The leadership deficit in British politics

Backbencher January 1, 2014 2
The leadership deficit in British politics

James Evans bemoans a lack of strong leadership in British politics, and examines potential reasons for this.

‘With great power comes great responsibility’; this is a paradigm of western political society, credited to the Marvel comic creator Stan Lee. Unsurprisingly, few politicians are regarded as superheroes. In the UK, levels of public anger and disengagement with MPs have been highlighted by a recent Guardian/ICM poll. 47% of respondents told the pollsters that they were ‘angry’ with politicians; less than 30% of respondents had positive feelings towards their decision-makers. The three things most likely to put people off voting at all were: politicians not keeping their promises, politicians all being ‘on the take’, and politicians not saying what they truly believe.

47% of respondents told the pollsters that they were ‘angry’ with politicians.

The research suggests that there has been a cataclysmic breakdown of trust between large numbers of disaffected voters and the ‘political classes’. Such disengagement is damaging to the democratic credibility of the UK government and creates the potential for extremist groups to flourish. All three main parties are struggling to attract the public confidence necessary to obtain a majority in the 2015 elections, with many Liberal Democrats already predicting another hung parliament.

The problem of how to restore trust in government has so far bamboozled a generation of politicians. This is principally a legacy of two things: the divisiveness of Margaret Thatcher’s regime, and an obsession with avoiding scandal (which ironically appears to have attracted fervent public backlash in recent years). Recent storms in Kent did the Prime Minister few favours; visiting the severely-affected village of Yalding, he was taken to task for the perceived shortcomings of the local Council’s response to flooding!

Whilst politicians can – in some cases – blame the scandals of disgraced colleagues for the perception that they are all ‘on the take’, they all bear some responsibility for the public’s distrust of their words and promises. Events often require parties, governments and leaders to abandon their promises. Two recent, high-profile examples of this are David Cameron’s ‘cast-iron guarantee’ of a referendum before any further powers were passed over to the EU, and Nick Clegg’s pledge to abolish tuition fees. Because promises often fall hostage to ill fortune, politicians cannot always win the public’s trust simply by making promises and keeping them.

Successful political leadership is more about the combination of being relatable and effective in one’s role. The film ‘Invictus’ portrayed many of Nelson Mandela’s finest qualities as a leader: in particular, his confidence in carrying through controversial decisions such as retaining the Springbok rugby team and appointing a multi-racial staff. Margaret Thatcher too was credited with unflappability and a clear vision for the UK; unfortunately, unlike Mandela, her actions and philosophy proved bitterly divisive, as illustrated by the public’s response to her death and funeral.

Successful political leadership is more about the combination of being relatable and effective in one’s role.

Perhaps it is the unhappy legacy of the Thatcher years, therefore, which has caused the profound reluctance of a series of leaders to actually lead. Our government is currently prevaricating over difficult decisions on energy policy. Clearly, the cost-consequences of a failure of national power are unthinkable, yet, as this a controversial issue which divides passionate campaigners, we have a political stalemate: a vacuum of decision-making and leadership. Instead of trying to hold back the floodwaters in Yalding, the Prime Minister should focus on using his power to keep us switched on!

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