Archie Brown’s book about political leaders is undermined by his loathing of one of them in particularby Ferdinand Mount / March 27, 2014 / Leave a comment
Mikhail Gorbachev and Margaret Thatcher in London in 1987 ©Getty Images
The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age by Archie Brown (Bodley Head, £25)
Archie Brown does not say so, but I cannot resist guessing the exact moment at which he was provoked into writing this book. It was, I fancy, when he got to page two of the introduction to Tony Blair’s memoirs, the bit where our hero reminds us that “I won three elections.” “No, you didn’t,” I imagine Professor Brown shouting as he hurled the book across the room. The near-universal belief that the leader’s personality is decisive in elections is simply wrong. It’s parties that win and lose the day. Heath was far less popular than Wilson in 1970, Thatcher than Callaghan in 1979. Leaders are much less important than they think they are.
It is an even greater misconception that strong leaders are the most successful and admirable. On the contrary, when a leader always gets his or her own way, dominates colleagues, and concentrates decision-making in his or her own hands, disaster tends to follow. Collective leadership is always better, the proper processes of government need to be respected, and your political party is there to be consulted and wooed, not manipulated or ignored.
That is Archie Brown’s argument, and a very respectable one it is, too. As emeritus professor of politics at Oxford University and author of numerous books on the Soviet Union, he is well-qualified to make this case. But behind his general argument there lies, not very well hidden, a personal assault. For the prime example of the misbegotten strongman that is adduced, time and again, is Blair. He is the only 21st-century leader to receive sustained attention. Putin, Merkel, Berlusconi don’t get a look in. It is always Blair we come back to: his braggadocio, his cavalier treatment of his party, his contempt for the normal processes of government, his reckless adventurism abroad, above all in the Middle East. If Iraq is not written on Tony Blair’s heart, it is on Archie Brown’s.
To transform the particular polemic into a general theory of leadership, Brown trawls widely, if not particularly deeply. We are taken on a gruelling sightseeing tour from Ataturk to Yeltsin. In the course of this journey, we get rather too many glimpses of the obvious:…