Theresa May's leadership is at risk. Photo: PA

The Prospect editorial: The Character Thing

In this month's issue, our writers rethink the individual's place in politics and ideas
September 14, 2017

The British state is navigating the choppiest waters it has faced since the Second World War, as it attempts to steer a safe course out of the European Union. How far does it matter if there’s nobody at the wheel? The moment Theresa May came back from holiday and half-suggested she might fight the next election, her more turbulent troops began to mutiny. The upshot is that this year’s party conference season will be even more fixated on the leadership question than usual.

Those of us who like to think we should be more concerned with policy than personality politics will groan—but Andrew Adonis suggests that for any party serious about power, a fixation on who gets the top job is essential. An historian-turned-politician who spends much of his life with his nose in a biography, he trawls 70 years of psephological records, and concludes that every election boils down to the character thing. Whether you buy his thesis or not, and Steve Richards for one has some real doubts, you won’t be able to resist joining in with Adonis’s game of leadership Top Trumps—arguing with his scores, and seeing how many head-to-head electoral contests you can flip.

In a series of profiles with interesting characters on the way up in three different parties, Gaby Hinsliff, Rachel Sylvester and Jennifer Williams scan the horizon for the next generation of British leaders. But the reach of personality is not just a parochial question—it can shape international affairs too. Tom Fletcher looks forward to a meeting between two vastly different characters which could have global repercussions—UN Secretary General, António Guterres, and Donald Trump.

Sometimes, however, there are ideas or things in the culture which are bigger than any personality. Following a refugee family from Syria to Ohio, Wendell Steavenson finds heartening signs of an open-armed American tradition towards immigrants withstanding the personal whims of the 45th President. Meanwhile, Wittgenstein biographer Ray Monk hails the thought of Gottlob Frege as the greatest contribution to the tradition of analytic philosophy—even as he describes a decidedly narrow and forgettable man. In the history of ideas, the “great man” theory occasionally has to make allowance for the man who wasn’t there.

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