The late Tony Benn used to deplore the emphasis placed on ‘personality’ in modern democratic politics, to the detriment of what he called ‘the ishoos’. (It came out like the end of a sneeze.) Of course he was right, although it has to be said that in his time – in his youth, at any rate – it was possible for a major political party to be led by a rather dull person. The greatest peacetime prime minister of the last century, Clement Attlee, had virtually no ‘personality’, as it would be defined today, at all. ‘A modest man who has much to be modest about’, was Churchill’s famous – and quite unmerited – quip about him. Churchill, of course, had ‘personality’ in spades. That was probably needed in the War, to buck people up. On the ‘ishoos’, apart from the major one of the time, he was rather unreliable, by contrast with Attlee. (Attlee also, incidentally, though he never bruited it himself, had a more distinguished military record.)
The modern emphasis on ‘personality’ – I blame ‘Big Brother’ – has given us political leaders like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg. None of them has anything else to distinguish him, like intellectual depth or good judgment. Those are qualities which it’s difficult to learn; unlike ‘personality’ which can be taken on like a suit of clothes. It’s often identified with eccentricity – easy to spot in those three examples; but is bolstered by a sense of self-confidence.
I don’t want to go on yet again about the Public schools; but they must be partly to blame in this latter respect. They are widely famous for instilling a sense of self-worth in their pupils, generally by making them feel superior to the ‘oiks’ or ‘plebs’ – every Public school has its own term for them – who are unlucky enough to go to State comprehensives. But it also gives them an exaggerated idea of their own intrinsic abilities, which is a dangerous trait in anyone. Personally, if I’m to be ruled by anyone – Prime Minister, Boss, Head of Department, wife – I’d prefer it if they were just a little unsure of themselves.
‘Personality’ is invariably tied up – often confused – with self-confidence. It doesn’t have to be. Churchill had gnawing doubts – his ‘black dog’ – and was all the better for them. Thatcher, the ‘conviction politician’ par excellence, apparently didn’t; and just look at the results. Where Corbyn stands on this scale I’m not sure. I still hope that his gentler and more genuine ‘personality’ will shine through eventually. And that he has his doubts, too.
Interesting post, Bernard. As a point of comparison, I would have liked you to reach back further to the nineteenth century when personal charisma appears to have also mattered in British politics. Disraeli’ s personality would seem to have played a role in his enduring political success. The Germans were well aware of the significance of the charm factor, long before Hitler arrived on the scene; which is exemplified by Weber’s writing on the topic. Could it be that eschewing personality was a feature of Labour politics? The Tories, and conservatives more broadly, have always had a thirst for it, perhaps.
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