career as a practical, moderate, and non-­ doctrinaire Labour politician. First elected to Parliament in 1945, he supported the postwar consensus policies of the mixed economy and the welfare state: ‘he regarded Attlee’s consensus as his abiding point of



reference and always took it as his ideological starting point’ (Morgan 1997: 749). He warned against the social and economic consequences of ‘a return to the nineteenth century free market’ (Callaghan 1979a), arguing that the monetarism advocated by Keith Joseph would mean an unemployment rate ‘way beyond the levels of the 1930s’ (Callaghan 1977). On broader political, social, and cultural issues, he shared the small-c conservative views of Labour’s working-class base. He was close to Tony Crosland, the leading postwar social-democratic ‘revisionist’ intellectual, and shared his general approach, but Callaghan was always foremost a political operator, often giving the impression that he would prefer to allow sleeping ideological dogs to rest (Jones 1996: 84). In Labour Party terms, Callaghan represented the solid centre-right ‘labourist’ loyalists, winning the leadership as a stabiliser and balancer, a consolidator and a moderate, rather than a confrontational figure (Williams 1982). His power base in the party rested on his role as a long-time champion and supporter of the trade unions. But with constituency activists, Labour’s party apparatus, and many unions lurching to leftward, he faced increasingly difficult problems of party management. He forged a close and trusting relationship with Michael Foot (who became deputy leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the House of Commons) that shored up support from the left, while carefully isolating and neutralising the threat from Tony Benn. At the same time, the social-democratic right was increasingly on the political and intellectual defensive within the party, and weakened by the loss of leadership figures (with the death of Tony Crosland and the departure of Roy Jenkins to become European Commission president). While Callaghan was necessarily preoccupied with trying to maintain a minimum of party unity and ‘keeping the show on the road’ there was a notable absence of Wilsonian tricks, gimmickry, and ideological smoke screens. Callaghan’s government confirmed the change of course already under way under Wilson (Ludlam 1992), Labour’s period in office between 1974 and 1979 under both prime ministers thus marking a watershed in postwar British political economy, moving away from Keynesian policies and deficit financing, regarding inflation rather than unemployment as the most serious problem, imposing cash limits on and big cuts in public spending, and adopting money supply targets. Callaghan had played down expectations from the start of his premiership, emphasising the economic problems, that ‘no one owes Britain a living’, and that there was ‘no soft option’ in his first prime ministerial broadcast (The Times 1976). He tried



to educate unreceptive party and union activists in the new economic ‘facts of life’, warning in his famous 1976 Labour conference speech about paying ourselves with ‘confetti money’ and that full employment could no longer be guaranteed ‘by a stroke of the Chancellor’s pen’: We used to think that you could spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting Government spending. I tell you in all candour that that option no longer exists, and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting a bigger dose of inflation into the economy, followed by a higher level of unemployment as the next step. (Callaghan 1976)

This apparent renunciation of the post-1945 Keynesian consensus has often been taken as a major turning point, but that speech had a tactical purpose. The intended audience was as much international as domestic. The aim was to ‘appease the markets’ (Burk and Cairncross 1992: 160) and win support from US and European policymakers by demonstrating British resolve. The policy shift in Callaghan’s time, as in Wilson’s, was more a matter of pragmatic response and adaptation rather than ideological conversion. Whatever the left’s later charges, he was no proto-Thatcherite and no monetarist. He was arguably trying to update, not repudiate, Keynesianism (Morgan 1997: 537). In an example of ‘inter-paradigm borrowing’, Callaghan’s government was, in effect, deploying some monetarist techniques (such as a published money supply target) in an attempt to shore up the prevailing Keynesian model (Hay 2011: 22–23). Maintaining financial confidence and tackling inflation necessitated the practice of what could be called ‘monetarily constrained Keynesianism’ (Fforde 1983: 204). Callaghan himself later claimed that he was simply recognising the limitations of a simplistic Keynesian approach in the circumstances of the time, not ruling out for all time increased public spending to reduce unemployment, though emphasising the importance of being ‘prudent in economic affairs’ and that ‘certain monetary disciplines were essential to good economic management’ (Callaghan 1987: 427). While Callaghan did not accept monetarist theology, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, was also a reluctant and ‘unbelieving monetarist’ (Hickson 2004: 45). Indeed, within a short time, as the economy stabilised, the government reverted to a more orthodox neo-Keynesian position, reflating the economy to tackle unemployment and using an incomes policy to



limit inflation (Hickson 2005: 212). In addition, Callaghan remained committed to a corporatist approach, encouraging and supporting, for instance, the work of the National Economic Development Council on industrial policy (McIntosh 2006: 265, 357–358) and remaining committed to ‘building the widest possible economic consensus with the unions, employers and Government’ (Callaghan 1979b). However, as well as questioning central tenets of the Keynesian economic management approach that no longer seemed to work (Donoughue 1987: 80), this period also saw the crumbling of the revisionist social-­ democratic strategy of pursuing egalitarian and welfare goals through economic growth and high public spending (Jones 1996: 103), though there were some elements of social-democratic policy continuity (Artis et  al. 1992: 56; Crook 2019). But Callaghan had no alternative doctrine or positive strategy to put in its place. ‘Remaking’ the Labour Party was beyond his scope. He had no desire to reduce the size of the welfare state but, within limits, was interested in limited innovation and, in some respects, mapping a slightly different path to Wilson, though he faced internal party and union opposition to the ideas about improving standards, accountability, and responsiveness to public service users (such as in education, health, and housing) that he and some of his advisers contemplated (Fielding 2004: 291–292; Donoughue 1987: 111–112, 167–168). Callaghan’s public political character as an affable, bluff, and avuncular safe-pair-of- hands politician, offering a reassuring and safety-first common-­sense approach to problems, worked to his advantage. An elementary school boy from a deprived working-class background, and someone who had worked as a trade union official as a young man, his Labour movement credentials could never be doubted. But more popular in the opinion polls than his own party and the Opposition leader (and still personally outpolling Margaret Thatcher even in April 1979), he had more of the common touch than Wilson, Heath, or Thatcher, and also embodied an old-fashioned patriotism, traditional law-and-order, family values, and morality, which gave him a significant cross-class, ‘Baldwinesque’ national appeal. From the beginning of his tenure, however, Callaghan was constrained by daunting economic and political circumstances that meant that his premiership was largely an exercise in playing for time and staving off catastrophe rather than more constructive policy achievement. Against this background, Callaghan’s handling of the 1976 International Monetary Fund (IMF) crisis showed his great skills in tactical political management



and canny deal making (Burk and Cairncross 1992; Hickson 2005). Through a marathon sequence of difficult ministerial meetings (twenty-six over two months), Callaghan patiently allowed all ministers to have their say, put forward their ideas, and voice their opinions. He let the different Cabinet factions discuss the problems and the options, talk themselves out, and edge towards acceptance of a £2.5  billion package of public spending cuts as the price for securing a massive IMF loan and stabilising the pound in the international markets. He had resisted IMF pressure for even more draconian cuts and avoided ministerial resignations, the break­up of the Labour Cabinet, and damage to social benefits (e.g., health prescription charges). In terms of Labour Party history, he had thus avoided a repeat of the disastrous events of 1931 and 1951. He succeeded in his primary objective of maintaining the unity of his Cabinet and keeping the Labour Party in power. Politically, Callaghan’s government was always living on borrowed time in the sense that Labour’s fragile majority in Parliament disappeared almost immediately after he took over and backbench rebels were a constant source of trouble. For three years he struggled through, stitching together majorities in deals with minor parties and helped by the negotiation of the Lib-Lab pact (1977–1978) that, in truth, saw Callaghan give very little to the Liberal Party in return for their support in the division lobbies. There was also a more informal and publicly denied understanding with some Ulster Unionist MPs that helped the government manage the parliamentary pitfalls of minority government. The Lib-Lab pact effectively bought time and gave Callaghan a 20-month breathing space in which Labour could start to benefit from the recovery of the economy, improve its poll ratings against the Conservatives, and look like a fairly successful government in the circumstances, one that knew what it was doing. It was at that point that Callaghan’s normally sure judgement and political touch failed him. After three years of severe wage restraint (which had brought inflation down from 25 per cent in 1975 to 8 per cent in 1978), the 5 per cent pay norm he personally insisted upon for 1978–1979 was unrealistic and undeliverable. Union bosses and other ministers were aghast, but given the chance, he would have been even tougher in the attempt to squeeze inflation out of the system, at times talking about a zero per cent target for pay increases. With falling real living standards and squeezed differentials, pressure and resentment among factory-floor and public sector workers were building. Then, Callaghan confounded



expectations by deciding against calling an election in October 1978. With the benefit of hindsight, this is always seen as a disastrous tactical mistake, but Callaghan had carefully studied private polling evidence (particularly in marginal seats) and concluded that the result would be another hung parliament and a minority Labour government. He had tired of the messy compromises and muddling-through that involved. He thought that the pay policy would work, assuming the unions would not do anything to risk the election of a Conservative government, and that, by hanging on, Labour’s prospects would improve with another period of steady administration and economic advance. Calling an early election looked to Callaghan like a high-risk move. The three preceding general elections (June 1970, February 1974, and October 1974) had all been called early and had delivered poorer results for the incumbent governments than predicted by the opinion polls (two defeats for the PMs concerned and one wafer-thin majority). But then, it all went wrong. His government’s political and economic successes turned to ash during the strikes, militancy, and disruption of the subsequent ‘winter of discontent’ of late 1978 and early 1979. Callaghan himself seemed indecisive and irresolute—almost paralysed—in the face of the explosion of union power that destroyed Labour’s reputation as the party that could most effectively ‘work with the unions’. It was a failure of party leadership, with the group Callaghan supposedly knew best and had defended when the Wilson Labour government had tried to regulate union power in the late 1960s. It was also a failure of national leadership, an attempt to play the lofty world statesman producing the infamous and lethal newspaper headline ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ The government finally collapsed, losing a vote of confidence in Parliament, after the failure of the devolution referendums in Scotland and Wales in March 1979. Labour’s election messages about competence (the economy was recovering) and conciliation (promising a new understanding with the unions) lacked credibility (Jefferys 1993: 101), and the Callaghan government had in effect lost the May 1979 election months before it was actually held.

3.6   Conclusion Wilson’s, Heath’s, and Callaghan’s political careers stretched across the whole arc of political time, encompassing the establishment, management, decay, crisis, and breakdown of the Keynesian welfare state regime. They entered Parliament and began their political careers as the Attlee



government pushed through its reforming and reconstructive programme. They climbed the political ladder in the 1950s and 1960s when political debate and the tasks of government centred on how to make the mixed-­ economy, welfare-capitalist, ‘corporate bias’ system work best. In the 1970s they grappled unsuccessfully with its deepening vulnerabilities, tensions, and contradictions. Out of power in the 1980s, they lived to witness Thatcher’s radical reconstruction of regime priorities, policies, and the political order. Having come to power in 1970 and encountered a regime manifesting increasing signs of enervation, it is hard to escape the conclusion that, in February 1974, Heath left a regime that had been further destabilised. In the economic sphere, Heath left the nation in recession with inflation, borrowing, the money supply, and public expenditure all at higher levels than he inherited. Only unemployment remained, by later standards, low. As Hall records, Heath’s premiership coincided with the beginning of the end of the Keynesian era in which such ‘policies proved increasingly inadequate to the economic challenges facing the nation and more productive of political problems than solutions’ (Hall 1986: 93–94). However, even allowing for these constraints, Heath’s actions frequently exacerbated these problems. For example, the relaxation of monetary policy during Heath’s ‘dash for growth’ saw lending funnelled into property speculation. When this property bubble burst at the end of 1973 it in turn triggered a crisis in the secondary banking sector, leading to Britain’s first bank crisis since 1866. Heath was also fortunate to escape some of the economic consequences of his actions. His successors were often less lucky. For example, the threshold clause in Stage Three of Heath’s incomes policy contributed to further substantial wage inflation in the first year of the Wilson government. Similarly, the decision to float the pound initially delivered an ‘Indian Summer’ (Hirowatari 2015: 77). However, a floating rate regime diminished the capacity of the Treasury to defend sterling and enhanced the power of market sentiment, as later seen in the 1976 IMF crisis. Heath’s technocratic approach to government solved none of the major governing challenges of the time, and his actions in office ultimately undermined support for the regime within the Conservative Party. The circumstances in which the Heath government fell in 1974 validated those who had expressed misgivings about incomes policies and neo-­corporatism, and encouraged reassessment amongst those who had not. Ideological hostility to Heath’s position played a significant role in the outcome of the



party’s 1975 leadership election. Although Thatcher was circumspect in her promotion of reconstructive politics while Leader of the Opposition, the way was open to construct a narrative in which governing failures were traced back to Heath’s ‘betrayal’ of the ‘Selsdon’ prospectus. Wilson’s approach to the management of disjunction involved postponing hard choices, playing for time, and strategic sequencing of decisions. At its best, this could mean lowering the political temperature or anaesthetising dissent and opposition. More negatively it could mean trying to evade important but insoluble questions—a belief that ‘a problem shelved is a problem solved’ (Ziegler 1993: 432, 435)—something that only stored up trouble for later. There was also a strong sense that Wilson was able or willing to fight only one major political or policy battle at a time after 1974 (Donoughue 1987: 55): prioritising, first of all, re-­ election, then the EEC renegotiation and referendum, while being distracted by the need to settle industrial policy disputes and having to spend time on the devolution issue. As the head of the Number 10 Policy Unit put it, Wilson sometimes gave the impression of being reluctant to face the growing economic crisis. He had also shrewdly learned from long and painful previous experience that if a major economic crisis is looming it is politically better to wait until the seriousness of the situation is unmistakably apparent to one’s ministerial colleagues; only when it is demonstrably serious will they accept that painful decisions must inescapably be taken. (Donoughue 1987: 60)

Treasury officials in this period were similarly trusting to a ‘crisis’ atmosphere and external events and pressures to bounce ministers into tough decisions. By 1975–1976 Wilson had steered some difficult decisions through to start tackling public spending, inflation, and incomes policy, but his government had not resolved the central economic problems so much as buy time (Whitehead 1985: 153). Given his economic and political inheritance and context, Callaghan was a better prime minister than he was given credit for following Labour’s 1979 defeat. He showed steel and was a canny operator, though he paid the price for his misjudgements in relation to the trade unions, pay policy, and election timing in 1978–1979. Overall, the economic record for 1974–1979 was in many ways better than Labour’s critics pretend (Artis et al. 1992). Playing ‘the calm pilot in the storms’ (Morgan 1987: 272), Callaghan’s skills as an astute political operator and party manager were



just what the situation needed, even though he ran out of steam at the end, making fatal miscalculations and blunders in his final year. In a wider sense, however, Callaghan’s premiership had an ‘end of an era’ feel to it, and he was a politician better equipped for solid ‘steady-as-­ we-go’ administration and for conducting a holding operation than for solving the Labour Party’s deepening identity crisis or articulating new goals and values as a basis for reconstructing the regime. Union unrest and the steadily widening ideological cracks within the Labour Party also defeated his attempts to play the stabiliser. Ultimately, it seemed that Callaghan and his government were just hanging on, hoping to win re-­ election, but with no strong sense of destination, vision, or purpose beyond short-term political survival (Donoughue 1987: 167; Brivati 1998). Serving as prime minister at a time when the postwar consensus was unravelling, and recognising that ‘the old certainties are being challenged’ (Callaghan 1978) and that he could not control or oppose the ‘sea change’ that was occurring in British politics (Donoughue 1987: 191; 2008: 7), Callaghan could not chart a new course for his party, government, or the regime, and his managerial, centrist pragmatism was ultimately ineffective.

