The surprise resignation of Nicola Sturgeon made me think about the qualities you need to be a successful leader.
Sturgeon was thought by most to have been a good leader for the SNP and a good leader for Scotland, certainly handling the pandemic better than Boris Johnson did. She stuck to her principles about Scottish independence even when it appeared to be unpopular. Many thought she made a misjudgement about the trans issue. But she was certainly a person of courage and determination.
Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and William Pitt the younger
If we pause to think about the best leaders the United Kingdom has had, most people would suggest Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and William Pitt the younger. All did big things on the home front but are remembered because they were successful war leaders.
Pitt ensured we paid for the army and navy to beat Napoleon. Lloyd George averted a crisis of ammunition in the First World War as Minister of Munitions. He set up the factory at Gretna to make cordite or “devil’s porridge”. Churchill of course is remembered for this “finest hour” stand against Nazi Germany, although he might have not been famous at all if it had not been for the Second World War. Before this he was remembered for ordering troops out against striking miners and the military disaster in the Dardanelles. Churchill and Lloyd George started the Welfare State before World War l, but not so many remember that.
Our three most remembered Prime Ministers were all wartime leaders. Wartime situations sometimes bring out qualities you do not see in peacetime. Look at Volodymyr Zelensky. But what makes a good leader in peacetime?
It is easy to think that a leader should be a person of principle. It is a common cry by sections of the left and right that a leader has abandoned principles. Thus in recent times we have seen sections of the left accusing leaders of abandoning the principle of public ownership if they allow some private involvement in the NHS or of abandoning Brexit on the right if the government negotiates anything with other countries to facilitate trade.
What has actually happened is that individuals with out much ability of leading have secured leadership positions because they have stuck to purist positions. It is much easier to stick to a rigid principle in opposition than when you actually have to lead.
Does this mean our leaders should not be people of principle? Far from it. We have seen a leader recently who told lies. I would argue that the qualities we seek are honesty, courage, energy and an ability to be straight with people, even when the truth is unpleasant to hear. Holding to particular ideologies are not always principles. We should judge a politician on whether they bettered the welfare of the people, promoted fairness, defended the country well, and improved the economy.
All administrations and leaders get tired and run out of ideas. They also get beset by human weakness. A succession of scandals hit the government of John Major, and when he announced a “back to basics” campaign in 1993 no one took it seriously. Harold Macmillan was undermined by the Profumo affair in 1961 which still attracts attention today. The Labour Government of 2009 was damaged by the expenses scandal which revealed the venal nature of many politicians in all parties.
Politics is also subject to emotions, not always rational ones. Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the Falklands in 1982 boosted her flagging administration and sprung her into a campaign of radical reform. Tony Blair became obsessed with military glory in Iraq, and the consequences wrecked what had otherwise been a successful administration. Boris Johnson tapped in to feelings of patriotism and neglect in the north to secure a victory for Brexit with no thought of the consequences.
So, lets name names, and I will endeavour not to be partisan. So here goes:
Attlee was a modest man, but a tough one, and one of old-fashioned principle. Despite the economic exhaustion of the country he laid the foundations of the NHS, secured a massive house building programme including the new towns, and provided new investment for the railways , coal industry and power companies after wartime damage. It is often forgotten too that while he secured independence for India and Pakistan he also strengthened our defences at home by being one of the prime movers in setting up NATO and holding firm against Russia with the Berlin Airlift. No soft leftie when it came to defence. The country also became fairer during his period of government.
Harold MacMillan and Tony Blair
I would include Harold MacMillan on my list. Although from a privileged background he embarked on a massive housebuilding programme, took the country into the modern age by granting independence to many colonies and setting us in a European direction. The country became more prosperous during his period of government.
Tony Blair did many good things, such as improving the NHS and child care, but ruined himself with Iraq, strangely enough not remembering Harold MacMillan’s view that foreign adventures, like Suez, did not get us anywhere.
Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak?
I do not think I have to dwell long on the qualities of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. I hope we will see a real leader with the qualities we need. The jury’s out on Rishi Sunak.