10 British Political Leaders Who Shaped History
In the past 100 years, Britain has played a pivotal role in world history.
Through two world wars, the break-up of the British Empire and the dawn of a new millennium, British politicians have been at the heart of countless game-changing moments around the world. Though this list includes several prime ministers, it also includes other political figures, including some who have never won an election, but whose influence has still been considerable.
Not every figure featured in this article is included for positive reasons. The role that Britain has played around the world has sometimes been for good, but not always, whether because of malice or indifference. In this article, we look at some political leaders whose impact has been broadly positive, some whose influence has been broadly negative, and several for whom their lasting legacy is still a subject of considerable debate.
1. Michael O’Dwyer (1864-1940)
Of all the people on this list, Michael O’Dwyer arguably shaped world history for the worst reasons. He was a colonial administrator during the British Raj, and until 1919 he was Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab province. It was under his rule that in 1919 Reginald Dyer, who had temporarily been appointed brigadier general, gave the order to 50 troops to fire upon an unarmed gathering of civilians, including children, in what became known as the Amritsar massacre. It’s been estimated that over 1,000 people were killed. Despite his stated purpose being to clear the crowd, Dyer instructed troops to “fire low” rather than firing their guns into the air, and to concentrate their fire at the exits where people were trying to flee.
Although immediate responsibility for the massacre lay with Dyer, O’Dwyer is the political figure indirectly responsible for the massacre, having declared martial law in the area. He continued to defend Dyer even when the full details of the massacre became clear. He was assassinated in 1940, and his assassin cited vengeance for the Amritsar massacre as a key reason for his act. The lasting impact of the massacre was to provide an impetus to the growing movement for Indian independence, in demonstrating the brutality of which the colonial government was capable.
2. Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
In 2002, Winston Churchill topped the BBC’s poll of the greatest ever Britons, beating Shakespeare, Newton and Darwin to first place. Yet he remains a controversial figure. Appointed First Lord of the Admiralty during the First World War, he left government after his failure in the Gallipoli Campaign, which became one of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest victories in WW1. When returning to government and becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, his decision to return the pound to the gold standard in 1925, resulting in deflation, unemployment, and a 9-day strike by 1.7 million workers. In 1943, Churchill refused to reduce exports or provide shipping to famine-struck Bengal at a time when provisions to the UK were being increased – leading to the exacerbation of a famine that killed over three million people.
But weighed against this damning record is Churchill’s relentless opposition to Nazism, especially at the time in the early to mid thirties when the rise of Hitler was welcomed by many of his parliamentary colleagues. In 1935, even Churchill hoped that Hitler could still “go down in history as the man who restored honour and peace of mind to the great Germanic nation.” But by 1938 he was determined that Nazism must be fought, and it was his triumph in standing firm and defeating Hitler that means despite all his failings, he continues to be celebrated.
3. Mark Sykes (1879-1919)
Alongside François Georges-Picot, Mark Sykes was one of the two authors of the pivotal 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, in which Britain and France – with the support of Russia – determined their spheres of influence and control in the Middle East should they prevail in the First World War. It was an agreement that proved useful to both countries, but its consequences are still being felt today.
First, TE Lawrence – better known as Lawrence of Arabia – had promised the Arabs in the region an independent Arab homeland in the area of Greater Syria if they rebelled against the Ottoman Empire, but the Sykes-Picot agreement made this impossible. Furthermore, the borders determined by the agreement had been drawn on to a map with a ruler in straight lines – taking no account of ethnic or sectarian divisions. The first consequence created resentment; the second made the resulting countries challenging to govern. The outcome has been that the region Sykes and Picot divided up in such a cavalier fashion has scarcely been at peace since their agreement was made.
4. William Beveridge (1879-1963)
William Beveridge was a civil servant and an MP for less than a year, but his impact on British life and the wider world has been considerable. In 1942, he produced the Beveridge Report – or the Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services to give it its proper name. In it, he identified five great evils of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease, and sought ways to overcome them.
To tackle squalor, he proposed a programme of government house-building, so that new homes would replace the slums of the past. For ignorance, he suggested compulsory free secondary-school education for all. For want, he proposed a system of National Insurance to support workers if they became ill, unemployed, pregnant, widowed or retired. For idleness, the government was to target means of achieving full employment. And for disease, he laid the foundations for what would become in a modified form the National Health Service. The complete work of the Beveridge Report was the blueprint for the Welfare State implemented by the 1945 Labour government, and his five great evils have been a touchpoint for politicians ever since.
5. Clement Attlee (1883-1967)
Clement Attlee, British Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951, is probably best known for his role in seeing that blueprint for the Welfare State turned into reality. But just as significant for the purpose of this list is his role in winding down the British Empire and granting independence to British colonies. The countries that are now India, Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka all became independent while Attlee was Prime Minister. After leaving office, he suggested that achieving independence for India was the thing for which he most wanted to be remembered.
