The Myth of the Strong Leader

Francis Beckett  enjoys a timely take on the often difficult relationship between leaders and their political parties

Political-Leadership125-9394b22

Reviewed by: Francis Beckett
Author: Archie Brown
Publisher: The Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £25

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I won three general elections,” Tony Blair wrote in his memoirs. This claim leads Archie Brown to ask a dry but deadly question: “How justified is Blair in using the first-person singular when he refers to the Labour party’s victories in the British general elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005?” His answer is: “Not at all.” Blair did not win these elections; the Labour party won them, and its leader therefore became prime minister. Brown shows that, if someone else had led the party, none of the results would have been much different.

This is, I suspect, not an answer that would appeal to Blair, who arguably never had a very high opinion of the Labour party even when he was its leader, and has an even lower one now. Indeed, he went as far as to suggest that he had worked to circumvent the Labour party. As he put it: “What I had done was construct an alliance between myself and the public.” Following his departure as party leader, he also wrote in what could be regarded as a contemptuous way about his party members – the people to whom he owed his position: “The party people, exiled for years in the Siberia of party drudgery far from the centre of government, suddenly re-emerge in the halls of the Kremlin with renewed self-importance.

Compare this, says Archie Brown (whose contempt for Blair is bottomless), with Labour’s most successful PM, the uncharismatic Clement Attlee, who once wrote to Harold Laski, one of his severest critics: “As you have so well pointed out, I have neither the personality nor the distinction to tempt me to think that I should have any value apart from the party which I serve.

Brown, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Oxford, questions the macho chest-beating that goes on among democratic politicians. “Weak!” David Cameron shouts at Ed Miliband as he watches him consult colleagues before taking a decision. “Weak!” retorts Miliband as he watches Cameron shrink from policies that his coalition partners will not approve. “I lead my party – he follows his,” Blair sneered at John Major.

But, asks Brown, should a democratic leader be ashamed of listening to colleagues? Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin boasted of being president of the whole people, not shackled by party membership, and by doing so have stunted the development of democracy in post-Soviet Russia. The leader who is ‘above party’ will seldom enhance democratic government, and leaders who surround themselves with yes-men are seldom good decision-makers.

At one level, Brown’s conclusion is so obvious it scarcely needs to be stated. Hitler and Stalin had contempt for democratic party politics, providing an excellent reason for treasuring it. In the midst of a long book, Brown rather loses his way in providing potted descriptions of a wide range of leaders, from German statesman Willy Brandt to North Korean ruler Kim Il Sung. But his strength is in describing, with dispassionate clarity and plenty of evidence, the sort of leadership that works – and does not – in a parliamentary democracy. As he argues: “Leaders who believe they have a personal right to dominate decision-making… do a disservice to both good governance and democracy.”

At a time when democratic politicians are more unpopular than they ever have been in my lifetime, and respectable newspapers are speculating how much better off we might be without them, it is worth being reminded that all of the alternatives are far, far worse.

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Francis Beckett is the author of What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us? (Biteback, 2010)