Magazine article The Spectator

Here Is My List of the Century's Greatest Political Figures

Magazine article The Spectator

Here Is My List of the Century's Greatest Political Figures

Article excerpt

Only six weeks to go before the end of the century: time to draw up a list of its political success stories. My criterion is the simple utilitarian one of Jeremy Bentham: who did most to promote the greatest possible happiness of the largest possible number? Top of my list, then, is Lee Kuan Yew, who took over Singapore when it was pretty demoralised and its per capita income less than $100, and transformed it into one of the richest, safest, most orderly and sensible countries in the world. The media did not like him. Good. He in turn did not like bead-jangling, hirsute, pot-smoking, guitarstrumming hippies, and all the false philosophies which go with that kind of thing. He kept them out. That is one reason Singapore is virtually crime-free and a little paradise of old-fashioned virtues. Countless millions of hard-working Asians would love to live there, but the place is too small. It has no natural resources either. Lee's achievement underlines the truth that the key to political success is the creative management of brain-power.

Of the American presidents, I rate five highly. Theodore Roosevelt educated and guided the USA into becoming a responsible world power. Woodrow Wilson was an admirable peacetime reformer, who fell victim to the madness of the first world war. Calvin Coolidge understood perfectly that Americans need minimalist government to flourish, and gave it them in full measure. He even knew when to quit the stage, without fuss or pushing. Harry S. Truman was the brave little nonentity who saved the world by accepting the challenge of Soviet Russia's Cold War and waging it with determination, Ronald Reagan finally won the Cold War a generation later, leaving America the sole superpower with more physical and moral responsibilities than ever. How we miss him!

It's disturbing to think that in most of the world's biggest countries not one single great and benevolent man has emerged in the entire century. In Russia, under tsars, communists and post-communists, it has been one long, miserable tale of incompetence, cruelty and waste. Plenty of monsters, no heroes. It is the same in China, which produced the biggest killer of all, Mao Tse-tung, with 60 million innocent scalps round his belt. India provided, in Gandhi, a great playboy saint, and in Pandit Nehru a consummate humbug, but no statesman. Indonesia had Sukarno, one of the finest slogan-mongers of all time, but good at nothing else; his successors were crooks. Nothing from Pakistan. Japan has collectivist government: no individualism allowed, more's the pity. So postwar Japan is a success story without a hero.

Europe is a different matter, though it must be said that no one in the pre-1914 or interwar period was outstanding. Clemenceau and Poincare, Asquith, Lloyd George and Baldwin all look faded today. General Franco took over Spain in 1939, reigned longer than any of his predecessors and left the country with a large middle class, a modern economy and a taste for affluence: things it had never had before. Like others who have taken over during a civil war, his hands were covered in blood, but there is no denying the magnitude of his achievement.

One must also credit Konrad Adenauer, another off-putting man, with guiding Germany towards post-democratic habits, much helped, of course, by his incomparable economic minister, Ludwig Erhard, who carried through one of the most successful financial reforms in history. Camille Gutt did the same in Belgium and Pierre Mendes France would have done so for France had he not been stymied by the professional politicians. …

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