June 16, 2009

Below is the latest of my stats columns…I’ve decided to start posting them online, after the paper decided not to (when it does, they are in the Women/lifeandstyle section).

The Times, June 15

That it would be a personal tragedy is not in doubt. But if Gordon Brown is forced from office – an office he waited a decade to reach – is his plight Shakespearean or Greek? Statistics can help.


The protagonist in a Shakespearean tragedy is brought down by a character flaw. In a Greek tragedy he is destroyed by fate. To claim that Brown’s tragedy is Greek would be to say that he was doomed from the moment he assumed power. The argument might go as follows: after ten years of Labour, the country inevitably wanted change, and thus Brown would inevitably fail.


As a statistical hypothesis, this theory relies on the assumption that prime ministers who take office to replace an opposing party (as Blair and Thatcher did) do better than those who take office after succeeding a previous member of their own party (as Brown and Major did). This seems sensible, but what do the statistics say?


There have been 25 prime ministerships since 1900. 13 of those were like Blair, taking over from a different party. 12 were like Brown, taking over from a fellow party member.


Those who initially gained power from a general election served an average four years and six months; those who didn’t, served four years and two months. There is very little difference. It appears that Brown’s tragedy was not in fact ordained.


Now that we know the play is Shakespearean, all that remains is to assess the magnitude of the tragedy. Is it an epic worthy of Lear, or is it more like the first half hour of Bambi? Even if Brown goes this month, he will have survived two years. Andrew Bonar Law, Alec Douglas-Home and Anthony Eden all served less. In previous centuries it was common to serve less than a year.


But perhaps longevity is not the only measure of success. After all, John Major lasted seven years.


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