Presidents and Prime Ministers

Conviction Politics in the Anglo-American Tradition

Patricia Lee Sykes

"I am a conviction politician," British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher boldly declared in 1979, and her expressive stand against consensus politics won immediate endorsement from Ronald Reagan. Both promised to provide strong leadership, establish new priorities, and restore fundamental principles to national politics. To many they appeared to form a transatlantic partnership, but they were not the first.

Looking back over 200 years of history, Patricia Lee Sykes examines presidents and prime ministers to show how idealistic leaders have challenged liberal ideas and institutions within the Anglo-American tradition, and in the process have altered the political landscape. She reveals how conviction-style politicians have appeared in the U.S. and U.K. at the same time: individuals who articulated similar ideas that adapted liberal ideology to shifting circumstances and who achieved fundamental change at critical moments in their nation's history.

“An important, original work that makes a major contribution to our understanding of political leadership.

—American Political Science Review

“Scholars of comparative history, as well as those of political leadership, especially the American presidency and the British prime minister, will want to read this book. . . . It is well done and recommended to those that seek to understand political leadership, including its permutations over the generations.

—British Politics Group Newsletter
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This unusual comparative study of chief executives examines not only Reagan and Thatcher but also three other pairs of leaders who used moral rhetoric to challenge the status quo: Woodrow Wilson and David Lloyd George, Grover Cleveland and William Gladstone, and Andrew Jackson and Robert Peel. Sykes first discusses each pair, describing their leadership styles and their roles in the liberal tradition; she then analyzes the mercurial context of conviction politics over time to show when party politics, the media, the state, or global affairs can prevent even the most visionary of leaders from enacting their programs.

Sykes also charts an increasing convergence of political practice and philosophy in the two countries-particularly with the "presidentialization" of the prime minister-and tracks the tensions created between executive authority, individual freedom, and the public good when leaders purposefully avoid consensus to pursue their lofty visions.

Presidents and Prime Ministers offers a new way of looking at our two countries' leaders that reveals surprising changes and continuities in the office and power of the chief executive. It allows insightful comparisons between the political thought and systems of two nations and shows how strong, determined leadership can dramatically shape the political development of Western democracies.

About the Author

Patricia Lee Sykes is an associate professor of political science in the department of government of the School of Public Affairs at American University and author of Losing from the Inside: The Cost of Conflict in the British Social Democratic Party.