It has become commonplace to suggest that political life is
going through some kind of drawn-out crisis of confidence. We have little faith
in the ability of leaders to deliver anything, particularly leadership. Not
that this situation is new, leaders have always been a mixed bunch, but
now we seem to expect more and leadership has not kept pace with those expectations.
Leadership itself seems to be one of those ideals we hold on
to without quite accepting it for what it is. It is an ideal, a model
aspiration rather than some reality we are likely to see in the messy
complexities of real life. It is a somewhat simple ideal of course and simple
ideals have the virtue of being democratic simply because they are accessible.
Unfortunately as with so many simple ideals the undoubted
virtue of simplicity is outweighed by our inability to fit the ideal into our
non-ideal world, the one we have to live in and understand if we are to live
successfully. We are unable to find leaders to match the ideal and almost
inevitably our confused attempts to find them tend to throw up candidates who
may be willing but are always less than ideal.
Indeed they tend to fall so deplorably short of the ideal
that we pretend to be shocked at their blatant incapacity. We expand on our
fake shock by calling for something to be done without choosing to notice that
our leadership ideal is hardly likely to exist in any reality, let alone ours
with all its irreconcilable temptations, pitfalls and outright impossibilities.
Maybe leadership was fine and dandy as an ideal for less
complex worlds where a few good leaders helped make up for a procession of
also-rans mixed in with the inevitable bad apples, bunglers and maniacs.
However we cannot start from there but are stuck with the here and now and
things are not going well. We think, or rather we must pretend to think it is all
the leader’s fault and another leader would make a better fist of things,
particularly as those at the head of the queue are constantly assuring us of
their ability to do the job. Subtly assuring us of course – as subtly as a poke
in the eye but that is politics too.
We live complex lives in complex environments which are not
becoming, nor are they likely to become appreciably simpler. Not within any
realistic political time frame. Modern leaders are not even close to mastering a
fraction of that complexity and even though they have hordes of advisers and
bureaucrats to digest the complexity, it is still too complex for a single
individual. Even an executive summary is no good if the executive does
not even have the background to know what is being summarised and what may be
missing from the summary. Dumbing down only takes us so far. The same goes for
leaders. They are only human as we know too well, so why stick with an ideal
which requires them to be far more than human?
Why stick with the ideal?
That’s easy – leaders have evolved into useful distractions,
expendable political facades. Even the EU feels bound to offer up a pretend
leader in the comically inadequate person of Jean-Claude Juncker, as if aiming
to expunge the old ideal of leadership in favour of the facade. That is
probably what we are now stuck with - hence May and Corbyn. Don’t expect
anything better seems to be the message.