The X Factor?

Emma Lough 1 February 2008

Emma Lough

I’m not asking Britain’s politicians to set parliament alight with renditions of “hit me baby one more time” (though it would no doubt boost viewing figures for BBC Parliament) but a little animation from the faces of British politics shouldn’t be a lot to ask.

Charisma is a much misunderstood concept – sociologist Peter Worsley was probably not far off in condemning the term as a “soggy sponge concept” – but it is nonetheless crucial to leadership success. Yet without getting lost in academic debate, it is clear the grey landscape of British politics has been sapped of the spirit and vigor it once had. Churchill was undoubtedly a figure of his time, and perhaps better suited to retrospective admiration than a model for the likes of Brown and Cameron. Yet the fact he is even spoken of in the same breath as Cameron and Brown – and the immediately stark disparities – should make us shudder with embarrassment at the state of the current state of affairs. (And we wonder why we’re battling a growing problem of apathy?)

Across the pond, where the US primaries are galvanizing Americans and drawing the global media, the presidential race is unfolding as a clash of personalities. The reason the Republican contest is still a four-horse race, no candidate consistently able to secure more than a quarter of the popular vote, is that while each are able to appeal to a specific locality in Republican support, none are winning the hearts of the nation. In the Democrat camp, by contrast, policies are taking a backseat. “Experience” and “change” are terms banded round a lot, but we all know it’s a case of Team Clinton vs Team Obama. The difference in America is that the candidates are clearly aware of the need for personal appeal.

The problem we have in Britain is that the traditional practice of cabinet government has been gradually superseded by a pseudo-presidential system. So in an age of increasingly leader-centered politics, we find ourselves led by Brown, a man without the magnetism or rhetoric to animate his government.

While it is not important for voters necessarily to like their leaders, they must at least feel they can engage with them – and hence (if all goes to plan) their policies. So while charisma is an intrinsic quality someone either has or lacks, a little humanity and animation are not too much for an apathetic nation to ask. To make an emotional appeal to voters, it is essential to show some kind of emotion (forgive me for stating the obvious, but Brown seems to have missed the point). Being chancellor was clearly a very serious job, but now he’s in the top job, a different approach is needed; he needs to come across as a man of the people.

But while Brown continues to impersonate a gorilla with a hang over, Cameron is in stark danger of being seen by voters as too slick. While Blair was verging on authoritarian, Brown lacks authority, and Cameron sets this off helpfully by lacking credibility. Inevitably it’s a fine line, and I would hardly espouse the cult of personality that drove supporters of Hitler and Mussolini, nor even push the British public to the point where they only see a party through the lense of its leader. But it would be a breath of fresh air in British politics to actually have some leaders, or at least leaders with the confidence to offer more than an expertise in spin.

Especially in the aftermath of Iraq, and amidst unprecedented levels of scaremongering sparked by 9/11, the paranoia and anxiety of the British public needs to be off set by a charismatic central figure – or at least someone with the capacity for basic communication. The question of policy is an entirely separate debate. With “New” Labour and “New” Conservatism heading for collision (or, worse, mutual acceptance) the notion of a political spectrum in Great Britain holds less water than it once did. But while the policies may be empty, and the likelihood is we won’t trust what they say, we want to hear it said well, don’t we? If we’re voting on personality, let’s see some.

Emma Lough is a 1st year historian.

‘ m not asking Britain’s politicians to set parliament alight with renditions of “hit me baby one more time” (though it would no doubt boost viewing figures for BBC Parliament) but a little animation from the faces of British politics shouldn’t be a lot to ask.

Charisma is a much misunderstood concept – sociologist Peter Worsley was probably not far off in condemning the term as a “soggy sponge concept” – but it is nonetheless crucial to leadership success. Yet without getting lost in academic debate, it is clear the grey landscape of British politics has been sapped of the spirit and vigor it once had. Churchill was undoubtedly a figure of his time, and perhaps better suited to retrospective admiration than a model for the likes of Brown and Cameron. Yet the fact he is even spoken of in the same breath as Cameron and Brown – and the immediately stark disparities – should make us shudder with embarrassment at the state of the current state of affairs. (And we wonder why we’re battling a growing problem of apathy?)

Across the pond, where the US primaries are galvanizing Americans and drawing the global media, the presidential race is unfolding as a clash of personalities. The reason the Republican contest is still a four-horse race, no candidate consistently able to secure more than a quarter of the popular vote, is that while each are able to appeal to a specific locality in Republican support, none are winning the hearts of the nation. In the Democrat camp, by contrast, policies are taking a backseat. “Experience” and “change” are terms banded round a lot, but we all know it’s a case of Team Clinton vs Team Obama. The difference in America is that the candidates are clearly aware of the need for personal appeal.

The problem we have in Britain is that the traditional practice of cabinet government has been gradually superseded by a pseudo-presidential system. So in an age of increasingly leader-centered politics, we find ourselves led by Brown, a man without the magnetism or rhetoric to animate his government.

While it is not important for voters necessarily to like their leaders, they must at least feel they can engage with them – and hence (if all goes to plan) their policies. So while charisma is an intrinsic quality someone either has or lacks, a little humanity and animation are not too much for an apathetic nation to ask. To make an emotional appeal to voters, it is essential to show some kind of emotion (forgive me for stating the obvious, but Brown seems to have missed the point). Being chancellor was clearly a very serious job, but now he’s in the top job, a different approach is needed; he needs to come across as a man of the people.

