By Malcolm Mackerras

In my article here on March 28 (“Lessons for SA from WA election”) I made a detour into American history and pronounced the “great” presidents of the 20th century to have been (in this order) Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan and Woodrow Wilson. In quite a different place, I have pronounced the “great” Australian prime ministers to have been (in this order) Bob Menzies, John Curtin, Alfred Deakin, Andrew Fisher, Bob Hawke, Billy Hughes and John Howard.

Being interested in these things, I was wondering at one stage how British historians would rank their 20th century prime ministers. I found the answer easily. On a visit to London in 2015, I learnt something as a mere tourist by going to the Houses of Parliament at Westminster. I noticed at a place just outside the House of Commons chamber, the statues of all the prime ministers of the 20th century. Yet one thing that interested me was that the statues were not of the same size. Four were much bigger than the others. The four of standout size were those of David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. Here, surely, was an official statement. The “great” British prime ministers of the 20th century were Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher.

So let me speculate about the 21st century. In chronological order, the first “great” British prime minister will be Theresa May. She was born in 1956 as the daughter of a clergyman. She became the Conservative member for Maidenhead in 1997, which was the year of the great landslide to Labour under Tony Blair. The Maidenhead constituency is west of London and has the Thames River as its northern border. It is prosperous but has one problem. The locals complain at times about excessive aircraft noise from Heathrow Airport.

When David Cameron became prime minister in the Conservative/Liberal Democratic Coalition government in 2010, May became the Home Secretary. The general consensus of pundit opinion was to describe her as the “token woman” in the Cabinet. However, she became noted for her tough-minded approach to the job and events turned out with an unexpected twist. David Cameron caused to be held a referendum in June 2016 at which, by a 52% to 48% margin, the British people decided to leave the European Union, the so-called “Brexit”. Cameron resigned and May became prime minister on July 14, 2016.

I now come forward to July 2024. May marks the eighth anniversary of her tenure of the office of prime minister by retiring on her own terms. She had become the senior leader of government in Europe and her retirement made the French president, Emmanuel Macron, the senior leader for the foreseeable future. Here is now a description of May’s leadership of the United Kingdom, which leadership historians think entitles her to be described as the century’s first “great” prime minister.

Cameron won a general election for the Conservative Party on May 7, 2015. The result in seats for the 650-member House of Commons was 330 for the Conservatives, 232 for Labour, 56 for the Scottish National Party, 8 for the Liberal Democrats and 24 for the combination of all the rest. However, due to the fact that several republican members from Northern Ireland refused to attend, that was generally described as a 17-seat majority for Cameron and May.

In allowing the British people to express their will on Brexit, pundits thought Cameron made a terrible political mistake. When the vote went against him, he had to resign. May seamlessly became prime minister, an unexpected, accidental, indeed “fluke” holder of the office. Yet, May proved that such a person sometimes ends up being described as “great” where the man long predicted to be prime minister sometimes turns out to be such a ditherer he ends up being described as a “failure”. Mind you, May had a great advantage over possible Conservative rivals. For a long time known as a “Eurosceptic” she was, nevertheless, loyal to Cameron and voted to “Remain”.

Her Euroscepticism did not disappoint. Contrary to all expectations (including those created by herself) she called an early election for June 8, 2017 at which Cameron’s ten-seat majority was increased to a hundred seats. The numbers were 375 for the Conservatives, 175 for Labour, 52 for the SNP, 25 for the Liberal Democrats and 23 for the combination of all the rest.

May’s full term from June 2017 to June 2022 was lauded by historians. She had placed the United Kingdom in a strong bargaining position by holding her first election to her own timetable. The result of the election gave general strength to her position. The consequence was that Brexit was far more successful than had been expected. Thus the British people in June 2022 gave her party a third consecutive win with another absolute majority in seats. (It was, of course, the fourth consecutive win, 2010 having been, in truth, a Conservative win.)

May’s tenure was noted for two other achievements. The first was to keep the United Kingdom together, no mean feat in the circumstances. The second was to realise a long-held Conservative dream of reducing the size of the House of Commons to “a mere” 600 members. Consequently, under new maps in 2022 the distribution of seats was 502 for England, 52 for Scotland, 30 for Wales and 16 for Northern Ireland.

In 2010, 2015 and 2017, the distribution of seats was (is) 533 for England, 59 for Scotland, 40 for Wales and 18 for Northern Ireland.

(Malcolm Mackerras is Honorary Fellow of Australian Catholic University.