Our rulers fall on hard times

The perks of the job - long holidays and lots of champagne - are not what they used to be. George Lu

Many people are lucky enough to have homes. One chilling nightmare for those who do is to find their residence engulfed in chip-pan-ignited flames. Imagine, then, the real horror for every national leader fated to find his or her own capital alight - or, as riot police retreat in stone-pelted armoured vans, under active demolition. This is precisely what happened in January 1998 to Robert Mugabe's Harare.

As the capital of Zimbabwe was engulfed by enormous clouds of tear gas, cars were stoned and streets cleared. But hopes for Mugabe's eviction were abruptly dashed. He stayed put, seemingly as permanent as his enormous Zanu PF skyscraper. It was no surprise, confided the former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith shortly afterwards: there had been no worldwide drive to remove the dictator. After all, the 78-year-old farmer said, "there is a trade union of world leaders, you know".

And what a trade union! By every account, actually being a world leader, in any era, should be a tremendous, enthralling thing. But all unions need to monitor the pay, conditions and perks of their craft. It is true that there have always been and continue to be many luxuries available, large staffs of very bright people with whom to pass the time. There have always been fabulous places to visit and the chance to encounter a galaxy of megastars from artists to Nobel prize-winning astrophysicists - not to mention one's childhood rock heroes. There is no compulsion to take public transport, unless votes are short; indeed, an eternal right of kings and premiers alike has been to have the traffic cleared from one's path.

Doubtless a century ago the largesse on hand was voluminous. The holidays were lengthier, the flunkies, fine wines and gourmet dinners more pervasive. Lord Salisbury, prime minister until 1902, periodically ran the Empire for months on end from a holiday retreat in France. Emperors Franz Joseph of Austria and Nicholas of Russia had the run of fabulous palaces, as did China's murderous Empress Dowager.

Leaders seldom did anything as vulgar as travel on business. If they did, it had to be riotously fun as well; the young Winston Churchill's idea of a junior ministerial fact-finding trip was to cruise off with some chums on a government yacht and return five months later.

Public scrutiny of decisions was, until recently, much less developed than it is today. Given far lower popular expectations of what government could achieve, the pressure to perform was similarly low-key. There was more time to read and amass expertise, which allowed the brighter of the leaders, such as Salisbury, to deepen their understanding of statecraft to a level inconceivable for most of their successors.

Yet by the time of Salisbury's later career, as the Oxford University professor Brian Harrison says, a modern democracy was making increasing demands on the prime minister's time. The advent of the telegram and the telephone meant that voters had warmed, gruesomely, to getting in touch, although at this stage most would have little chance of recognising their leader's face. Years passed. Monarchies collapsed. As early as the 1960s, TV and tabloids, along with fading deference, dragged political elites into a new era of accountability.

Leaders look their new more democratic part. Tony Blair, says the style maestro Peter York, looks like one of a modern middle-class tribe of "Oxbridge people in management". The Clintons are likewise packaged to move freely among their people, complete with sweatshirts, grins and baseball caps. Both Blair and Clinton are in all likelihood financially poorer for their efforts; they earn annual salaries some business counterparts would exceed in a few days. South Africa's Thabo Mbeki lives a life described by one insider as "extremely comfortable" (he reputedly enjoys a good cigar) but, critically, the parade is heavily scaled back in public. As the former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind says, leaders - Mugabe is one old-fashioned exception - almost universally now live comparatively modestly for fear of accusations of constructing a personality cult.

There is an infernal amount of air travel, without a scintilla of its pre-1914 magic. There are omnipresent cameras to grimace into. Free weekends - let alone holidays - are rare. Job security remains non-existent. Private lives have been compelled to be truly cleaner, again in rough correlation with the degree of media-induced transparency.

But time has also brought benefits. There now exist pension schemes. For the nimble, there are fortunes to be made on retirement: speeches, board memberships and, with luck, a sparkling succession of fine international jobs. (Book advances are a rare diamond mine.) For all but the most bloodthirsty, the past 20 years have also seen a welcome plummet in the chances of violent death following deposition.

Above all, the leaders' power is far expanded; as the vintage champagne flood levels have fallen, the actual ability to shape events is far greater. In foreign policy, revolutionised communications leave government heads in far greater daily control than before. The sheer sophistication of the modern state (its potency only partially offset by capital markets and regional blocs) means that the opportunity to alter society is unimaginably greater than in 1900.

The speed and quantity of modern information flows do make crippling demands on modern leaders' time, but they also provide new resources of insight. Thus even if Blair does lack Salisbury's long weeks of reflection, behind the sound-bites the quality of information available does make possible more accurate, and faster, decision-making. As for ministerial overload, it was for the serious statesman always thus. Salisbury endured a regular 13-hour working day. Even the doomed Tsar Nicholas was at his desk before dawn.

The club has gone. Long live the club. It meets every month and, its white tie tendency exorcised, its occupants look like us. This is - dare it be said - democracy, and for pure excitement it should get better, for rulers and ruled alike. In terms of voter empowerment, these are early days; as Internet technology expands, voters will develop an ever more troublesome tendency to check their own facts. Politicians and potentates will no longer live in a world apart - indeed, in 2100 the New Statesman may describe how, outlandishly, most ministers once worked in capital cities.

If so, fine. There may yet emerge more privations for politicians, and more dignified and more lucrative competing professions. But there will continue to be rainforests to replant, plutonium to bury, water to cleanse, families to house, children to feed. Ultimately there must be someone who pulls it together, who takes the final decision. Someone who, in later retirement, will have the unique satisfaction of knowing they were among the few who put themselves forward to make a difference. Now, champagne and rolling acres? Or the chance to save the planet? Any takers?

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