But while Brown continues to impersonate a gorilla with a hang over, Cameron is in stark danger of being seen by voters as too slick. While Blair was verging on authoritarian, Brown lacks authority, and Cameron sets this off helpfully by lacking credibility. Inevitably it’s a fine line, and I would hardly espouse the cult of personality that drove supporters of Hitler and Mussolini, nor even push the British public to the point where they only see a party through the lense of its leader. But it would be a breath of fresh air in British politics to actually have some leaders, or at least leaders with the confidence to offer more than an expertise in spin.

Especially in the aftermath of Iraq, and amidst unprecedented levels of scaremongering sparked by 9/11, the paranoia and anxiety of the British public needs to be off set by a charismatic central figure – or at least someone with the capacity for basic communication. The question of policy is an entirely separate debate. With “New” Labour and “New” Conservatism heading for collision (or, worse, mutual acceptance) the notion of a political spectrum in Great Britain holds less water than it once did. But while the policies may be empty, and the likelihood is we won’t trust what they say, we want to hear it said well, don’t we? If we’re voting on personality, let’s see some.

Emma Lough is a 1st year historian.

Daniel Heap

I happen to be quite attracted to Iain Duncan Smith. Reminiscent of a balding hamster though he is, he’s the sort of guy who would never forget your birthday, or stand you up for a date. Blair or Churchill, on the other hand, would almost certainly leave earlythe following morning, and not return your calls for days.

The John Majors and Iain Duncan Smiths of the political world are, in my view, vastly underappreciated. That they were ‘Grey Men’ cannot be denied (though news of John Major’s back-bench fumblings with Edwina Currie did give him something of an injection of colour), yet this does not mean they didn’t play, an important role in public life, and they can still do so.

Churchill was of course a brilliant Prime Minister who almost certainly saved Britain from invasion during the war, but his more staid predecessor Clement Atlee did far more to fundamentally change Britain for the better, and is consistently at the top of ‘Best Prime Minister’ surveys.

John Major was not a great Prime Minister, or even a good one, but he personally did much less to damage the country than did Thatcher or Blair. Most Prime Ministers would have struggled with a slowly dwindling majority, a divided party and sluggish economy, none of which were a direct result of John Major’s personality. Similarly, Iain Duncan Smith is a good politician, and was simply the wrong leader for the Tories at that time.

Charisma can certainly help politicians, but it is by no means critical. A quiet, diligent (read: boring) leader such as Germany’s Angela Merkel can be successful: She has managed to revive Germany’s economy, while heading a ‘grand coalition’ government composed of two completely ideologically opposed parties.

For better or worse, a politician is not ‘one of the people’, and we shouldn’t deceive ourselves by calling for him to present himself as such. If politicians sat down, shut up and got on with trying to make a difference rather than worrying about their public appeal, we’d make much more progress than we are doing now.

People think politics is boring because politics is boring: As Emma argues, there is no meaningful distinction between the two parties, and nothing to argue about. Our politicians are products of our politics: There’s a limit to how interesting politicians can be if all they’re arguing about is minutiae rather than making profound changes to how Britain works. The issue of policy is inextricably linked to the issue of levels of political engagement.

The way to improve political participation is not to make politicians more interesting, but to make politics more interesting. We need a system in which the issues are genuinely important, where there is more genuine disagreement between parties. Politicians and political life as a whole will only become more exciting when there is something to become excited about.

TCS Comment Editor Daniel Heap is a 2nd year SPS Student at Fitzwilliam Coilege.

happen to be quite attracted to Iain Duncan Smith. Reminiscent of a balding hamster though he is, he’s the sort of guy who would never forget your birthday, or stand you up for a date. Blair or Churchill, on the other hand, would almost certainly leave earlythe following morning, and not return your calls for days.

The John Majors and Iain Duncan Smiths of the political world are, in my view, vastly underappreciated. That they were ‘Grey Men’ cannot be denied (though news of John Major’s back-bench fumblings with Edwina Currie did give him something of an injection of colour), yet this does not mean they didn’t play, an important role in public life, and they can still do so.

Churchill was of course a brilliant Prime Minister who almost certainly saved Britain from invasion during the war, but his more staid predecessor Clement Atlee did far more to fundamentally change Britain for the better, and is consistently at the top of ‘Best Prime Minister’ surveys.

John Major was not a great Prime Minister, or even a good one, but he personally did much less to damage the country than did Thatcher or Blair. Most Prime Ministers would have struggled with a slowly dwindling majority, a divided party and sluggish economy, none of which were a direct result of John Major’s personality. Similarly, Iain Duncan Smith is a good politician, and was simply the wrong leader for the Tories at that time.

Charisma can certainly help politicians, but it is by no means critical. A quiet, diligent (read: boring) leader such as Germany’s Angela Merkel can be successful: She has managed to revive Germany’s economy, while heading a ‘grand coalition’ government composed of two completely ideologically opposed parties.

For better or worse, a politician is not ‘one of the people’, and we shouldn’t deceive ourselves by calling for him to present himself as such. If politicians sat down, shut up and got on with trying to make a difference rather than worrying about their public appeal, we’d make much more progress than we are doing now.

People think politics is boring because politics is boring: As Emma argues, there is no meaningful distinction between the two parties, and nothing to argue about. Our politicians are products of our politics: There’s a limit to how interesting politicians can be if all they’re arguing about is minutiae rather than making profound changes to how Britain works. The issue of policy is inextricably linked to the issue of levels of political engagement.

The way to improve political participation is not to make politicians more interesting, but to make politics more interesting. We need a system in which the issues are genuinely important, where there is more genuine disagreement between parties. Politicians and political life as a whole will only become more exciting when there is something to become excited about.

TCS Comment Editor Daniel Heap is a 2nd year SPS Student at Fitzwilliam Coilege.