Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Blog 28 - Follow the Leader

The passing of the great Nelson Mandela has been met with various tributes this week, from the humbling and affectionate words of his friends and family, to the expected soundbites of the various world leaders. Watching these, and remembering the huge impression his book "The Long Walk to Freedom" made to me as an idealistic teenager, the thing which struck me most was that this was a man who had achieved so much, locally, nationally and globally, and yet he was not a man with a thirst for power. Power had found it's way to him. His first forays into politics with the ANC were not because he wanted to get into politics for politics sake. He found the subject of politics boring as a young man and he was happier being Jack-The-Lad and chasing women. Apartheid however, was something that needed to be fought, and Mandela, a strong, intelligent, educated man, knew that he was needed. Quickly, he became the figurehead of the party and the struggle. In prison, on Robben Island, this continued, and any peaceful protests against the guard's treatment of prisoners were led by Mandela, his behaviour mirrored by the others. The guards quickly came to the conclusion that to achieve an end with the prisoners you had to talk to Mandela. Upon gaining his freedom, already an old man, he took upon the mantle of leading the ANC in South Africa's first free elections, not because he was keen to be involved in affairs of state, but because he felt it was the right thing to do for the country and to bring a peaceful end to apartheid. He left the position after only one term, with his task achieved, to concentrate on his family and charity work, using his iconic status to highlight global issues such as poverty and aids. At each step he had power placed in his hands rather than him feeling the need to reach for it.

If we contrast the leadership of Mandela with modern politicians, the differences could not be more acute. The recent entertaining shennanigans of Russell Brand on Newsnight highlighted, in his charming loquacious urchin manner, the reality of political opinion for a generation of voters. We have no genuine leaders. We have a succession of people who are essentially from the same stock, who wear the same suit, reading similar words by similarly educated speechwriters, and who will tell us anything, truth or fiction, to gain a vote on election day, and then happily ignore every promise they've made once elected. These are people for whom gaining power is the objective. The destination and not the journey. Find a bloke who looks good on tv, looks potentially charismatic but will happily say what he's told by the spin doctors instead of, god forbid, his own thoughts, slap him in the right colour tie and he can lead the nation. Doesn't matter if he's clever, or intelligent, or has any social or morale compass. As long as he says what he's told, does very little so he can't make a visible mistake and lose votes, he's golden.

In this country, Gordon Brown was a very successful Chancellor and by all accounts a hugely intelligent and capable public servant, but his Gollumesque desire for the "Precious" ring of Prime Minister has made him a by word for political incompetency. At a time when we experienced the first televised pre-election political debates, Brown could not have performed any less favourably. Whilst Cameron robotically punched out his message, and Clegg twinkled his underdogs smile, Brown clumsily lurched through his scripted answers with all the charm and wit of a flatulent corpse. He committed gaffe upon gaffe in the run up to the election and unsurprisingly was well beaten. The depth of his fall from grace really hit home to me recently when he was asked to give a speech on the economy at a Labour Event in Scotland and it had to be cancelled because not one single ticket had been requested by the public. A recent Chancellor and Prime Minister and nobody wanted to hear him speak. 

In any intelligent organisation, this man would still be playing a key role. Not public facing obviously, but behind the scenes, using his knowledge and experience to help the economy. Whatever your views on the Labour government, or his role as Chancellor or PM, it can't be argued that there are few people if any, in this country, who are more qualified to help plan a way out of the recession. Similarly, there are previous Tory Chancellors who could equally prove useful in this regard. But due to the political system, we are obliged to play a 5 yearly game of musical chairs and if you're wearing the wrong colour tie at the wrong time, you're not allowed to help the country, you have to sit on the other side of the room and criticise those that are trying to fix the problem whilst they're doing it, until it's your turn to have a go again. Good people whose abilities are lost to the country because of an outmoded political system. Brown's consuming need for the top job, cost him a reputation for considered and competent decision making as Chancellor which he actually deserved. 

The United States is no better. George W Bush was staggeringly ill-fitting as the leader of the free world, ticking virtually no boxes as a leader. A unifier of the nation? Charismatic? Intelligent? He had a name that Republicans knew, but he had no ideas of his own and no concept of conducting himself as a competent international statesman. Yet he was elected twice. Sort of. Whilst his opponent Al Gore, a politician who has really grasped and embraced key global challenges such as the environment and the economy, was shuffled off the political landscape for the sake of a handful of questionable votes. How much more could have been achieved if he'd have been given a key position in the government aimed at tackling global warming?

To succeed as a political leader over the past 25 years or so you needed to be seen as a "Safe pair of hands" for the party to elect you. After a series of bland men, promising much and delivering little, the public are tired of the game and crying out for someone to lead. The most obvious figure in this regard in Britain is Boris Johnson. Styling himself almost as a British Bush, his cartoonesque buffonery has created a media personality that the British people recognise immediately, which is unusual for a nation that increasingly hits the mute button when politicians mumble things they don't mean at us. He also chooses deliberately not to appeal to everyone. His right wing opinions, his unadulterated adulation of all things Margaret Thatcher, his unabashed love of greed, would usually be the kind of ideology that a politician would avoid at all costs. But it works for him. People love that he stands for something, no matter whether they agree or not. You know what you'll get with Boris. Obviously by voting for him you'd be handing a Clouseau-esque pantomime villain the keys to the nuclear button and effectively the survival of all mankind, but hey, politics would no longer be boring. The power of warts and all honesty is seductive in election times. Of course, cynic that I am, I don't believe for a second that Johnson's entire image hasn't been carefully planned by a Tory think tank and sold to the nation piece by piece since the day he came to prominence on "Have I Got News For You" bumbling about "falling into a massive elephant trap" as Ian Hislop publically disembowelled him. Whilst he may not have made a particularly good impression that night, the fact was he made an impression. And if the viewers noticed you can bet the spin doctors noticed as well. But as much as I can see the seductive voter appeal of Johnson, equally, whilst he may represent boldness and a committed stance as a leader of the country, he's just another actor playing the part of a real leader. If he were elected, who genuinely believes he would make any decisions himself? He's not going to be the brains of the organisation, just the face and the mouthpiece. He's the Tony the Tiger on the Tories Frosties box. And the people making the real decisions behind the scenes will be the same Eton clique running Cameron and Osbourne now. The people we don't see and don't know we're electing to the real positions of power. 

I recently read a biography of Abraham Lincoln, and one of the key reasons for his success as a President, and the remarkable amount of change he was able to achieve whilst also fighting a civil war, was that when he took office as President, he appointed those who were his fiercest rivals within the party, to the key jobs in government. Those whom he fought for the parties nomination became his closest advisors. There were even some Democrats appointed to key positions at the expense of Republicans because they were better qualified. He wanted the best, not just those that agreed with him on every point. But he led himself. He would, on occasion, veto entire amendment suggestions raised within cabinet by himself if he felt them wrong. Equally he was capable of great concessions on points that mattered personally to him if he felt that others reasoning was stronger than his own. The success of the nation was the only consideration in his mind. I need not labour the comparisons to Mandela in this regard. 

Lincoln and Mandela understood the need to work with people and not against them. They are true leaders, worthy of following. I doubt I will see any leaders of such integrity and gravitas again in my lifetime. But these are the men we must seek to fix our ailing civilisation. Not just someone who looks good in a suit and spins promises they can't and won't keep. Attracting men of such character to a dishevelled political system hellbent on power for power's sake will be the problem we must solve.

No comments:

Post a Comment