In Lytton Strachey’s book Eminent Victorians, there is an interesting observation about William Gladstone. Interesting because with only slight alterations to the wording, Strachey’s viewpoint could be applied to modern leadership. For example, if we substitute Tony Blair for William Gladstone we end up with a passage which does not fit Blair exactly but is close enough to be interesting.
There is absolutely no intention to imply that Blair is another Gladstone. It is a question of leadership and different types of leader. Here is the passage with the alterations.
In spite of the involutions of his intellect and the contortions of his spirit, it is impossible not to perceive a strain of naiveté in
Mr. Gladstone Mr
Blair. He adhered to some of his principles that of the value of representative
institutions, for instance with a faith which was singularly literal; his views
upon religion government were uncritical to crudeness; he had no sense
of humour. Compared with Disraeli's Thatcher’s, his attitude towards
life strikes one as that of an ingenuous child.
His very egoism was simple-minded; through all the labyrinth of his passions there ran a single thread. But the centre of the labyrinth? Ah! the thread might lead there, through those wandering mazes, at last. Only, with the last corner turned, the last step taken, the explorer might find that he was looking down into the gulf of a crater. The flame shot out on every side, scorching and brilliant; but in the midst, there was a darkness.
Lytton Strachey - Eminent Victorians (1918)
If we choose to expand this, then we might say it is impossible not to perceive a strain of naiveté in the very concept of modern democratic leadership, impossible not to perceive how necessary it is for modern leaders to adopt and project an uncritically crude view of government capabilities.
There is no need to stick with Tony Blair to see this played out in modern leadership. Political ideas must have wide appeal to chime with the millions who do little or no research, being satisfied with crude maxims and naive allegiances.
We evolved, to navigate our way through life by evading surprises. A crude standpoint enables us to do that, especially when it comes to the infinite complexities of political life. If nothing is irretrievably anchored to reality then everything is explainable, especially after the event. This is the political world in which all would-be leaders must cast their nets.
A further point is Strachey’s claim that Gladstone really had a strain of naiveté in his character and his religious views really were uncritical to the point of crudeness. It was no facade and perhaps that was advantageous too.
We have certainly seen this kind of thing in modern leaders and maybe we see now in Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps this is the source of his appeal just as a lack of a sufficiently crude outlook is the source of Theresa May’s credibility problems. In which case she is unlikely to resolve those problems because other people do it better. Boris Johnson for example, although he made the mistake of adopting a clown persona. An oddly naive thing to do – it displays the facade.
Yet facades work too. Leaders do not have to be like Gladstone. They do not have to be naive themselves to see the value of naiveté, neither need they have a crude notion of government in order to promote crude political maxims. On the other hand, leaders who are genuinely naive with a genuinely crude notion of government may be very effective political leaders, especially in a world of Twitter storms.
Of course this is politics. It is the other lot who always adopt the crudest notions of government and promote the most naive policies don’t they?