A lack of leadership?


In his book, Great Contemporaries, Churchill wrote that the nineteenth century political world was full of big figures at a time when the problems were small; the contrast was designed to be drawn with the time he was writing – the 1930s, when, as he saw it, the opposite was true. One of his favourite comments was that men ‘fell below the level of events’ – it was a damning phrase, and one which comes much to mind at the moment. In the eyes of posterity, Churchill came to epitomise the maxim ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man’. It is easy to forget the situation he occupied by the late 1930s. In his seventh decade and out of office since 1929, Churchill was a pariah in his own party, and an object of deep distrust to the Left, who saw him as a potential British Mussolini. It was said that his judgment was bad, his impulsiveness dangerous, and that he was, in the words of one commentator ‘a busted flush’.

His analysis of Hitler was not underpinned by any real critique of Nazism, which he failed to understand; what he did see was that Hitler was another Napoleon type, and needed to be stopped. The wiser figures, like Chamberlain, much respected for their sound judgment and lack of impulsiveness, thought this unlikely. It was, of course, and it wasn’t the first time Churchill had used highly-coloured language; his version of Gandhi is unrecognisable to posterity. One can say that sky is falling in so often than no one believes you; but in 1938/39 Churchill happened to be right. What all the wiseacres thought was wrong; what the impulsive man with the dubious career behind him said was right. It took nothing less than the crisis of 1939 to bring Churchill back to office, and the sky falling in in 1940 to propel him to the premiership. One can see why most politicians pursued a more ‘nuanced’ line; but then by the late 1930s Churchill had nothing to lose – he could afford to go for broke.

But there was something else at work too – a knowledge of history. Churchill was a self-taught man, and he read much history. He read it with, to use a modern terms, a particular narrative. His history was Whig history. He was, himself, an Anglo-American, and he saw the story of the ‘English-Speaking Peoples’ as one of broadening freedom; he passionately believed in freedom. One reason he could say what he said in 1940 was he believed it. More sophisticated historians in 1940 might have taken another view about the chances of victory, but Churchill did that thing historians tell their students not to do, he adjusted the facts to fit his theory. That theory was that history was moving in the direction of freedom, therefore Hitler was bound to lose.

This was, to be sure, an odd theory in the face of the facts of the time. The democratic tide seemed to be ebbing: France, Belgium, Luxemburg, the Netherlands and the Scandinavia nations were, to be sure, democracies, but east of the Rhine and south of the Kiel Canal, there were precious few such; the extinction of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 meant the loss of the sole democratic nation east of the Elbe. Nazi German and Soviet Russia were the antithesis of democracy, and even in the USA there were those calling for a more ‘efficient’ way of Government.

Churchill stuck to his vision and prevailed. He knew nothing about focus groups, and only poll he cared about was on election day; and he had a hinterland. We can’t expect a Churchill every time we have a crisis, but I am not sure that focus groups and ‘nuance’ are appealing to leaders. We get, perhaps, what we deserve.


10 thoughts on “A lack of leadership?

  1. I think the most common human response in this world is to close one’s eyes to reality and construct a positive outlook to very pessimistic circumstances. It is a survival technique and one that helps one remain sane when insanity abounds. It is not unlike a child that closes his eyes, sticks his fingers in his ears and starts loudly mumbling a chorus of la, la, la la. What it takes is a crisis that can no longer be ignored; more 9/11’s, a dirty bomb in their own backyard and an awakening that things are not going to turn out like they dreamed during their most idealistic musings. At such moments, we turn to natural born leaders, who give hope that a restoration to ‘normalcy’ is possible. Only then will folk join together and back the strong in order to deal with an enemy that is projecting strength. Will we do so again? I think so but I’m not sure enough people have awakened from their make believe worlds yet or had their first cup of coffee to shake the cobwebs from their brain. Once they do, maybe some of these dreamers will come to their senses and confront the problems of this world. Until then, we will have divisions along political and social lines that do nothing but divert our eyes from the task at hand.


  2. Well I don’t bloody deserve Cameron or Clegg, or that pigmy milliband for that matter. a pox on all their houses. As for Obama, well the US did vote him a second term, what can you say, at least his golf is improving by all accounts.


  3. Englands leadership is doing just fine.

    Its coming to light that Isis is top heavy with british subjects. England is producing the Isis monsters. Cheerio..pip pip. Carry on.


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