The Führerprinzip

Before I pass under the knife: there’s an excellent piece in today’s Guardian saying what I’ve been saying for years, but much better than I could have put it: (

I’m not sure when the ‘Führerprinzip’ – as we both call it – first became embedded in British politics. Before then, we generally voted for local MPs and national governments rather than ‘leaders’, except in wartime, when Churchill was put up as our ‘leader’ to counter Hitler. In the first general election after the War the Conservative Party tried to capitalise on this – ‘Let him finish the job’ – but failed. A Labour government was elected to power, under ‘a modest man, who has plenty to be modest about’, in Churchill’s own rather ungenerous words, which however didn’t undermine Attlee’s achievement one whit. British politics carried on like this for the next thirty years, under collective cabinet governments, and with ‘leadership’ in the Churchillian sense not being regarded as so essential in peacetime. Clearly there were some people who still hankered after a Führer, prompting Harold Wilson’s protest, in his Memoirs (I think), that in his view leadership consisted in listening and achieving consensus rather than looking tough and imposing one’s own views; an approach which, in my opinion, and contrary to the common retrospective myth of the ‘Wilson years’, made those ’60s and ’70s Labour governments of his so successful in many ways.

It was Margaret Thatcher of course – who else? – who brought the Führer thing into British politics for almost the first time. Her reign as prime minister was very personal, even ‘macho’, insisting on a version of ‘leadership’ which emphasised strength, conviction, and sheer bullying, especially of foreigners. At the time this seemed to go down well with the electorate, or at least with enough of them to keep her in power. I remember one dictum of hers which jarred with me particularly in this context: ‘democracy is about leadership, not followership’. – Well, no, actually! Democracy is literally about following the will of the demos. But the ‘leadership’ idea and the Thatcher model caught on, and have dominated our elections ever since.

Hence Theresa May’s strategy in the current general election: to try to fight it on the ‘leadership qualities’ of the two prime ministerial candidates. That ‘strong and stable’ mantra of hers is part of this. So is the demanding and insulting tone she adopts towards other Europeans. People are supposed to vote for her and her ‘team’, based on her ‘strength’, rather than for the Conservative party, which is hardly mentioned in their propaganda, except in very small letters (on the side of their ‘battle-bus’, for example). It’s her fight. Corbyn is attacked for his supposed personal qualities of ‘weakness’ rather than for his party’s policies, which most people seem to like. Jeremy Paxman in a notoriously hostile TV interview recently asked him why so many of his personal convictions had not made their way into the Labour manifesto, as though that showed weakness; I’m not sure whether he quite understood Corbyn’s quite reasonable retort: ‘I’m not a dictator, you know’. But Paxman’s questions show how deep the Führerprinzip has penetrated. Another sign, perhaps, of the proto-fascism that is one of our great perils today.

May might yet be hoist with her own petard. Exposure on television makes her look weaker than the image that she and her minders would like her to convey, and Corbyn, by most accounts, more impressive – as well as being far nicer. (If, that is, ‘nice’ is compatible with the Führerprinzip.) If this works to chip away at her majority – the best we can hope for, I still think – it will be her own fault, for plugging the ‘leadership’ thing when she’s clearly not much of a ‘leader’ herself. And it may also get people thinking about politics in a different, more truly ‘democratic’, way.

Back after the op.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to The Führerprinzip

  1. John Field says:

    Worthwhile analysis. I think US has been caught up in fuhrerprinzip politics (by this definition) from Washington on, with Obama being somewhat of an exception. (re surgery: under the knife 6 times myself, I remember best the exhilaration of waking up unscrambled mentally. Here’s to the same for you, Bernard.)


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