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The Collapse of the Neoliberal Consensus 2008–2019: Brown, Cameron, May

Abstract  The premierships of Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Theresa May were each preoccupied with vulnerabilities of the neoliberal regime. These included severe economic problems (only one of which was the 2008 global financial crisis), substantially increased electoral volatility, shifting social attitudes on a range of issues, and, overlaying these, Brexit and the rise of Corbynism. Brown (2007–2010) proved a capable crisis manager with his adroit handling of the 2008 global financial crisis, but was limited in his ability to repair the existing regime due to his strong affiliation with the New Labour project. Cameron (2010–2016) was more strategic, but also faced a broader array of more pressing regime vulnerabilities, most notably the rise of third parties such as the SNP and UKIP, the latter of which led to the fateful decision to hold the EU membership referendum. May (2016–2019) confronted a fairly unique situation after becoming leader in the wake of the EU membership referendum and struggled to devise a strategy for achieving a form of Brexit that would satisfy both the Leave and Remain tribes, which prevented her from proceeding with a meaningful domestic agenda. Keywords  Gordon Brown • David Cameron • Theresa May • Neoliberalism • Brexit • Crisis management

© The Author(s) 2020 C. Byrne et al., Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership in British Politics, Palgrave Studies in Political Leadership, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-44911-7_4




4.1   Introduction There has been no shortage of commentary emphasising the epochal nature of the EU referendum. Before the vote, David Cameron described it as a ‘once in a generation’ decision, more important than any general election. Since then, the vote is said to have overturned half a century of economic and foreign policies in Britain, shattered the political establishment, irrevocably divided the UK, sounded a rejection of globalisation, weakened Europe and the West, and, in ‘echoes of the 1930s’, unleashed rival populisms of left and right (Stephens 2016). In one account, 23 June 2016 was ‘the day Britain stopped being a liberal country’ (Peck 2016). Although the academic literature has been more circumspect, Brexit is still said to have transformed both Labour and the Conservatives and placed in doubt the fundamentals of Britain’s political economy, the UK’s territorial integrity, and Britain’s role in world politics (Gamble 2018). Similar claims have been made about the reconstructive potential of Corbynism (Mason 2017), while after the 2008 global financial crisis there was an abundance of commentary positing the end of neoliberalism (see, e.g., Rudd 2009; Wolf 2009; Kotz 2009). This chapter’s first objective is to consider what the neoliberal political regime is, so we can think through why it might have become more vulnerable in recent years. To that end, the neoliberal regime is modelled as an ‘active’ form of liberalism geared towards promotion of competition and workfarist social policies. It seeks to create more enterprising, industrious, and resilient citizens. It is also embedded in systems of multi-level governance, including the EU, that have effectively depoliticised swathes of economic and other policies. Three broad indicators of the breakdown of the neoliberal consensus are then considered, linked to economic performance, electoral dealignment, and shifts in public opinion. Following that, attention turns to the central objective of specifying the dilemmas faced, and responses made by Gordon Brown, David Cameron, and Theresa May, as affiliates of this enervated regime.

4.2   The Neoliberal Regime The term neoliberalism is overused, making an exact meaning difficult to specify (Venugopal 2015; Byrne 2017). But, if we take the postwar consensus as our starting point, some distinguishing features of the neoliberal regime quickly become apparent. To begin with, in economic policy,



whereas the postwar consensus rested on a Keynesian approach to economic management that prioritised full employment, the neoliberal consensus rests on a Schumpterian one that prioritises low inflation and low interest rates. The Keynesian growth model was predicated on a virtuous circle of mass production, rising productivity stemming from economies of scale, and rising real incomes enabling mass consumption and further productive investment. This was sustained by an interventionist state that sought to maintain aggregate demand using fiscal policy and corporatist wage bargaining (Jessop 2002: 56). The neoliberal growth model is predicated on ‘creatively destructive innovation’ by more flexible and decentralised firms, with a state that tends to eschew centralised wage bargaining and industrial policy in favour of competition policy and policies designed to increase the skills base of the national economy (Jessop 2002: 99). Implicit in this Schumpterian approach to economic management is a particular understanding of the crucial role of entrepreneurship in the national economy. Its role is not to find efficiencies in existing business practices in order to challenge existing market leaders, but to create new markets and to service new consumer demands altogether. Within this paradigm, the state’s role in economic management is much diminished: its purpose is investment in education and training, and measures to disseminate technological advances throughout the national economy. The prospects of the state securing indefinite economic growth through judicious management of aggregate demand or, alternatively, picking winners are both severely downgraded. Instead, economic growth arises from skilful entrepreneurship, which states can encourage by properly incentivising entrepreneurship with low corporate taxes and fewer burdensome regulations (Davies 2014: 53). The shift from a Keynesian to a Schumpterian economic policymaking paradigm also entails the demise of the mixed economy, as state-owned enterprises are privatised in keeping with the rolling back or drastic reformulation of industrial policy. However, it would be mistaken to regard neoliberalism as a strictly laissez-faire doctrine in this respect, not only because many of these privatised industries require indefinite regulatory oversight, but also because the neoliberal state actively promotes economic competition in quasi-markets and outside markets generally. Perhaps the defining feature of neoliberalism as an approach to government, distinguishing it from the ‘club government’ in place until the 1970s (Moran 2007), is its tendency to constantly expand the scope of economic measurement so as to extend the spheres of society governed via



forms of economic competition. Economic experts play a crucial role in this since they devise metrics that render incommensurable phenomena commensurable and, therefore, rankable, which enables rewards and punishments to be meted out to achieve governing objectives (Davies 2014: 188). The neoliberal regime also entails a distinctive approach to social policy. In the Keynesian era, social policy sought to insure individuals against the risk of unemployment, as well as to generalise consumption. In the neoliberal era, the individual is seen as responsible for his or her lack of employment, and the ethical reconstruction of the individual becomes the objective of social policy. The aim is to make individuals more industrious and enterprising, to equip them with new skills, and to have them work towards qualifications. Neoliberal social policy has become gradually more interventionist and invasive in this respect. Under Thatcher the main thrust was reducing benefits levels to better incentivise work and providing financial incentives for unemployed people to start businesses. In the New Labour and coalition years conditionality became increasingly strict, to the point where unemployed people were expected, under threat of sanction, to take part in mock work experience exercises in Job Centres and various forms of counselling (Byrne 2018). The neoliberal regime is also highly depoliticised due to its embeddedness in systems of multi-level governance. As noted above, as a governing project neoliberalism coalesced in the turbulent political climate of the 1970s and, in the British context, to a large extent reacted to a perceived crisis of governability. Depoliticisation—the process of ‘placing at one remove the political character of decision-making’ to insulate politicians from the consequences of potentially unpopular decisions (Burnham 2001: 128)—was the unacknowledged solution to this crisis of governability. Depoliticisation can take several forms, including delegation, whereby nation-state functions are hived-off and given over to quasi- and non-state actors operating at various territorial levels, and privatisation, which essentially commodifies access to important social goods and services, placing the onus on individuals to obtain them via markets and quasi-markets (Wood and Flinders 2014: 155). The globalised nature of the neoliberal political regime has also meant that such depoliticisation has often taken place through delegation of responsibilities to supra-national political entities such as the EU. The winners from this new growth model—the beneficiaries of lower corporation tax and lower income tax at the upper end of the income



scale, workers in deregulated financial markets and in other economic sectors that boomed in the neoliberal era, public servants with a role in multi-­ level governance, and the recipients of the redistribution of the proceeds of the neoliberal growth model—have formed the basis of the electoral coalition behind successive neoliberal governments. However, a particular ideological vision is also at play. National competitiveness discourses which emerged in the 1980s and 1990s furnished neoliberalism with a basis for political authority premised on a view of the nation as akin to a corporation operating in a context of heightened global economic competition, with the prime minister as CEO and citizens as employees. Within this paradigm, the job of political leaders became to strategically analyse the economic, social, and cultural resources of the nation to harness them for future prosperity—or, alternatively, ‘the strategic abandoning of unproductive resources’—so that Western economies could compete, in Schumpterian fashion, not on the basis of price, but of quality, innovation, and differentiation. This contributes to what Davies (2014: 3) sees as the ‘disenchantment of politics by economics’ inherent in neoliberalism, amounting to ‘an attempt to replace political judgement with economic evaluation, including, but not exclusively, the evaluations offered by markets.’

4.3   Vulnerabilities in the Neoliberal Regime One clear indication of vulnerability in the neoliberal regime is economic dysfunction. Just as the collapse of Keynesian welfarism resulted in severe recessions in 1974 and 1980, as well as massive inflation and increased unemployment in both periods, the 2008 global financial crisis and aftershocks such as the European debt crisis led to a recession and increased unemployment—although notably without a large bout of inflation, mainly due to the prolonged US recession between 2007 and 2009 and the UK’s austerity policies after 2010. However, GDP growth rates and other common economic indicators cannot tell the full story of the neoliberal regime’s dysfunctions. This is because of key features of the neoliberal growth model: readily available personal credit, sustained by a steadily rising housing market over several decades; a low-inflation, low-interest rate macroeconomic environment, facilitated by depoliticised monetary policies; and capital inflows from China and South-East Asia, which have helped Western economies accommodate large trade deficits (Hay 2011). This combination of factors contributed to a consumer boom fuelled by



growing private indebtedness (implicitly conceptualised as never-ending), and only made possible by the maintenance of a highly deregulated, highly competitive market for credit. This has been referred to as ‘privatised Keynesianism’ because, whereas in classical Keynesianism public spending was key to raising and generalising demand, nowadays a similar role is performed by private debt, secured against rising property prices (Crouch 2011; Hay and Smith 2013). When considering the pathologies of this growth model, three aspects are particularly noteworthy. The first is its pro-cyclical nature: the financial incentives built into the neoliberal growth model encouraged demand for and supply of sub-prime lending, high loan-to-value ratios and the tendency towards equity release among consumers. This injected demand into the economy when growth was strong, contributing to an overheated housing market. Second, the priority afforded to propping up the housing market through low interest rates and a regulatory environment that tightly limits new housebuilding led to the emergence of ‘Generation Rent’. For this group, renting privately is the only foreseeable option given attrition in the social housing stock and the near impossibility of saving a deposit large enough to get a mortgage, particularly in big cities and particularly in southern England. Third, the valorisation of entrepreneurialism and accommodation of tech firms making up the ‘sharing economy’ by neoliberal governments has led to the emergence of the ‘gig economy’, in which app-based platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo dole out work in bits and pieces in real time. The result is highly precarious, low-paid work for approximately 1.3 million Britons employed in this sector (Kobie 2018). More broadly, wage growth was so slow to recover after the 2008 financial crisis that inflation-adjusted wages have still not attained their pre-crisis levels (Office for National Statistics (ONS) 2019). Compounding this problem is growing discontent with the workfarist social policies of the 2000s and 2010s, centred around reductions in payments to benefits recipients and stricter conditionality, designed to incentivise work. This is reflected in Labour’s 2017 election manifesto commitments to scrap the ‘Bedroom Tax’ and the sanctions regime implemented under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and to ‘reform and redesign’ Universal Credit. While it could be argued that the coalition government’s social policy reforms have been a major factor in keeping unemployment low in the post-2010 period, there is also strong evidence that they have driven a major increase in food bank usage, with the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank network, having increased



from fewer than 100 food banks nationally in 2012 to over 1200 in 2019. Two-thirds of households referred to food banks have experienced problems with the benefit system in the past 12 months (Sosenko et al. 2019). A second indicator of neoliberal dysfunction is the new pattern of support for British political parties driven by epochal economic, social, and cultural changes, outlined by Jennings and Stoker (2017b). In economic terms, the ‘knowledge economy’ has developed primarily in major cities and university towns with a productive niche in the global economy, while areas that were ‘the stars of nineteenth and twentieth century industrial production or domestic tourism’ have faded (Jennings and Stoker 2017b: 30). In social terms, there have been major changes to the British class structure, with a noticeable geographical patterning. Cosmopolitan areas not only attract disproportionate numbers of migrants, they are also disproportionately populated by members of the elite, the technical middle class, and new affluent workers even if they also contain a moderately sized ‘precariat’ of essential but precariously employed cleaners, caretakers, van drivers, and cashiers (Savage et  al. 2013). Meanwhile, the ‘left behind’ suburbs, post-industrial towns, and rural and coastal areas are disproportionately populated by the ‘traditional’ middle and working classes, and the new technical middle class, some new affluent workers, and the remaining precariat. Lastly, in cultural terms, although cosmopolitan and left behind areas differ little in support for equal opportunities for women and distrust of national politicians, a pattern is emerging in which social liberalism (mainly support for diversity and multiculturalism, and strong opposition to discrimination based on gender, sexuality, and ethnicity) is much stronger in the former than in the latter, which tend instead to place greater value on authority and national belonging (Jennings and Stoker 2017b: 34). In combination, these changes are reconstructing the electoral coalitions behind each of the major parties, as well as activating parts of the electorate marginalised by the neoliberal consensus of the Blair-Brown-­ Cameron years (Evans and Tilley 2017). This indicates that one foundation of the neoliberal consensus—the electoral coalition underpinning it—is being eroded. Labour’s vote has grown in cosmopolitan areas and the Conservatives have made major inroads into Leave-voting former Labour strongholds in areas of relative economic decline. This was evident at the 2017 general election, when Labour’s share of the vote in industrial and provincial-coastal areas remained more or less static, but increased markedly in cosmopolitan areas (Jennings and Stoker 2017a: 37). The



same trend was also evident at the 2019 general election, with all but seven of the Conservative’s 66-seat gains coming in Leave-leaning constituencies. Before the 2016 EU membership referendum and the 2017 general election, this story was largely one of UKIP’s rise. It won the 2014 European Parliament elections on 27 per cent of the vote (the first time since 1910 that neither the Conservatives nor Labour came first in a nationwide election), by which time it had also become the most popular choice among its core constituency of older, white, working-class men in terms of voting intention at general elections (Ford and Goodwin 2014: 278). Although it is tempting to explain UKIP away as a single-issue party, by arguing that its rise coincided neatly with increased Euroscepticism following the European debt crisis, the picture is more complicated. Hard Euroscepticism formed just one part of its appeal among ‘left behind’ voters, and, in any case, the political nous of the party’s leadership fused Euroscepticism with the issues of immigration and responses to the 2008 financial crisis. As Ford and Goodwin (2014: 279) note, many UKIP voters lacked ‘the educational qualifications, incomes and skills that are needed to adapt and thrive amid a modern post-industrial economy’, and blamed the out-of-touch Westminster establishment that had allowed unprecedented levels of immigration without regard for the economic and social dislocation it caused, and which looked down on UKIP voters with disdain for their ‘parochial and intolerant’ social values. From this perspective, the repoliticising connotations of ‘Take Back Control’, Vote Leave’s central message in the 2016 EU membership referendum, arguably signalled a rejection of the depoliticised neoliberal economic management that had been facilitated by European integration. However, UKIP’s rise was not the only indication of increased volatility in the party system around this time. SNP support accelerated in Scotland after 2010. The Liberal Democrats enjoyed successes at the 2010 general election and the 2019 European Parliament elections. In addition, the newly formed Brexit Party won victory in the 2019 European Parliament elections after Theresa May further extended Britain’s withdrawal deadline. Mellon et al. (2018: 728) have shown that electoral volatility, as measured by the rate of campaign and inter-election vote switching, has increased in recent electoral cycles. If in 2010 and 2015 this switching largely cancelled itself out, giving a false impression of stability, in 2017 it did not, with Labour winning 54 per cent of switchers, including over half of undecideds, compared to just 22 per cent for the Conservatives.



