Can You Name These British Prime Ministers?

Zoe Samuel

Image: Wiki Commons by National Portrait Gallery

About This Quiz

Becoming prime minister is a curious combination of custom and law. Due to the lack of separation between legislature and executive in the UK, the PM is the leader of the party with the most seats, and is thus a locally elected constituency Member of Parliament or MP. Thus, being prime minister means you only have to win one seat, then simply appeal to your party's MPs and wider membership. It also means you don't actually need any specific policy experience or have ever met an ordinary person. The PM can be removed by a vote of no confidence in Parliament, and they can also simply quit as party leader, then have their party elect a successor from within its own ranks, without calling a general election.

Indeed, it gets even weirder. Technically, the queen can pick anyone she likes to be PM, so it's not legally up to the electorate to choose. The rule that says it is the leader of the party holding the most seats is just a custom. The queen can also dissolve Parliament and force a general election to get rid of the PM. However, since the doctrine of Parliamentary sovereignty was established following the English Civil War from 1642 to 1651, practically speaking, the queen can’t really do these things. It's so absurd that there's even a time in the parliamentary calendar called "Silly Season".

All in all, it means prime ministers are a wildly mixed bag. Some are just party apparatchiks who have no public support. Some are hugely popular and influential. Most are a mix of qualities

Would you know them if you saw them? Let's find out!

Who is this Iron Lady who dominated the 1980s?

Thatcher was a good friend of Ronald Reagan, and the pair of them shared many beliefs around laissez-faire capitalism and busting unions. Thatcher was a key figure in ending the Cold War, but while this earns her plenty of praise, some of her other policies are vastly unpopular.

This PM took office at 24 and was an Abolitionist who worked with Wilberforce. What's his name?

William Pitt (later Earl of Chatham) had the connections necessary to take office at an insanely young age. He did not live very long, but during his life he helped advance the Abolitionist cause almost to the finish line. He also fought for peace with a fledgling America, which was ultimately a consequential and wise choice.

Who is this PM, tasked with cleaning up her predecessor's mistakes, but unable to do so?

Theresa May resigned after a rocky few years in which she tried to clean up the mess her predecessor left her in the Brexit vote, as she was unable to corral an intransigent Parliament and pass a deal. She took the job when nobody wanted it, in a classic case of the "glass cliff." Unable to really achieve anything and having blown a majority in an ill-conceived snap election, she gave up and quit. It remains unclear whether those who made the mess will fare any better at cleaning it up.

Who is this postwar prime minister who established universal healthcare?

Clement Atlee was a Labour prime minister for a short period in which he established universal health care. The National Health System experienced a huge spike in demand in the first year as so many people had been unable to see a doctor before then. He didn't last long in office, but as his legacy, the NHS is considered a national treasure.

Who is this PM, who holds the unwanted distinction of being the only one ever to be assassinated?

Spencer Perceval is, unhappily, the only PM to be murdered in office. He hated Catholics and was one of the most intolerant men of his age. His killer was a madman who felt Perceval had not helped him out adequately. It was probably best for the nation that his tenure was very short.

This man was made PM mostly because people were so impressed with his defeat of Napoleon. Who is he?

Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, was an exemplary military leader and one of history's most important figures, being the man who finally stopped Napoleon. He was unbelievably popular and selflessly agreed to pass laws he did not agree with for the good of the nation. He is one of the most popular British leaders in history, with good reason.

Can you name this PM who was noted for appeasing Hitler?

The misbegotten words, "Peace in our time" will always be associated with Neville Chamberlain, who thought Hitler could be bought off by just handing over Austria and Czechoslovakia. However, he was horribly wrong, and World War II broke out the same year he uttered those words. He was ousted in favor of Churchill, who had Hitler's number from the outset.

Founder of the Conservative Party, this PM needs no introduction. What is his name?

