9 December 2021
A political essential.
By John Watson
If you want to understand why the French do not like us read Jean Froissart. Writing in the late 14th century he had a contemporary’s knowledge of what the battle of Poitiers meant for France. Skip past the heroic deeds, skip past the military skills and occasional gallantry of the Black Prince, skip past the courage of the French King who fought on after all was lost, and focus on the aftermath. Their King a prisoner in England, the French had no central figure of authority and because the King was still alive no one could fill the gap. There was a total power vacuum, a vacuum which competing interests, each of them uglier than the last, tried to make their home: the Jaquerie, slaughtering the nobles who had failed in their defence in the most gruesome and sadistic manner conceivable, the free companies, gangs of military thugs dominating huge areas and stripping the wretched population of all their assets, the adventurer Charles of Navarre playing for the throne, the provost of Paris harnessing the mob… a deadly combination way beyond the power of the hapless Regent to control. Suffering at its most extreme with poverty, torture and rapine its harbingers.
And that dynamic of the collapse of central authority leading to appalling suffering is one of the most dismal repeat themes in history. Not just in the remote past, the chaos caused by the struggle between Stephen and Matilda and the Wars of the Roses, for example, but also in our own time, Libya after Gaddafi, Iraq after Saddam Hussein. If it was not for Mr Putin one might have had to add Russia after the breakup of the USSR. The most important function of government is not to govern well, to govern compassionately, to be fair, to be right, to be left, or to behave in any of the 101 ways on which modern politicians lay stress. All these things may be very desirable but its central role is that it should provide an administration and prevent a vacuum of power arising at the centre.
This need to protect central authority and to exclude those seeking to undermine it has long been well understood. Sir John Woodcock, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary, said in 1992 that “the police never were the police of the whole people but a mechanism set up to protect the affluent from what the Victorians described as the dangerous classes.” That was a criticism but it also reveals what the Victorian expected from them and what that Victorian public feared – an overrunning of society, a collapse at the centre, chaos, untold suffering, disaster with the four horsemen of the Apocalypse: conquest, war, famine and death, running riot as they do in so many benighted corners of the globe.
It would be nice to think that we had moved on, that such fears were just nightmares for the fainthearted but even if that is so they have left a residue in the public consciousness. Strong leadership is admired. Uncertain leadership makes people nervous. It is no accident that Thatcher and Blair were the two longest surviving Prime Ministers since the war. Like them or loathe them they had grip – and grip is the essential electoral asset.
Grip of this sort does not all have to come from the leader. In Thatcher’s case it probably did, whereas Blair was heavily dependent on Brown for his sure-footedness, at least in the economic field. Churchill was dependent on Atlee in many respects, and history is dotted with those whose apparent confidence was fed to them or at least reinforced by an able subordinate. But where is Boris going to find it? Not in himself; he has his talents, certainly, but grip, resolution and attention to detail are not among them. While Cummings was in place his handling was sure-footed and ruthless but Cummings is no longer there. Gove and Truss are able enough but will he really give them his trust? He had better do so because time is running out. Starmer is showing grip and remains a rock in the face of enormous criticism. The Tories must do the same or the public will lose confidence in their ability to govern. Don’t be daunted by the level of swing required to lose them the next election. The public will not vote for chaos. But actually, the Conservatives, being the ruthless bunch they are, it would probably never get there. If Boris does not tighten his grip, is the next election more likely to be between parties led by the ruthless and competent Sir Keir and the focussed Elizabeth Truss?
Time for a visit to the bookies, perhaps.