Where have all the history-makers gone?
The ongoing collapse of the New Labour government confirms that the crisis of political leadership is even deeper than the economic one.
Whatever happened to the old saying ‘Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man’? Our hour of need certainly seems to have arrived – indeed we appear to have been frozen in it through these past months of capitalist crisis. Yet the Man, Woman or party who might have a clue how to lead us out of it is still notable by their absence.
In the past, historic crises have tended to throw up political leaders and movements of many different stripes determined to seize the day and try to shape the future, from Lenin and the Bolsheviks or Churchill and Roosevelt to Margaret Thatcher’s Tories or even Hitler and the Nazis. By contrast, the current economic crisis, despite being talked about in historic terms, has thrown up nothing in the way of history-making leaders.
Some of a nervous disposition may think that no bad thing, given what happened to some of those past political experiments. But the fact remains that the UK is in desperate need of political leadership to take society through the crisis and into the future – not leadership in the shape of some ‘strong man’, but a political vision of where we want to be heading and how we might try to get there.
The meltdown of the New Labour government confirms what is peculiar about the current recession: that the economic crisis is coinciding with a crisis of political leadership and authority. As Prime Minister Gordon Brown lurches from one disaster to another, several of his cabinet ministers have sought to assure the media that Brown is ‘the man for these times’. That is true only in the sense that he perfectly embodies the hole where the heart and soul of leadership should be.
It is not that Brown has been unlucky lately or suddenly undermined by the economic downturn. His coronation as New Labour prime minister after Tony Blair resigned in 2007 was itself a demonstration of the crisis of political leadership. As spiked argued all along, Brown never had the authority to be PM in the first place (see 10 reasons why Gordon Brown is not fit to be prime minister, by Brendan O’Neill). He had a record of moral and political cowardice, indecision and self-obsession that made him unfit for the job. In Downing Street, as the economic crisis has unfolded, Brown has gone out of his way to prove spiked right. Where President Roosevelt assured Americans during the Great Depression that they had nothing to fear but fear itself, Brown’s government has warned Britons that we have nothing to fear but, well, everything from swine flu to terrorism, immigrants, the anti-immigrant British National Party and much more.
Cabinet minister Hazel Blears’ complaint that the government is ‘not getting its message across’ spectacularly missed the point. What ‘message’ would that be? There is no message, beyond Brown’s robotically repetitive claim that they are ‘doing all the right things’ and the chancellor’s childishly naive claims about how the economic sun will come out tomorrow. It would make no difference whether New Labour tried to get its ‘message’ across via Brown’s risible YouTube appearances or the ridiculous Blears’ preferred option of setting up stalls in Manchester markets. It would still have nothing to say to us.
In effect it seems today that Britain has only a ghost government and a phantom prime minister, of the sort other states such as Belgium and Israel recently endured during constitutional crises. It is a remarkable sign of the crisis of leadership that Brown has achieved this collapse of authority with little assistance from opponents. Compared to previous Labour leaders, he has had it easy throughout his time as Blair’s chancellor and now as prime minister. There has been no powerful trade union movement pressurising him for concessions, no strong or coherent Labour left organising against him. All he has had to contend with in his government are little personal cliques and petty grudges.
Contrary to reports, there is no ‘battle for the soul of the Labour Party’ taking place today – Labour sold whatever soul it had long ago. Instead, many of Brown’s setbacks have been self-inflicted consequences of his own government’s lack of authority and purpose, from the 2007 election-that-wasn’t to the recent Smeargate emails scandal. He has even managed the remarkable feat, in the fiasco over settlement rights for Gurkha veterans, of making the Conservatives and the Daily Mail appear more pro-immigrant than the Labour government. Brown has often been compared to John Major’s premiership in the dying days of the last Tory regime. But if anything that does a disservice to the grey bumbling Major.
Yet the crisis of political leadership cannot be reduced to Brown’s personal problems. The response of the rest of the New Labour ‘elite’ shows how far the rot has gone. When deputy Labour leader Harriet Harman announced on television that ‘I do not want to be prime minister, I do not want to be leader of the party’, she was not speaking only for herself. That is the silent cri de coeur of every New Labour front-bencher today, none of whom has any wish to take responsibility for resolving the crisis and all of whom recognise that they would not have a clue what to do either.
These careerist political pygmies with no ambition beyond re-election (good luck with that) almost make Brown look like a big man.
The only two people who want to be prime minister today appear to be Brown and Conservative leader David Cameron. And even they want it more as an end in itself than as a means to leading the country and trying to create the Good Society. Brown was so obsessed with replacing Blair in the big chair for a decade that he overlooked the small matter of needing to stand for something once he got there. As a consequence he has been overwhelmed by events, but will hang on as his government heads for electoral disaster. It could not happen to a more deserving person.
As for Cameron, he may be way ahead in the polls due to the depth of public bitterness about New Labour’s failures. But by what standards could he be said to be offering leadership and vision? This week, on the thirtieth anniversary of Margaret Thatcher’s election as prime minister, some have pointed out that nobody knew what she was going to do back then either, and that Cameron could turn out to be another Maggie. That is fantasy politics. It is true that Thatcher did not have a detailed programme when elected and that ‘Thatcherite’ policies such as the privatisation of state assets developed later almost by accident. But Thatcher did have a clear political viewpoint to pursue, and a war to fight against the trade unions. By contrast Cameron, the former PR guru, is a vacant advertising hoarding in search of a snappy slogan. What vision of the future does he offer? His vision of ‘glorious change’ appears to be much like the present, only with more ‘austerity’.
We are left with a choice between a government in denial about the true state of affairs, and an opposition that seems to think depression is a healthy alternative. Both lack any coherent ambition for progress beyond hanging on to as much of the paper economy of the past decade as possible. Neither is engaged with the big questions to do with where we are heading, what sort of new economy we need to build or how to encourage bold investment in the future. Neither is prepared to face up to the scale of real change that is required in a world where we simply cannot go on in the old ways.
Great leaders have been forged in momentous circumstances, seeing crises as opportunities to rise to the challenge of history. We are surrounded by evidence of an historic crisis of capitalism today, but there is no sign as yet of the leadership required to make history.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
Previously on spiked
Mick Hume argued that New Labour’s tax-rise stunt did not mark a return to old Labour policies. He also argued that parliamentary politics has become a battle of courtly cliques. Elsewhere he looked at the fall of Gordon Brown and argued that, despite claims of a Labour revival, you can’t revive a corpse. Rob Lyons said New Labour was not dead yet. Josie Appleton asked why New Labour stand for nothing. And to mark the beginning of Gordon Brown’s reign, Brendan O’Neill listed 10 reasons why Brown is not fit to be Prime Minister. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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