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 corporations 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.

Curiously enough, except in some – as usual, very intelligent – asides, Peter Clarke hardly deals with one of the most insistent questions about political leadership: namely, how leaders are selected – mainly by family and connections before 1945, since then largely by ‘an upwardly mobile Oxbridge meritocracy recruited through provincial grammar schools’. This question supplies the chief interest of Edward Pearce’s biography of John Major, a book sympathetic to its subject which – except at the end – lacks the author’s admirable blend of fun and savage indignation. John Major is a prime minister about whom so far we know virtually nothing except how he got to the top, and we may take it that he is likely to remain an anomaly. Though there is no reason to suppose that highly able and academically competent people may not be secondary-school drop-outs, it is an unlikely background for a prime minister today, especially for so conventional a figure as Major. Only Thatcher’s genuine passion for self-made men, together with the acute shortage of loyal Thatcherites of real ability, would have launched him on the fast track of promotion which took him, in little more than a decade, from first election as an MP via two of the great offices of state, to 10 Downing Street in his forties. It is no reflection on his abilities, which Nigel Lawson recognised immediately, to say that under no other circumstances would he have got to where he is so fast. Only 18th-century patronage could have competed with 20th-century patronage.

How much difference Major’s leadership of the Tory Party will make to its fortunes, let alone to the history of Britain, is a question which cannot even be formulated as yet, except in terms of bar-room or after-dinner chat. About Peter Clarke’s subjects more can be said. But what? He is a sufficiently sophisticated historian to appreciate the force of structural explanations, which ‘emphasise what was likely to happen – on the whole, in the long run, in one guise or another’, irrespective of the intentions of the actors or their ability to carry them out. After all, no one could contemplate the career of Winston Churchill, a figure who produced an identifiable personal impact on British history, without the strong sense that wishing, acting and leading alone will not make it so. Clarke’s own lucid, concise and elegant epitaph on Churchill’s ‘long list of lost causes’ makes the point.

Clarke therefore retreats from the excesses of the ‘high politics’ historians to two more defensible positions. On the one hand, leadership is re-interpreted as ‘setting the agenda of polities’, which allows him to include Maynard Keynes as a ‘leader’ along with Joseph Chamberlain and Thatcher. This is lucky for his readers, since Clarke has written a stunning account of The Keynesian Revolution in the Making 1924-1936, but what constitutes ‘setting the agenda’ remains unclear. On the other hand, Clarke retreats from broad explanations by opting for ‘contingent’ ones – for the kind of history ‘which needs to recapture the complex play of causation in specific instances’, so that we can understand, not what was likely or unlikely to happen, but ‘what actually happened in particular’. This is not necessarily of great historical significance, however passionately lobby correspondents and Tory politicians may want to know exactly what, say, Norman Lamont said to Jeffrey Archer on 20 November 1990. Nevertheless, Clarke’s interest in these matters is also lucky for his readers, since it enables a stylish amateur of political private diaries and other forms of planned indiscretion to satisfy our taste for the higher and lower gossip. Who will want to skip the passage about what Clarke drily describes as the ‘unusually lachrymose day in Downing Street’ (29 March 1915) when Lloyd George and Asquith pledged loyalty to one another amid mutual tears, the one having just seen his mistress through a bad abortion, the other writing two letters daily to the young lady who was about to ditch him for a (rather younger) member of his Cabinet.

However, though his positions are more defensible, since they allow him to claim less in practice than he hints at in theory, they do not actually help Clarke answer his ‘question of leadership’. It may be, of course, that such a question has no clear answer in a country like ours, where political leaders are embedded in institutions which limit their power as individuals. Compared to the figures in 20th-century history – a Hitler or a Lenin – whose personal imprint on their countries and on the world is undeniable even by the most devoted historical generaliser, the cast of Clarke’s play could almost always have been replaced by under-studies without much loss. Britain never faced the revolutionary crisis or breakdown that brought such persons to power elsewhere, nor, with the possible exception of Mrs Thatcher, has any politician with a genuinely revolutionary temperament climbed to the top of the greasy pole. And whatever the long-term judgment on the Thatcher impact may prove to be, when the time came she was dislodged in a few days, with minimal fuss, by her party.

This is not to underestimate the personal qualities of the people about whom Clarke writes, though intelligence, imagination and even charisma do not appear to be indispensable qualifications for the potential agenda-setter in British polities, still less for an effective head of government, as witness Attlee and Thatcher, compared to Bevan and Enoch Powell. However, the ‘question of leadership’ is not whether a person is interesting to write about, but what difference he or she made.

Evidently none of Peter Clarke’s cast of characters did much to solve the major problem of British history since Gladstone – that of the country’s economic, and consequently also political, decline. We may assume that, by common consensus, the Thatcherite claim that the British economy was reborn in the Eighties can now be dismissed. At most some, but far from all, British leaders before the Seventies recognised that there was such a problem. The great moments of leadership – Lloyd George in World War One, Churchill in World War Two – actually made the problem worse, since they plunged Britain into operations for which she lacked the resources. Such was the rational case for ‘appeasement’ in the Thirties, but it was also the rational case for ‘business as usual’ in World War One, and explains (as Clarke does not) the passionate opposition of the young Treasury expert Keynes to Lloyd George. Economically, he argued, he was ruining the country.

