We live in the age of the machine politician. Today’s mainstream UK parties are dominated by figures who are often perceived as bland, uninteresting, driven by the need to be on-message and deliver platitudes and soundbites that will not frighten the horses.
The perception is that our political leaders went to the same universities, did the same degrees (Law or PPE) and if they had jobs outside politics these were in the predictable worlds of law or public relations.
What ‘personalities’ there are tend to live on the fringes, outside the mainstream. The question is why is this so? And could a towering figure like Churchill or Thatcher – or even Tony Blair – make it in today’s political landscape?
It is undoubtedly the case that someone prepared to take risks will fare more badly in today’s political climate than in the past. An uneasy consensus has emerged in the decades since the end of WW2, combining an acceptance of the basic tenets of liberal capitalism with a British take on welfarism.
One reason great statesmen do not emerge is the feeling that many of the great questions – universal suffrage, civil rights, the existence of a welfare state – have been ‘answered’. Rocking the boat in the 1930s or 1950s could win you plaudits; now it is more likely to have you cast into the outer darkness.
Paradoxically, as society becomes more tolerant of difference, be it sexual or racial, we are becoming simultaneously less tolerant of risk and personal foibles especially when it comes to our leaders.
Most – all – ‘great statesmen’ – were deeply flawed human beings. Churchill saved Europe from fascism, but he was a capricious depressive, prone to outrageous outbursts and a functioning alcoholic to boot. He would never get into a Cabinet today. Margaret Thatcher could be a monster and Blair was no stranger to controversy. Even the mild Clement Attlee would fail today’s tests – too posh, modest perhaps to the point of eccentricity.
Intense media scrutiny (no one wrote about Churchill’s drinking at the time) means that anyone with a colourful personal life wouldn’t last five minutes today on the public stage.
Today’s politicians, schooled in the art of consensus, are unwilling to pick fights.
Policies aside, what set Margaret Thatcher apart from almost any other modern leader was the fact that she was willing to persevere in the face of intense opposition and vitriolic personal hatred – from not only her political enemies, but her own party, her closest colleagues and, for much of her career, the public.
It is hard to imagine a mainstream politician taking that on now. The rewards are too small and the risks of failure too great.
As a society we have become wary of doing anything ‘too fast’, yet the most effective leaders realise that speed is often the key part of implementing any kind of meaningful change.
Attlee and his cabinet created the welfare state almost from scratch in a few short years; in the 1940s, 50s and 60s epic policy shifts, from nationalisation to building programmes, were rushed through at a speed that would seem ludicrous today – an era when it is accepted that the building of a 120-mile new railway is the work of 20 or 30 years.
The consensual and risk-averse nature of modern political, societal (and scientific, medical and technological) discourse has emerged as the reality of existential threat (from the Nazis or Soviet hydrogen bombs) recedes into history. It was perhaps clearer that things had to change, and fast, 60 years ago than it is today.
A recent exception that proves this rule was the Northern Ireland peace process. Taking up the mantle from the Major administration (which he fully credits), Tony Blair made it a central tenet of his first term to create a lasting settlement in the six counties.
This involved taking decisions that were off the scale when it came to the accepted consensus – not only talking to terrorists but inviting them into government, releasing dozens of murderers and torturers from prison decades early, promising immunity to known criminals.
Much of what was done in the late 1990s and early 2000s by the British government in Northern Ireland was catastrophically risky and much probably illegal.
But Blair got away with it, in part at least because ‘Northern Ireland’ never receives the same media and public scrutiny as the rest of the UK. Statesmanlike behaviour is possible, but you need to keep it quiet.
We must be wary of survivor bias. The great statesmen of the past took huge gambles – which paid off. We do not remember the ‘statesmen’ who never became such because they lost their bets.
Electing to fight Hitler rather than sue for peace was a gamble. If Churchill’s wager had failed, and a wrecked Britain had been forced to the table in 1942, we would now remember him as a fool driven by personal vanity who dragged us into an unnecessary war.
Not doing things can be risky and statesmanlike as well. Electing to keep Britain out of the Vietnam War was also a risk, threatening the wrath of the UK’s greatest ally.
If Wilson’s decision had gone badly, if the US had turned on us, how would we remember this decision now?
Great statesmen can sometimes be more trouble than they are worth.
Sometimes towering egos get in the way of the sort of measured approach needed for our most intractable problems (it is a measure of all truly great statesmen and women that they surround themselves with people of high competence that they can trust).
But sometimes problems come along that do need the mark of greatness. Climate change, global population growth, Islamism, new conflicts.
Insofar that great challenges tend to create great men and women to face them, we can probably conclude that the age of the Great Statesman is not dead.
It is merely biding its time.