It’s time to talk about leadership

a woman and a man dancing wearing bright blue in a brightly lit studio
Photo: BBC

It’s time we started facing up to the fact that leadership now is too big a job for politicians on their own

We’re all in charge but we don’t know what we’re doing

When I was very young I told a teacher at my school that I could tap dance. Either my teacher was taken in by my fantasy or could spot a liar – because very quickly I found myself in front of the class awkwardly shuffling on the spot, pretending to tap dance when I very obviously couldn’t.

This early brush with dance-floor humiliation might explain why I’m a terrible dancer and a newly converted fan of Ed Balls. The former Labour politician is becoming a ‘national treasure’ – as each week he survives the Strictly Come Dancing judges’ opprobrium to stay in the show. With gusto and self-deprecation, he is styling out his hopelessness for the millions of us who can’t dance. As a consequence, thousands of people are voting for him, like they’ve never voted for a Brownite politician before.

Things aren’t going so well, though, for Ed Balls’ former colleagues on both sides of the House of Commons – who themselves appear to be attempting to style out their difficulties, sadly with less aplomb.

Both the government and the opposition have struggled to come up with coherent plans for Britain’s departure from the European Union. Frequent pronouncements are only adding to the sense that Brexit might be the greatest challenge they’ve faced. Which, of course, it is.

This air of uncertain competence is not as endearing in serving politicians as it is when embodied by former ones. Boris Johnson, once seen himself as a national treasure, is now being treated as a global embarrassment.

Leadership and uncertainty

It would be easy to indulge in truisms, call politics a cruel mistress – even point out that governing in difficult times should be the greatest honour to which a politician can aspire. But these are not just difficult times.

Politics – as the old saying goes – is the art of the possible. But right now our politicians are facing the impossible. And not just in the shape of Brexit – where a majority of Brits favour unchanged access to the European Union’s single market, but with immigration controls that have already been ruled out by remaining EU members.

From climate change, to a growing chasm of inequality, to the sense that the West – after generations of global dominance – is on the wane, we are seeing challenges that our politicians can’t just style out on their own. That means we will have to change our expectations of how politicians and governments solve these challenges – and, indeed, our own role in the solutions.

If we were to imagine that the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition had both spelled out how difficult a Brexit would likely be it is not hard to fathom the reaction their honesty would receive. The markets would tumble, and the tabloid newspapers would wail. Ultimately, we would be no closer to a solution – only watching a different set of politicians trying desperately to style it out.

Instead, we have the unedifying prospect of uncertainty that politicians have to pretend doesn’t exist, choosing either stony silence or speculative busking to keep us calm. A constant analogy has been a game of poker. ‘We won’t reveal our hand in negotiations with our European partners, because to do so would weaken our position,’ we are told. That unwittingly betrays a sense of random chance that none of us can be comfortable with, particularly given that the cards in the government’s hand are our own futures.

Leadership needs to change

So how do we grow up? Brexit and the even greater challenges that lie ahead won’t be solved by our politicians pretending they can simply sort them out, or by us expecting them to. Calling for a ‘new kind of politics’, meanwhile, is just as facile as the poker analogy. Instead, we have to start asking questions about the concept of leadership in the 21st century – recognising that it really isn’t one person’s job any more.

By the end of the 20th century we had largely adopted a system of parliamentary democracy in the West and elsewhere that offered a degree of popular involvement restricted to elections. This made sense, given the constraints of the industrial age. It invested power in a relatively small group of people for entirely practical reasons.

Around that system grew a culture of political scrutiny that responded to our political leaders as the sole arbiters of the future, albeit for limited periods. Newspapers, TV and radio journalists each did their jobs to pick at, understand and challenge the political class, but it remained a politician’s job to lead.

Today we are unburdened by the restraints of the industrial age but have made few attempts to explore how our democracies need to change. An age of information has helped to distribute power in new ways. In some cases this has turned the notion of leadership on its head completely. Is Theresa May more or less of a leader than someone who commands millions of followers on Twitter? The obvious answer starts to look more and more shaky when Donald Trump is elected US President.

Nonetheless, our political systems have not responded. They are largely the same top-down institutions that they were when they succeeded monarchies in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Perhaps, given the challenges they now face, it is not surprising that we are seeing more and more referendums, unhelpfully lobbing tricky questions to the voting public and then scrambling when the answers that come back don’t suit.

Similarly, the media – so vital in calling to account our politicians – is caught in its own interregnum. As newspapers go to the wall, new media businesses emerge that command huge power but are less constrained by the standards we expected from their predecessors.

The only way of addressing this is to start to be honest, both about the scale of the challenges, and to face the fact that we are moving to a new kind of democratic and political system, one in which control is much less fixed than it was. The response to this will need to be more than just a switch in voting systems – like moving to proportional representation. It will require a full-scale change in our thinking that starts with questions about who leads, how do they lead and when? More pertinently, it needs to address what involvement we all have in leadership. We each face profound issues about how we manage this, but those challenges are upon us now.

This will have to start with a conversation about our democratic institutions at the very least. They are woefully out of date. If politicians can’t yet be honest about their own readiness for the scale of the challenges we face, we must at least make sure they are made to confront this.

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