Boris Johnson’s threat to suspend Parliament to push through a no-deal Brexit is a worrying one as it seems to put two fingers up to the norms of our Constitution and to democracy. We hear that the electorate want a ‘strong man’ as leader though I have yet to meet anyone personally who says this. For me the idea of a strong man as leader makes me shudder. I think of Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Kim Jong Un and many more throughout history who have caused great harm.
Now, a wise leader would be good and in wisdom there is some strength but it is not the strength of the bully. It is the quiet strength of seeking to do what is right and what is in the benefit of the people, in this case the United Kingdom. But this focus cannot be in isolation as “No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.” [John Donne] The leader has to think beyond their own shores as everything that happens within a country impacts the world, and vice versa. And in today’s world more than ever.
But wisdom isn’t a word we hear a lot. We hear idiotic words and soundbites from our politicians that are often meaningless and get contradicted the next moment with no sense that this lack of continuity demonstrates a flakiness of purpose or intent.
The Queen is obviously as dismayed by our current band of politicians’ inability to govern as the rest of us. The expenses scandals and the favours for office leave us rather disgusted that we are being led by people in all parties who would sell themselves for a peerage or to massage their egos in some way.
So why have we ended up in this situation? One aspect that comes to my mind is that many previous ministers and politicians served in the armed forces. Of course many mistakes were made in warfare but they potentially learnt more about leadership within that military environment – the need for a vision, a strategy, to pull a team together to fight alongside one another, to protect one another in the face of onslaught.
For better or for worse there was also an educational system that raised young men for these officer roles as war was the norm in previous times. This is now an outdated concept but it could be of benefit to our country for schools to focus more on the skills of leadership, not in the model of the ‘strong man’ but in enabling young people, girls and boys, to consider what it is to analyse a threatening situation, to problem-solve, to seek multiple potential methods of approaching that situation and then galvanise people to tackle it, even if there is some danger to be faced.
Everyone loves to put this country down, including our own politicians, despite the fact that others see it as a land of opportunity and relative fairness. Have we overlooked the concept of loyalty to one’s country in the fear of right-wing nationalism? Surely there is a middle way. We can feel proud of our country and yet retain a sense of being a part of the world beyond.
There are people in every country of the world who seek a sense of belonging, who wish to be part of a community. These people might congregate around a church, synagogue, mosque or a local hub and value continuity of their cultural and social norms. There is a place for this and it does not mean that those people are necessarily racist or seek to prevent others leading their own lives. But there can be an arrogance among the Westminster political class that leads them to lecture rather than to empathise with those who enjoy tradition, berating them for being uncomfortable with change instead of valuing them for the contributions they make within a society. There is never just one ‘right way’. There are surely many ways of living this life of ours.
“Liberalism is alive and thriving” Jo Swinson stated after her election as leader of the LibDems in July this year. But how liberal is liberalism these days? We don’t want politicians who live in an echo-chamber. Don’t we want politicians who are broad thinkers and have the ability to make decisions on the basis of a range of information and sentiment?
When I worked on the biography of Harold Macmillan it was well-known that he and other MPs spent time reading. How well read are our politicians? How much knowledge of history and philosophy, or political ideas, shapes their thinking? How many take the time to go to the theatre and have their mind opened to new ways of perceiving situations? Or to classical music concerts to be moved by the beauty and disciplined creativity of an orchestra? How many consider that they are role models and have a duty to give the population a lead on art and culture beyond the inevitable supposedly-trendy must-do gig of being photographed with rappers at Glastonbury?
Whilst I am sure there are some politicians who harbour a real sense of wanting to make a difference, I fear there are other career politicians who just wish to have power and status. For what are the qualifications to become a politician? It seems that you just have to have a British Passport, be 18, have some money for your campaign and then make enough noise to get noticed. There is no question of what A levels, university degrees or professional qualifications might be required. There is no mention of ‘character’, ethics, values or purpose in the advice on ‘how to become an MP’.
Personally I don’t think anyone should become an MP unless they have spent time in other sectors beforehand. A vast majority of the companies in the UK are SMEs. Perhaps budding MPs should see how difficult it is to run a small business when politicians walk roughshod over them and give them no sense of future direction around which they can build their strategies, budgets and plans. Perhaps they should get experience of running a large department and understand the complexities that exist within the NHS, Defence, transport, technology and business before being made a Minister of an area they know little or nothing about?
And then what about professional development once in the job? What about appraisals, 360 degree feedback, some sense that the person is self-observing and learning from mistakes? What about personality profiling, communication skills, assertiveness, management and leadership skills? Whenever some beknighted MP does take the initiative to get some training, coaching or development there is a howling about it costing money. But don’t we want our politicians to be competent, professional, to hold power with conscious intent? To develop self-knowledge, critical thinking, delegation skills? Perhaps even to develop wisdom?
When will politicians realize that we see through shallowness and flakiness? When will they recognise the power and value of moral capital? Of believing in something but not being deaf to other viewpoints, being open and listening to diverse opinions but having the wisdom to stop, analyse and reflect on the direction they believe to be right and not bow to populist pressure. Then having the honesty to let us know where this is intended to take us.
No, I don’t want a strong leader. I want a competent one. I want someone wise enough to consider and reflect. Someone who knows they are fallible and is not too arrogant to ask for advice and heed it. Someone who can unite others to go with them. I certainly don’t want someone who forces their hand just to get what they want. There lies dictatorship.
Very well put Helen…how I wish we could have some wisdom and integrity in our politics!
Boris and his lot have none of either…I am hoping for a vote of ‘no confidence in this government’ and the blocking of a disasterous ‘no deal’ Brexit. One step at a time eh? Perhaps a step towards sanity.
Good to hear from you Jenny. We miss our Winchester poetry evenings.
Your last paragraph is germane. Competence should be essential and central, but in many walks of life is so often assumed. There is much emphasis on communication skills but the most dangerous surgeon is one who has a an attractive and charming “bedside manner” but who is incompetent. Give me cleverness with grumpiness any day..
Ha! yes I think that’s a good point and a point that is being made about medical training at the moment I think. Of course if one could have both competence and some charisma how good would that be… but let’s not get too idealistic!! x
So much-needed common sense and quiet thinking in your blog.
How is it possible to reconcile the need in a leader for ‘the courage to be disliked’ with our endless media appetite for half-truths, and fake news OFTEN presenting a distortion of accurate reporting?
I read with enjoyment this reasoned plea for integrity of character in our leaders.. How are we going to select the leaders we need? Great blog.