Worst Britons

Sick of hearing how great we are? The BBC's panellists join <em>NS</em> writers for an alternative c

A A Gill nominates: Cromwell and Churchill

As someone who championed Shakespeare for the greatest Briton, I would have to vote for Cromwell as my worst - a man who closed down theatres, banned dancing and cancelled Christmas. It was the only time since Shakespeare's plays were written that they weren't performed. Cromwell was the English Pol Pot, with a touch of Bernard Matthews. He was truly dreadful. That he's held up as a hero of the left is a fantastic misreading of history. In a remarkably Stalinist fashion, he closed down or censored the Putney Debates, the first real socialist meetings in England. He put back the chances of creating a fairer, more equitable society for 300 years. That Britain immediately returned to a monarchy after his disastrous rule is all you need to know about his legacy. It is often claimed he was responsible for modern America. In fact, the Pilgrim Fathers went to America to get away from his persecution.

My other nomination is Churchill. Churchill was a man who met a moment, and the moment was much shorter than he's given credit for - about six months. He made four speeches, all of which were derivative of Shakespeare and Macaulay. Everything else about his wearyingly long public life was self-serving and disastrous: he was a terrible self-publicising hack; he was a loathed soldier; he was the worst First Sea Lord we ever had. A staggeringly inept Home Secretary, he was wrong about absolutely everything he set his sights on. He was responsible for the Dardanelles, the worst disaster of the First World War. He sent soldiers to shoot Welsh miners. He put field guns on to the streets of the East End of London. During the General Strike, he was so rabid that he had to be kept out of government, because he wanted to machine-gun bus drivers. Later, he was the worst sort of empire loyalist, desperate to hold on to India, and racist about Gandhi, that naked little fakir (frankly, if you had to choose the greater man between Gandhi and Churchill, there's no contest). He sent the Black and Tans into Ireland. He'd have bankrupted the country by returning us to the gold standard; he gave away large areas of eastern Europe to Stalin. And he was responsible for the disgraceful but forgotten war of intervention to support the White Russians at the end of the First World War. Altogether, he represents everything I find most dispiriting, snobbish, philistine, proudly anti-intellectual and stubbornly backward-looking about Britain.

Lucy Moore nominates: A vile composite

I've created a composite Worst Briton. He has the black heart of Jonathan Wild, the 18th-century crime lord, who'd have sold his grandmother for a guinea; the spite of Alexander Pope; the bigoted self-righteousness of the Indian viceroy Lord Curzon; the vain leadership of Captain Scott, who sacrificed his brave men on a doomed quest; the oleaginous sycophancy of Piers Gaveston; and the lasciviousness of Lord Byron.

Richard Holmes nominates: William the Conqueror

For my Worst Briton I have avoided a smart attempt to tinker with the verdict of the BBC series, and to complain that Brunel laced the land with railway lines, Newton tells me why my toast lands buttered side down, and Darwin's theory ensures that my terriers are optimised for postman-biting. Nobody on the BBC's list, even painted in a bile-dipped brush, could reach the scale that Worst Briton requires.

William the Conqueror can. He became a Briton only by forced adoption, but he ruled England from 1066-87 and we cannot disown him. William was ruthless even in a hard age. In 1051 the citizens of besieged Alencon waved cowhides from their walls to remind him that he was the illegitimate son of a tanner's daughter: he had their leaders skinned alive. He imposed his will on England by brute force. In 1066, he ravaged villages to draw Harold south to fight him, and his merciless harrying of the north in 1069 would not have been out of place in recent Balkan history.

He established a new ruling class, a new culture and a new language, with expropriation on a breathtaking scale. When the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, only two of the king's leading tenants were of English descent. Fewer than 200 Norman barons held the land, and the great square keeps of their castles sneered out across the conquered country.

William's claim to England by right of conquest was to give English feudalism its particular centralised character. Seventeenth-century radicals complained that the "Norman yoke" bore heavily upon them, and if they overestimated its weight they were not wrong about its origins. No less portentous was the way William and his immediate successors affected the relationship between England and the rest of the British Isles. William invaded Scotland in 1072; his lords encroached into Wales, and Henry II invaded Ireland. He cast the long shadow of a great figure: but there was bitter cold beneath it.