A third potential indicator of neoliberal dysfunction, and one closely related to this shift in party support, is changes in public opinion on a range of social and political issues. Grasso et al. (2019) analysed views on a range of issues relating to public spending (e.g., inequality, government redistribution, and benefits spending) and law and order (the death penalty and sentencing). They found that ‘Thatcher’s Children’, the generation born between 1956 and 1976 and politically socialised in the Thatcher years, tend towards strongly libertarian-authoritarian values. ‘Blair’s Babies’ (born during 1977–1990) exhibit even stronger libertarian-­ authoritarian values, reflecting the decisive impact of protracted one-party rule followed by convergence on the centre-ground by opposition parties. However, British Social Attitudes data provides some evidence of the emergence of a new cohort in the electorate that could be described as ‘Corbyn’s Children’. ‘Neoliberal’ views on redistribution have steadily declined throughout the austerity era, with a roughly 11 per cent fall in respondents disagreeing that government should spend more to help the poor after 2010, and a 4.6 per cent fall in the proportion of people saying that the government should not redistribute. Similarly, there were 3.4, 8.9, and 10.9 per cent falls in the same time period in the proportion agreeing that benefits are too high, that the unemployed could find a job if they wanted to, and that ‘people should learn to stand on their own two feet’, respectively. Meanwhile, in terms of views on punishment and authority, there have been 8.6, 11.3, and 10.4 per cent falls in the proportion who wish to see the death penalty reinstated, want stiffer sentences, and think children should be taught to obey authority, respectively. There are reasons for caution in positing that such trends might augur the collapse of the neoliberal political regime. The directionality of the relationship between changing social and political attitudes and shifts in the basis of governing authority is unclear, and while there has apparently been a decline in neoliberal attitudes, clear majorities still exhibit the neoliberal view. However, this is what we would expect given the ‘thermostatic’ character of the political centre in Britain (Bartle et al. 2011), which shifts in response to changes in unemployment, inflation, and government activity. Although the scale of unemployment after the 2008 global financial crisis did not match past disjunctive periods, such as after 1929 and 1979, to a large extent this is attributable to slower wage growth, so a leftward drift of the political centre is still to be expected. Similarly, given that neoliberalism relies on economic experts to spread economic measurement and generate ‘quantitative facts’ about the forms of competition



in which individuals, firms, and nations are placed, we would expect to see declining levels of trust in experts, broadly defined. This has also been the case, with public trust in the banks, the press, the government and the BBC having collapsed precipitously since the late 1980s.

4.4   Gordon Brown and the Financial Crisis: A Fourth Way? Given these vulnerabilities in the neoliberal regime, the next task is to determine the political positioning of the prime ministers who have had to address them, in order to understand the specificities of their disjunctive dilemmas. Of these leaders, Brown’s ideological positioning is probably the easiest to pin down. Brown’s premiership began in 2007 with expectations that he would manage the existing political regime, which, at that point, was still generally robust, and which he had helped maintain as Blair’s long-serving chancellor (Theakston 2011: 91). Indeed, upon becoming prime minister, Brown made no serious attempt to distance himself from Blair, with whom there had been personal disputes, but few policy differences. He also ultimately decided against calling an election to win a personal mandate in late 2007, at the cost of appearing dithering and sapping his momentum, which might have been used to initiate a change of direction. Brown (2007a) insisted that he would lead ‘a new Government with new priorities’, but the fundamentals of his worldview were the same: a distinctively Blairite mobilisation of past, present, and future, in which the present is articulated as a wholly novel epoch, characterised by accelerating technological change, and necessitating an updating of Labour’s traditional values to secure a fairer and more prosperous future for Britain in a newly globalised world (Randall 2009). That is not to say there were no differences between Brown’s and Blair’s prime ministerial offerings. The Brown government, like the preceding Blair governments, pressed for legal remedies to inequalities experienced by women and ethnic minorities, but placed a renewed emphasis on the obstacles that socio-economic inequalities posed for social mobility. Brown was keen to project a moral case for social mobility in which hard work and effort should triumph over ‘the accident of birth or the brute luck of circumstances’ (Brown 2007b), and an economic case predicated on the notion that social mobility guarantees efficient use of human capital. There was also a limited scaling-back of the Blair government’s



target-driven approach to public service management and a new narrative around public services emphasising ‘a radical shift of power to the users’ (Brown 2009a) backed by greater accessibility to information and enhanced rights to participate in decision-making. However, none of these differences represented a genuine challenge to the existing regime, whether in terms of policies and their institutional underpinnings, the types of voters appealed to, or the ideological vision guiding this appeal. What changed things was the 2008 global financial crisis. This ended a roughly 15-year period of relative economic success and caused a deep recession of over 6 per cent between the first quarter of 2008 and the second quarter of 2009 (Gamble 2009). This suddenly and drastically altered perceptions of the continued viability of the regime and turned Brown into a disjunctive political leader virtually overnight. Brown’s response to the sudden onset of regime vulnerabilities was a series of costly bailouts of large financial institutions, as part of which he also took a leading role at the 2008 G7 meeting and in discussions with eurozone leaders to achieve a co-ordinated international response in terms of bank recapitalisation. Given the potential consequences of not proceeding with the bailouts, and the kind of opposition provided by Cameron’s Conservatives, these proved relatively uncontentious. Brown’s discursive framing of the bailouts also ensured this: they were exceptional measures necessitated by the looming possibility of economic catastrophe, and because responsibility for the financial crisis supposedly lay with ‘global forces’ outside the UK (2008). They were not, however, indicative of a reawakening of ideological fervour for Keynesianism and nationalisation. It was made clear at the time of the Northern Rock bailout that these were measures of last resort and that the government would have preferred a private sector rescue, while of the roughly £1.2 trillion spent seeking to halt the financial crisis only 6 percent went on direct public ownership, with the rest going towards insurance, credit support, capital injections, and purchases of ‘toxic assets’ (Thain 2009). The next element of Brown’s disjunctive strategy was a rhetorical commitment to a re-moralisation of financial markets. According to Brown, financial institutions ‘had lost sight of basic British values’ that ‘we, the hard working majority, live by every day’ (Brown 2009b). These were the values of ‘honesty, responsibility, fairness and valuing hard work’ (Brown 2009c), and they were to be instantiated in new regulatory initiatives such as granting new powers to compel disclosure and control levels of executive remuneration in the financial sector, new powers to restrict



short-selling, new requirements on companies to develop recovery and resolution plans in anticipation of future crises, and assigning the Financial Service Authority a new financial stability objective. Attention also quickly turned to dealing with the effects of the financial crisis on the real economy, and there was a determined effort to counteract the evaporation of private sector demand that had sunk the economy into recession in 2008 and put hundreds of thousands out of work. This included measures such as a temporary VAT cut, increases in tax allowances, the postponement of planned corporation tax increases, and bringing forward planned spending on the 2012 London Olympics, Crossrail, housing, energy, and new aircraft carriers (Thain 2009: 438). At the same time, the government began to think seriously about some of the causes of the financial crisis and how to prevent another, leading to a marked shift in its approach to economic management. There was a recognition that ‘over the last twenty five years we have allowed the British economy, and Britain’s fiscal strength, to become too heavily dependent on financial services’ (Mandelson 2010), and a shift towards industrial activism geared towards high-value added growth in sectors where the UK held or stood to gain a comparative advantage. It was an approach that sought to couple improvements in Britain’s skills base with a programme of investment in infrastructure, research and development, and improved access to finance that the market, acting alone, would not provide. In terms of the machinery of government, this was supported by the creation of the National Economic Council in October 2008 as a vehicle for greater collective Cabinet involvement in economic policymaking, and the creation of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in June 2009 (Thain 2009: 445). This is how Brown handled the initial onset of the 2008 global financial crisis, but there are some important things to note that are relevant to considerations of Brown as a disjunctive political leader. He was unusually positioned, in that he was a leader of articulation who because of changed circumstances became a leader of disjunction shortly after taking office. This meant that although he had the pressing task of avoiding financial and economic catastrophe early in his premiership, he did not confront the same broad range of severe regime vulnerabilities later disjunctive leaders did, because many of these vulnerabilities stemmed from the financial crisis and took several years to unfold. This was not the case in relation to the MPs expenses scandal but, unlike Cameron, Brown’s scope of action as prime minister was not initially limited by dire public finances and he was



not forced to contend with the political consequences of unpopular public spending choices. It was also easier for Brown to deal with the emergence of the group of ‘left behind’ voters in Labour’s traditional working-class heartlands in the Midlands and North, many of whom would eventually become UKIP voters, because public spending largesse remained an effective salve. Furthermore, it was only after Brown lost the 2010 general election that the ‘gig economy’ began to flourish, with the attendant growth of precariously employed, low-paid workers. At the same time, Brown’s position in political time presented some unique challenges. Having served as Chancellor for a decade before becoming Prime Minister in 2007, he was incapable of confronting certain regime vulnerabilities head on, because to do so would have been to repudiate his long stint in office. As a result, the Brown premiership lacked political vision, with a seemingly endless stream of new initiatives never coalescing into a coherent policy agenda (Theakston 2011: 91). However, leaving aside these difficulties stemming from Brown’s position in political time, it is also probably true that he was ill-equipped to practise effective disjunctive political leadership. Brown was an effective communicator in Parliament and when speaking to the Labour Party at conference he often demonstrated mastery of the sound-bite and the ability to rouse the faithful, but he was a poor performer on television, whether in interviews or addressing the public directly (Theakston 2011: 84). Unlike some of Brown’s contemporaries such as Blair and Obama, he proved himself incapable of cultivating any kind of following as a ‘celebrity politician’ (Street 2012) and the few attempts he did make to show a more personal side did not go well, such as his interview in New Woman magazine in which he professed his enthusiasm for the band Arctic Monkeys without being able to name a single song of theirs when pressed. Brown also lacked the requisite political skill and emotional intelligence for the job. His decision-­ making style, while well-suited to life at the Treasury, was too slowly methodical for the top job. He was comfortable tackling crises consecutively, but not concurrently, as is demanded of a prime minister (Theakston 2011: 92). He was also widely thought to lack the requisite empathy, which proved his undoing in the infamous Gillian Duffy encounter, in which Brown was caught on a microphone calling a long-time Labour voter he met on the campaign trail a ‘bigoted woman’ after she had raised the issue of EU migration.



4.5   Cameron: Blairism After the Crash? The crucial feature of Cameron’s political persona, and ultimately what made him an affiliate of the neoliberal regime, was that, like Brown, he accepted the basic premise of Blairite globalisation discourse: that UK governments are tightly constrained in terms of both fiscal and monetary policy due to the reality of international capital mobility, and that national competitiveness in a globalised world lies in enticing and retaining internationally mobile capital via low taxes, deregulation, sound money, flexible labour markets, and investment in infrastructure and the skills base of the national economy (Byrne 2017: 206). The neoliberal flavour of Cameron’s politics was also evident in his positioning in relation to Thatcher and Blair, respectively the architect and articulator of the neoliberal regime. He sought distance from both political figures, but never disavowed any of the fundamentals of the neoliberal consensus. In relation to Thatcher, his differentiation strategy was to disavow her perceived uncaring libertarianism, stating in his first conference speech as Conservative leader that ‘there is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.’ He also said, when asked on the BBC’s Newsnight programme if he was a Thatcherite, that he was ‘certainly a big Thatcher fan, but I don’t know whether that makes me a Thatcherite.’ Meanwhile, although Cameron had several criticisms of Labour governments in the post-1997 period, these were not of a fundamental character, at least until after the financial crisis. There were frequent claims that the education system had been ‘dumbed down’ under Labour, that a target-­ driven approach was damaging morale in the public sector, and that rampant ‘spin’ had weakened trust in government. There was also criticism over how European integration had proceeded without sufficient democratic oversight. However, there was also praise for aspects of Labour’s public service reforms and orthodox macroeconomic management. Cameron’s policy commitments in opposition were mostly negative, in that they promised to reverse a handful of particularly unpalatable Labour policies such as the Human Rights Act and ID cards, rather than to roll out a policy programme representing a fundamental change of direction. Cameron’s political positioning in relation to the existing regime began to shift after the 2008 financial crisis. He attacked the new prime minister, holding Brown responsible for ‘sowing the seeds’ of the financial crisis by restructuring financial market regulation and abandoning Conservative spending plans after 1999 so that Treasury coffers were empty when the



financial crisis struck (Cameron 2008). More broadly, Cameron developed a narrative of the crisis as ‘Labour’s debt crisis’, establishing a clear dividing line between Labour’s profligacy and his own determination to take responsible action in the national interest, while making clear his intent to defend the neoliberal consensus against leftist narratives that framed the financial crisis as a consequence of the roll-back of the state. In this respect, Cameron was keen to play up the magnitude of the crisis, insisting upon becoming prime minister that it was ‘a grave moment in the modern history of Britain’ (Cameron 2012), with ‘catastrophic’ public finances and ‘the worst inheritance of any incoming government for at least sixty years’ (Cameron 2010a, b). This vastly overstated the real scale of the problem. The deficit inherited by the coalition government was the smallest in the G7, and most UK debt was long term and held domestically, unlike in the Greek, Spanish, Portuguese, and Irish cases. But, as a strategy for handling political disjunction, it made sense because it absolved the Conservatives of responsibility for the crisis, lowered expectations of what the new government could realistically achieve, and made it easier for Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne to excuse their missed deficit targets later in the parliament. Cameron was helped in this effort by coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Such cross-party working reinforced Cameron’s claims to be a non-ideological leader acting in the national interest at a time of national emergency and also ensured that discontent over austerity would be shared with another party. There was an effort to give the coalition’s austerity programme a positive spin, and Cameron’s premiership a more coherent political vision, by way of the Big Society. The Big Society was about encouraging ‘much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility…where people come together to solve problems and improve life for themselves and their communities’ (Conservative Party 2010: 37). It was rooted in communitarian Red Toryism and the notion of the ‘post-­ bureaucratic age’, which posited a world in which technological change permitted ordinary citizens to have more of a say in their own government, making the centralised, top-down welfare state obsolete (Finlayson 2011). It was widely derided as a vague and nebulous undertaking, but it served as a useful pretext for some voters that might otherwise have been turned off by a purely negative austerity agenda to support Cameron anyway. The crucial point, however, is that while austerity may have helped the Cameron governments grasp the nettle of dire public finances, in terms of regime management it was an abject failure, serving to exacerbate



regime vulnerabilities, driving up poverty and food bank usage, suppressing wage growth at the lower end of the income scale, putting a brake on housebuilding, and disenchanting public sector workers. Some policies attempted to counteract some of these tendencies—increases in the Personal Allowance, the introduction of a National Living Wage, Help to Buy—but their effects paled compared to austerity. Although strategic thinking was evident in some areas, Cameron sometimes exhibited a tendency towards political leadership by ‘essay crisis’, rather than trying to anticipate crises or tackle their root causes by modifying the existing political regime. Sometimes this nearly rebounded, as in the case of the Scottish independence referendum, and occasionally did backfire, as in the case of the EU membership referendum. In the former, Cameron gambled on a referendum to settle the issue of Scottish independence for a generation, but only scraped a narrow victory after a panicked last-minute ‘vow’ of additional powers for Scotland. The SNP was even less energised after the referendum campaign than before and during it. The EU membership referendum, meanwhile, was called in response to the rise of UKIP as a major third party with the potential to take a significant chunk out of the Conservatives’ electoral right flank. Cameron’s initial response to the UKIP threat was to downplay its seriousness, branding it a party of ‘fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists’ (BBC 2006). But its rise under Nigel Farage after 2012 as a focus for discontent over Europe and immigration and the parallel growth of Conservative Euroscepticism encouraged Cameron to gamble. His promise was made in the hope that it would unite the Conservatives, and in the expectation that the referendum was unlikely to be held given the odds of a second hung parliament. However, Cameron was boxed in by his unexpected 2015 general election victory, and his botched renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU left him without the necessary firepower to fight the referendum campaign. The renegotiation was partly designed to give Cameron and other pragmatic Eurosceptic Conservatives a pretext for supporting Remain, but it can also be seen in light of efforts to deal with pressing regime vulnerabilities given the priority afforded to immigration and benefits on the UK side.



