Has been often said that Aneurin (“Nye”) Bevin was the greatest Prime Minister Britain never had, and no one could argue with that. However I can’t think of any other Post War British Opposition Leaders who didn’t win election as PM about whom you would say that (can any of you dear readers?).
Got thinking about that when a reader responded, on Twitter, to the previous post with a question as to whether I agreed Kim Beazley was the best Prime Minister Australia never had. I do agree with that (with some reservation about religious influence) – his background, intellect, education, experience and big-heartedness (or is that “big-tickerness”?) made him ideally suited to instantly fit into the job. As he has into the role of Australian Ambassador to America.
But beyond that it’s difficult to think of any others that would have been a gain. I suggested Bert Evatt, but you’d have to restrict that to his earlier years in his prime. Probably not (with all due respect) Simon Crean, although he would certainly have done a highly competent job. And not John Hewson, but I’ll come back to him.
Any of the other possibilities are farcical – Sneddon, Peacock, Downer, Calwell (although Arthur would certainly have created a different Australia, by no means necessarily a bad thing) – why, you might as well suggest McMahon as foreman material. What? Oh.
But what about Hewson, you ask? Well, certainly a smart man. And since losing the unlosable election of 1993 has been solid on climate change. But he is what he is, something of a Malcolm Turnbull twin. Uncomfortable with the Billy Tea Party no-nothings of the Abbott Liberal Party, but at the same time big business to his conservative boot straps.
So my gut feelings at the time of Keating’s “Sweetest one of all” 1993 victory were mixed. I think I sensed instinctively that while the Left had won a battle it had lost a war. Keating and Labor were encouraged to believe that Liberal-Lite was a recipe for continuing success. And then were swamped so badly in 1996 when John Howard’s Liberal-Heavy Brigade rolled in that they would be out of power for a political generation of 11 long years of backwards clock-winding.
A Hewson victory in 1993 would have let people see what the modern Liberal agenda really is (as in Newman’s Queensland more recently), and Hewson couldn’t have carried off the Howard Battler vote, nor the dirty pool, of people like Reith, in order to stop the public strongly rejecting neoconservatism in 1996 for a win by Kim Beazley. Ah, these what-ifs of history are intriguing, are they not?
But mentioning Kim Beazley brings us naturally back to America. If Australia, like Britain, only had one great PM who never was, how has the American public treated its candidates? Well, remind yourself that this is a country that voted in Nixon, Reagan and GW Bush NOT JUST ONCE BUT TWICE! Giving Eisenhower, Clinton and Obama two terms goes nowhere near balancing those appalling decisions. And while it’s pleasing that Dewey, Goldwater, Humphrey, Dole, McCain and Romney never got to stand on the bully pulpit, a country which didn’t have Presidents Stevenson, McGovern and Gore (not to mention killing Robert Kennedy as well as his brother) is a country far more wasteful of leadership talent than the UK or Australia.
And all that of course is to leave aside the absence of potential female leaders who never got above the glass political ceilings. Just one each in UK and Australia. The one-off force of nature that was Thatcher couldn’t be held back, and Julia Gillard only made it in unusual circumstances. In America Geraldine Ferraro was restricted to number two behind the unimpressive Mondale, and Hilary Clinton just failed at the last barrier against the Obama unstoppable force for “change”, although hopefully she will get a chance to win in 2016. Sarah Palin of course was chosen as a token, not of her femaleness or intelligence, but of her ability to grunt speeches at the equally nutty Tea Party wing of the Regressive Republican Party. But how many talented women in all three countries have never had a chance to even seek the top job?
Now that’s a lot of best prime ministers (and presidents) we’ve never had.