Robert Peel has three major legacies. First is that he got rid of the Corn Laws, marking a pivot toward free trade that vastly improved the economy. Second is that he turned the Tories into the Conservatives (though they are still called Tories sometimes). Third and most well-known, is that he established a civilian police force. They were called Bobby's Boys after him, and that is why British cops are still called bobbies!

This fellow was Prime Minister during the First World War. Who is he?

The last PM from the formerly dominant Liberal Party (who later morphed into the Liberal Democrats), Lloyd George was in charge during the latter half of World War I. People were absolutely horrified by the war, which was a mechanized meat-grinder unlike anything the world had seen before, but it still took four years, two during Lloyd George's term, to break the stalemate and end it. Lloyd George hung on for another four years once peace was achieved, and left office in ignominy.

Who is this man, the only British prime minister who was not born Anglican?

Benjamin Disraeli was a noted Victorian prime minister who became Earl of Beaconsfield for his service. He was born Jewish, but his family converted partly due to a dispute at their synagogue, and partly to get along in Victorian England. He served twice, and in his second term was noted for getting Britain involved in the Suez Canal. His policies inadvertently helped to set the stage for the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

What is the name of this four-term PM of the Victorian age?

Gladstone was a titan of the Victorian political scene. His legacy primarily concerns two areas: elections and railways. He passed the Third Reform Act that extended suffrage to more people, and introduced the secret ballot. He also passed the Railway Act of 1844, which was the first time regulation had been put in place and served as a model for transport systems worldwide. Without it, you'd never know whether your train would fit on a given set of tracks!

Who is the PM who was caught flat-footed by a terrible economic sitution in 1825 and didn't last long?

Frederick Robinson, Lord Ripon, was nicknamed "Prosperity Robinson" for making absolutely the wrong call on the eve of an economic crisis. He became prime minister in August and was finished by the following January, a poor showing even by the standards of shortlived PMs. He later served in various Cabinets, though, so it wasn't entirely over for him when he left the highest office.

Can you name this two-term PM of the mid-1850s?

Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, had served as Secretary of War under three other prime ministers. He opposed the Reform Act in both 1831 and 1832, putting him on the wrong side of history. He didn't believe in having allies and thought instead only of interests.

Can you name the PM who served from 1957 to 1963?

Macmillan took over after Anthony Eden left office. He did two very impressive things as PM—he rebuilt the US-UK relationship after Suez, without which the NATO alliance would be in jeopardy. He also managed to win his second election with more seats than his first. He later became 1st Earl of Stockton.

What is the name of this prime minister, who lasted less than a year during a very turbulent time?

Andrew Bonar Law, who went by his middle name, became PM shortly after World War 1. He lasted 211 days in office due to illness, and is known (or rather, not known) as The Unknown Prime Minister.

Here's another early '20s prime minister who barely made it past six months. Who is he?

Stanley Baldwin was a notable inter-war PM whose primary achievement was beginning the unshackling of British colonies. This set the stage for independence on friendly terms, instead of just collapse and war. He served three terms and built the foundation of the Commonwealth.

The first Labour prime minister, this guy's impact lasted much longer than his tenure. What is his name?

The Labour Party was founded to represent the working class in the face of two dominant parties, Liberals and Conservatives, that stood for the middle and upper class. Its founder, Ramsay MacDonald, became prime minister three times, though he was eventually kicked out of the party he helped to found.

What's the name of this prime minister whose term was thrown into tumult by the Suez Crisis?

Anthony Eden would probably have stayed in office a lot longer if not for the 1956 Suez Crisis that is generally seen as the end of the British Empire. Eden had been an ally of Churchill in standing up to Hitler but he wasn't prepared for another conflict, and it resulted in an ignominious end to an otherwise promising career.

Who is this Tory prime minister of the early '70s?

Edward Heath was the PM who negotiated Britain's entry to the European Community in the '70s. He was supplanted as leader by Thatcher and became very bitter. His most notable achievement was finally decimalizing British money.

