What difference did she make?

Eric Hobsbawm

  • A Question of Leadership: Gladstone to Thatcher by Peter Clarke
    Hamish Hamilton, 334 pp, £17.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 241 13005 0
  • The Quiet Rise of John Major by Edward Pearce
    Weidenfeld, 177 pp, £14.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 297 81208 4

The ‘question of leadership’ which is the subject of both these books is the question of how much difference leadership in politics can make. Contrary to what is held by believers in the cult of personality, who range from newspaper editors to political historians, it may make very little difference. As John Kenneth Galbraith has observed, changing the top man in important business corporation rarely affects the price of their shares on the market.

A rapid glance at the history of the USA also suggests scepticism about the impact of individual leaders. That great country has, by general consent, probably elected to its Presidency – the post of chief executive and (as we have been reminded recently) commander-in-chief – a greater number of ignorant dumbos than any other republic. It has indeed evolved a political system that makes it almost impossible to elect to the Presidency persons of visible ability and distinction, except by accident and, just possibly, at moments of national crisis. More than this, in the USA Presidents have quite frequently had to be replaced at short notice, whether because of assassination or malfeasance or for other reasons, by Vice-Presidents, who have usually been chosen for every reason other than their leadership potential. And yet the great US ship of state has sailed on as though it made very little difference that the man on the bridge was Andrew Johnson and not Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and not McKinley, Mrs Wilson and not Woodrow Wilson, Truman and not Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and not Kennedy, Ford and not Nixon, or even that there was nobody in the White House at all – as under Reagan.

In short, a strong economy and great power can be politically almost foolproof, just as, conversely, there are limits to what pure talent and leadership can achieve, as every military historian knows. Rommel was beaten by generals far inferior to him, but with far superior resources. General Schwarzkopf’s hero Hannibal won the textbook model of the battle of total annihilation against Rome at Cannae, but Rome won the war and Carthage lost it. On this subject the little dialogue in Brecht’s Galileo has said the last word: ‘Unhappy the country without heroes!’ – ‘No. Unhappy the country that needs them.’

How much difference did leadership make to the history of Britain from the Mid-Victorian era, when no great talents were needed to govern kingdom and empire, to our increasingly troubled 20th century? Peter Clarke surveys the major political figures, not necessarily prime ministers, from Gladstone to Thatcher. The Grand Old Man himself, Salisbury, Joseph Chamberlain, Asquith and Lloyd George, Neville Chamberlain and Churchill have chapters to themselves, followed by one on Keynes, and a third section which deals essentially with the historical background to the two principal parties of the present time, and is concerned not so much with leadership (except for Attlee and Mrs Thatcher) as with various might-have-beens, notably with the disappointed hopes of those who thought they had found the answer in the Social Democratic Party of the early Eighties. A number of prominent figures are virtually left aside, including half the prime ministers since 1880.

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