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Politics: the fall of leaders

The lack of self-awareness of the part of The Sunday Telegraph today is quite staggering. “The political class”, it declares in its editorial, “cannot command authority”. “The police cannot guarantee order. Britain is a mess”.

Although it chooses to illustrate its thesis by pointing out that “Churchill is boarded up” and “So is Britain”, the paper does not confine its wrath to “the vandals”.

It’s not only them who come out of this badly, sniffs the ST. It’s also a political class that struggles to command authority and a police force that can no longer guarantee law and order – all in the middle of a pandemic that has triggered the greatest economic contraction on record.

Warming to its theme, it reminds us that the monthly fall in GDP for April was 20.4 per cent, while the biggest monthly drop before this crisis was just two percent.

“The state has stepped in to carry the burden”, we are told, as if we needed reminding. But, in a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, the paper notes that, just because it is bigger doesn’t mean it is any more competent.

And so the litany of woes is spelt out. “The bureaucratic lockdown resembles quicksand”, and the harder we struggle to free ourselves, the more we appear stuck. In other countries, shops are now open and children are going back to school. Here, we probably will not be reopening all schools before September.

Sadiq Khan, the mayor of our capital city, has hampered recovery by hiking the congestion charge and cutting Tube services. “London is Open” declared his showboating anti-Brexit campaign, a slogan that now lingers on empty streets like a bad joke.

Thus, it didn’t take the Telegraph long to get party political, using the example of Khan giving “the humiliating order that Churchill be hidden from view” as evidence which seems “to confirm that Britain cannot police itself – it can only hide its valuables”.

And so we get on to Churchill, the prime minister’s idol. The former prime minister, we are told, “embodies that kind of Britain” that Johnson would dearly love to build, “which is energetic, outward-looking, cheerfully eccentric and willing to take risks”. And, “many of us feel the same”.

Thus, throughout the pandemic, the paper burbles on, “whenever we wanted to lift our spirits, it was invariably to comparisons with the Blitz that the nation turned – celebrating that spirit of unity and self-sacrifice that Churchill pulled together with his rhetoric”.

It really is fascinating to see how these foundation myths survive. But in Mr Churchill, we have a prime minister who came to power without the benefit of an election and who, as the Luftwaffe started their intensive Blitz on London, ordered armed soldiers to be posted at the entrances of tube stations to prevent them being used as shelters.

This is the man so out of touch with public sentiment that, at the height of the messy scrap that later came to be glorified as the Battle of Britain, he crafted a paean of praise to “the Few”, taken to mean Fighter Command, but actually directed at Bomber Command as the only arm of the British forces taking the battle to the enemy.

This is the man who, when he finally went to the country in 1945, lost by a landslide to the Labour Party led by Clement Attlee, a politician with about as much charisma as a soggy cucumber sandwich and the oratorial skills of a rusty nail.

What the Sunday Telegraph is skirting around, of course, is that much of the “mess” of which it complains isn’t down to a Labour mayor, but its favourite son, the utterly incompetent Johnson who should never have been let near the reins of power and, may not have got near them without the support of the Telegraph Group.

But it is here that the lack of self-awareness starts breaking through. We are blithely informed that: “We need a Conservative response to a moment of profound economic and cultural anxiety, one that gives the country confidence that it is being led by people with a solid grasp of history and philosophy”.

Apparently, these are the people “who know the difference between legitimate protest and criminality – and who can chart a course that protects the most vulnerable from Covid-19 while encouraging the rest of society, in creative ways, to go back to normal”.

Yet, if the paper is alluding to its favourite son, as one of those people “with a solid grasp of history and philosophy”, it is deluding itself (as it has been doing for so many years). This one man, as leader of the government, is responsible more than any other for the mess we’re in.

As for the “Conservative response”, Johnson’s cabinet has had every opportunity to get a grip on events yet, at each turn of the Covid crisis, they have been found wanting. If they were ever going to get a grip, they would have done so by now. Instead, it is quite obvious that they have lost control with people throughout the country “doing a Cummings” and ignoring the lockdown.

These are the Conservatives who are delivering a “train-wreck” Brexit, set to pile on yet more grief to the Covid experience in a manner that can only benefit the disaster capitalists while more than half of those responding to a recent opinion poll actually support an extension of the transition period.

Oddly enough, though, it was only three days ago that I was writing in similar terms to the Sunday Telegraph, bemoaning the “mess” that this Johnny-come-lately finds so objectionable.

However, while the paper is able to see salvation in a “Conservative response”, I was unable to see a solution in the immediate future. The rot has gone too far – or the hole is too deep. And, to put it bluntly, the politicians aren’t up to the job and most of the frontline public institutions – such as the police and the NHS – are failing.

At this point, when the Conservatives quite evidently are not an answer to anything, the traditional cry goes up for an alternative political party. But Starmer just kissed goodbye to even the slightest chance of being seen as a credible leader, as opposed to an opportunistic follower.

With the Lib-Dems no longer even registering on the radar, and doomed to oblivion if they insist on reinventing themselves as a “rejoin” party, that in theory leaves a market gap for a new party. Also rans such as Farage need not apply.

The real problem though is what we might call the “valet” syndrome, after the aphorism, “no man is a hero to his valet”. Power and authority demands a certain mystique, yet and the 24/7 news cycle and the arc light exposure of the social media robs any candidate of precisely those attributes. It is not yet clear that any political leader can survive untarnished in today’s media environment.

No single man – or woman – for that matter, can withstand the intensive scrutiny of history, as Churchill fans are finding, but social media and an incontinent press are doing the same job with would-be leaders. Sooner, rather than later, anyone who puts their head over the parapet will be shown to have feet of clay.

This phenomenon not only affect the UK. Throughout the Western world – with very few exceptions – nations seem to be unable to foster leaders of stature, those who can unite their peoples and handle crises in ways that attract support.

And there’s the rub. The Sunday Telegraph can bitch all it likes about the nation being a mess, but it has no more solutions than do the rest of us.

Also published on Turbulent Times.


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