Jocks and Nerds: how to predict Prime Ministers and Presidents
A former teacher of mine developed a theory which went like this. For decades the High Masters of St. Paul’s School have alternated between flamboyant and charismatic heads and quieter heads, who are more of a safe pair of hands.
Tom Harwood from GB News has applied a similar theory to British Prime Ministers since the war — what he calls the “Jock/Nerd” theory. According to this, British Prime Ministers have alternated between flamboyant, even charismatic figures like Churchill, Thatcher and Johnson (“ Jocks ”) and quieter, even grey figures like Attlee, Major and May (“Nerds”). The names may be misleading, but the theory is uncannily accurate.
Harwood starts with Churchill (super-Jock) followed by Clement Attlee (super-Nerd), then back to Churchill, followed by Anthony Eden (not just quieter, but also seriously ill). Then comes “Supermac” Macmillan , followed by the feeble, almost inert Alec Douglas-Home, who quickly lost to Harold Wilson, a lively, bright, articulate Prime Minister who famously spoke of the “white heat of technology” and seemed so much younger and more energetic than the grouse-shooting Home (Eton and Christ Church). Wilson was still in his forties, Home was already in his sixties and was Prime Minister for less than a year. In the new era of JFK and Castro, the Satire Boom, TW3 and The Beatles, there was no doubt who seemed more in touch with the Zeitgeist .
Wilson was succeeded by Ted Heath (pictured above, left) and then became Prime Minister again in 1974, to be followed under mysterious circumstances by the avuncular and distinctly un-charismatic Jim Callaghan. He quickly lost to Margaret Thatcher in 1979, one of the most charismatic and influential Prime Ministers of the post-war era, who was succeeded after more than a decade by the ultimate grey man, John Major.
Major, immortalised by Steve Bell in a series of cartoons depicting him with his shirt tucked inside his Y-Fronts, was no match for Tony Blair, who along with Churchill, Thatcher and Johnson was the most charismatic Prime Minister of the age. He was succeeded by the dour Gordon Brown who, in turn, lost to David Cameron, the flashy Etonian car salesman, 15 years younger than Brown, and seemingly full of youth and energy compared to Brown, ground down by 13 years of government.
Cameron was succeeded by Theresa May, who seemed the ultimate safe pair of hands, with her grey hair, the daughter of an Anglican priest, married to an investment manager, MP for Maidenhead, educated at a women’s college in Oxford. No one could have been more different than Boris Johnson, regarded as untrustworthy and the ultimate cad by his critics, unreliable, duplicitous, choosing between two articles about Brexit, the biggest political issue of his day. To his admirers, Johnson was clever (Greats at Oxford), funny, a people’s person, who was elected twice as Mayor for London and won the biggest landslide since the 1980s.
Whoever is elected as next leader of the Conservative Party, Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak, will be more nerd than jock. Those red-faced, dull backbenchers played safe. They didn’t have the stomach for Penny Mordaunt or Kemi Badenoch. They wanted a very safe pair of hands, just as the Labour Party went for dull Keir Starmer after the crazy Corbyn years and the nemesis of 2019.
The theory works for US Presidents, too. Their alternation between charisma and competence tells a similar story. FDR’s long presidency, with its high dramas of the New Deal and the war, was succeeded by the less flamboyant Harry Truman and Eisenhower. Then came JFK, the ultimate Jock, soon succeeded by Johnson, a great fixer though he also brought the dramas of Civil Rights and Vietnam. The next President was “Tricky Dicky” (pictured above, right), who was certainly exciting, followed (briefly) by Gerald Ford — perhaps the dullest president in modern American history — and then Jimmy Carter.
He was followed by Reagan, followed by the ultimate insider, George Bush. Then came the sax-playing, scandal-ridden Clinton, who was in turn succeeded by George W. Bush, who like Johnson combined a kind of mediocrity with huge geopolitical dramas, 9/11, Iraq. Then came two super-charismatic presidents, Obama and Trump, followed by “ Sleepy Joe ” Biden, who is so old and dull he may not even survive one term.
Except for Obama and Trump, neither Britain nor America has elected similar personality types successively as Prime Minister and President. It seems we cannot take too much excitement – or craziness. After the high drama of Churchill, Thatcher and Johnson, we yearn for years for stability. After FDR, JFK and Trump, we need the virtues of quiet decency, Presidents like Truman, Johnson and Biden, until we’re ready for more excitement and risk. If there is any truth to this, sell your shares in Keir Starmer here and get ready for Trump or Ron De Santis in America.
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