Three centuries of prime ministers in the press come to an end

Sir Edward Heath was the last in a long line of British prime ministers who had worked in journalism, says Dennis Griffiths

The death of Sir Edward Heath brings to a close a unique chapter of
the British press. He was the last prime minister to have been a
journalist.

Following war service as an officer in the Royal Artillery, in 1948
Heath (above) joined the Church Times as news editor. There he
supervised two reporters, subbed copy and selected and edited
contributions from correspondents.

He also undertook reporting assignments, and every Wednesday put the newspaper to bed.

As
the paper’s leader writer, he was already aware of the need for closer
links with Europe. “The average citizen of Great Britain still regards
union in Europe as a distant ideal but not a practical proposition. On
the continent, however, the man-in-the-street realises the weakness of
his nation in isolation,” he wrote in 1948.

Heath left the
Church Times in 1949 to become a trainee with merchant bank Brown
Shipley. He was also becoming increasingly involved as the prospective
Conservative candidate for Bexley.

The list of
journalist/premiers stretches back to Sir Robert Walpole (1721-42), the
first prime minister, who was often described by his political
opponents as “the premier scribbler”.

Fifty years later, George
Canning launched the Anti-Jacobin or Weekly Examiner in 1797. Although
it ran for only 36 issues, it was to have a profound effect on British
political journalism, being the model for the Pall Mall Gazette.

During
the 19th century, there were some half-a-dozen future premiers who had
been involved in journalism. The first was Viscount Palmerston, twice
prime minister between 1855 and 1865, a former leader writer for The
Observer.

Later, in support of his foreign policy, he was to pay
William Clement, the proprietor, and Lewis Doxat, the editor/manager,
with monies from Secret Service funds.

The best known was
Benjamin Disraeli (1868 and 1874-80). Following the financial success
of his novels, he launched The Press, a political weekly, in 1853.
Having appointed Samuel Lucas as editor, Disraeli himself wrote 10 of
the first 11 leading articles. He sold the paper five years later when
he became chancellor of the exchequer.

Disraeli’s rival, William
Gladstone, who served as prime minister on four occasions between 1868
and 1894, also found time to write regularly for The Press and was for
many years a contributor, under the pseudonym “G”, for The Guardian, a
leading church weekly.

The Marquess of Salisbury, who was prime
minister three times between 1885 and 1902, worked as a young man as a
leader writer on The Standard, specialising on free trade and foreign
policy.

Herbert Asquith contributed in the 1870s to The Spectator
and The Economist as a leader writer. Asquith was prime minister from
1908 to 1916, when he was ousted by David Lloyd George.

Lloyd
George had himself written for his local paper under the nom de plume
of “Brutus”. Throughout his premiership, he was to prove a skilful
manipulator of the press with his awards to newspaper proprietors.

The
best-known figure, though, was Winston Churchill (1940-45 and 1951-
55). In his early days, while still a serving army officer, he took his
annual leave to cover the Cuban War of Independence from Spain for the
Daily Graphic at five guineas an article.

While campaigning in
India on the north-west frontier he reported for The Daily Telegraph.
In 1898, as a lieutenant with the 21st Lancers in the Sudan, Churchill
was a correspondent for the Morning Post and also worked for the paper
during the Boer War.

In later years, despite the pressures of his
parliamentary and public duties, he wrote regularly for the press,
including the News of the World and the Evening Standard, and during
the General Strike of 1926 he was editor of the Government’s British
Gazette.

Churchill could say of his career: “I love journalism,
for I’m an old journalist… I pushed a pencil in Egypt, and India, and
South Africa.”

His successor as prime minister, Anthony Eden (1955-57) had also been a journalist in his younger days.

He
was elected Conservative member for Leamington Spa in 1923 and the
following year, thanks to his father-inlaw, Sir Gervaise Beckett,
chairman of the Yorkshire Post, Eden began writing articles for the
paper.

By 1930 Eden was also writing leaders for the Post, but as
his parliamentary prominence increased his work on the paper lessened.
However, he had stout allies in the Yorkshire Post and its editor, AH
Mann, never more so than when he resigned as foreign secretary in 1936.

Another
to have embraced journalism – albeit very briefly – was Harold Wilson
(1964-70 and 1974-76) who, as an undergraduate at Oxford, had
contributed pieces for the Manchester Guardian. After graduating in
1937, he was given a trial by editor WP Crozier as a leader writer and
offered a probationary post. However, having secured a senior
scholarship, Wilson was able to remain at Oxford, which led to his
working with Lord Beveridge.

As none of today’s leading
politicians has worked as a journalist, the long line stretching back
almost 300 years to the first prime minister seems at last to have
reached an end.

Dennis Griffiths is editor of the Encyclopedia of the British Press

Comments
No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ten + eight =

CLOSE
CLOSE