Britain's Greatest Prime Ministers

#1 Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

Ranking as #1 on countless lists, the great Sir Winston Churchill is likely the most undisputed placement to feature here. Born to an aristocratic family in their famous ancestral home, Blenheim Palace (now a modern tourist attraction!) the young Winston was groomed for greatness from an early age.

Little known to most, however, his behaviour as a youth was far from exemplary: he was known to be unacademic and very misbehaved. During his teen years, his ailing father, fearing for his wayward son’s future, had him apply to the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst. He graduated a few years later as a Second Lieutenant in the British army, and during this period made use of his connections in order to have himself deployed to a war zone, eager to see combat.

On 15th November 1899, Winston and the soldiers he was with were captured as POWs on a supply train. With the assistance of an English miner who he had met in the prisoner camp, he eventually managed to escape, making it back to England where he published a book on his experiences in the South African frontier.

He then turned his attention to politics, where he declared himself a “liberal in all but name”, as he vehemently opposed the liberal party’s support for home rule in Ireland - ever the staunch monarchist! After World War I, he was perhaps the most vocal critic in parliament towards the issues of German rearmament and Hitler’s rise to power - warnings which were largely ignored.

However, on the outbreak of the Second World War, Churchill’s popularity both in the commons and across the entire country soared, and he was chosen as war time Prime Minister to replace the ailing Neville Chamberlain. Remembered for his brave efforts in leading the entire western world and most importantly Britain herself through the dark, dark years of the Second World War - arguably the greatest challenge, and threat to her own existence, the country has ever faced - Churchill shall always be remembered as not only a great Prime Minister, but as one of the greatest leaders of history.

#2 Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)

Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington is another of Britain’s greatest war time leaders. However, his legacy has tragically faded into near-obscurity in the mind of the everyday Brit due to the relative age of his accomplishments. He was born into an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family at 24 Upper Merrion-street, Dublin on the 29th of April, 1769, and enjoyed a privileged childhood as a member of the aristocratic elite.

He was sent to Eton boarding school and expected to receive a full education at Britain’s most prestigious institute, the death of his father caused funding to be a concern and he was withdrawn from studies - an occurrence that Arthur most likely welcomed, considering that he found himself to be very lonely at the college. His family then moved to Brussels, where he would later enter the French Royal Academy of Equitation where he did exceedingly well for himself, becoming a fluent speaker of French - which became very crucial for his political career later - and a number of other skills.

His military career was initially uneventful in light of the fact that he wished to pursue a career as a musician, his rejection by a lady in court owing to his poor prospects motivated him to greatness. Burning his violins, Wellesley made a life-changing - and nation-defining - decision to commit fully to both military and political interests, later being elected as a Member of Parliament for an Irish constituency as a member of the Tories.

As Prime Minister, his premiership was known for Roman Catholic emancipation, and the benevolent restoration of civil rights to the largely oppressed Roman Catholic population of the United Kingdom. However, he is remembered today as more of a soldier than a politician. Indeed, his military career would flourish, and by the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars he had been promoted to Major-General. His successes in the Peninsular War against Napoleonic Spain rose him to prominence, distinguishing himself as a man of great military intellect.

Most famously, however, he is remembered as the architect of the British victory at Waterloo. The Battle of Waterloo is perhaps one of Britain’s most significant military engagements, as it ended France’s attempts to dominate continental Europe and crushed the ambition of Emperor Napoleon, who would then go into exile and die only a few years later. Most importantly, Wellesley secured Britain’s position as the preeminent global power for nearly a century, and thwarted a very serious threat of invasion.

#3 Clement Attlee, 1st Earl Attlee (1883-1967)

A great trailblazer and reformer, Clement Attlee is claimed by some to have been Britain’s greatest peacetime leader. Unlike the many that came before him, Attlee was not born into the aristocracy. He was the child of an upper-middle class family living in London, and received a fairly standard middle class upbringing. As a young man, he was influenced by Darwinist and Conservative views, later describing himself at this time as a “good old fashioned imperialist conservative”.

During a volunteership at a charity for working class boys, however, Attlee’s views radically changed. He bore first-hand witness to the poverty through which a great many of Britain’s population suffered, a tragic reality that he had, as a member of the middle class, initially been sheltered from. This sparked his interest in politics, and he later became a socialist activist. Before World War One, he pursued a political career with little success - failing his first election. Undeterred, he would return to politics immediately after the war, standing successfully in the election for the mayorship of the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney, at the time a famously poverty-stricken area. During his mayorship, he worked tirelessly to alleviate conditions for the poor and attacked wealthy landlords who abused their positions. In 1922, he became a Member of Parliament, and by 1935 he had ascended through the hierarchy of the Labour Party to become the Leader of the Opposition.

In what remains one of the most famous British elections of all time, Attlee became Prime Minister in 1945, immediately after Germany had been defeated in the war. The result came as a surprise to both the Labour and Conservative parties, as they had staunchly believed Churchill’s popularity as a war-time leader would ensure the Conservative Party’s re-election. However, the Labour party won a landslide victory, and almost immediately Attlee’s government set to work on radical reforms.