4.6   Theresa May, Brexit, and Corbynism: An Impossible Leadership Situation? Brown and Cameron were affiliates of the neoliberal regime primarily by virtue of their adherence to Blairite globalisation discourse. Can we say the same of Theresa May? Notions of globalisation, the ‘global race’, and national competitiveness were less prominent in Theresa May’s political discourse than in Cameron’s, although they remained as a taken-for-­ granted fact of political life. May’s orthodox political offer was also confirmed by her role in both Cameron governments, serving as Home Secretary between 2010 and his departure in 2016. Judged by the tumultuous recent history of that office, May’s was an especially long tenure which avoided major self-inflicted crises (Prince 2017). Her orthodox stance towards the existing regime was also attested to by her support for Remain during the EU referendum campaign. May was a reluctant Remainer—too reluctant for Cameron and Osborne, who thought she was AWOL for much of the campaign and outright unhelpful in her rare interventions, saying in an April 2016 speech that she did not believe ‘the sky will fall in if we vote to leave’ (Shipman 2016: 268). Nevertheless, she advocated Remain on the grounds that leaving would jeopardise Britain’s economic prosperity and special relationship with the US, and embolden Scottish nationalists to break up the Union (May 2016b). That is not to say there was nothing that differentiated May from her Conservative forebears upon becoming party leader and prime minister. Despite occupying one of the Great Offices of State for six years, she never felt, and was not seen, to be part of the charmed circle of the ‘Cameroons’ (Prince 2017). In terms of her political image, her religious upbringing (her father was a Church of England clergyman) and grammar school route into the Oxbridge elite presented her as a ‘different kind of Tory’, while Cabinet battles with George Osborne and others fostered her reputation as, to use Ken Clarke’s phrase, ‘a bloody difficult woman.’ In terms of May’s substantive politics, Davies (2016) identifies a strong paternalistic streak in May’s politics compared to her predecessors, and a shift from what he terms the straightforward ‘neoliberal state’, which conceives of its role to help the aspirational middle classes to ‘get ahead’—primarily by maintaining low interest rates to reward asset ownership—to a ‘protective state’, more concerned with the travails of the working class, wary of change, and geared towards ensuring that basic necessities are affordable. Pabst (2017) describes this in terms of an emergent ‘postliberalism’ which



rejects the economically and socially liberal ‘progressive liberalism’ of the Cameroons in favour of a Third Way-like approach to state—market relations and a disregard of multiculturalism. In terms of political strategy, this can be interpreted as a means of broadening the Conservatives’ appeal both geographically, in the North and Midlands, and socio-economically, widening the Conservative electoral coalition to include small ‘c’ conservative working-class voters, many of whom voted for Brexit. This concern with the unfair distributional consequences of progressive liberalism was reflected in one of May’s most well-known speeches, given on the steps of Downing Street on the day she became prime minister, on the ‘burning injustices’ she wanted to tackle in office, such as that ‘if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others’ or that ‘If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man’ (May 2016a), which speaks to a conservative feminism at the heart of Theresa May’s politics absent from Cameron’s. These differences did not amount to a coherent political philosophy of ‘Mayism’, but they did inflect May’s policy agenda as prime minister. May had long advocated stricter controls on immigration and was a key supporter of the ill-judged pledge to reduce immigration to the ‘tens of thousands’ after 2010. This was an unsuitable means of tackling regime vulnerabilities stemming from anti-immigration sentiment due to the inevitability of missing such a target, especially given the lack of control over intra-EU migration. Likewise, the ‘hostile environment’ policy not only failed to address any of the underlying causes of anti-immigration sentiment, but also badly harmed May’s leadership image after the Windrush scandal. However, there were other policies in the Conservatives’ 2017 general election manifesto that promised to address regime vulnerabilities more effectively, such as extra investment in the NHS and schools, the promise to build a million new homes by 2020, further rises in the income tax personal allowance, a new clampdown on tax avoidance, proposals to subject executive pay to shareholder votes and to ensure workforce representation on company boards, increases in the National Living Wage, and new protections for gig economy workers. The difficulty for May was the overriding priority of delivering Brexit and, especially after the 2017 general election, her inability to get virtually any legislation through Parliament. It was incumbent upon May, if she wished to pursue a meaningful domestic agenda, to tackle Brexit quickly, but this proved difficult, partly because of certain unforced errors on her part, and partly because the strategically-selective context of Brexit severely limited May’s scope for



strategic action (Byrne and Theakston 2019). First, bearing in mind that structural contexts such as Brexit ultimately comprise the strategic action of other political actors, it is important to note that certain decisions May made as prime minister made Brexit more difficult to achieve by mobilising political actors against the project. One of these was her handling of key members of the outgoing Cameron government at the start of her premiership. In sacking Nicky Morgan and Oliver Letwin, May created pillars of resistance to Brexit within Parliament. The ruthless manner in which she despatched Chancellor George Osborne—reportedly telling him that if he ever wanted to be prime minister he should ‘get to know the party’ more—created a pillar of resistance without, when Osborne became Editor of the Evening Standard (Shipman 2017: 574). May was intent on signalling a change of direction and, according to some accounts, settling personal scores but, as it turned out, at the cost of significantly hindering her ability to implement her Brexit strategy. Morgan became one of eleven Conservative backbenchers to defy the government whip and vote to give Parliament a ‘meaningful vote’ on May’s Withdrawal Agreement, while Letwin became ‘the unlikely leader of parliament’s Brexit takeover’ (Sabbagh 2019) by pushing for a series of indicative votes on Brexit after the second parliamentary defeat of the Withdrawal Agreement. Meanwhile, Osborne assailed the May government’s handling of Brexit from the pages of the Standard, with headlines such as ‘Hard Brexit Could Rip UK Apart’ and ‘Queen of Denial’ (referring to May’s repeated efforts to pass the Withdrawal Agreement). Furthermore, many in and around the ‘Team 2019’ group of Remain-voting Conservative MPs, and many Remain-­ voting members of the public, deeply resented some of the rhetoric used by those on the pro-Brexit side to describe principled opposition in the referendum’s aftermath. This included May, with her insistence in her 2016 conference speech that her Brexit opponents in Parliament ‘are not standing up for democracy, they’re trying to subvert it…[and] are insulting the intelligence of the British people’ (Shipman 2017: 53). As a Remainer, even a reluctant one, May was ill-equipped to deliver Brexit because it meant that, should there be any delay in delivering Brexit, she would be vulnerable to charges of ‘betrayal’, and she felt the need at the start of her premiership to burnish her Brexiteer credentials using such rhetoric. Second, another decision May took that made Brexit more difficult to achieve by mobilising hostile political actors was to hold the 2017 general election. This was the major misstep of May’s premiership. The thinking



behind it was arguably sound—to capitalise on May’s massive poll lead over Corbyn, deliver the Conservatives a much-increased parliamentary majority, and, thereby, strengthen the government’s hand in its negotiations with the EU (Cowley and Kavanagh 2018: 14). However, in the event it led to the loss of the Conservative government’s already slim majority. More to the point, it affected May’s Brexit strategy because domestically it meant that instead of having to placate the Brexiteers within her party, she would now have to placate both the Brexiteers and Remainers—an almost impossible task. After the 2017 general election, every act of rebellion, big or small, had a cumulative detrimental effect on May’s authority and emboldened those seeking to reverse the referendum result. Meanwhile, internationally, the general election outcome tilted the playing field in the EU’s favour because it meant that the UK could no longer guarantee that any deal May’s government negotiated would pass through Parliament. It also took away possibly the UK’s largest negotiating chip: the threat of setting up as a free market, low tax, and low regulation competitor on the EU’s shores (a possibility suggested by Chancellor Philip Hammond in January 2017) (Shipman 2017: 96), because the government no longer had a majority in Parliament to pursue that course of action. Additionally, it gave the EU the incentive to push for more concessions or to reverse Brexit altogether because they knew that a majority of the new Parliament were anti-Brexit and wanted to preserve as close a relation to the EU as possible going forward. Third, in terms of negotiating strategy, it was probably also a mistake for May to trigger Article 50 so soon after taking over from Cameron, and to not do more to prepare for the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. While the decision to trigger in March 2017 was understandable given the need to appear to be getting on with the job of Brexit, it also tilted the playing field in the negotiations in the EU’s favour, allowing the EU to dictate the sequencing of the negotiations so that the UK would be required to settle its ‘bill’ before moving on to the withdrawal, and only then on to the future relationship between the two parties. Aware that trade with the EU was more important to the UK than trade with the UK was to the EU, and knowing that May would ultimately not countenance a no-deal Brexit, the EU had every incentive to seek concessions once Article 50 was triggered. Paradoxically, had the UK government done more to prepare for no-­ deal—perhaps aiming to trigger Article 50 in October instead of March 2017, and taking a full year to prepare for exit contingencies in the run-up to that date—the prime minister might have extracted more concessions



from the EU and been better positioned to sell her deal domestically (Shipman 2017: 12). However, in the event, what Brexit Secretary David Davis promised would be the ‘row of the summer’ never occurred, as the Prime Minister accommodated the EU’s preferred sequencing with little fuss, presumably hoping the gesture would lead to greater concessions from the EU down the line (Shipman 2017: 482). The fourth major mistake in May’s Brexit strategy was a failure to grasp some basic realities in the Brexit negotiations. Namely, that the EU, as a rules-based political and economic union comprising 27 different member-­ states with often divergent interests, was always unlikely to be sympathetic to requests for special treatment from the UK. It was incumbent upon the May government to recognise the basic fact of likely EU inflexibility in the face of demands to circumvent its own rules, and to plan accordingly. In practical terms, this meant that the government had a choice between seriously preparing for a no-deal Brexit, in the likely event that the EU proved unwilling to allow Britain to pick and choose which aspects of EU membership it would like to retain, and pursuing a ‘soft Brexit’ strategy, perhaps involving a customs union, that could realistically have been accommodated by the EU. The government instead ploughed ahead with demands for a highly favourable bespoke deal until it gave up and accepted a compromise that it had itself discredited in advance, and which was never likely to get through Parliament due to opposition from both Brexiteers (who saw it as a betrayal of their cause) and newly emboldened Remainers (who now thought they might be able to reverse Brexit altogether). Fifth, a late mistake was seeking to strike a deal with Labour that would get the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. This was a major problem in terms of May’s political vision, because it undermined her framing of current political problems and, in particular, invalidated some key Conservative attack lines on Corbyn (chiefly, that he was a dangerous ‘Marxist’ who should not be allowed near the reins of power). It allowed Corbyn to posture as a statesman and head of a government-in-waiting, because May was seeking Corbyn’s help—not the other way around. It also permitted Labour to worsen the ongoing Brexit crisis, allowing them to waste valuable time and deepen Tory divisions. In terms of benefits that might outweigh all these costs, there were scarcely any besides the very remote prospect of getting the Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament. Corbyn was never going to bail out May, and in terms of public perception, there was no overwhelming demand for the parties to work together. May’s final ‘new Brexit deal’ in May 2019 was the culmination of this



process, which she hoped would pass with Labour help, but—predictably—help was not forthcoming.

