In 1919 T.G. Masaryk, a Czech philosopher and future president of the new state of Czechoslovakia, lamented the prevalence of ‘half education’ among senior figures in public life. He contended there were too many so-called leaders only willing to angrily question society rather than genuinely reshape and lead it, building up people’s hopes only to crush them. While his writings concerned the likes of Lenin and Mussolini, the same principle runs true today in British politics. There is no escaping the fact that Britain lacks competent leaders.
The absence of leadership is stark on both the Right and the Left. Prime Minister Theresa May could be forgiven for taking on the thankless task of dealing with Britain’s exit from the European Union but there is hardly an excuse for someone who cannot do their job well enough, especially one who argued they could do so when they signed up to the task. The rebuff of her ‘Chequers’ compromise plan from European Union leaders in Salzburg last month made this plainly evident. Mrs May’s shortage of charisma does not help matters, but it is in the political arena that her appeal needs improvement.
The Conservative Party under May has a tainted image among young people. This is mainly thanks to Brexit, but farcical cases – such as Tory Vice-Chairman Ben Bradley suggesting benefit claimants should have vasectomies – do not help and there are now growing fears of an impending demographic disaster for the party’s vote. May is at the helm of a creaking party, struggling to rush through a hopeless European agenda. Her time as Prime Minister has so far been ineffectual and incompetent and a leader who lacks competence is no leader at all.
Sadly, there seems no better alternative on the other side of the ballot box. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, seems to have a knack for rousing the party faithful but unfortunately not much else. Labour’s position (or lack thereof) on Brexit is indecisive at best and actively damaging to the country at worst. In pro-Remain circles, Corbyn has long been suspected of supporting the leftist case for leaving the European Union – not only undermining the wishes of the bulk of Labour members but also the vast majority of Labour voters. Under his leadership of the party, there has been little in the way of building a genuine alternative for Mrs May’s plans for Brexit. This essentially renders Her Majesty’s Opposition, well, not really an opposition at all.
Corbyn as a leader is also guilty of shamefully ignoring most of British Jewry when they tell him categorically that the Labour Party is allowing anti-Semites en-masse. So far espousing mostly meaningless platitudes, Corbyn does not seem to understand the scale of harassment Jews in the party face in his name. Too many frustrating incidents have been bungled by the party leadership (think Ken Livingstone) which has left the Jewish community, once a staunch Labour voting bloc, abandoning the party in droves. That is not to deny the existence of, or scale of, racism in other parties, especially the Conservatives, but the anti-racism rhetoric peddled by Labour signifies a gross double-standard.
Ignoring the party leaders, there is little to suggest any rising leadership talent among ministers, backbenchers or party activists and any competence showed is often suppressed in favour of blind ambition. In the Tory Party, Health Secretary Matt Hancock and Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson come to mind. Others in the party, such as James Cleverly and Dominic Raab, appear unfortunately limited and often exploit the country’s partisan divide. The Labour front-bench, meanwhile, is filled with Corbyn loyalists and lifelong socialists, finally seeing their day in the sun, most with little in the way of much political proficiency. Notable exceptions include John McDonnell, for his ability to rise above party in-fighting, along with Emily Thornberry and Angela Rayner. While there is some hope in the Labour backbenches (see Stella Creasy, Wes Streeting and Chuka Umunna), there is little chance that any of them will ever come to prominence in a Corbyn led Labour Party.
One area of hope for Britain is the broad political appeal of ex-military office-bearers such as the Tories’ Johnny Mercer, Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood and Labour’s Dan Jarvis, now Mayor of the Sheffield City Region. These names are among the few with an ability to command the respect of MPs and partisans across the political divide. They tend to be pragmatic in policy and honest with their views. Johnny Mercer was able to do this recently, freely expressing that he “would not vote Tory if he was not an MP” thus both owning his opinions and challenging May on her leadership credentials. They are a source of hope perhaps because they are more hardened than most because of their experiences in battle or it could be because their disciplined training exposes them to leadership and discipline in their most essential form on the brink between life and death. Labour centrists looking for a possible leader should keep an eye on Mayor Jarvis in this regard.
So why does the country hold such a deficit of leadership? One reason is the British Parliamentary system itself. Its all-or-nothing nature allows Masaryk’s ‘half-education’ thesis to take hold. Knife-edge elections force politicians and politicos in general to pick sides, making all viewpoints an us-vs-them battle of noise. This suits bloated opinions, populism and those with small answers to big questions, allowing them space within the major parties to lap up support, leaving the nuance to the extra-Parliamentary intelligentsia.
Brexit is a prime example of this growing partisan divide manifesting itself through poor leadership and divided parties. The deal Mrs May is likely to reach with the EU in determining Britain’s exit from the club will, in almost every possible scenario, fail to make it through Parliament, pleasing no one. Arch-Brexiteers and arch-Remainers alike will no doubt form enough of a bloc to oppose the agreement with many Parliamentarians across party lines extraordinarily stubborn in their views. Corbyn, while harbouring Leave sympathies will no doubt whip his MPs to oppose Mrs May on principle alone. There is no easy answer, if any answer at all, to finding someone capable of solving the Brexit conundrum and pleasing all sides of the debate. This writer admittedly does not know of a solution and suggesting a change to the whole Parliamentary system demands a different debate, with themes that stretch well beyond this article’s intended premise.
With May and Corbyn at the helm and with no foreseeable alternative arising, the country will only continue its doggy paddle through these testing political waters; a populace disunited. Britain’s political leaders are there to decide the country’s values and make sure those values are upheld at home and promoted abroad. We need leaders to challenge Masaryk’s half-education proposition and be prepared to answer the big questions with large and sometimes exceptionally complex answers. Answers to problems over our future relationship with Europe, over how we unite the country both socially and economically, over how to reform the system in favour of nurturing political talent. There seems to be little hope for a saviour but, as is the case in the endless cycle of politics, from the depths we soon rise.