Keynes was sceptical about World War One, but not about the justification of World War Two, and in retrospect most of us would agree with him. Moreover, unlike the Lloyd George Coalition after 1918, the Labour Government of 1945 actually came Closer to tackling the problems of Britain’s decline than any administration before or since, although what Clarke rightly describes as ‘the incipient British Wirtschaftswunder’ (economic miracle) was torpedoed by the Korean War, ‘a name fit to be inscribed on the tombstone of the Attlee Government’. Unfortunately, Clarke is far more interested in the booming Dalton, whose role in British history rests on his diary rather than his ministerial activities, and not very interested in Stafford Cripps, the economic supremo from 1947 on. Cripps was perhaps a puritan prig, but he also was, with Bevin, the pillar of Britain’s greatest reforming government, as Attlee conceded when he promoted the man who had just asked him to resign. The massive economic achievements of Labour were thrown away by the Cold War, or more specifically, by the belief that Britain still somehow remained a great world power, and alter that by the electoral irresponsibility of the Conservatives’ plunge into domestic consumerism at the expense of exports. Still, for those interested in ‘contingent’ explanations, it is worth remembering that Labour reached its all-time record vote in 1951, and would, under any electoral Astern other than the British, have retained power into the middle Fifties. However, the blame cannot be put on the Tories alone. The divisions and demoralisation of the Labour Party after 1950 are well-known, and (except for the electoral flourishes of the ‘white heat of technology’ Wilson) no section of the Party showed even a rhetorical appreciation of the seriousness of the British economic predicament until the later Eighties. Thatcherite conservatism deserves credit for recognising it earlier on, but its proposed solutions were beside the point.

The second major problem of our 20th-century history, how to adjust to the end of world dominance and great-power status, has found British leadership even more wanting, except possibly for Neville Chamberlain, and even he probably exaggerated the importance of the Empire. (Fortunately for the world, he failed in his efforts.) For the rest, all leaders since 1945 exaggerated the international power of Britain until the national toes were stubbed on the rock of reality, as over Suez. Who remembers now that the independent British nuclear bomb was first constructed, not against the Soviets, but in order to maintain independent power status against the USA?

A third problem is more suited to the scope of parliamentary politicians: how to win elections, especially by means of the votes of poorer citizens for governments that rule in the interests of the richer ones. Here British leaders have shown more originality. Gladstone tackled the problem of keeping the support of the manual workers, who formed the majority of the population, by turning himself into a working-class hero and mass orator. His ‘moral populism’ (to use Clarke’s phrase) was ‘the means of avoiding socialism under democracy’. Unfortunately, though Clarke does not stress this, he failed, because, as the Democratic Party realised in the USA, a New Deal requires not only moral issues but a social programme. The men who prevented the Labour Party from becoming a significant force before 1918, or from winning an election single-handed before 1945, were, with the exception of the Edwardian Churchill and Lloyd George, grey figures or second-order politicoes who do not arouse Peter Clarke’s interest. They were united only by a single principle: never, if at all possible, to seek a head-on confrontation with the working class.

Mrs Thatcher’s originality lay in the discovery that such a confrontation was no longer dangerous, not only because Labour was suicidally divided, but because a conservative electorate could be built on the votes of the sort of people who had once supported Liberal radicalism and Labour. To be precise, it was not her discovery. The best part of Clarke’s rather half-hearted discussion of the Eighties is his observation that Thatcherism ‘had to be invented by a hard core of loyalists to legitimate the leader’s essentially personal stance’. Her contribution to a changing set of policies, evolving under the pressure of circumstances rather than planned, was a simple faith in the values of Alderman Thatcher, an iron will, and an almost Bolshevik conviction that political adversaries (both ‘socialism’ and the old ruling class) were public enemies. Old Stalin-watchers will also be familiar with the conviction that central state power must be increased as a preliminary to the withering away of the state – in this instance, through the universal triumph of the market.

This was a new note in British politics, which is why Thatcher’s fall in those dramatic November days of 1990 was, and was felt to be, more like a British mini-version of the Ninth Thermidor than a mere prime ministerial resignation. But what difference did Thatcher make? Negatively, probably quite a lot, even if some of the more dangerous and irresponsible changes of the Eighties can be reversed – notably the excessive centralisation of state power and state direction, and the downgrading or destruction of lesser collective autonomies. The atmosphere of Thatcherism, that conglomerate of egoism, political servility and moral blindness, will not be so easily eliminated. Perhaps she only accelerated the emergence of tendencies latent in our country, once a model of civic and civil society, but accelerate it she did.

Positively, she made little difference. The British economy and British power are much as before internationally, and their unsolved problems remain the same. Even without Thatcher, Britain in the Eighties would almost certainly have followed the general European trend to economic liberalism, though in a less frankly anti-social form and with less self-delusion. Even electorally, Thatcher’s achievement was, at most, to stabilise Conservative support at a level far below pre-1979 Tory expectations. Her power rested not on winning supporters but on a divided opposition and the peculiarities of our electoral system.

Still, she will be internationally remembered as few other 20th-century British politicians can expect to be. Perhaps she would wish to be remembered as an equivalent of De Gaulle, who did preside over the restoration of his country. But De Gaulle had a sense of its people and its history, and hence of its possibilities. Mrs Thatcher had no such sense, and did not want to listen to those who had.