There were many driving forces behind independence for British colonies, especially India. There was internal pressure for independence, as well as the growing acknowledgment within Britain that a country exhausted by war was not able to exert control over such a large portion of the globe any longer. But Attlee pushed to accelerate the process of independence, saying in a speech in 1946, “is it any wonder that today [India] claims – as a nation of 400,000,000 people that has twice sent her sons to die for freedom – that she should herself have freedom to decide her own destiny? My colleagues are going to India with the intention of using their utmost endeavours to help her to attain that freedom as speedily and fully as possible.”
6. John Wolfenden (1906-1985)
In 1957, John Wolfenden, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading and former headmaster of Uppingham and Shrewsbury schools was asked to chair a committee looking into homosexuality in the UK. At the time, homosexuality was illegal, and over a thousand men were in prison for committing homosexual acts (lesbianism was not and has never been illegal in Britain). Alan Turing, whose work deciphering Nazi codes probably reduced the length of the Second World War by many months and who therefore saved tens of thousands of lives, was one of the men who had been found guilty of homosexuality. He had been sentenced to chemical castration, and had committed suicide two years later.
Despite cases like Turing’s, public opinion remained opposed to the legalisation of homosexuality. All the same, Wolfenden’s report from the committee he chaired recommended that it be decriminalised, saying, “It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.” The UK followed the committee’s recommendation ten years later, and has become a leading force in promoting gay rights worldwide in the years since.
7. Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013)
In the BBC poll of greatest Britons, Margaret Thatcher came in at number 16. She was Britain’s first female Prime Minister and the first elected female leader of a European country, and her 11 years in office made her a highly controversial figure. On the one hand, former Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that, “she didn’t just lead our country, she saved our country, and I believe she’ll go down as the greatest British peacetime prime minister.” On the other hand, comedian Frankie Boyle commented on the cost of her funeral, “for £3 million you could give everyone in Scotland a shovel, and we could dig a hole so deep we could hand her over to Satan in person.”
Her legacy was considerable and enduring. She promoted free trade, competition and a smaller state, went to war with Argentina over the Falklands, significantly reduced the power of the unions in Britain, and worked closely with US President Ronald Reagan.
8. Elizabeth II (1926-)
In 2015, Elizabeth II became Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, beating Queen Victoria’s record of 63 years, seven months and two days on the throne. She has reigned since 1952, in a period that has seen some incredible ups and downs for the British monarchy, and it is safe to say that she has never been so popular as at the present day. While other European monarchs have seen the pomp and grandeur of their roles fade, Elizabeth II has resisted most pressures for modernisation.
Most people on this list are here because of the way they shaped history by impressing their views on it. Elizabeth II stands out in that it’s hard to say what any of her views might be. She said a single sentence about the Scottish Independence Referendum – that she hoped “people will think very carefully about the future” – which was interpreted as support for the union remaining intact. Other than that meagre evidence, she has very carefully kept her opinions to herself – a piece of political positioning that has undoubtedly helped in the endurance of the British monarchy.
9. Tony Blair (1953-)
Tony Blair was British Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007, and during that decade the influence of his foreign policy around the world was considerable. A supporter of liberal interventionism, his government intervened militarily in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and – most famously – Iraq. Intervention in Kosovo was widely seen as a success, with some Kosovans giving their sons the name ‘Tonibler’ in tribute. Similarly, Blair has received considerable praise for his role in the Northern Irish peace process, helping to bring an end to the Troubles that had cost over 3,000 lives over a 30-year period, and seen over 45,000 people injured.
At the other end of the scale is Iraq, where the recent Chilcot report into the war ruled that Blair had pushed for war “before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted” – and the consequences of a military invasion taking place without a thorough plan for peace are still being felt today.
10. Nigel Farage (1964-)
The consequences of Nigel Farage’s role in British politics are still not entirely clear, and may not be for decades. By some measures, he is a political failure. He has stood for election to Parliament no fewer than 7 times and lost every single time, never gaining more than a third of the vote.
But he can also be held responsible more than any other political figure in the UK for the seismic vote this June for Britain to leave the EU, the goal that has been at the heart of his entire political career. A shock 52% of the population voted in favour of Leave, even though the only major political party in favour of leaving was Nigel Farage’s UKIP. What the ultimate outcome of that vote will be is uncertain, as the form that Brexit will take is still under discussion. Yet the fact that the vote was held at all is considerably due to the pressure that Farage put on a government that never expected the vote to go the way he wanted.
Which British political leaders do you consider to have been the most influential across the world? Let us know in the comments!
Image credits: churchill; churchill statue; westminster; attlee disembarking from plane; lgbtq flag; thatcher; queen elizabeth; blair; farage and hoey; beveridge; palmyra; indian flag.