The rise and pratfall of the British political leader

Say what you will about her, but it must be allowed that, at the time of her elevation to the office of British Prime Minister, Theresa May at least looked like a politician. Depending on your prejudices, that may not be much of a compliment. But I suspect it’s the closest thing to flattery she is likely to get – at least until after she has departed the scene and the hagiographers descend upon her reputation like vulture morticians bearing buckets of theatrical makeup.

Nobody can sensibly claim that Boris Johnson looks anything like a senior politician. Or perhaps he too closely resembles what we have come to expect of British politicians. The fact that Boris Johnson can be seriously considered for the role of head of any government not created using stop-motion animation says much about the parlous condition of British politics and the British state. But it also says something about the prevailing cultural idea of what constitutes, or qualifies as, a political leader.

I am not entirely innocent of the tendency to look at the past through rose-tinted non-prescription lenses. But it seems to me that British Prime Ministers used to have a certain presence. The earliest ones I can remember – Sir Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Sir Alec Douglas-Home – gave the impression of belonging where they were. They wore their status lightly. They seemed cast from an ancient mould.

Looking back, it seems that cracks in that mould started to become evident with the appointment of Harold Wilson. Leaving aside the politics and the paranoia, Wilson was different on account of the props. It may be argued that a plummy accent and patrician air are props every bit as much as a Gannex coat and a pipe. But the former are props for radio and town hall hustings and village fete openings. The latter are the highly visual props of the television age. Wilson marked the beginning of major shift in the public perception of political leaders. This was the start of a process which, hopefully, has reached its nadir with Boris Johnson.

There was a brief harking back to the old idea of what a ‘proper’ British Prime Minister looks like with Edward Heath and, to an extent, James Callaghan. Almost as if the public had a premonition of where this was leading and tried to change course. But that ancient mould was finally and irrevocably smashed by Margaret Thatcher.

Where Wilson’s image was all personal gimmick, Thatcher was a fully-fledged compromise between the ‘men in grey suits’ and a rising breed of political technocrats who brought the techniques of the marketing industry to the realm of politics and wedded the two so completely that they would become indistinguishable and inseparable.

In Thatcher we saw the birth of the political leader as a tabula rasa – a blank sheet on which could be written whatever the immediate expediencies and exigencies of power required. When the sheet became too worn for further palimpsests, Thatcher was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by John Major – a sheet very much more blank than was required. A sheet so blank that no matter what was written on it the blankness prevailed. Major didn’t match up to the old idea of what a political leader should be. And he didn’t provide enough material for the image-makers to work with.

Tony Blair had that material. With sequins! Wilson’s mass media image was makeshift. Thatcher’s famously required a massive makeover that transformed everything from her hair and her clothes to her posture and even her voice. Blair came fully-formed – the first British Prime Minister seemingly born to fit the technocrats’ artfully crafted public perception of a fitting political leader. If Thatcher was a blank sheet, Blair came in pastel colours, scented and with a daily inspirational message printed along the bottom.

As it turned out, Blair was all charisma and no character. All platitude and no principle. All practised sincerity and no personal or political substance. A slick suit, a warm handshake and a smile whose reptilian character was only clearly visible to those who looked at him askance to avoid being dazzled by his radiated magnificence.

He’s the straight-talking guy in shirtsleeves rolled up in a way that suggests the attentions of an assistant with a measuring tape and the coffee-mug that was acquired three weeks ago for this impromptu moment and the throw-away lines distilled by a team of PR professionals from the excretions of a thousand focus groups and the air of a man on a mission, but don’t let any of his self-righteousness get on your clothes or you’ll never be rid of the stain or the stink.

It’s all a thin wash of watery paint on the surface of a flimsy vessel into which is poured whatever kind of political gruel is deemed likely to be lapped up by the media whilst being bland enough to avoid giving offence to the few thousand voters who actually decide elections.

That is what passes for the qualities of leadership among the British political elite. Talent and ability are regarded as dangerous. Principles and a social conscience are anathema. Because power and status are relative, everyone who is – or imagines themselves to be or aspires to be – a member of that elite is motivated to suppress any talent or ability which might prove a threat to whatever power and status they regard as theirs.

It is a system which rewards conformity and promotes mediocrity while tolerating ineptitude. A system which puts inordinate value on harmless novelty and transient celebrity. A system that produces as candidates for political leadership people who run the gamut from dull and doltish through inept and inadequate and damaged and deficient to deluded and dangerous.

Viewed from this perspective, Boris Johnson may be the very model of a modern British Prime Minister. No more erudite orators or bold reformers or impressive statesmen or adroit political operators. Just a mop-headed clown grinning and guffawing as his scrotum gets caught in the spokes of his bicycle wheel. What larks!


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