The Decline of British Political Leadership?

By Harvey, A. D. | Contemporary Review, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

The Decline of British Political Leadership?


Harvey, A. D., Contemporary Review


THE post-1945 cult of mediocrity has involved the undervaluing or ignoring of many aspects of Britain's achievements in the nineteenth century and one archetypically Victorian phenomenon that historians, the trustees of the collective memory, have agreed to overlook is the degree to which the prestige of Britain's parliamentary system used to depend on the way it regularly placed at the head of affairs individuals recognized as, quite simply, the very finest intellects of their time.

The younger Pitt, who was the first premier to be abreast of the latest economic theories of his day, and who without preparation could speak for hours 'with the same deliberation and fluency as if he were reading a book. ... the emphasis always correct and beautiful, because it seemed to render the longest sentence intelligible'; Robert Peel who in his final exams at Oxford in 1808 took both the top First Class in Classics and the only First Class in Mathematics and could later spare time from affairs of state to set Stanhope and Macaulay right on the question of whether human sacrifice was practised by the Romans ('I deserve no credit for my parade of learning. One book suggests reference to another, and commentators supply quotations to those who have patience to read them'); Gladstone, author of the widely influential Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age and translator of the Odes of Horace, Salisbury, whose contributions to The Quarterly Review show a range and mastery - see for example his essay on 'Photography' in the October 1864 issue - unequalled in a century of outstanding periodical literature, were all men who dominated the competing egos that came (as they still come) to the fore in public life not by means of charm (all four of them tended to be notably deficient in this department), not by means of ruthlessness, not through some sleight of hand in seizing a commanding position ahead of worthier rivals, but simply by means of their intellectual gifts.

George Canning in his infinite glibness, the Duke of Wellington, Disraeli, Rosebery and Balfour were rather more one-sided or limited in their talents; Wellington too impatient and Rosebery too fastidious or perhaps too self-absorbed to be entirely successful as politicians, Disraeli perhaps too carried away by his discovery that politics in a mass society was essentially a matter of myth and drama, Balfour too laid-back - perhaps too much the philosopher - to keep his Cabinet in order: but these too were remarkable men. Of leaders since Balfour only Winston Churchill, who was, after all, the last of the Victorians, was in the same class: Lloyd George one perhaps needs to place in a class of his own, for besides being perhaps the best public speaker and the ablest administrator of them all, he had a unique capacity for originality in his political opportunism which places him alongside Napoleon III and Mussolini rather than in the British political tradition.

Palmerston, Asquith, Neville Chamberlain, Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher, though not quite as intellectually pre-eminent, can at least be said to have dominated their Cabinets intellectually. There was something implausible, even slightly incongruous, in Wilson's candidature for the premiership in 1964, Heath's in 1970, Thatcher's in 1979. Peel, before he became prime minister for the first time was described as 'facile princeps in the House of Commons. ... universally regarded as the ablest man. ... the moment he rises, all is silence and he sure to be heard with profound attention and respect'. It was quite otherwise with Wilson, Heath and Thatcher as leaders of the opposition - if anything their leadership appeared a matter of faute de mieux, like William Hague's or Ian Duncan Smith's more recently - but they grew, in assertiveness if not in stature, once they were in power. …

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