As buildings burned, shops looted and streets ceded to the control of rampaging youth, the country’s leaders were on holiday. With escalating civil disorder and public demands for action, an unfortunately essential quadrumvirate of the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Mayor of London were en vacances.
They soon returned. The Home Secretary Theresa May flew back on Monday 8 August, followed by David Cameron and Boris Johnson returning on Tuesday 9 August. Less essential figures also cut short holidays – Ed Milliband returned to the capitol on the same day as the Prime Minister.
Although the UK’s elite do not take quite as indulgent approach to August as many on the continent (this report highlights the EU’s deafening communication silence over the traditional holiday period), it is still traditionally a quieter time suitable for a fortnight’s holiday.
With modern technologies, Prime Ministers and the like are never really away from it all. A mobile phone and BlackBerry ensures constant telephonic and email connectivity. And, in reality, it has been the same for decades - the conduits for communication might change (think telephones, faxes, telexes and telegrams), but the principle is the same.
The propensity for Prime Ministers to take holiday is not a recent development. Parliamentary and government business was decidedly less demanding and more infrequent in the days of Walpole, Pitt and Palmerston. They could continue business at their country estates, relying on messengers and signals to keep them in touch with the capital.
In the modern age Gladstone set the pattern for Prime Ministerial travel. He was partial to recuperative holidays in the south of France, visits made all the more pleasant by being paid for by George Armistead. His trips to Cannes, Nice and Biarittz contrast with more ascetic trips to north Wales were chopping trees and lake swimming were the order of the day.
The availability of Royal Navy yachts created opportunities for long coastal trips, either around the waters of the UK or in the Mediterranean. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill had access to the luxury yacht the Enchantress. The vessel certainly placed a spell on him, and he spent over eight months onboard between late 1911 and summer 1914. His spell as wartime Prime Minister severely limited holiday opportunities, but he always had the escape of Chartwell, his beloved house in Kent.
Churchill was not the only political entranced by the Enchantress. It was on board the ship that the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith learnt of the death of Edward VII. This truncated trip was vividly outlined at the beginning of Dangerfield’s ‘the Strange Death of Liberal England’. The portentous passing of Haley’s Comet at the same time as the passing of the King is highlighted as an omen of turbulence ahead. The resulting hasty return to the UK demonstrates that the recall of Prime Ministers from holiday is at least a century old tradition.
The sea was a more direct lure for Edward Heath, who married his political career with a life as a champion winning sailor. His yacht, the Morning Cloud, was his holiday respite, and he made history as the first sitting Prime Minister to compete in and win a yacht race by taking the Admiral’s Cup in 1971.
A series of Prime Ministers have made the Celtic fringe their holiday destination of choice. Lloyd George and Clement Attlee both chose the Llyn Peninsula in north Wales (Criccieth and Nefyn respectively). Lloyd George emulated Gladstone’s preference for earthy pursuits by tending to his garden and planting potatoes. Harold Wilson spent most of his holidays on the Scilly Isles of Cornwall. His connection to the place was so strong he was eventually buried there in 1995. Cameron and Thatcher have also holidayed in Cornwall. A staycation in his Kirkcaldy home in Scotland was the suitably austere location for Gordon Brown’s 2008 holiday.
Prime Ministers do not seem to have strayed much beyond the confines of Europe whilst in office, perhaps aware of the possibility of their imminent recall. This has not prevented more exotic or lengthy trips. The grave economic and political situation in 1936 make today’s outlook seem distinctly benign. This did not, however, prevent Stanley Baldwin taking a three month holiday in France, mostly at Aix-les-Bains. Even workaholic Margaret Thatcher managed to take a few breaks in the company of Lady Glover in Switzerland.
Harold Macmillan shared Baldwin’s ability to get away from it all by frequently spending the bulk of August and September at his wife’s family estate of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Tony Blair would echo Macmillan and Gladstone’s ability to get others to pay for holidays by some decidedly questionable stays at Hosni Mubarak's summer house in Egypt, Robin Gibbs' Florida mansion and several boltholes belonging to of Silvio Berlusconi.
So , as Cameron is pilloried for taking holidays at a time of rollercoaster share and bond prices, riots and urban unrest and the fall of Colonel Gaddafi it is perhaps worth remembering that everyone, even Prime Ministers, need time to unwind.