4.7   Conclusion May’s protracted efforts to disentangle Britain from the EU were a slow-­ motion car crash, congesting the agenda in Parliament and politics, dividing political parties internally, placing a ball and chain on the economy while at the same time alienating businesses, and potentially even undercutting the territorial integrity of the UK. May’s 2017 decision to hold a snap general election backfired spectacularly. It lost her government its parliamentary majority and in doing so made Brexit incalculably more difficult to navigate. The general election calamity also created difficulties with the EU. In the first instance, the hung parliament meant that the EU had less incentive to negotiate in good faith with a partner that might not get its deal through its domestic legislature. Putnam (1988) argues that this kind of scenario can allow a national government to extract more concessions in international negotiations, given that it can always argue that there are domestic constraints on what it can agree to, but it would be misleading to apply this logic to Brexit. This is because in this case the domestic constraints acted in the wrong direction. Simply put, after 2017 the EU was incentivised to use Brexit to illustrate the wrongheadedness of attempting to leave the EU because it was cognisant of the fact that both prime minister and Parliament would ultimately not countenance a no-­ deal Brexit, almost no matter how bad the deal on the table. Some of these difficulties can be attributed to May personally. Her decision to call a snap general election in the summer of 2017 and the events that followed were described by Conservative MP Nigel Evans after the event in these terms: ‘We were steaming under blue skies and then we created our own iceberg and steered our own campaign towards it’ (cited in Shipman 2017: 306). Certainly, the 2017 Conservative general election manifesto was a distillation of many of May’s failings as a political leader. No clear political vision undergirded the manifesto’s policies, and the policies themselves were bad retail politics. Brexit was always likely to monopolise the political agenda—indeed, after the 2017 general election the only legislation the government managed to pass was ‘routine’ bills or legislation on relatively minor, uncontentious issues that would naturally attract cross-party support (Lilly et al. 2018). It was therefore crucial that May sought to either formally take Britain out of the EU in short order so as to



create space for a meaningful domestic agenda, or—a more viable strategy given the difficulties inherent in actually achieving Brexit—to effectively merge her domestic agenda with the Brexit agenda so that she could pursue both at the same time, as the leader of a reforming Conservative government. Close aides had advocated precisely this strategy in the run-up to the election, but Lynton Crosby’s ‘strong and stable’ messaging won out in the belief that it would allow May to cash in on her 20-point lead over Jeremy Corbyn (Shipman 2017: 540). Meanwhile, in terms of broadcast and social media, the manifesto gave the prime minister and Conservative candidates very little to talk about that was positive, with the most notable Conservative policy of the campaign, the ‘Dementia Tax’, proving so unpopular among Conservative voters in older age groups that it irrevocably damaged Theresa May’s image. The policies were also particularly ill-­ fitted to the key modern battleground of social media due to their lack of appeal among users used to ubiquitous online ‘clickbait’. In the event, the Conservatives spent four times more money on social media than Labour, and yet still had a smaller reach due to the lack of potential or actual Conservative voters willing to share their content organically (Swinford 2018). However, the crucial point is that these difficulties stemmed from Theresa May’s place in political time. Brexit was an issue she would rather not have dealt with, but it was bequeathed to her by David Cameron. Cameron felt the need to hold the EU membership referendum as a response to a particular disjunctive dilemma—that of holding together his parliamentary party and the electoral coalition underpinning the neoliberal regime in a context of intra- and extra-party challenges. Cameron’s big mistake in legislating for the EU membership referendum—which in hindsight should have been apparent from the Scottish independence referendum—was not realising that it would become a referendum about much more than the EU, including his own leadership, and fundamental aspects of the neoliberal regime. Similarly, Theresa May called the 2017 general election in response to the disjunctive dilemma of attempting to legislate on the most consequential issue in a generation with a parliamentary majority of just twelve, but without fully appreciating the opportunity this presented various groups discontented with the prevailing politics—not only Remainers from the EU referendum—to register their discontent. This was the iceberg into which the May government crashed, and although it was not of May’s making, a cannier disjunctive leader would have realised that there were



storm clouds just beyond the blue skies of the pre-election period. Although in some respects Brexit represented an opportunity to tackle regime vulnerabilities linked to the distributional consequences of neoliberalism and anxieties over immigration, it also represented a threat, in that it tended to alienate key regime interests and compromise key policies and the institutional order that supported them. The 2017 general election was not the straightforward ‘Brexit election’ it was supposed to be and, in the event, served only to highlight May’s status as a disjunctive leader— one of a kind not only with her immediate predecessor, David Cameron, but also James Callaghan, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, Neville Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin, and Ramsay MacDonald.

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Conclusion: Evaluating Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership

Abstract  This concluding chapter reviews and extends the analysis of the preceding chapters. It makes four significant contributions. First, it compares British disjunctive leaders with their counterparts in the US. Second, it proposes refinements to Skowronek’s characterisation of disjunctive leadership and political time. Third, it returns to the question of structure and agency by reviewing how the six key domains of prime ministerial agency were employed by the three sequences of disjunctive prime ministers. From this a fourth contribution follows, the identification of a repertoire typical of disjunctive leadership. The chapter, and the book, concludes with an evaluation of the nine disjunctive prime ministers and consideration of Boris Johnson’s position in political time. Keywords  Skowronek • Political time • Structure and agency • British prime ministers • Disjunctive leadership

5.1   Introduction The literature on the British premiership is substantial. The Baldwin, MacDonald, Chamberlain, Heath, Wilson, and Callaghan premierships have been extensively studied. The literature on Brown, Cameron, and May, currently, is significantly smaller. However, it is safe to expect that these premierships will duly receive equal if not greater scrutiny. © The Author(s) 2020 C. Byrne et al., Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership in British Politics, Palgrave Studies in Political Leadership, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-44911-7_5




These and other premierships have been predominantly studied synchronically. Holders of the office are typically examined in extensive detail, but then evaluated primarily on their own terms and in isolation from other prime ministers. As noted in the introduction, frameworks exist for comparative evaluation. Greenstein’s leadership style framework has been applied generally to post-war prime ministers and to Brown’s premiership in detail (Theakston 2007, 2011). The statecraft model has been applied, albeit in not always wholly consistent fashion, in edited collections covering prime ministers from Earl Grey to Cameron (Brack et al. 2015; Clarke and James 2015; Clarke et  al. 2015). The premierships of Thatcher (Bulpitt 1986), Blair (Buller and James 2012), and Brown (Buller and James 2014) have received rigorous scrutiny from this position. This study has approached prime ministerial leadership diachronically by examining three sequences of prime ministers to identify their responses to a common dilemma of leadership. The prime ministers between 1923 and 1940, 1970 and 1979, and after 2007 found themselves stewards of vulnerable regimes. If this account, inevitably, has lacked some of the detail of synchronic accounts, it nevertheless permits meaningful comparisons of the circumstances and challenges of disjunctive leadership in Britain. This is a prerequisite for more measured appraisal of each of these prime ministers. This concluding chapter draws together and extends the analysis of the preceding chapters. It makes several interlinked contributions. First, the chapter compares Britain’s disjunctive prime ministers with their presidential counterparts in the US. Second, using this as a point of departure, it identifies several ways to refine the characterisation of disjunctive leadership and the broader framework of political time. Third, it returns to the issue of structure and agency in prime ministerial leadership highlighted in the introduction. Here agency is brought back into the analysis of political time. The six key domains of prime ministerial agency outlined in the introduction are explored in reference to the disjunctive prime ministers considered in the previous chapters. This allows us to identify, first, a repertoire typical of disjunctive prime ministerial leadership, second, the constraints associated with the exercise of this repertoire, and, third, measured evaluations of the performance of these disjunctive prime ministers. We conclude by considering the outcome of the 2019 UK general election and the prospectus for Boris Johnson as a prime minister in political time.



5.2   Refining Skowronek’s Account of Political Time Disjunctive leadership in the UK confirms many aspects of Skowronek’s account. Like disjunctive presidents, each prime minister considered here came to be considered as a symptom of national malaise rather than as the agent of its resolution. Each became isolated from their fellow partisans as their parties divided. All stood accused of betraying the doctrinal convictions of their political traditions. Several, notably Baldwin and May, constructed images of personal dedication and duty to justify their tenure. Others, particularly Heath, claimed a technocratic expertise to remedy national problems. Warrants to restore managerial propriety following the abuses of previous incumbents were advanced by several, including Baldwin and Heath. Appeals to extra partisan competence are rarer, but not unknown. After 1931, MacDonald sought such a non-partisan warrant for authority. However, the challenges associated with the disjunctive premiership appear more varied and complex than Skowronek’s account suggests. Likewise, a wider range of warrants for authority and options for regime management are available than Skowronek allows for. Nor are these the only significant differences. Skowronek does not definitively categorise every US president. A close reading of his principal works (1993, 2011) identifies five disjunctive presidents: John Quincy Adams (1797–1801), Franklin Pierce (1853–1857), James Buchanan (1857–1861), Herbert Hoover (1929–1933), and Jimmy Carter (1977–1981). Interestingly, the latter two coincide with MacDonald’s and Callaghan’s disjunctive premierships. Yet, whereas in Skowronek’s account disjunctive leaders are relatively rare, they have proven much more common in Britain. The disjunctive premierships considered here cover 38 years. These nine disjunctive prime ministers represent nearly half the occupants of Downing Street over the last century. Skowronek also suggests that episodes of regime vulnerability are generally brief. He strongly implies that disjunctive presidents are quickly followed by a reconstructive successor. Only Franklin Pierce was succeeded by another disjunctive president. In contrast, there have been extended sequences of disjunctive British prime ministers, typically lasting a decade or more. These trans-Atlantic divergences merit further comment. The more pronounced tendency towards disjunctive leadership in Britain provides an opportunity to extend Skowronek’s account by specifying the



characteristics of this mode of leadership in greater depth. Additionally, these divergences imply that the dynamics of regime vulnerability, at least in Britain, are more complex than Skowronek suggests. They also indicate that the disjunctive turn in the cycle of political leadership may develop differently depending on political and institutional contexts. Turning first to the character and dynamics of regime vulnerability, many identify this as a poorly developed element of Skowronek’s account of political time (Hoekstra 1999; ‘t Hart 2014). The conditions of regime vulnerability in the three regimes varied more than the dichotomy of resilience/vulnerability suggests. Each period witnessed episodes of crisis. However, not all crises were of the same order or carried the same consequences. Those which threatened the regime most implicated prime ministers in challenging or repudiating key actors and interests within the regime. Other crises did not introduce antagonisms in the same way. Rather they usually served, in the medium and long term, to impair the regime by sapping its legitimacy, reinforcing doubts about its ability to deliver its commitments, or by multiplying or deepening the constraints on regime stewardship. Contrary to Skowronek’s often deterministic expectations, regimes can persist after a crisis. Three implications follow. First, as we saw following the fall of the 1929–1931 government, a crisis may allow recalibration and readjustment of the regime, even if resolution of its long-run vulnerabilities remains improbable. Second, it invites us to distinguish between crisis management and regime management. While a prime minister may successfully resolve an immediate crisis, they may prove less accomplished regime managers. For example, Gordon Brown met the immediate challenge of the 2007–2008 financial crisis well. However, its ongoing consequences proved more difficult for him to manage. Third, it is inaccurate to see the three regimes as lurching from crisis to crisis or in a state of perpetual distress. Regimes can enter an ‘enervated’ state (Nichols and Myers 2010), or what Hay (2011) describes as ‘pathology without crisis’. In such conditions the regime is vulnerable in that it demonstrates an inability to resolve political, social, and economic problems. Regime enervation compromises, but does not wholly repudiate, the regime’s core operating principles. The regime’s preferred policy instruments encounter diminishing returns. Interests supporting the regime are challenged, but still deliver important political, economic, or social resources. The regime grows exhausted and sclerotic. Affiliates are filled with pessimism and fear for the future. But the regime does not collapse.



Additionally, the British example demonstrates the international dimensions of regime vulnerability which are underplayed by Skowronek. Interwar Britain is testimony that ‘the definition of political time is incomplete without the inclusion of foreign affairs’ (Magliocca 2009: 486). Developments in Europe and the Far East after 1931 strained a fragile regime and complicated the challenge of disjunctive leadership. That each regime was disrupted by exogenous shocks arising elsewhere in the international economy (1929, 1973, and 2007–2008) further demonstrates that regimes are not closed, domestic systems. Our analysis also identifies wider symptoms and challenges associated with regime vulnerability and disjunctive leadership. We noted that disjunctive prime ministers encounter schismatic governing parties. In addition, all three periods witness diminishing faith in established institutions, particularly those supporting the regime. Each exhibited prolonged periods of electoral volatility. Disaffection with established parties grew, insurgent parties gained support, and new political parties emerged. If, on the one hand, these periods saw growing calls for cross-party cooperation, on the other they provided opportunities for political mavericks and populist political entrepreneurs. Each of these developments rendered regime management more challenging. We must also re-evaluate the trajectories of disjunctive leadership in the British context. Skowronek considers disjunctive presidents in terms which are both critical and deterministic. A disjunctive president confronts an ‘impossible leadership situation’. Since anything ‘short of a miraculous solution will pass to the opposition effective control over the political definition of the situation’, disjunctive presidents, in ‘their hapless struggles for credibility…become the foils for reconstructive leadership’ (1993: 40). However, such dynamics are difficult to reconcile with the prolonged sequences of disjunctive British premiers. That the vulnerabilities of the three regimes manifested in long periods of enervation, punctuated by moments of crisis, provides some explanation as to why this ‘impossible leadership situation’ did not always deliver the regime to reconstructive leaders. However, we must also recognise the significance of agency and the characteristics of the British political system. As Nichols and Myers (2010) note, crises present windows of opportunity for reconstructive politicians. However, reconstructive politicians are not always available, or able to seize such opportunities. First, given Britain’s fusion of powers and its dominant trajectories of political recruitment, prospective prime ministers are less likely to be political outsiders than US



presidential candidates. Rather, they tend to have been affiliated to the regime through service in ministerial office for some time. Consequently, British political leaders find it harder to present a reconstructive warrant. Indeed, both Attlee and Thatcher took time to promote their reconstructive credentials. Second, for the majority of the periods considered here, regime affiliates led the principal opposition party. Indeed, Baldwin and MacDonald exchanged the roles of prime minister and Leader of the Opposition between themselves over eleven years. Wilson and Heath did so for five years after 1970. Third, even if the opposition is led by a reconstructive leader, Britain’s electoral system typically requires a ‘critical election’, such as those in 1945 and 1979, to deliver such leaders into Downing Street. The sequential character of disjunctive prime ministerial leadership has important consequences. Those at the start of the disjunctive sequence often possess considerable governing experience. They may have made extensive plans before taking office. However, as the Heath and Brown premierships demonstrate, a common tragedy is that they confront problems unanticipated in their plans and beyond their prior experience. Yet, those early in the disjunctive sequence also typically enjoy a more expansive range of options. Those following are more likely to encounter constraints in managing regime difficulties. Decisions taken early in the sequence can also prove difficult to reverse and constrain subsequent prime ministers. For example, returning to the gold standard in 1925 and floating the pound in 1972 made regime management more challenging for Baldwin’s and Heath’s successors. Second, the time required to address political, social, and economic problems differs. While some problems may be addressed in the short term, many require a medium- (one—three years) or long-term (three—twenty years) period to be resolved (Pollitt 2008). Complex problems also often defy short-term ‘quick fixes’. Yet short-term actions are often most accessible to disjunctive prime ministers, particularly those taking office towards the end of the sequence. Third, those arriving late in the disjunctive sequence frequently discover that many prospective solutions to regime difficulties have been attempted without success. Given the persistent failures of orthodox solutions, some late-stage disjunctive prime ministers may be tempted to experiment with policies from outside the repertoire associated with the regime. Others may simply end up treading water, hoping that fate delivers changed circumstances that render regime management easier.



