1 October 2012

What’s in a PM’s name?

The 2010 Coalition has now reached the halfway point of its existence, and there is, as yet, no significantly good news about the economy. The Conservatives have decided to move onto different ground and attempt to convince the electorate that Ed Miliband lacks the qualities perceived as being required of a Prime Minister. This was, according to the Financial Times (£), a stratagem decided on at Chequers on 17 September, and, according to the Guardian, encouraged by private opinion polling. So, never slow off the mark, Boris Johnson delivered an attack in the Daily Telegraph on 1 October which was ad hominem to start with:
... a total disappointment; and as leader of a major political party, he looks to me like a drip of the first order. According to yesterday’s YouGov, the Tories are only five points behind Labour — a measly five points, in the depths of what has been the longest and deepest recession many people can remember, when George Osborne is accused of slashing public services, and when many families have experienced a real deterioration in their standard of living. When Neil Kinnock was doing Ed’s job in the early Nineties, he managed to go about 24 points clear of John Major — and he still lost. What is wrong with Ed? The Tory strategists say it is all about his look, his manner, a certain teenage gawkiness compared to Dave’s look of Regency confidence; and that is certainly borne out by the polls. Dave wins big on who the voters both want to be PM – and, crucially, who they think will be PM.
and then goes on to policies:
Elections in this country, especially general elections, are not just about personalities. They are about programmes, about where you want to take the country, and it is here that Ed is getting it hopelessly wrong. Some Labour top brass accuse him of a do-nothing strategy, of trying to sneak into Downing Street with an exhibition of masterly inactivity. If only that were true. In so far as he has done anything with the Labour Party since taking over from Gordon Brown, Ed has moved it to the Left. He is back in the pocket of the union barons, .. etc etc
Johnson optimistically concludes:
Over the next two and a half years the most likely political outcome is surely this: that the economy will steadily recover, and the signs of hope that we are now seeing will multiply. After enduring a long period of unpopularity, during which they did difficult but sensible things, the Conservatives will be rewarded for their patience. I have said it once and I say it again. David Cameron will be returned with a thumping majority in 2015.
Paul Goodman (a former Tory MP and executive editor of Conservative Home) explained in the FT on 1 October that the Tories have a trump card in the form of Ed Miliband. He doesn’t see Miliband’s leftwardness as a problem, in fact
“Mr Miliband is safe to continue criticising capitalism if he closes down his risks on tax and spend by choosing to tax something unpopular, like utilities. But not to worry: … these gathering clouds have a silver lining for the Tories – namely, the personality of the Labour leader himself. The poll ratings of the two main party leaders convey a clear message: better strong and smug (Mr Cameron) than weak and weird (Mr Miliband). Leader ratings aren’t always decisive in elections; Lady Thatcher was less popular than Jim Callaghan in 1979. However, they matter, and Mr Miliband’s biggest problem, like that of the Tories, is less one of policy than of people. Or rather of one person. Himself.
Whether the Tories' tactic will pay off or whether, as C4News’ Gary Gibbon suggests, Miliband will be trained to subdue his professorial geekiness and mannerisms at least enough to disarm the voters, we shall see, particularly when at the pre-election TV debates. But there is one aspect of Miliband that can be put into some sort of historical context now: his surname.

I remember reading, but regrettably cannot now source, a report that after the death of their father, Ralph, David and Ed Miliband were the only adults with that surname (other than their mother and wives who acquired it by marriage). It certainly is unusual, much more unusual than those of nearly all British prime ministers in the last 200 years. From Guardian and Wikipedia data, it can be seen that 34 different men and one woman have been Prime Minister since 1812. I have classified their surnames under four headings:

16 English Common - as seen every day on the side of lorries and vans eg Robinson, Russell, Wilson

 8 English Uncommon – but not unsettling for the average voter eg Wellesley, Primrose, Asquith, Attlee

10 Scottish, Welsh, Irish – eg Balfour, Macmillan, Cameron (but not Brown)

 1 Exotic – Disraeli

(There were four PMs with hyphenated surnames, three of them Scottish; Gascoyne-Cecil has been put in English Uncommon; the unhyphenated Bonar Law again is Scottish.)

In 2015 Miliband would be only the second PM in over two hundred years with an Exotic surname. In his day Disraeli only had to satisfy a small and relatively sophisticated franchise. Since 1930, essentially the start of the modern franchise, there have been 10 PMs with English surnames, five with Scottish and one Irish (Callaghan).  But so what in 2015?  After all, the 21st century may, for all we know, see an Umunna, Patel or Singh in Number 10.


In his speech to the Labour Party Conference today, Miliband mentioned Disraeli five times (and "One Nation" 46 times).  He also said:
My conviction is rooted in my family’s story, a story that starts 1,000 miles from here, because the Miliband’s haven’t sat under the same oak tree for the last five hundred years. Both of my parents’ came to Britain as immigrants, Jewish refugees from the Nazis. I know I would not be standing on this stage today without the compassion and tolerance of our great country. Great Britain.
I'm not sure the oak tree remark was very sensible; it may come back to haunt him.


  1. An interesting analysis of PMs' names, although it would appear that they reflect the relative commonness, or otherwise, of the names occurring in the UK (Disraeli is the exception, yet he seems to have modified the more exotic form his father Isaac used, D'Israeli).

    I wonder if Miliband's exotic name will weigh for much electorally. True, it offers attempts at humour, as in Private Eye's feeble "The adventures of Mr Milibean" cartoon, though the incumbent president of the USA wasn't apparently harmed by having three exotic names, his surname a single letter different from a prominent fugitive from justice(admittedly in a country where names that seem strange are not uncommon).

    Also, MPs have been elected with, it seems to me, more "unsettling" names than Miliband - for example, Hogg,Skinner, Rooker, Gunter, Spoor, Hoon, Gummer, Hoey, Bottomley, Pratt, Balls ...

    A pity John Major didn't use the same family name as his brother Terry; had he, it might have offered an interesting precedent.

    David Martin

    1. Thank you for taking the trouble to comment, and not for the first time. Issues other than 'Miliband' are no doubt going to be much more important at the next election. And by his annexing Disraeli, Miliband has probably neutralised any possibility of the Tories trying to make an issue of 'Exotic' names. Of course, it's by no means impossible that the next PM will go by the very 'English' name of Johnson (the actual exoticism of his forebears being quite another issue)!