For a party and a tendency in British politics that rates ‘leadership’ so highly – Rees-Mogg’s awful book The Victorians is full of it: leaders are his ‘Titans’, who made Britain ‘great’ – isn’t it remarkable that the Tories are so inept at choosing leaders of their own?
In the 20th and 21st centuries, that is. Before then they didn’t do so badly, with Peel, Disraeli and the Marquis of Salisbury (the 3rd of that title) probably the best of them. But then came Arthur Balfour, Bonar Law, Austen Chamberlain, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain, Anthony Eden, Ian Duncan-Smith, Alec Douglas-Home, William Hague, Michael Howard, John Major, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and the two current claimants for the role; neither of the last two of whom looks like a convincing ‘leader’ by most criteria, although we may of course be proved wrong in time. The only omissions from that list are Harold Macmillan, who at least looked the part and took his country ‘down’ gently; Edward Heath, who had a vision and managed to achieve it – but is scarcely appreciated for it now by most Conservatives; and Winston Churchill, whom the Tories claim for their own but was never their favourite originally, being elevated mainly by Opposition MPs who wanted someone who, despite his many failings, was more firmly anti-Nazi than many other Conservatives to lead them in the War.
And then of course there was Margaret Thatcher; who could be said to have introduced the Führerprinzip into a political society which had never much taken to it in the past, especially of course during Hitler’s war, but which was now beginning to forget those wartime associations. In Thatcher’s case (not Churchill’s) ‘leadership’ became identified with strong, uncompromising government – ‘I stand for leadership, not followership’, ‘the lady’s not for turning’, and so on – as though ‘resolution’ and single-mindedness were the only qualities required in a leader, whatever his or her policies were. And just look at the disastrous outcomes – right now – of that.
Labour I suppose haven’t done much better, although I still rate Attlee and Wilson as the most effective peacetime political leaders of the past century. But that’s because we’re talking about different things here. ‘Leadership’ was not a crucial part of Labour’s political philosophy. Indeed, Wilson bridled at Conservative accusations that he wasn’t enough of a ‘leader’ in the Führer sense. Both Attlee and Wilson were consensual leaders – ‘followers’ also, therefore – who took ‘the people’ where most of them wanted to go. That can’t be said of Truss and Sunak, who aspire to be leaders more in the Thatcher mould, petty and prejudiced, representing minority and indeed ‘extreme’ opinions and interests, with Thatcher’s social, cultural and economic prejudices driving them, her propaganda techniques honed to a new perfection, and riding on a powerful undertow of history which has often been referred to in this blog. How successful or even convincing either of them will turn out to be as ‘Thatchers pour nos jours’ remains to be seen. Neither presently seems to have the ‘character’ for it. And ‘character’ counts, more than policies or competence, or even basic honesty, if you want to win the support of the Tory party, and so come out on top. In Labour’s case it may be different. Attlee after all wasn’t much of a ‘character’ in the Tories’ sense, and Wilson’s efforts to build a ‘character’ – the pipe, for example, when actually he preferred cigarettes – most people saw through at the time.
Johnson, however, exemplified ‘character’ in spades; at least in the sense of ‘Ah, but he’s a character, isn’t he?!’ Indeed, he had barely anything more to recommend him: no vision (except for himself), no thought-through policies, no significant governmental experience, no gravitas, no judgement, no morals (notoriously), and no interest in or empathy for others. Which served him well so long as he offered electoral success to the Tory party, and ‘human interest’ stories to the appalling tabloid press; but that could only last for a while – three years in all. By all other tests of ‘leadership’ he failed abysmally: in uniting his fissiparous party, as Wilson had succeeded in doing; dealing with the major crises of his time (except symbolically, with regard to Ukraine); even in maintaining order in his own official residence, which is probably what ‘did for him’ in the end. And his likely successor – chosen from among those nondescripts whom he chose to serve in his cabinets, and the likeliest of whom is campaigning as the ‘continuity Boris’ candidate, and is as facile if not so funny as him (see my last post) – is unlikely to help.
What would help, of course, is an entirely new left-of-centre government. We can now see clearly that Jeremy Corbyn, for example, was right about almost everything, and that a Labour government continuing his policies would have avoided most of the appalling mistakes that Johnson’s, May’s and Cameron’s governments have made. It might even have gone further – if allowed to by the aforesaid appalling tabloid press – and reformed Britain’s whole governmental and economic systems, unpicking the Thatcher counter-revolution, and so restoring Britain’s proud post-war tradition of social democracy, in order to ensure that nothing like our recent absurdities could happen again. What prevented that in the last few years, of course, was the fact that Corbyn was not seen as a ‘leader’ in the mould that Thatcher had established twenty years before, even by his supporters – like me – whose support was conditional on his restoring Labour to its socialist past, and then passing the baton on to someone whom the Press would find more difficult to rubbish as an old bearded allotment-digging Lefty whom no-one would respect. Unfortunately it turned out that a very large number of – mainly – young people did respect him, boosting party membership by tens of thousands; which made it difficult to replace him in time for the crucial general election that his enemies in the Press (and in his own Party), homing in on the whole ‘leadership’ thing, would ensure he lost. And so we find ourselves (in Britain) where we are today.
This could be seen as another posthumous legacy of Thatcher’s Führerprinzip: both the failure of Labour to furnish a convincing alternative, and of the Conservatives to provide a competent successor to their old Führerin. Let’s hope that neither party – or of course the Lib-Dems – finds a way to solve this problem. We don’t want another Oswald Mosley – Conservative or Labour; he of course was both before he became a Fascist – strutting around the British political scene.
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The decline of consensus and the commodification of politics as a branch of show business and commerce has seen the emergence of ‘leading’ men and women as political ‘stars’ of the vested interests to whom they owe so much.The elctorate is duped, lied to, and treated with contempt. while public opinion must be ‘managed’ at all times. We saw this reach its apogee in Trump where his own personal business and egotistical interests were conflated with those of America. So for ‘Make America Great Again’ read ‘Make Trump Great (Again?)’
We can now see clearly that Jeremy Corbyn, for example, was right about almost everything …
His policy of strategic ambiguity on Brexit was a massive error.
No, I think not. ‘Out of the political union, remain in the Common market’. That was too compromising for my taste, and was perhaps too subtle for the Tabloid press, but hardly ambiguous.
The question on the referendum ballot paper was “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union? The responses were: 1) Remain a member of the European Union or 2) Leave the European Union.
There was no option of voting: 3) ‘Out of the political union, remain in the Common market’.
In the context of what voters were actually faced with, the policy formulation you have quoted was deeply ambiguous. In his referendum speeches, Corbyn conjoined support of the EU with detailed criticisms and spoke out against doomsday predictions if Leave were to prevail. He rebuked George Osborne when he warned about a Brexit-caused recession. Corbyn was playing both sides. When unequivocal and active support of EU membership was required, Corbyn’s strategy has turned out to be an error of historic proportions.