This is the first prime minister, as we know them today. Can you remember his name?

There were ministers before Robert Walpole, but none who were prime minister. He remains the longest-serving PM, clocking in over 20 years from 1721-1742. His incumbency marks the decline of the sovereign as a meaningful political force and the rapid expansion of the powers and assertiveness of the executive and legislature.

This mediocre fellow owed his entire career to King George II. Who is he?

Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, was an earl's son who became an earl in his own right before being prime minister. He was a compromise candidate, being not forceful or clever enough to really command any real power. He didn't last long in office, clocking in just shy of 18 months.

This prime minister served two terms, the second in the mid-'70s. Do you recognize him?

MI5 once investigated whether Harold Wilson was a Soviet agent, which was probably put about by his political enemies and found to be untrue. He had a fairly decent time as PM in the Sixties, but lost the 1970 election. When he returned to office in 1974, the postwar period of prosperity was looking rocky, and the Thatcherite lurch was looming. Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, he suddenly quit the job.

This PM gained the favor of Walpole, who sponsored his many promotions before he reached the top office. What is his name?

The brother of the powerful Duke of Newcastle, Pelham had previously served as Chancellor of the Exchequer (ie. head of the Treasury). He died in office, but not before serving an impressive 11 years. He owed most of his success to his brother, and to being originally mentored by Walpole.

Another duke who served as PM, who is this PM who was picked as a compromise candidate in place of William Pitt?

A former governor-general of Ireland, William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire, was one of the richest men in Britain. William Pitt was his secretary of state, and he was lucky to have a mind like that in his service as he was not effective. He eventually quit for the less stressful job of Lord Chamberlain.

Who is this PM who was Tony Blair's right-hand man for some years?

Gordon Brown was Tony Blair's ideas man and ran his Treasury for years. It was rumored that the two made a deal that Blair would resign and let Brown serve, which he duly did. It didn't last long, though, as Labour lost its majority in an election and the Conservatives ended up forming a coalition with the rival Liberal Democrats to oust him.

Can you name this Victorian PM who traded the office repeatedly with Gladstone?

Robert Cecil, Marquis of Salisbury, was a three-time prime minister of the Victorian period, and during his tenure, the British Empire grew massively. He holds an interesting position as the last PM who was a member of the House of Lords, not the Commons, as the Salisbury entitled him to a seat in the Lords.

Who is this PM whose famous Declaration shaped Middle East politics of the 1900s?

Arthur Balfour (later Lord Balfour) made a Declaration in a letter that is probably his most noted legacy, as it suggested that he would make it the position of the British Empire, having taken the colony of the Holy Land from the Ottomans, to make it an independent nation for indigenous Jewish people. He was thus happy for Jews to seek self-rule, but felt very strongly that the Irish deserved no such consideration.

What is the name of this PM who had the privilege of being completely trounced by Thatcher at the polls?

Callaghan wasn't a good PM, as the "Winter of Dicontent" occurred on his watch when zealous union activity put the coal industry out of commission. This resulted in Callaghan losing to Thatcher. However, he has one rather cool credit to his name, as the only person to be Chancellor, Home Secretary, Foreign Secretary, and PM, the so-called "Great Offices of State".

Who is this fantastically ineffective and short-lived PM who almost no one remembers?

An earl's son, Archibald Primrose was eventually to become Lord Rosebery, in keeping with the family's flowery surname. He was something of a nonentity in British history despite being PM. He was a hardcore imperialist who fell out of favor in the early 1900s and decided instead to become a biographer.

This PM managed to become PM twice in a single decade, thrice overall. What is his name?

Edward Stanley, Lord Derby, is another caretaker who didn't do much, which is surprising as he was PM three times! He was a member of the Whig Party who repeatedly resigned over this and that, including over the Corn Laws repeal in 1845. He didn't much like holding high office as it involved far too much work.

Who is this famously boring PM, of whom most people are surprised to learn that he served seven years?