5.3   The Agency of Disjunctive Prime Ministers Disjunctive prime ministers therefore possess greater agency than Skowronek’s ‘impossible leadership situation’ would imply. Indeed, the three sequences of disjunctive prime ministers show that prime ministerial agency can be exercised across the six major domains of political choice within the constraints of political time. As set out in the introduction, prime ministers first possess agency in how they frame political problems. They can choose whether to act. If they decide to act, they possess discretion over when to act. They can select where to act, opting for the political forum most advantageous for their purposes. They can choose how to act from a variety of policy instruments. Finally, they decide on what terms they will justify their decisions. 5.3.1  Framing Political Problems Prime ministers engage in contests to establish a dominant interpretation of the nature, severity, and significance of problems while also attributing causality and responsibility for these developments. We might expect that as regime affiliates, disjunctive prime ministers would seek to defend the regime by denying that problems exist. However, denial was not a strategy pursued other than in the very short term by the prime ministers considered here. Where many regime problems were concerned, whether mass unemployment, rising inflation, or bank failures, the possibilities of a resonant denial were small. Denying the existence of regime problems also risked surrendering the political initiative to their opponents. Rather, disjunctive prime ministers preferred to frame problems in ways that avoided, where possible, implicating the preferred policy instruments and institutions of the regime. Frames which ‘exogenized’ (Boin et al. 2009) causality were particularly favoured. These sought to minimise the extent of the regime’s responsibility for problems. They also constructed limitations upon prime ministerial agency, reducing expectations of how successfully such problems might be addressed. Both Baldwin and MacDonald, for example, presented Britain’s economic difficulties as rooted in the international economy’s failure to revive. Similarly, Brown persistently framed the 2007–2008 financial crisis in terms of its global origins and scope. However, this approach was not always available to disjunctive prime ministers. For example, dependence on the EU’s continued goodwill meant



that Theresa May could not exogenise responsibility for Brexit or her withdrawal agreement by directing blame upon the EU. An alternative framing strategy acknowledged problems but denied that they originated in fundamental and structural defects of the regime. This was commonly achieved by associating regime difficulties with the shortcomings of rival parties and leaders. For example, in 1970 Heath assigned responsibility for the nation’s difficulties to Wilson’s failures of leadership. Wilson returned the compliment by framing Heath at the next election as a doctrinaire leader whose ideological obsessions had delivered conflict with the unions, rising inflation, and mass unemployment. David Cameron employed a similar strategy by presenting the parlous state of public finances as ‘Labour’s debt crisis’. While such framings are reflexive in an adversarial political system, they prove particularly useful, as in these cases, where both major party leaders are regime affiliates. They present problems in terms of a crisis in, rather than of, the regime. By valorising governing technique in this way, the regime, its institutions, and its commitments escape unwelcome scrutiny. However, there are obvious limitations. Those succeeding a fellow partisan cannot directly impugn their predecessor in this way. Furthermore, the resonance of blaming a rival predecessor for contemporary difficulties dissipates over time. Disjunctive prime ministers become increasingly and personally associated with the difficulties of the regime the longer they remain in office. Besides attempting to direct attribution of responsibility for regime difficulties, disjunctive prime ministers also sought to define the severity and consequences of these problems. This proved particularly important in relation to the crisis episodes each regime encountered. These are discursively constructed and contested. Multiple narratives concerning the causes and consequences of each crisis are possible (Hay 1996; Gamble 2009) and prime ministers possess agency in seeking to establish a dominant interpretation. As regime affiliates, disjunctive prime ministers might be expected to be wary in constructing events as crises but have frequently done so. As noted above, attributing a crisis to exogenous causes can prove useful to regime affiliates. However, crisis framings can also expand the scope for agency. First, a crisis framing can raise the stakes involved in conflicts within the regime in acute and zero-sum terms. This was Baldwin’s approach in framing the general strike as an existential threat to parliamentary democracy, thereby discomforting the TUC and Labour leaderships. Second, a crisis can legitimate exceptional measures. These might be measures which



would otherwise be inaccessible to regime managers or innovations which, in normal circumstances, might be deemed to compromise the integrity of the regime. For example, Brown conscripted ‘the first financial crisis of the global age’ to legitimate bank bailouts, nationalisations, deficit financing, and co-ordinated international action as extraordinary measures necessary to restore stability to the regime. Third, crises alter political expectations and the resonance of framings. Appeals to surrender sectional and partisan interests in the service of national unity have greater purchase amidst crisis than during more quotidian circumstances. For example, by framing incomes policy and public expenditure cuts in the context of an economic crisis, Wilson secured union support for highly unpopular policies (Rogers 2009). However, considerable care is needed when constructing crisis framings. If a crisis appears successfully resolved, this can bolster a disjunctive prime minister’s authority. For example, Baldwin’s authority peaked following the general strike and the abdication crisis. By magnifying difficulties, as David Cameron arguably did with the economic ‘crisis’ he inherited, a prime minister may gain undeserved credit for their regime management. However, once framed as a crisis, events may escape prime ministerial control. One danger is that even once resolved the crisis triggers further entropy, dislocating and de-legitimising regime commitments and interests. The greater threat is that regime opponents frame the crisis as a memorable symbol of the regime’s moribundity. This arose during the ‘winter of discontent’. That Callaghan seemed complacent towards the regime’s problems (‘Crisis, What Crisis?’) was damaging enough. However, the greater problem was that these events were co-opted by regime opponents to symbolise the broader pathologies of the Keynesian and corporatist regime (Hay 1996). That Callaghan confronted a reconstructive Leader of the Opposition, ready and able to exploit this window of opportunity, proved a further misfortune for him and other regime affiliates. 5.3.2  Whether to Act Prime ministers also choose whether or not to act. Perhaps the clearest example of deliberate inaction encountered in the three periods arose during Baldwin’s and MacDonald’s premierships. Both avoided resolving the Unemployment Insurance Fund’s deficit and thereby contributed to the circumstances which generated crisis in 1931. The more common pattern



among disjunctive prime ministers is that inaction arose as a consequence of competing demands upon the regime. For example, Chamberlain believed that the demands of rearmament dispossessed him of the opportunity to deliver social reform (Self 2016: 133). Theresa May found that Brexit consumed Whitehall’s institutional bandwidth. This required her to abandon much of her agenda to engineer greater social mobility and improve the performance of British industry. However, the general pattern has been a predisposition towards action among disjunctive prime ministers. These prime ministers recognised the symptoms of regime vulnerability and did not need their political opponents to frame them as problems. This does not mean that fear of the electoral consequences, ideological constraints, or lack of resources were insignificant. Rather than encouraging inaction, these proved more potent in shaping the content of the actions that disjunctive prime ministers pursued. 5.3.3  When to Act We saw that disjunctive prime ministers have, on the whole, favoured action over inaction. Yet, having concluded that inaction was impossible they generally exercised some agency over when to act. In several cases the window for action made haste irresistible. This was the case in the final stages of the 1931 crisis. Similarly, believing that a banking collapse was imminent, Brown’s decisions concerning bank recapitalisation in September 2008 were taken at speed. Elsewhere, leadership styles promoted hasty decision-making. David Cameron reacted to, rather than anticipated, looming problems. When he responded, it was frequently with a short-term fix designed to stabilise matters rather than resolve them. However, the general tendency has been to defer and delay action where possible. Given their governing circumstances, a fog of uncertainty descends quickly and settles heavily upon disjunctive prime ministers. Trajectories of regime problems clearly identifiable in retrospect are only dimly perceived in Downing Street at the time. Consequently, a cautious, incremental approach to decision-making is common. Moreover, where key interests within the regime are challenged, transformational action carries considerable risks of destabilising the regime. For example, an incremental approach to industrial relations reform would have served Heath better than the Industrial Relations Act.



However, such examples do not account for all instances of delay and deferral by disjunctive prime ministers. One common motive for delay was the belief that events would turn, forestalling the need for action. The degree of conviction accompanying such beliefs has varied. Sometimes, a development on the horizon was sighted which offered the prospect of regime stabilisation. Prime ministers of the 1970s, for example, were fixed upon the new revenue stream which would accompany the arrival of North Sea Oil. In the event, regime affiliates could not hold out long enough and Margaret Thatcher deployed these resources to subsidise neoliberal reconstruction of the regime. At other points, prime ministers possessed a more diffuse conviction that resolution of their difficulties lay ‘just around the corner’. For example, the faith of interwar prime ministers that domestic economic troubles would be resolved by an international economic recovery was difficult to shake. Upon the exhaustion of all other alternatives, prime ministers may continue to hope that ‘something will turn up’ to wrest the regime out of its enervation. Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the conclusion that disjunctive prime ministers have been ill-­ served by their hopes that events might turn matters in their favour. Disjunctive prime ministers may also seek, in various ways, and for multiple reasons, to proactively ‘buy time’. This may be an attempt to forestall conflict. This was the case with Baldwin who, by subsidising wages and establishing a Royal Commission in 1925, delayed the general strike until 1926. If historians disagree on whether this was necessary to put the organisational measures in place to meet the strike, it nevertheless established Baldwin as a conciliator willing to explore any reasonable proposals to avert conflict. Prime ministers may also recognise that their policies need time to take effect. For example, Chamberlain’s appeasement can be persuasively understood as an attempt to buy the time necessary to complete Britain’s rearmament programme. However, where decisions only impact in the long term, disjunctive prime ministers may be unable to buy sufficient time. For example, Heath believed entry into the EEC would restore the regime’s dynamism. However, the anticipated economic impacts of membership arrived much too late to prevent the regime’s collapse. If disjunctive prime ministers cannot buy time, they may still seek to control the sequencing and tempo of decision-making. Wilson (1979: 20) lamented that ‘Crises are not in the habit of forming queues’. But, during his second term, he strategically sequenced the major decisions facing his government. He also held off crucial economic decisions, using the



perception of crisis to concentrate his colleagues’ minds. His successor provided a masterclass in controlling the tempo of decision-making. Callaghan’s marathon of ministerial meetings allowed all ministers and factions to put their case and to talk themselves out during the 1976 IMF crisis. This secured acceptance of public spending cuts without a single resignation, minimising intra-party schisms, at least in the short term. The 1931 crisis demonstrates the damaging consequences which befall disjunctive prime ministers when they lose control of the timing and sequencing of decision-making. The timing of the May Committee’s report escalated the growing economic crisis, frightening domestic and international financial interests. However, it is Theresa May’s premiership which establishes most clearly how detrimental losing control of the sequencing of decisions can prove. First, the timetable of Article 50 constrained her. Once this was triggered, the EU was incentivised to run down the clock to extract maximum concessions, knowing May was unlikely to countenance a ‘No Deal’ exit. Second, despite her best efforts, the EU compelled her to follow their preferred sequencing of negotiations. This meant that the leverage associated with the UK’s ‘divorce bill’ was lost early in negotiations. 5.3.4  Where to Act The disjunctive premierships also show that prime ministers possess choices of where to act. In an era of globalisation, the ‘uploading’ of decision-­making has often seemed a particularly modern phenomenon. However, it is an established strategy, as the efforts of interwar prime ministers in Imperial Conferences, the League of Nations, and bilateral diplomacy demonstrated. Not all these efforts were failures. For example, the Dawes Plan and the Locarno Treaty showed progress could be made on reparations and European security. Nevertheless, interwar prime ministers discovered that the limitations of uploading were greatest where the deepest hopes were invested. Attempts to enlist the Empire in resolving regime difficulties foundered upon the Dominion’s self-interest at the 1932 Ottawa Conference. Neither the League of Nations nor bilateral diplomacy could deliver the reliable collaboration necessary to preserve peace. A similar, mixed, verdict seems appropriate where the most recent sequence of disjunctive prime ministers is concerned. If he could not deliver a ‘Bretton Woods moment’, Gordon Brown’s adroit coalition building at the April 2009 G20 summit nevertheless secured increased resources for



international financial institutions in the form of a $1.1  trillion rescue package and a more aggressive approach to global financial regulation. These measures contributed to stabilising the external economic environment. They shored up his domestic position, burnishing his credentials as a leader capable of getting things done, and reinforced a narrative of the crisis and recession as being global in origin. This compared favourably, for example, to the 1933 London World Economic Conference. In contrast, Brown’s successors found that supra-national efforts to resolve regime difficulties delivered disappointing results. Cameron and May hoped that negotiations with the EU might secure regime-stabilising reforms. However, in both cases the willingness of the EU to collaborate fell short of what either could sell domestically. Disjunctive prime ministers proved typically less keen to ‘download’ decisions to sub-national and local government. First, downloading would have seemed an unlikely solution to most regime problems. Second, local and sub-national institutions were frequently the first foothold gained by regime opponents. Disjunctive prime ministers therefore often centralised decision-making to circumvent such opposition. For example, the resistance of local boards of guardians and public assistance committees encouraged the national government to establish national scales for unemployment relief. David Cameron’s premiership is therefore particularly notable. Cameron’s austerity measures fell particularly heavily on local government and formal responsibility for where cuts should fall was assigned to councils. Such austerity ultimately deepened the regime’s vulnerabilities, but Cameron’s strategy meant that local rather than central government took much of the immediate blame. ‘Lateral loading’ can be considered as a form of ‘depoliticisation’. As Flinders and Buller (2006: 296) have noted, ‘Frequently, the processes or procedures that are commonly referred to under the rubric of depoliticisation might…more accurately be described as “arena-shifting.”’ Prime ministers may have several motivations in shifting decision-making to a non-elected state body. First, they may believe such institutions can discover solutions that have eluded Whitehall and Westminster. Second, engaging non-partisan experts allows prime ministers to broaden responsibility and gain legitimacy for controversial measures. Third, non-elected bodies, in Wilson’s (Trades Union Congress 1964: 384) famous phrase, frequently ‘take minutes and last years’. Consequently, lateral loading can often justify delaying action until conclusions have been reached. A further benefit is that prime ministers often possess greater control where



lateral loading is concerned compared to other forms of venue shifting. The risks of politically unwelcome decisions are reduced when prime ministers are able, for example, to control the terms of reference and the membership of non-elected institutions. Disjunctive prime ministers in the interwar era made considerable use of lateral loading, but with few positive results. For example, Baldwin established a Royal Commission into the coal industry. However, as shown in Chap. 2, this neither prevented nor resolved conflict, it only delayed it. Similarly, Royal Commissions on national and unemployment insurance, and the distribution of the industrial population, failed to resolve the problems of unemployment or financial support for the unemployed. Rather, the most significant use of lateral loading was the return to the gold standard. This rules-based depoliticisation consciously offloaded key economic decisions to the Bank of England, with profoundly damaging consequences for the regime. By the 1970s, the heyday of Royal Commissions had passed. However, disjunctive prime ministers in this era were not inhibited from other forms of lateral loading. In particular, it was central to Heath’s misguided attempts to address industrial conflict. The 1971 Industrial Relations Act sought to depoliticise dispute resolution by shifting decisions to the National Industrial Relations Court (Warner 2019). However, employers were unwilling to use the court and unions refused to recognise its jurisdiction. Heath’s attempt to shift responsibility only fostered distrust among trade unionists and hindered Heath’s subsequent attempts to reach a new modus vivendi that would allow corporatist institutions to work more effectively. After 2007, prime ministers operated in a context in which much more economic and social decision-making had been shifted to non-elected bodies (Burnham 2001, 2017). Some further extensions were made at the margins, most notably Labour’s Fiscal Responsibility Act and the creation of the Office of Budget Responsibility under the coalition government. This was created by Cameron to depoliticise fiscal policy by providing a visible institutional backbone for austerity. However, what is striking about this period is prime ministers’ failure to anticipate and adequately respond to a popular backlash against both uploading and lateral loading. Consequently, the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum found many voters willing to ‘Take back control’ of trade and immigration policy. Similarly, public support for the re-nationalisation of mail, rail, water, and energy can be seen, at least in part, as a backlash against attempts to