Andrew Marr nominates: William Wordsworth

It's been a hard one. I was greatly tempted by Horatio Bottomley, fraud, xenophobic politician, huckster and editor of John Bull, who was the Edwardian template for so many rotters of our own times. Too easy, however. So I have finally settled on one William Wordsworth, not for his early life but for what he so quickly became, the dreary milksop and lamb-brained blatherer who should be held responsible for so much that was awful in English poetry for the next hundred years. Thanks to Wordsworth, out went wit, public affairs, quarrelling and serious thought. In came sentimental, self-pitying and eye-wateringly dull prancing about, never mind the occasional sonnet in favour of capital punishment. I know it's politically incorrect, but the word sissy should be retained in use specifically for Wordsworth, whose grossly inflated reputation kept me off poetry for ages. Without him, we would have lost perhaps half a dozen really great things, but we would have had more vigorous and enjoyable 19th and 20th centuries - the followers of Byron and Coleridge would have triumphed. If I never read another line about bloody daffodils, bloody lambs or idiot boys, it will be far too soon. At least I'll never meet him in the afterlife - he will be up there in heaven, sipping weak tea with his ghastly sister and boring the wings off the angels. Give me the rotisserie any day.

Tristram Hunt nominates: Dame Evelyn Sharp

My Worst Briton is Dame Evelyn Sharp. A legendary figure in Whitehall, "the Dame", as she liked to be known, ran postwar planning as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government from 1955-66. Well versed in departmental cunning, she outmanoeuvred a series of ministers including the great Richard Crossman. Yet she was also the civil servant who presided over some of the most hideous and unsympathetic urban developments of the past 50 years. With an unbridled faith in the power of Whitehall, she sanctioned the mass destruction of historic street housing in favour of bleak modernist developments. Described as having "no aesthetic sense whatsoever", Dame Evelyn was typical of an arrogant bureaucratic elite who severed our architectural bonds with the past, destroyed the civic fabric and delivered the British city over to the automobile. We are only just emerging from her dark reign.

Mo Mowlam nominates: Charles I

It is very difficult to think of the Worst Briton, as most people have not been too bad. As I argued for Churchill as the best, I believe that we have to look at our leaders for the worst, rather than artists or scientists, because only through leaders can we see something specific about Britain being achieved or not. And on this basis, I must put forward Charles I as the Worst Briton.

On the face of it, he had a kind of romantic appeal, with the famous division between the Cavaliers and Roundheads. But it was where he insisted on the divine right of kings to govern, moving Britain away from its more inclusive system of government, that he reneged on the deal struck between the governors and governed in this country. One must add to this the human suffering of a civil war, which tore the country apart for a generation.

The reaction of the British people to his arrogance, chopping off his head, has been a helpful reminder to all future rulers of this country.

Rosie Boycott nominates

Margaret Thatcher

My Worst Briton is Margaret Thatcher. For obvious reasons.

Carmen Callil nominates: Margaret Thatcher and Gordon Brown

From the past: Margaret Thatcher. It's not so much what she did, though I'm tired to death of being told that no other Briton could have sorted the unions, etc, etc; it was the atmosphere she created, that insistence on what she believed in which I so much didn't and don't. I hated living under Margaret Thatcher.

For the future: Gordon Brown. I've never trusted him since he told me to shut up at some Labour Party meeting, but, apart from that, I don't trust this power-behind-the-throne business. There is something of the very dark night about this man, and I don't trust the way he talks about the economy as though it's his money. It's not his, it's ours.

William Boyd nominates: The Duke of Windsor

The Duke of Windsor. A spoilt, snobbish, lazy, mean, petulant Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII had little to recommend him apart from intermittent social charm and a good dress sense. To renounce his kingdom for the woman he loved may have been the only noble act in his life. But character is destiny, and he reverted to type after the abdication, becoming a spoilt, snobbish, lazy, mean, petulant Duke of Windsor, and a crypto-Nazi, to boot. A worthless life; a worthless individual - by removing him from the throne and the country Wallis Simpson did us all a huge favour.

Jan Morris nominates: The Sheriff of Nottingham

Robin Hood's pompous, arrogant, complacent, humourless and eternally ineffectual opponent is less legendary than allegorical. He is the archetype of those multitudinous British officials who, clad in the brief authority of traffic warden, busybody inspector or cabinet minister, plague and bore us to this day.

Will Self nominates: Mr Campbell-Blair

My Worst Briton is Tony-Alastair Campbell-Blair, who I think of as a strange compound of a man. This chimerical being has four-handedly reduced political debate in this country to a soundbite culture of savagely Manichaean dualism: if you're not with us - he says - you're nowhere.

Paranoid, secretive and ideologically threadbare, Campbell-Blair spends his time ceaselessly shuttling the globe to prop up an outmoded idea of Britain's position on the world stage, while neglecting to address serious domestic issues. A poodle of American imperialist power and an intellectual pygmy, Campbell-Blair attempts to square the circle of neoliberal economics and social welfare provision by selling the true crown jewels of his party: the belief in the primary, moral importance of social justice for all.

Cromwell, Wordsworth and Charles I paintings from The National Portrait Gallery by Charles Saumarez Smith (NPG). Churchill and Thatcher pictures from Faces of the Century: a Sainsbury's photographic exhibition (NPG)

This article first appeared in the 16 December 2002 issue of the New Statesman, How Blair put 30,000 more in jail