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The best books on British Prime Ministers

recommended by Anthony Seldon

It's their frailty that makes politicians such interesting characters, says Tony Blair's biographer. He tells us about the art of political biography and the writers who've best captured leaders such as Churchill and Thatcher

Anthony Seldon

Dr Anthony Seldon is a British political historian and commentator. He is headmaster of Wellington College, one of Britain’s most historic independent schools, and was co-founder and first director of the Institute of Contemporary British History. Seldon is author or editor of many books, including biographies of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Major and Margaret Thatcher

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Anthony Seldon

Dr Anthony Seldon is a British political historian and commentator. He is headmaster of Wellington College, one of Britain’s most historic independent schools, and was co-founder and first director of the Institute of Contemporary British History. Seldon is author or editor of many books, including biographies of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Major and Margaret Thatcher

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What particularly interests you about British politicians?

I think it is their humanity and their vulnerability. Psychologically they are so interesting as people. In many ways they are very ill-suited to the powers and responsibilities that they have. They are highly qualified in certain areas and ill-equipped in others, so watching somebody adapt to political life is very interesting. It doesn’t make me feel superior but rather quite humble, watching how they manage to cope.

With everything that is going on in British politics at the moment is there a politician you have been watching whom you would be interested in writing about in the future?

There are lots of interesting people. I think David Cameron has the potential to be a major prime minister, but it is early days. In Labour, Ed Miliband is beginning to find his voice. And the Liberal Democrats have done absolutely the right thing. They would have been condemned if they hadn’t grabbed this opportunity. They will in time throw up leaders of real weight. But it has also been made very clear to me by my wife that I have to stop writing about politics and move on to a new phase in my life. The book on Gordon Brown took me six months working with a colleague and I didn’t take one day off. But it was great fun doing it and he is such a spectacularly interesting man. He epitomises this idea of the frailty of politicians and the fact that they don’t often know themselves as well as they could do because they don’t have enough time for reflection.

Your first choice focuses on the three-times prime minister Stanley Baldwin, who dominated politics in the interwar years.

This is a doorstop of a book. It is a definitive biography by Keith Middlemas and John Barnes. It replaced the official biography written by GM Young 17 years before, which came out in 1952. It painted him in a much more sympathetic light and was far more understanding of the importance of his role. They used a wealth of documents and oral history. It was a milestone biography that never perhaps achieved the recognition that it should have done. It brings this extraordinary man to life and puts him in the right place.

What do you think distinguished Stanley Baldwin as a politician?

He restored calm to the nation after World War I, after the uncertainties of postwar economic hardships, the rise of dictators. Here was the man who piloted the Conservative Party into a direction of democracy and acceptance of its moral responsibility for the whole nation and not just for the well-off in society. He helped school Labour in the ways of parliamentary democracy. He brought calm to the nation at a worrying time. He was the first radio and film prime minister. He popularised the modern role of the prime minister. And he steered the country through, as we saw in the film The King’s Speech, the perilous waters of the abdication [of Edward VIII].

Your next choice, Lloyd George, is in four volumes written by John Grigg, who is regarded by many as one of the greatest political biographers of the 20th century.

I think what is special about this biography is John Grigg himself. He was the son of Edward Grigg, an eminent figure in Britain in World War II, who was in Churchill’s wartime government. John Grigg went on to forsake his own membership of the House of Lords when his father died. He was an important figure himself in politics. He was a prominent critic of the Suez Crisis. He had this real insider’s understanding of politics, which is what makes him such a good biographer. He also wrote very elegantly. He managed to be a great literary biographer.

What made this work about Lloyd George particularly compelling?

I think the insight into the politics of the period around Lloyd George and the quality of his own writing. He won the Whitbread Award for the second volume and he won the Wolfson Prize for the third. He was this combination of someone who grew up with politics at a very early age in the world of his father and then in his own right. He used all that understanding to write extraordinary biographies in a very polished and fine style.

Is there one particular aspect of Lloyd George that you understood better from reading this work?

I think it shows his humanity. The closer you get to people the more you realise that simplistic judgments are naive.

There have been so many books written about Winston Churchill – what made you choose Martin Gilbert’s?

I remember when I was a very young researcher going to interview Martin Gilbert at a house he had in west London and going down to his basement. There were a lot of shelves in this vast basement and every shelf was piled with documents about Churchill’s life. It was the excitement of being with somebody who was so determined to get every single fact right.

He spent years compiling all this meticulous research which was eventually made into the official biography of Churchill – an eight-volume work, although Churchill’s son Randolph is credited with compiling the first two, and Gilbert also wrote various companion books for the biography.