Attlee is most famously credited with authorising the creation of the National Health Service (NHS), which was launched by his minister of health, Aneurin Bevan. He also nationalised many industries and utilities, such as the coal and steel industries, as well as the railways. He improved conditions for workers and the average, everyday Briton astronomically, and made it easier for Unionists to demand better treatment from employers. 

#4 David Lloyd George, 1st Earl Lloyd George (1863-1945)

To this day the only Welshman to serve as British Prime Minister, Lloyd George was Britain’s war-time leader during the last two years of the First World War, replacing the weak and indecisive Herbert Asquith. Born to a lower-middle class class family on the 17th of January, 1863, he was brought up as a Welsh-speaker. He received an education at the local Anglican school in his childhood home, the Welsh village of Llanystumdwy.

As a young man, he took an interest in lawyership and politics, campaigning for the Liberal Party in the 1885 election. In 1905, as president of the Board of Trade and a member of the ruling Liberal cabinet, he made great progress in aiding the poor workers of both Britain and her empire. Afterwards, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer and introduced the People’s Budget, which aimed to improve living conditions for the poor and did so with some success, after passing narrowly in the House of Commons, introducing crucial unemployment insurance and national insurance for workers with sickness.

In 1916, his great efforts as a statesman and his natural charisma were recognised, and he took over the premiership from the mediocre Herbert Asquith to become the leader of the world’s greatest Empire during one of the greatest wars in history. He restored national morale, which had taken a serious hit during Asquith’s premiership, and effectively mobilised Britain, leading her to a great victory in the First World War.

After the war, he continued to enact several critical post-war social reforms, laying the foundations for the welfare state that would be taken up over two decades later by Clement Attlee, after the conclusion of the Second World War. However, it is from this point that his political career entered a decline. Foreign policy crises and ineffectiveness in managing his own popularity within the party that he led resulted in a fall from power in 1922. Furthermore, blunders motivated by his own greed such as the sale of knighthoods and peerages cemented the damage done to his reputation after the war, ensuring that he would never again return to power in his lifetime.

As a Prime Minister, Lloyd George boasts perhaps one of the most controversial and complicated legacies of them all. However, his effectiveness in leading Britain through one of her greatest struggles remains undisputed by historians, and the reforms he enacted that laid the foundation for the modern welfare state ensure his legacy as one of Britain’s most formidable and effective leaders.

#5 Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury (1830-1903)

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury - known popularly as simply Lord Salisbury, was a Conservative politician. Elected three times for the position of Prime Minister, he oversaw the expansion of Britain’s vast colonial empire. Born as the second son of the 2nd Marquess of Salisbury, Robert was born a member of the aristocracy. As a youth, his childhood was miserable and lonely. He was ruthlessly bullied by his peers at Eton College, where he performed well in academics but was noted to have lacked physical strength and sportsmanship. Eventually, the bullying became so intense that he was withdrawn from his studies there, and privately tutored. This new environment allowed Robert to flourish in his passion for academia, where he excelled primarily in history and theology.

As a young adult, he went on to study at Christ Church where he graduated with an honorary fourth class in Mathematics, having been unable to finish his education properly due to his poor health. On the advice of his doctor, he began travels across the world to Australia and New Zealand, a journey on which he matured significantly and developed great character.

After returning to England, he entered politics in 1853, elected as a Conservative Member of Parliament for the constituency of Stamford in Lincolnshire. He was a strong critic of British interventionism across the globe, maintaining the belief throughout his career that to occupy other, smaller nations was an undignified position for a greater power, and that war was something to be avoided, not idealised. Specifically, he was a fierce opponent of the reigning Prime Minister’s foreign policy, and argued that Britain’s place was not to threaten other countries unless willing to back up her threats with force, which the British parliament very rarely was.

Elected as Prime Minister in 1885, Lord Salisbury was sympathetic to the plight of the oppressed working class, ordering reforms that significantly improved housing conditions, and vehemently opposing MPs of his own party who made to criticise these bills. As a Prime Minister, his diplomacy was extremely effective and his expertise was known to be in foreign policy. While Britain’s long-standing policy of isolation had left her with few friends, he managed to negotiate several political victories with other powers, such as Germany and France. A border dispute between Venezuela and the British colonial administration briefly led to tension between the United States and Britain, however the affair was resolved in such a cordial manner that it concluded favourably for Britain, while ensuring improved relations with the United States.

After leading Britain to a great military victory against the Boers, he retired in 1902 and died in 1903. Remarked by Conservative historian Robert Blake to be “the most formidable intellectual figure the Conservative Party ever produced” and by later Prime Minister Clement Attlee to have been the greatest British Prime Minister of all time, Salisbury retains a firm legacy as one of Britain’s strongest leaders.

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