Beware the cult of leadership

by Stephen Tall on May 29, 2006

Our three major political parties have each had their own big media stories in the last few days.

For Labour, John Prescott has, once again, become the easy butt of easy jokes, having been paparazzied playing croquet last Thursday afternoon. For the Tories, David Cameron has garnered a good few column inches for his list of favourite tracks on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. And, for the Lib Dems, Ming Campbell’s speech setting out the party’s law and order principles and policies has attracted some attention in the more serious-minded press. Each has something to say to us about how we view political leadership in this country.

Let’s take Prezza first. I hold no brief for Mr Prescott – I find his ‘attack dog’ brand of partisan politics deeply unattractive, while his efforts as a cabinet minister have been woefully inadequate.

But there is an undoubtedly snobbish delight with which his latest sporting antics have been reported… not simply that he was wrong to be playing croquet in the afternoon – I imagine if war had broken out, an official would somehow have alerted him – but that it was wrong for a chippy, northern, working-class lad even to have dared to don a mallet. Mr Prescott would have been well-advised to pray in aid that Great Briton, Sir Francis Drake, a fellow sea-farer, whose finest hour combined lawn sports and defending his nation.

The furore is odd for two reasons. First, the myth that politicians must be at work 24x7x365 if we are to be successful governed is surely one that – after nine years of a bossy ‘nanny-state knows best’ Labour Government – can now be safely laid to rest? This country does not currently suffer from being under-governed; rather the opposite. We should cut our MPs a little slack if it means they interfere a little less.

Secondly, there has been some talk recently of a concept touted as ‘general well-being’ – a recognition that there is more to life than money (which is doubtless true for those, like Mr Cameron, with enough money not to worry about it). Well, a work-life balance is not just for Christmas; Mr Prescott is simply proving it applies to long Bank Holiday week-ends too, and fair enough. I shall look forward to the Mail on Sunday splashing future front pages with ‘Deputy PM still working at 11pm’ – as he no doubt sometimes does – to redress the balance.

Which brings me to the leader of the Conservative Party (or Opus Dave, as some satirical websites have re-christened it), Young Mr Cameron. I contrived to miss his encounter with Sue Lawley yesterday, but thanks to wall-to-wall plugging I think I can now recite his top eight tunes. A friend texted me yesterday, clearly a little freaked: “You know you’re getting old when… the leader of the Tory Party chooses lots of records you know & like on Desert Island Discs… Brrr!” Which sort of sums it up for me.

And, finally, to Sir Menzies. His speech last Friday – ‘Crime is a liberal issue’ – got the least coverage of the three exempla of leadership covered here. This might simply be because the Liberal Democrats are the third party; though I suspect it has more to with the media viewing public policy as simply too tedious to mention.

Perhaps the most unkind reception to Ming’s speech was from those self-styled bastions of centre-left liberalism, theguardian and The Independent. The former remarked that it “spluttered on to the news on the back of a promise to cut parole for serious criminals and some cod-rightwingery about denying sex offenders the vote” – as if the marks of true liberalism are that serious criminals should be let out early regardless of their likelihood to re-offend, or that rapists denied the freedom of movement and association by society have an inalienable right to a postal vote.

Both newspapers missed the point: Ming wants to make the Party credible, a real contender for national office. His speech was a serious attempt to forge a liberal consensus, one that will attract mainstream support, and be the foundation for a justice system which commands respect among the public.

The Grauniad and Indy would, it seems, much prefer the Lib Dems to stay an über-liberal pressure-group, one on the fringes of power: pure, untainted – and impotent. Such single-issue groups are, as The Economist recently noted, “about protest, emotion and the pleasures of self-righteous solidarity. As an activity, it is far removed from the compromises and negotiations that are the stuff of full-blown politics.” In other words, get real.

At one level, nothing links these three glimpses into leadership. The first is an amusing bit of knockabout teasing; the second, a piece of frothy, human interest entertainment; the last illustrates the high-wire act of retaining your principles while seeking to advance them by attaining power.

In another sense, each is cut from the same cloth. What both intrigues and disturbs me is how, increasingly, we view politics through the prism of our politicians’ personalities. This cult of leadership, a benign form of Führerprinzip, suffuses both how public life is reported, and how we, the public, look at it.

For years, John Prescott was running his Office of the Deputy Prime Minister with little regard for local democracy or environmental sustainability. Yet what has finished his career, even if he continues to cling to office awhile, is an affair with his secretary (which is no concern of ours).

No wonder Mr Cameron will have spent more time focus-grouping his list of Desert Island Discs than coming up with anything resembling a policy – he could guess which would get more column inches, so Benny Hill wins every time.

And Ming Campbell’s endeavours to focus on what a liberal British justice system might look like was portrayed as a ‘re-launch’ or an attempt to ‘lurch right’ – or whatever other tired cliché enabled political hacks to focus on his standing as leader, rather than examine what he said.

The Führerprinzip achieved infamy, of course, when invoked by Adolf Eichmann in his Nuremberg Trial: he sought to evade all responsibility for his actions, claiming he had merely been doing his job.

It has always been a coward’s defence. Politics is an act of collective will, not something we can pin on a willing fall guy. By focusing all our attention on a leader – one person, an individual – we merely seek to distance ourselves from the actions taken in our names. The cult of leadership has become an invisibility cloak of deniability: we put it on when it suits us to pretend we’re not there. And when we invest too much capital in this cult we reveal the bankruptcy of our own self-confidence.