14 April 2022
“Come On! COME ON!”
by J.R. Thomas
So shouted Delia Smith in the most unlikely pitch invasion in modern football. Delia is not only a famous cook; she is also a football fan and with her husband the majority owner of that ever struggling team, Norwich City. So no police cordon prevented Delia, during a match that was not going well, from running onto the pitch and exhorting her team to work harder and do better. As the local paper said after, “If Delia was captain, Norwich would be top of the Premier League”.
Because what matters in any game in life, any business, any group, is leadership. And it is a material that current politics seems to be sadly lacking. Over the last couple of weeks there has been astonishing viewing on the BBC (BBC2 and still available on catchup) when two hours were devoted to examining the dynamics of the political relationship between Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the USA, 1980 to 1988, and Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK, 1979 to 1990. That either became leader of their country was astonishing enough;, that they became such friends and allies both surprising and fortunate and indeed (and thank goodness) world changing. The final unlikely thread in all this is that the programmes are written, researched, and narrated by Charles Moore, Mrs Thatcher’s biographer, former editor of the Daily Torygraph and of The Spectator, and perhaps our leading Conservative commentator now working. Moore was of course rumoured not long ago to be heading to the chair of the BBC. Alas it did not happen; perhaps these programmes are some compensation for that tragic nonemployment.
The theme of Moore’s examination of the two greatest conservative-liberal politicians of the twentieth century is of two very skilled and powerful leaders, that the times did indeed produce the man and the woman. That they got on so well was a piece of luck, though one that did much to create, for a while, a more liberal world, (liberal in the old fashioned Gladstonian sense of the word meaning “more free”). This was not just at home, in the British Isles and in the US, it was a fashion, an ideology almost, that spread across much of the world, bringing about wealth, health, and happiness, or at least the means and opportunity for them. Most of all, their firmness with the failed ideology of the Soviet Empire brought it crumbling down, with the happy results we see in central and eastern Europe but perhaps also to the unforeseen, unexpected, but dreadful situation in Russia now.
The Cold War was a great economic drag, involving as it did the cost of keeping up a strong military deterrent in both nuclear and conventional forces in both Britain and America, especially as so much of the rest of Europe was prepared to hide behind the skirts of their English speaking allies. But it was a much worse drag on the Soviets. Socialism created little wealth – then as now most foreign exchange came from selling minerals – and the cost of the Russsian military system was bringing it and its satellites to their knees. Thatcher and Reagan saw this and knew the answer was to step up the pressure. If the Cold War was to end it had to be won. That meant spending more money, not less, on more advanced weaponry, not less. The strategy was not to every taste, even in fact, says Moore, not to Reagan’s; he hated nuclear weapons as much as any CNDer, but knew what had to be done to free the peoples of the Soviet states from the Communist yoke.
It took enormous powers of persuasion for both leaders to take this course. Reagan had informal advisors, often from a Californian background, and an exceptional inner cabal of cabinet appointees: Bush, Casper Weinburger, George Schulz, all of the same mind as he, and tough and determined; they stayed with him almost his whole two terms and were key to both his domestic and foreign policies. Their loyalty and stability – and hard work – in government made life much easier for Reagan who set the course and played the frontman, keeping America on side and enabling himself to win a spectacular electoral victory for his second term. Reagan did not like conflict but was brilliant on charm and manipulation; Thatcher, one suspects, did like conflict; certainly her extraordinary analytical mind took her to whatever position she could see to be right and she would then argue it out until she won. Unlike Reagan she had to fight hard in cabinet – and she did do that; she was a true first amongst equals who would hear all points of view, albeit some times with obvious impatience and scorn. Her determination and crisp thinking meant that with even the “wets” in the cabinet room she was able to persuade them, the Tory Party in the Commons, and the electorate that whilst they might not like what she was intending to do, it made entire sense. And she had a strong inner group of ministers such as Whitelaw, Ridley, Howe, Young, Lawson, and Carrington who did not always agree with her but saw that there was no real alternative to what she was about.
The one great piece of luck that this Anglo-American alliance had was the slow economic collapse of the Soviet bloc and, even more, the rapid physical decay of the Russian leadership, decrepit old men, so that the leadership of the Communist Party passed in 1985 to the next generation in the person of Mikhael Gorbachev, a man of (by Soviet standards) liberal views who had prepared for this moment and seized it when it came. There had been little leadership or indeed intellectual justification of Communism since the early 1960’s. Gorbachev was able to step into that void and impose his own vision of a new Soviet group with more Western ways. His relaxed persona and a realisation that a time for change had arrived made him popular at home and able to talk with both Reagan and Thatcher, and later, with other European leaders. In the end, of course, he found that he had sown the whirlwind, but if it were not for him the Soviet Union could have seen some very nasty times indeed, and there might have been considerable violence as the East European satellite countries sought freedom from Kremlin control.
Strong leadership is out of fashion now; Macron is perhaps a more capable leader than he is usually given credit for, though struggling to hold together all those varieties of cheese which De Gaulle cited as summarising France. Mutti Merkel was a strong low key leader in a country naturally deferential; her successor, Olaf Scholz, seems to be a slightly tougher version of the same thing. Orban is certainly a strong leader but his commitment to democracy is not clear, as with Erdogan in Turkey, a skilled politician certainly but one who has chipped away at his country’s constitution. Johnson and Biden seem lost, pushed around by fractious parties, and in Johnson’s case and probably Biden’s, with no belief system or ideology to anchor them in the tumultuous seas of the 2020’s. People tend not to admire their leaders now, but to assume that they are stupid and corrupt. Mostly they are not, but this public disdain undoubtedly keeps many people out of public life who we really need. The time has come for stronger leaders; and for the electors to think more highly of them.
tile photo: Andrew Stutesman on Unsplash