Yes, and he really had this extraordinary commitment to detail. He interwove oral recollections with documentary evidence and had this painstaking commitment to a reconstruction of Winston Churchill’s life. It speaks of a facet of an historian’s work, which is to understand intimately what is going on in the life of the subject they are studying. And the publication of these immensely detailed diaries and then the companion volumes is a service to history in its study of the greatest prime minister of the last century. And indeed he was honoured for it with a knighthood “for services to British history and international relations”.

It is a different kind of history to my first two choices. This is the biggest political biography of the modern era. When I went to Gilbert’s basement it was like going down to the engine room of a ship. It was so exciting to see it all coming together. Any biographer is aware of how random the selection of their material is. We justify that selectivity on all kinds of grounds – the truth is that we are often selective because we don’t have any more time. A library is closing, or it is time to go to bed, or friends are arriving for dinner and we just have to make selections about what episode we are going to talk about and how we are going to write about it. Martin Gilbert is at the other end of the extreme in that he is not deciding what to put in because he is putting everything in.

You could argue that choosing to write like that overwhelms people. They really don’t want to wade through eight volumes and various companion books. Surely it is the duty of the biographer to distill the important information for them?

Martin Gilbert’s work is criticised by those who often haven’t read it and he is referred to as somebody who is a chronicler and not a historian. But he has written his one volume, Churchill: A Life, which draws on the work of the biography and the companion books. I think we need all different kinds of biography. We need highly selective biographies, we need iconoclastic biographies. We need bombastic biographies and here is a comprehensive biography. They all have their different roles.

What type of biography is your next choice, Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan by DR Thorpe?

I think that Thorpe is interesting because he was originally a schoolmaster and I am always interested in people who have been working at schools, because to be a schoolteacher is a massive burden and to be in a boarding school is an even greater burden. Anyone who has not worked in them can’t really understand how tremendously time-consuming they are. Here is a quiet historian who works away on his biographies and produces work of meticulous quality.

One could fairly say that he could be more detached and more critical but you could say exactly the same of me and my own biographies. I think it is rather refreshing to have biographies that let the reader make up their own mind, rather than pointing heavily to a particular conclusion.

He was very good at building up this psychological picture of Macmillan, talking about his experiences in World War I.

Yes, what he gives you is a complete picture. You are left with a very clear image of the humanity of Harold Macmillan and I think that he is a very underrated writer because his books don’t come up with saucy and spicy new details. He isn’t one of these people who try to make their books into vehicles for titillation, and the fact is that most lives don’t deserve that, even if serialisation demands it. He is an Aston Martin DB6 kind of writer, who is very English, very stately.

Finally you have chosen John Campbell’s two-volume book about the Iron Lady – Margaret Thatcher.

John Campbell is a brilliant writer. So much has been written about Thatcher, much of it highly admiring and Campbell has gone into great detail and given us a very clear view of Thatcher which is different from the picture you get from the right-wingers who tend to write about her. It is refreshingly different.

But he isn’t alone in his criticism of her here in the UK.

Yes, but what Campbell manages to do is be reasoned in his criticism, not just vitriolic and hostile. It is a very nuanced insight into Thatcher. Now, of course, when Thatcher dies we will get the two-volume biography from Charles Moore, which has the superb Daniel Collings as the senior researcher. This is going to have a flood of information in it and it will be immensely exciting when that book comes out. But I think Campbell’s book will still be read about Thatcher in 50 years’ time because he writes extraordinarily well and has a brilliant insight into the minds of prime ministers.

Given that opinions change over time, I was wondering about you and your work. You have written a number of books about various British prime ministers, but you are particularly well know for your ones about Tony Blair – have you been revising your opinion of him since he left power?

I wrote a two-volume biography. In the first book I tried to say that he was made up kaleidoscopically, who, at school or university, most unusually, had not had political interests or particular world views, and who was forged by the imprint of different people and different events on him. So it was a book written around the 20 people who had made him what he was and the 20 events that had made him what he was – this supremely pragmatic, ambitious, power-hungry person whose overarching idea was to reconcile differences and try and triangulate them, to find a certain point between two opposing points of view. This was the pragmatic vision that the modernised Labour Party had. It was much clearer about modernising Labour than having a programme for office.

In volume two I looked at how that came to be a disadvantage. I think it was only towards the end of his premiership that he was able to find his defining policy plans. If he had been able to do that early on it would have been a much more developed programme. I don’t feel I want to change any of that. I am highly critical of him over Iraq. I am sure I will revise some things but the essential judgment that he took a long time to come to his policy and he largely squandered his first term as a result of it, because he wasn’t clear what he wanted to do domestically, remains the same. His clearest policy achievements came in those areas where he was able to use his extraordinary triangulation skills, as we see with the results he got in the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

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