So who has been the best prime minster of Britain since 1945? A 2010 survey in The Political Quarterly [1] lists the following order:-


Based on a survey of academics, the list echoes a similar survey from 2004 [2]. Of course there have been other surveys, both academic and populist. The Guardian in June 1991 began the trend, followed by The Times, Radio 4, BBC and various BBC television programmes.

There seems to be an endless appetite for lists of top 10/100 of everything from Great Britons, to authors. However list-making can be an engaging and popular way of examining history.

So how do the prime ministers fare in the Bibliography of British and Irish History? Perhaps not such a flippant question as it may seem, since the Bibliography attempts to be as comprehensive as possible in documenting historical writings which can be indicative of historiographical trends. And as the latest update to the Bibliography has recently been published it is perhaps a fortuitous time to examine the ratings.

So the rankings, according to number of references, for post-1945 prime ministers are:

Churchill 1074
Thatcher 218
Macmillan 162
Wilson 131
Eden 112
Blair 97
Attlee 76
Major 69
Heath 62
Callaghan 47
Douglas-Home 30
Brown 19
Cameron 4

Unsurprisingly Churchill tops the list, probably dominated by his World War II period. However when limiting the search to his post-1946 career the number drops by half to just over 500 references, though still significantly ahead of Thatcher. Such a date-restricted search will still include cradle-to-grave biographies and any references which cover a long period, eg 1935-1965.

Eden too seems high, however, nearly a third of the references refer to the Suez Crisis (perhaps one instance in which a prime minister does not want a high ranking).

Blair ahead of Attlee may seem surprising, even more so Major ahead of Heath, however the number of references may reflect the increasing trend towards contemporary history writing. Interestingly, Ernest Bevin and Aneurin Bevan have respectable showings (51 and 31 references respectively) while Thatcher’s contemporaries, Douglas Hurd, Keith Joseph and Norman Lamont can only muster a handful of articles. Perhaps a reflection of Attlee’s Cabinet-like approach versus Thatcher’s complete domination of her governments.

There is no surprise in Brown and Cameron coming so low as the writing of their histories has not fully begun. However even Michael Foot, who never become PM, has 24 references, and Hugh Gaitskill has 20 references.

Futhermore, Churchill looks set to continue his domination with a flurry of books including: Martin Gilbert’s latest, Churchill : The Power of Words: His remarkable Life recounted through his Writings and Speeches; Barry Singer’s, Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill; and Philip White, Our Supreme Task: How Winston Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech Defined the Cold War Alliance. Besides which Churchill is the only prime minster to have a journal – Finest Hour – devoted to him.

[1] Kevin Theakston and Mark Gill, The Postwar Premiership League.The Political Quarterly, vol. 82:1, p. 67-80 2011

[2] Kevin Theakston and Mark Gill, Rating 20th-Century British Prime Ministers. The British Journal of Politics & International Relations, Vol. 8:2, p. 193–213, 2006