Ranking Leadership

A flurry of media interest followed the announcement this week of the results of C-Span’s Survey of Presidential Leadership, a sporadic survey of Presidential Historians. The interest of the political and media class in ranking leaders does appear to be increasing in recent decades. Despite the essential meaninglessness of such lists, they seem reflect an innate desire to boil down political leadership to either success or failure.

The C-Span List is interesting, not least because it is based on the judgement of historians, often considered more ‘objective’ than general public surveys.

C-Span Top Ten US Presidents

President 2017 Ranking 2009 2000
Abraham Lincoln 1 1 1
George Washington 2 2 3
Franklin D. Roosevelt 3 3 2
Theodore Roosevelt 4 4 4
Dwight D. Eisenhower 5 8 9
Harry S. Truman 6 5 5
Thomas Jefferson 7 7 7
John F. Kennedy 8 6 8
Ronald Reagan 9 10 11
Lyndon Baines Johnson 10 11 10

Yet, the C-Span list is open to the same criticisms of placing image over substance that are often thrown at public surveys. Why is JFK, whose short Presidency certainly saw significant historic events, but who committed significant mistakes in his three years in office, ranked above the likes of Reagan, or Woodrow Wilson, America’s leader in World War One. Reagan’s ranking of 9, whilst up on previous lists, also seems low if one is to judge a Presidency on the extent to which it remoulded the country and implemented its domestic and foreign policy agenda. Reagan’s was a transformative Presidency at home and in foreign policy he played a significant role in assisting the end of the Cold War. He seems to suffer the same perceived disadvantage that Margaret Thatcher does in British academic rankings – over-simplified as due to an inherent left-wing bias in academia – though I have met plenty of right-wing academics.

Eisenhower’s placing at 5 is also an interesting example of whether perceptions of an individual President’s character can override objective assessments of a Presidency’s success. When he left office Eisenhower’s Presidency was considered a failure, but his stature as a great American war hero always towered over everything else surrounding his Presidency. His may not have been a landmark Presidency, but he governed for a period of great prosperity for the American middle class, and his immense personal popularity and integrity have perhaps helped lift him in the rankings. Undoubtedly one of the greatest men to occupy the Oval Office, he also surprisingly perhaps for a former general, delivered one of the most radical speeches ever made by a sitting President in his farewell address when he warned his fellow citizens about the dangers of the US military-industrial complex.

Historical rankings of British Prime Ministers have been a subject of much debate in our own country in recent decades, though due to the gradually emerging nature of the Premiership and the relative obscurity of many of our 18th century ‘Prime Ministers’ most rankings tend to focus on 20th century or post-war premiers. I made a list myself for ‘fun’ in 2014, and decided to have another go at it now, adding in our two entirely 21st century Prime Ministers who have completed their term in office, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Whilst I can’t entirely explain all the changes in my two lists, in the intervening three years I have read further biographies or political histories covering Churchill, Thatcher, Lloyd George, Attlee, Macmillan, Major, Heath and Cameron to list those I can remember. That has influenced my placing of Attlee, Lloyd George and Macmillan in particular. Chilcot, as well as the continued fall-out of his legacy have perhaps made me slightly unfair in downgrading Blair’s time in office, though I do feel strongly that given the sheer raw power he possessed in the 1997-2003 period his is an underachieving premiership. Cameron’s unintentional taking of Britain out of the EU, whatever you feel about the merits of Brexit, influence both his placing and also now, the position of Ted Heath, whose signature policy achievement lies in tatters. One hope’s for the sake of the country that no future Prime Minister will threaten Anthony Eden’s placing at the bottom of the list, like Brown, his was a dismal time in the job he had craved for perhaps too long. I have not included her, but Theresa May has started well in her first six months, and in possibly many years time, it will be interesting to see where she lies on future rankings of British Prime Ministers.

Greatest 20th -21st Century British Prime Ministers

2014 Ranking 2017 Ranking
1. Churchill (Con) 1. Churchill (Con)
2. Thatcher (Con) 2. Thatcher (Con)
3. Lloyd George (Lib) 3. Attlee (Lab)
4. Attlee (Lab) 4. Lloyd George (Lib)
5. Salisbury (Con) 5. Salisbury (Con)
6. Blair (Lab) 6. Macmillan (Con)
7. Asquith (Lib) 7. Asquith (Lib)
8. Macmillan (Con) 8. Blair (Lab)
9. Baldwin (Con) 9. Baldwin (Con)
10. Major (Con) 10. Major (Con)
11. Wilson (Lab) 11. Wilson (Lab)
12. Heath (Con) 12. MacDonald (Lab)
13. Campbell-Bannerman (Lib) 13. Callaghan (Lab)
14. MacDonald (Lab) 14. Cameron (Con)
15. Callaghan (Lab) 15. Heath (Con)
16. Douglas-Home (Con) 16. Brown (Lab)
17. Bonar Law (Con) 17. Campbell-Bannerman (Lib)
18. Balfour (Con) 18. Douglas-Home (Con)
19. Chamberlain (Con) 19. Bonar Law (Con)
20. Eden (Con) 20. Balfour (Con)
21. Chamberlain (Con)
22. Eden (Con)
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