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Saturday, September 22, 2007

The abdication of leadership

In order to illustrate one of the most significant flaws in British democracy (and in most western democracies today), Matthew Parris improbably seizes upon the most sensible thing Sir Menzies Campbell said during the entire Lib Dem conference:
"Gordon wants to be like Maggie. But he doesn’t want to be like Tony. Tony also wanted to be like Maggie. But Maggie only wanted to be like Ronnie. Now Dave, he wants to be like Tony. But he doesn’t want to be like William, or Iain, or Michael. And certainly not like Maggie either.

Confused? You must be. But you can be clear on this: I don’t want to be like any of them."
No doubt the feeling is mutual.  The problem to which Parris is alluding, however, is real.  The main drawback of handing effective control of the political machine to the marketing industry - spin doctors, advertising gurus, pollsters - is that it eliminates the possibility for vision, originality and real leadership.  Instead of leading the debate, any debate, politicians are following the crowd.  This is, moreover, not a new phenomenon.  The phrase "I am their leader: I must follow them!" has been variously attributed, but it certainly pre-dates the episode of Yes, Prime Minister in which it appeared by several decades at least.  These days, however, the possibilities and capabilities of media manipulation are far greater than ever before (Parris notes how the efforts of Kate and Gerry McCann to employ these techniques in the search for their daughter appear to have backfired).

In recent years, both the Labour Party and the Conservatives have suffered from inadequate leadership due to an over-emphasis on market positioning.  Tony Blair's first term was notorious for introducing the concept of spin to British politics from America.  Together with canny use of focus groups, New Labour created a technique of governance which was based largely around finding out what the people wanted, what the government could get away with doing, and what the government could get away with pretending to do.  The result was rapidly increasing public cynicism which started to approach a political meltdown for Tony Blair as soon as the Prime Minister started to attempt real leadership on an unpopular issue - Iraq.

The Conservative Party, on the other hand, is now trying to emulate Blair's success in achieving power after a lengthy period in opposition by mimicking New Labour's techniques.  They are failing where Labour succeeded, largely because New Labour's techniques no longer impress, and because the Conservative Party's efforts to employ them are in any case unconvincing.

The missing factor is authenticity.  Leaders in a democratic society must always be accountable, but they must always be leaders.  Authentic leadership entails clear vision, clear direction and confident communication: and all of this requires clear thinking - and in political terms, a clear and coherent ideological stance.  We cannot endure leaders who do not know where they are going, but are content to be carried this way and that depending on which way the political wind is blowing on a particular day.  True leaders lead: they don't follow.