depoliticise access to such vital services by mediating access to them using markets. Finally, prime ministers can offload decisions to non-state actors. The usual method has been to call a general election to request a mandate for an existing, or prospective, policy. For leaders of resilient regimes, elections are chiefly matters of selecting the electorally optimal moment for renewal of the government’s mandate. For disjunctive prime ministers, elections have proven less straightforward. Of the 11 general elections contested by disjunctive prime ministers, the incumbent retained office on five occasions. However, only the 1931 and 1935 victories were convincing. The October 1974 and 2015 elections delivered slim majorities while in 2017 the incumbent lost her majority. One consideration is that since they govern in conditions of heightened uncertainty and are less likely to enjoy popular esteem, the optimal moment for an election often passes disjunctive prime ministers by. Both Callaghan and Brown failed to call earlier elections which may have seen their parties returned to government. Parliamentary circumstances may also deprive disjunctive prime ministers of the choice to call an election. Both the 1924 and 1979 elections followed parliamentary defeats on matters of confidence. However, it is the elections of 1923, 1931, February 1974, and 2017 which represent the clearest test of offloading decisions to the electorate. These were snap elections, intended to secure a mandate to resolve very specific regime vulnerabilities. The record here is not encouraging. The 1931 election stabilised the regime and returned MacDonald as prime minister. However, the circumstances were unusual. A genuine sense of crisis was abroad, and MacDonald’s victory owed much to the disarray he had sowed amongst his former colleagues. In 1923, February 1974, and 2017 the electorate inflicted varying degrees of punishment on the disjunctive incumbent. Baldwin misjudged the resilience of the commitment to free trade among the regime’s supporters in 1923. Heath and May discovered the difficulties of keeping election campaigns framed upon single issues. Both campaigns broadened beyond their chosen issues of ‘who governs’ and Brexit, allowing their rivals to derail their electoral strategy. Less frequently prime ministers have used referendums to offload a decision to the electorate. Notably, all of the UK’s nationwide referendums were called by disjunctive prime ministers. However, referendums have an undistinguished record as a mechanism for resolving regime vulnerabilities. Wilson’s 1975 EEC referendum was most successful in



delivering short-term stabilisation. However, by the 1983 election, EEC withdrawal had returned as a serious proposition. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum failed to diminish the salience of the regime’s territorial vulnerabilities as the referendums of 1979 had done. If the 2014 referendum did not deepen the threat to the regime posed by Scottish nationalism as subsequent elections have shown, it did little to dent its electoral appeal either. The consequence of the 2016 referendum was not just that Cameron was forced to resign, but that the regime’s preferred policy instruments, its political commitments, its institutional supports, and its coalition of supporters were all placed under profound strain. 5.3.5  How to Act Where prime ministers choose to act, they have organisational, authoritative, financial, and information-based instruments to choose from. In pursuing organisational measures, disjunctive prime ministers principally had managerial objectives in mind. They aimed to enhance the regime’s ability to deliver its existing commitments. Whereas reconstructive prime ministers have used structural reforms to reconstitute the state, disjunctive prime ministers have rarely proved enthusiastic structural reformers. The principal exceptions were Heath and May. Heath rationalised departmental structures in the expectation of greater efficiency. Theresa May created two new departments to deliver Brexit. Neither’s record was auspicious. Heath’s reconstructed departmental structure failed to mitigate the regime’s growing vulnerabilities. May’s organisational reforms increased the complexities and difficulties of negotiating with the EU. The prospect of enhancing the expertise of central government through procedural reform seduced several disjunctive prime ministers. MacDonald created the Economic Advisory Council, Heath the Central Policy Review Staff, Wilson the No. 10 Policy Unit, and Cameron the ‘Nudge Unit’ in the Cabinet Office. However, all were ill-matched to the scale and the complexity of the regime’s difficulties. Given the resources available to them, and the orthodoxies prevailing elsewhere in Whitehall, their ability to contribute to resolving regime vulnerabilities was limited. The opportunities for organisational co-option proved more limited for disjunctive prime ministers. First, not every regime countenanced co-­ option. For example, co-opting business or organised labour was untenable in an interwar regime premised on holding the ring between these interests. Second, co-option is not an appropriate solution for every



problem, being best suited to managing societal conflicts and demands. In this respect, the social contract of 1974–1979 represents the clearest example of co-option by disjunctive prime ministers. In exchange for wage restraint, government consulted union leaders to an unprecedented degree. Its extraordinary feature was not that it collapsed amidst rank-and-­ file discontent during the ‘winter of discontent’. Rather, it was remarkable for how long Wilson and Callaghan persuaded union leaders to consent to policies which directly challenged their members’ material interests. Where disjunctive prime ministers have attempted to secure changes to action and behaviour by legislative compulsion difficulties have generally followed. First, holding the threat of legislation in reserve has rarely proven effective. For example, the experience of the 1970s was that voluntary incomes policies quickly became statutory. Second, in conditions of regime vulnerability compliance with legislation is far from certain. Goodwill towards the government is frequently in short supply. Groups affected often perceive legislation as illegitimate. Without voluntary compliance, enforcing the law generates greater costs, which disjunctive prime ministers may be unwilling to bear. Such considerations applied particularly to Heath and Callaghan. Heath’s attempt to introduce legal sanctions in the 1971 Industrial Relations Act crumpled given mass union non-­ compliance. Callaghan’s incomes policy also collapsed because of non-­ compliance. When Ford broke the 5 per cent norm in late 1978, and parliament refused to impose sanctions, it cleared the path for a wave of pay claims which fuelled the ‘winter of discontent’. Callaghan’s experience on imposing sanctions was relatively unusual. Most disjunctive prime ministers have possessed reasonable confidence, whatever other uncertainties they encounter, that they can pass the measures they introduce to parliament. Even if required to make concessions and offer amendments, parliament has rarely presented an insuperable obstacle. As prime minister of two minority governments, the need to anticipate parliamentary reactions clearly constrained MacDonald. However, he adapted to these constraints to some extent, as we saw in Chap. 2, by tactical manoeuvres to buy time and to laterally load decision-­ making. It was Theresa May’s particular misfortune that she not only lacked the ability to deliver an authoritative resolution to the principal problem of the regime, but that she also could not shift decision-making to a non-parliamentary venue. The intra- and inter-party divisions which May encountered meant that she could not deliver the parliamentary endorsement for her Withdrawal Agreement that she was legally



compelled to secure. Her Attorney General deemed her assurances on the Northern Ireland backstop to lack legal authority. And when, in the twilight of her premiership, she proposed concessions that would permit a second referendum, the prospect of offloading the final decision on Brexit to the electorate provoked fury within her party. The three sequences of disjunctive prime ministers could not avoid use of financial instruments as a mechanism of regime management. However, as affiliates of vulnerable regimes they acted within the parameters generated by three general considerations. First, as regime affiliates, these prime ministers subscribed to contemporary dominant political-economic beliefs which shaped how they prioritised and used these instruments. Second, the regimes drew support from coalitions of interests and voters ill-­ disposed to lose benefits enjoyed in more resilient times. Third, largesse in using financial instruments grew more difficult in conditions of economic duress. As Hood (1983: 53) suggests, ‘cheque-book government may have something of the character of a “fair weather” instrument.’ In vulnerable regimes, replenishing the resources of the Treasury grew more challenging. Government revenues were less certain. Financial interests were also inclined to demand austere conditions for their support. We have seen how interwar prime ministers subscribed to an economic orthodoxy of balanced budgets and low taxation which corresponded with the economic interests of key regime supporters. They meant that large-scale public works to address the regime’s economic difficulties were discounted and rejected. This commitment to orthodox political economy was not absolute. For example, miners’ wages were subsidised between 1925 and 1926 and deficits were run on the unemployment insurance fund. Such palliative measures were employed to avoid conflicts within the regime. However, in 1931 the economic vulnerabilities of the regime and the demands of financial interests took precedence. MacDonald acted to restore balance to the budget. In line with orthodox prescriptions, this was achieved by public expenditure cuts falling most heavily on the benefits of the unemployed and the wages of public sector workers. The priority placed on economic stability thereafter proved fundamental to how rearmament was pursued and the management of external threats to the regime. In Chap. 3, we saw how Heath reduced subsidies and public expenditure in an effort to revive the regime’s economic fortunes. When confronted by the failure of these measures and the mounting antagonism of interests within the regime, Heath reverted to more traditional Keynesian



policy instruments and attempted to spend his way out of trouble. His successors, constrained by deepening economic difficulties and the need to secure the confidence of the markets and the IMF, increasingly relied upon the instruments of public expenditure cuts and wage restraint to stabilise the regime. Ultimately, Callaghan could not maintain the delicate balancing act between interests within the regime that this demanded. His five per cent pay norm pushed wage restraint beyond the tolerance of trade union members and the credibility of this instrument was shattered in the ‘winter of discontent’. Prime ministers after 2007 also heavily used financial instruments. Brown pursued a programme of deficit spending to minimise the economic damage of the financial crisis. This mitigated some of the worst effects. But such ‘foul weather’ Keynesianism (Hay 2011) was intended to be temporary and a cross-party consensus emerged on the need to restore sustainable finances. Cameron implemented austerity at pace, although this slowed and he granted concessions where his government came under pressure. Nevertheless, in many senses this cure was as bad as the disease, since austerity contributed to growing dissatisfaction with the regime. Although Theresa May was flagrant in her use of financial instruments to secure the parliamentary support of the DUP, her concessions elsewhere, for example, on freezing tuition fees, were more measured. But these had little impact in a context where Jeremy Corbyn was intent on ending austerity and happily outbid her. In this sense, May’s position demonstrates the particular difficulties of a regime affiliate using financial instruments when confronted by a reconstructive Leader of the Opposition. Finally, prime ministers may deliver ‘sermons’. Such information-based instruments come with low financial and political costs but also have limited prospects for success. Changing beliefs, and challenging interests is a difficult proposition, even in the best circumstances. In a vulnerable regime the challenges are considerable. Disjunctive prime ministers and their governments are often distrusted while faith in the regime is in decline. Consequently, the limitations of information-based instruments are plain from the records of disjunctive prime ministers. For example, neither Baldwin’s facility as a communicator nor Conservative innovations in election campaigning could prevent the defeat of appeals to ‘Safety First’ in 1929. Nor have more recent disjunctive prime ministers fared better. Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ showed the shortcomings of a policy premised on exhortation, while the 2016 referendum demonstrated how a well-resourced campaign focused upon the negative consequences of



leaving the EU was incapable of swaying well-entrenched Eurosceptic sentiments. Indeed, it is tempting to conclude that withholding information may have greater impact on the regime. During the financial crisis Whitehall feared that a banking collapse would stop cash machines working and that social disorder would follow (McBride 2013). Understandably, Brown did not disclose these prospects because they would destabilise the regime further. Yet, if Brown’s reticence prevented panic it also suppressed public expectations of the scale of future sacrifices and diminished Brown’s own accomplishments in averting financial Armageddon. 5.3.6  How to Justify Decisions The final domain of agency concerns how prime ministers justify their decisions by prognostic and motivational framings. Here the disjunctive interwar prime ministers demonstrated the two extremes of prognostic framing. None could be accused of generating unrealistic hopes of an economic recovery. On the contrary, they were fatalistic and actively discredited the proposals of their opponents as impracticable. However, at the opposite extreme, Chamberlain encouraged expectations that proved as unrealistic as they were short-lived. Appeasement would not deliver ‘peace for our time’. Among the prime ministers of the 1970s, Callaghan’s prognostic framing was the most notable. As we saw in Chap. 3, Callaghan sought to reduce expectations by frankly articulating how the regime’s vulnerabilities limited his government’s options. However, these efforts had a decaying resonance. Amidst falling living standards, a fourth, tougher round of wage restraint demanded a sacrifice that trade unionists had not anticipated and were unwilling to accept. Recent prime ministers demonstrate some of the other challenges of prognostic framing. Cameron’s record here was mixed. His prognostic framing of his economic programme was effective. His plan to eliminate the deficit in a single parliament was clear and easily understood. His overstatement of the economic vulnerabilities provided a degree of political cover when economic targets were missed. However, the prognostic framing of his negotiations with the EU was woefully misjudged. Cameron encouraged expectations of far-reaching changes in relations with the EU he could not deliver. For his successor, prognostic framing proved even more challenging. The 2016 referendum result came to possess the characteristics of an ‘empty signifier’ onto which varied and competing



objectives were projected. May found it impossible to quarantine these alternative visions of Brexit. She also committed herself to a vision of Brexit which envisaged leaving the customs union and the Single Market, while maintaining the Union, and avoiding a hard border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Not only were these ‘red lines’ highly challenging to reconcile, they encouraged Brexiteers to harbour expectations of a deal from which May found it impossible to extricate herself. Motivational framing proved equally challenging for disjunctive prime ministers. At best they attempt to enlist support for a regime in difficulties. However, they frequently must go considerably further. They may need to persuade actors within the regime to change well-established patterns of behaviour, or sacrifice benefits and prerogatives which they have long enjoyed. Alternatively, they may need to repair the social divisions which regime vulnerabilities expose. In such circumstances we often find disjunctive prime ministers taking refuge in appeals to national unity and shared sacrifice as motivational framings. However, the resonance of such appeals has varied with the prime ministers concerned. For example, Baldwin enjoyed credibility as an apostle of national unity having long cultivated his image as a conciliator. The more abrasive figures of Chamberlain and Heath in contrast lacked such credibility. The experience of recent prime ministers suggests that appeals to national unity and shared sacrifice remain challenging to issue credibly. While Cameron’s prognostic framing could be effective, his claims, as a millionaire old-Etonian pursuing a programme of austerity, that ‘we’re all in this together’ were easily dismantled. May also struggled to develop a persuasive motivational framing in the context of Brexit. She persistently justified her decisions in terms of the ‘national interest’. However, in the context of a multi-national state profoundly divided by the 2016 referendum, this was a problematic appeal. May also faced a problem of credibility. She spent much of her premiership attacking opposition parties as saboteurs of Brexit and the people’s will. When she sought inter-party cooperation to deliver Brexit in the final months of her premiership, her appeals to national unity possessed a hollow ring.



5.4   Evaluating Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership Viewed in such terms, we not only see that multiple opportunities exist for disjunctive prime ministers to exercise agency, but that there is also a repertoire of action associated with the disjunctive premiership. In the contests to diagnostically frame regime difficulties, disjunctive prime ministers incline either to exogenise the causes, or associate them with the governing techniques of their predecessors. They tend to willingly frame events in terms of crisis to raise the political stakes and alter the expectations of those within the regime. Inaction is rarely a conscious choice and is more often due to limited institutional bandwidth. They nonetheless tend to be prodigies of delay and deferral. Disjunctive prime ministers are typically willing to venture to alternative venues in their efforts to resolve regime difficulties. Where action is concerned, they are liable to prioritise managerial procedural reforms over more radical structural reforms. Legislation is usually a means to other ends, rather than a direct effort to compel action or behavioural change amongst actors in the regime. Given that the political costs are low, we frequently find them delivering ‘sermons’ in an attempt to persuade actors within the regime. In justifying their actions, there is a predilection to issue appeals to national unity and shared sacrifice to motivate support for the regime. They exercise this repertoire in conditions of constraint, limiting the effectiveness of many of these measures. Disjunctive prime ministers face a challenge in constructing resonant and durable frames, particularly in contests with reconstructive opponents. The regime’s problems rarely diminish if ignored. Nor are most amenable to delay. Unfavourable conditions have a habit of persisting, if not worsening. Disjunctive prime ministers have often overlooked or discounted the difficulty of securing reliable collaborators when they have uploaded, laterally loaded, and offloaded decisions. Organisational changes have been mismatched to the scale of the regime’s problems. Compliance with efforts to modify behaviour by legislative means has tended to be uncertain. Financial instruments have been constrained by the need to balance economic orthodoxy, the interests of actors within the regime, and the need to maintain a robust Treasury. Exhortation rarely sustains a regime for long. Expectations are easily mis-­ sold and appeals to common interests have limited purchase when social division and discord are growing.