John Major was widely known to be a fantastically boring man, which helped him get the job as he was seen as safe hands, in contrast to the other candidates to follow Thatcher. He happened to take office just in time for the post-Cold War boom years, meaning nobody was much bothered by him and he stayed in the job seven years.

This PM holds the distinction of taking the job twice, the first time for under four months, then again for six years. What's his name?

A Whig prime minister, William Lamb, Lord Melbourne cared about the rights of Catholics despite not being one. He was fired by William IV, but became PM again after an election. He faced a clash with the radical working-class Chartists, and eventually left office.

Few have heard of this man, but his Reform Act was a seminal piece of legislation. What is his name?

Charles Grey was a Whig, and his major achievement was the Reform Act of 1832. This was a very important pivot point from a feudal to a democratic and capitalist system, whereby workers were finally deemed to have rights and children were finally given education. Passing it sucked up all of Grey's political capital and ended his career, but it really did transform British society—and through the Empire, it impacted the whole world.

Who is this prime minister, the first Labour Party leader to win three terms?

Tony Blair was exceptionally talented at winning elections and was widely loved when he first won on a platform of a massive lurch to the center for the formerly socialist Labour party. His two unquestioned successes are military interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, where British help genuinely did prevent or halt genocide. Unfortunately, this made Blair assume he could repeat this trick in Iraq. He couldn't, and now he is mostly despised in the UK.

A rare breed indeed, this politician's parents were not wealthy, so his rich uncle took him from them and raised him. Do you know him?

Canning was a foreign secretary during the Napoleonic Wars, and amazingly he got into such a bad squabble with the secretary of war that they had a duel! Canning was shot in the thigh. After his rival died, he became prime minister, but he was in over his head and the stress of the job killed him after just four months.

Who is this universally loathed PM who mistakenly thought a referendum on EU membership couldn't possibly go wrong?

It's something of a mystery how David Cameron became PM, given that nobody in his party much liked him. He is primarily remembered for his idiotic habit of holding referenda and assuming he could predict the outcome. He got Scottish independence right, but Brexit very wrong - which is now considered likely to lead to Scottish independence, making Cameron the primary party responsible for any future breakup of the UK.

This Scottish-born PM negotiated the end of the Seven Years' War with France. What is his name?

John Stuart, Earl of Bute, did a particularly good job on a single topic, negotiating the end of the Seven Years War. However, he behaved badly toward William Pitt, who developed the strategy that won it. He was ousted from office primarily due to a cider tax that made many people angry.

This PM, whose father also held the office, finally passed the bill for which thousands had worked for years. What is his name?

William Grenville once resigned high office over the king's denial of Roman Catholic freedoms, but otherwise he didn't do very much until a great opportunity was laid before him by the Abolitionists. Pitt, Wilberforce and others had labored for years to break the slave industry's stranglehold on Parliament, and when they finally got the necessary votes to destroy the slavers and vote Abolition into law, Grenville was the lucky man who happened to be in office at the time, so technically gets credit.

What PM became first Duke of Newcastle and was a ludicrously powerful political figure even before holding the premiership?

Thomas Pelham-Holles was the Duke of Newcastle, spent 30 years as secretary of state, and his brother Henry was PM for some of that time, so he was very experienced by the time he took office. He was a rival of William Pitt and lost his premiership over the Seven Years' War. Later, he and Pitt reconciled, went into coalition, and Pelham-Holles regained the position of PM.

This fellow, who wanted to fight them on the beaches, is widely considered to be the greatest prime minister. Who is he?

Churchill regularly wins polls to decide who is the greatest Briton of all time. He is a mixed bag when you dig into his record outside of World War II, as he did some rather awful things to the Irish and Indians and was an unrepentant racist. However, he saw Hitler coming at a point that almost nobody else did, and his absolute moral conviction in never conceding one inch to the fascists was certainly commendable.

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