Leadership at any point in political time is challenging. Nevertheless, the foregoing discussion and the preceding chapters remind us how hard, frustrating, and even melancholy disjunctive leadership is. If disjunctive prime ministers do not find themselves in an ‘impossible leadership situation’ they often discover their best efforts to be ineffectual. They are compelled to defend a status-quo which is losing the support which its affiliates once took for granted. The visible political horizon shrinks such that keeping the show on the road becomes their primary goal. They become the lightning rod for mounting disappointments and growing grievances. They are commissioned to deliver bad news and to issue unwelcome truths. Theirs is a politics of hard choices and flawed outcomes. It is no surprise that diaries and biographies frequently attest to the acute physical and mental stresses and strains encountered by disjunctive prime ministers in office. Yet, disjunctive prime ministers responded to these challenges in different ways and some acquitted themselves better than others. The judgements here are complex, on-balance ones. As we have seen, there is an innate complexity to prime ministerial agency. It is unlikely that any prime minister could be equally accomplished in exercising agency across all six domains. Even those who struggled most with the disjunctive dilemma were not entirely undistinguished in how they exercised agency. Evaluation also needs to balance their general performance and the regime’s resilience at the moment of their departure, with how they responded to particular incidents and challenges. Here it is clear that disjunctive prime ministers have, on the whole, proven much more capable in crisis management than they have in regime management. Turning first to the prime ministers between 1923 and 1940, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Baldwin proved most proficient in negotiating the constraints in which he found himself. Baldwin possessed an ability to frame the problems of the regime and his responses adeptly. He also commanded a strategic awareness of political timing. He was at his best when dealing with the crises triggered by the general strike and Edward VIII’s abdication. Had these occurred during the MacDonald or Chamberlain premierships, it is hard to believe that they would have been as effectively resolved. However, his record as a regime manager was more mixed. His attempt to offload a decision on tariffs in 1923 was disastrous. He also bore heavy responsibility for inaction over unemployment insurance and the restoration of the gold standard. Both choices rendered the regime more vulnerable. MacDonald, in contrast, was less assured in



exercising prime ministerial agency, lacking Baldwin’s facility as a communicator and his sense of political timing. MacDonald bore considerable responsibility for manufacturing the crisis of 1931. Yet the formation of the National Government also delivered the regime from its moment of greatest vulnerability. MacDonald deserves credit for re-stabilising the regime. If he and Baldwin departed in the absence of an accompanying crisis, they left Chamberlain an enervated regime facing growing difficulties in reconciling its domestic commitments to an increasingly hostile external environment. By this point, path dependence meant that there was no obviously better policy than attempting to buy time for rearmament. However, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Chamberlain had played a considerable role in setting the trajectory of the policy he inherited. He misjudged the motivational framing of appeasement and, having antagonised the Labour Party throughout his career, could not deliver an inclusive coalition government once war began. Chamberlain’s agency accordingly bears greatest responsibility for the delivering the coup de grâce to the interwar regime. Of the disjunctive prime ministers of the 1970s, Callaghan had the misfortune to be prime minister when the Keynesian welfare state collapsed. Callaghan cannot be absolved of responsibility here. By deferring an election, mis-calibrating the financial instruments used to maintain the equilibrium of the regime, and by losing the framing contest over the ‘winter of discontent’, Callaghan delivered the regime into the hands of a reconstructive prime minister. However, the regime’s vulnerabilities were such that it might have collapsed at several points prior to this point. Indeed, Callaghan deserves considerable credit for decelerating decision-­ making during the 1976 IMF crisis and for keeping the regime going until late 1978 by co-opting the unions. Likewise, Wilson’s Baldwin-esque final term steadied a vulnerable regime. The 1975 EEC referendum was a rare success for a disjunctive prime minister in offloading decision-making, removing the issue as a source of regime vulnerability for the remainder of the government. By framing conditions in terms of an economic crisis, Wilson secured the support of the union movement for an unpopular programme of austerity. In contrast, Heath made considerably less effective use of his agency. Although the regime’s prospects suffered as a consequence of the 1973 oil shock, Heath’s actions before and after increased regime vulnerabilities. Many of his key choices were ill-conceived or poorly executed. His faith in technocratic organisational reforms was misplaced. His use of financial instruments increased the regime’s economic



difficulties. The 1971 Industrial Relations Act verifies the risks of transformational rather than incremental change and of lateral loading. His final act, an attempt to offload decision-making by calling an election, backfired spectacularly. Of the prime ministers to have held office since 2007, Gordon Brown’s credentials as a crisis manager are the most convincing. His decision-­ making during the 2007–2008 financial crisis was more assured than his regime management thereafter. He framed the crisis well, legitimating the exceptional use of a range of financial instruments. At the 2009 London G20, he enjoyed unusual success for a disjunctive prime minister in uploading decision-making. His actions stabilised the regime, and the crisis proved less economically damaging than most expected. However, the regime remained vulnerable and attention soon turned to the restoration of the government’s finances. David Cameron also exercised many of the choices faced by a disjunctive prime minister well. He could frame problems effectively and set reasonable expectations. By downloading responsibility for deciding where cuts fell to local authorities, he deflected some of the blame for austerity. If he did not resolve regime difficulties in his first term, economic growth strengthened in time for him to secure a second term in office. However, his renegotiation of the terms of EU membership proved catastrophic. He oversold what he hoped to secure and failed to recognise the risks involved in offloading decision-making to the electorate. The referendum revealed the shortcomings of a campaign focused on threats to a status-quo in which many voters had lost faith. Theresa May was dealt a spectacularly bad hand. She played this equally badly. Delivering Brexit was one of the most challenging agendas to confront an incoming British prime minister in peacetime. It also deepened existing vulnerabilities and introduced new strains within the regime. However, she framed Brexit in terms which encouraged unrealistic expectations among Brexiteers in her own party and which alienated more pragmatic Brexiteers and Remainers. She downplayed the challenges of delivering Brexit, meaning simplistic expectations of the negotiations went undisputed. Brexit consumed all available political oxygen in the British political system, compelling her to abandon much of her non-Brexit related agenda. She found herself trapped within a timetable and a sequencing of negotiations which favoured the EU. She was compelled to upload decision-making but could not escape the constraints of Parliament either. This led to her fateful decision to seek a larger parliamentary majority which delivered an even more challenging parliamentary arithmetic.



Her organisational reforms were counterproductive. A reconstructive opposition outbid her attempts to use financial instruments to move away from austerity. Her unwillingness to disclose information about her negotiations damaged her reputation further. She could not secure a parliamentary majority for her deal or engineer a cross-party consensus. Her attempts to motivate support based on the ‘national interest’ lacked resonance.

5.5   Conclusion This book was completed in the early months of Boris Johnson’s premiership. It therefore seems remiss not to take the opportunity to conclude by briefly considering how Britain’s latest prime minister might respond to the rhythms of political time. Johnson’s premiership started inauspiciously. He appeared caught in the same disjunctive dilemma which ensnared his predecessor. In his determination to deliver Brexit by Halloween, the new prime minister came into conflict with Parliament, the Supreme Court, and the Monarchy, emerging second best with each encounter. Lacking other options to break the political deadlock, he sought, and eventually secured, the agreement of the Opposition parties to hold an election, the first to take place in December since 1923. Johnson’s gamble in offloading decision-making to the voters succeeded where those of Baldwin in 1923, Heath in 1974, and May in 2017 failed. He was returned with an 80-seat majority, the largest of any Conservative prime minister since 1987, having won seats in northern England and the Midlands which had returned Labour MPs for generations. If the result owed much to misgivings about Jeremy Corbyn and the credibility of Labour policies, it also demonstrated effective agency on Johnson’s part. The warrant he sought, to ‘Get Brexit Done’, was simple and was maintained as the primary focus of the campaign. By framing the alternative as continuing parliamentary dysfunction and further referendums, Johnson drew effectively from the deep reservoirs of anti-political sentiment in the country. With this secure majority, Johnson could finally deliver Britain’s departure from the EU on 31 January 2020 and be confident of pursuing his domestic agenda thereafter. Indeed, from the perspective of early 2020, it would be easy to imagine that Johnson could break the cycle of disjunctive leadership by becoming a reconstructive prime minister. The 2019



election may prove, in retrospect, to have established a new and durable electoral coalition, while Brexit possesses a transformative potential, particularly in respect of Britain’s political economy. However, as the 1931 and 1935 elections showed, commanding Commons majorities do not deliver reconstructive politics on their own. Johnson’s three-word mantra did not provide him with a convincing reconstructive warrant, nor did it set aside his long-established reputation for political opportunism. Johnson made much more of his determination to deliver withdrawal and conclude negotiations on Britain’s future relationship on schedule than he did in setting out how he would employ Brexit for either the purposes of regime maintenance or transformation. The Conservative manifesto did recognise regime vulnerabilities such as regional economic imbalances, the insecurity of the gig economy, and the dysfunctions of the housing market. However, the solutions advanced relied heavily on releasing financial instruments from the straitjacket of austerity. They did not yet amount to a programme of reconstruction which would transform the ideas, institutions, and policy paradigms of the regime. Rather the implication was that extra funding would be sufficient to repair the defects of the regime. Prime ministerial agency will prove central to resolving these ambiguities. But Johnson will be exercising that agency within the constraints of political time. The vulnerabilities of the regime did not vanish in the early hours of 13 December 2019; still less did they disappear at 11 pm on 31 January 2020. As Johnson addresses the choices that follow, he would do well to reflect on the experiences of Britain’s disjunctive prime ministers and the struggles they encountered in maintaining a vulnerable regime.

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A Anglo-liberal growth model, 87, 90 See also Privatised Keynesianism Austerity, 99, 100, 125, 131, 136, 137, 139 B Baldwin, Stanley, 22–24, 26–29, 35–37, 43, 44, 119, 121, 123, 124, 126, 127, 130–133, 135–137 and Edward VIII abdication crisis, 36–37 and the gold standard, 26, 28, 118 and protectionism, 22–24 and rearmament, 34–36 and trade unions, 22–24, 28, 120 Beer, Samuel, 54 Benn, Tony, 57, 58, 68 Bonar Law, 22–24 Brexit, 127 See also Cameron, David, and the EU membership referendum; May, Theresa, and Brexit

British Empire, 19 and decolonisation, 21 Brown, Gordon, 94–97, 116, 127, 132, 137 and the 2008 financial crisis, 95–96, 119–122, 125, 131–132, 137 Buller, Jim, see Statecraft model Bulpitt, Jim, see Statecraft model C Callaghan, James, 55, 69–74, 76–77, 124, 127, 136 and Cabinet government, 73 and the International Monetary Fund crisis, 72, 136 and the Lib-Lab pact, 73–74 and monetarism, 70 and trade unions, 72, 76, 124, 129, 131, 132, 136 Cameron, David, 96–101, 120–122, 124–126, 128, 131–133, 137–138 and the Big Society, 99–100, 131

© The Author(s) 2020 C. Byrne et al., Disjunctive Prime Ministerial Leadership in British Politics, Palgrave Studies in Political Leadership, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-44911-7




Cameron, David (cont.) and the EU membership referendum, 100, 107, 124–126, 132, 137 and the Labour Party, 97 and Margaret Thatcher, 98 and the Scottish independence referendum, 101–108 and the 2008 financial crisis, 98–99 See also Austerity Chamberlain, Neville, 32, 34, 37–40, 44, 122, 123, 132, 136 and the British Empire, 37 and the general strike (1926), 43 and the Labour Party, 39–40 and rearmament, 38–39, 122, 123 Churchill, Winston, 40 Conservative Party 1920s, 19–20 1970s, 55 Corbyn, Jeremy, 93, 104–107, 131, 138 D Davies, Will, 87–89 Depoliticisation, 88, 125–128 See also Neoliberal regime, and depoliticisation Disjunctive political leadership, 12–13, 134–138 F Financial crisis (2007-08), 93, 95 Food banks, 90, 91 Foot, Michael, 70 G Gig economy, 90 Greenstein, Fred, 2

H Heath, Edward, 55, 60–65, 75–76, 118, 120, 127–128, 130, 133, 136 and Cabinet government, 64 and the European Economic Community, 123 and trade unions, 62–64, 122, 126 Heffernan, Richard, 3–4 I Interwar regime, 17–20, 124–126, 128, 130 and electoral dealignment, 56 and immigration, 56–57 and Northern Ireland, 56–58 vulnerabilities of, 20–22, 40–42, 122, 123 and the welfare state, 41 J Jennings, Will, 91–92 Johnson, Boris, 138–139 Jones, Toby, see Statecraft model K Keynesian welfare state regime, 52–54, 121 and defence spending, 53 and the European Economic Community, 52 and trade unions, 54, 58–59 vulnerabilities of, 54–59; 1973-74 oil crisis, 59; stagflation, 59 L Labour Party 1920s, 20 1970s, 56


Leadership style model, see Greenstein, Fred Liberal-Conservative coalition government, 22 Liberal Party, 56 M MacDonald, Ramsay, 24–26, 29–34, 119, 121, 127–130, 135, 136 and the Economic Advisory Council, 30, 128 and protectionism, 30, 33 and rearmament, 34 and socialism, 24, 25 and sterling crisis (1931), 32–33, 43 and the Unemployment Insurance Fund, 30 May, Theresa, 101–108, 128, 133 and Brexit, 102–108, 120, 123–125, 130, 132–134, 137 and David Cameron, 101–102 and the EU membership referendum, 101, 121–122, 125–126 and George Osborne, 103 and Jeremy Corbyn, 105–106 and the 2017 general election, 103, 104 Middlemas, Keith, 54 N Neoliberal regime, 86–89 and competition, 87 and depoliticisation, 96–105, 126 and entrepreneurialism, 87, 90 and national competitiveness, 89 and public opinion, 93 vulnerabilities of, 89–94, 127 and workfare, 88, 90 See also Anglo-liberal growth model


P Political time model, 5–6, 114–115 and Britain, 115–118 criticisms of, 5–6, 116–117, 119 Postwar consensus, see Keynesian welfare state regime Powell, Enoch, 57 Power resources model, see Heffernan, Richard Prime minister power of, 2–12, 119–133 Privatised Keynesianism, 90 S Scottish independence referendum, 128 See also Cameron, David, and the Scottish independence referendum Selsdon Group, the, 58 Skowronek, Stephen, see Political time model Social Democratic Party, the, 66 Statecraft model, 3–5 Stoker, Gerry, 91–92 T Thatcher, Margaret, 58, 123 U UK Independence Party, 92, 97, 100 W Wilson, Harold, 55, 56, 65–69, 76–77, 120–121, 123, 128–129, 136–137 and the European Economic Community, 68, 136–137 and the trade unions, 69–71, 129