It was impossible not to laugh at the choice of words employed by Liam Fox, the Conservative Party health spokesman, when he commented on Labour's decision to reintroduce matrons into hospitals. Without any consciousness of irony or absurdity, Fox said he welcomed the move because "Matron will ensure cleanliness". Note the absence of either definite or indefinite article and the use of the singular noun, as if "Matron" is the individual personification of, among other things, authority. The insistence on cleanliness is also significant, expressing a moral nostalgia for a safe and cosy past when (so says rose-tinted memory) everything was nicer.
Fox does not sound like someone who went to prep school, so he probably only wishes he had, in order to have fond memories of being spanked by Matron there. But the wish conveys a yearning for a kind of authority that no longer carries credibility. Tories berate Labour for fostering a "nanny state", by which they mean something quite different from their own preferred "matron state". Nanny hassles, orders, marshals, interferes, makes lots of petty rules and generally spoils the big boys' fun when they are beating up small boys (playing Capitalists and Workers respectively, perhaps). Matron, by contrast, is magisterial and remote, a final authority who, if she lets bullying occur, will nevertheless stop it short of murder. Nanny's authority is hectoring and immediate, Matron's is Olympian and encompassing. Nanny has a pinched faced and wagging finger, Matron has an immense embonpoint and fills the whole corridor as she sails along it. Nanny is socially inferior, like a policeman. Matron is senior to God. The two represent quite different emotional and practical worlds.
Matron as just characterised is no longer a possibility. Labour's hospital matrons will not be Carry On Nursing originals, but management personnel - upstairs staff sent down to ward level in uniform. The position will not have the hierarchical authority carried by matrons of old, because the required ethos has ceased to exist. People no longer think that differences in character, social position, age or experience place any one person "higher" than any other. Neither office nor title commands respect and deference just of itself. This is one reason for discipline problems in schools: the office of teacher no longer carries intrinsic or automatic authority.
The vanishing of authority in society is general, but it is most felt in connection with political figures. It now seems inappropriate to call politicians "leaders", still less "statesmen", although this latter term is occasionally applied to superannuated peers who held Cabinet office decades ago. There are many reasons why authority as a political substance has evaporated, but the main one is the relationship between politics and the media. To understand it, one has to turn one's attention to baboons and chimpanzees.
Animal ethologists distinguish two kinds of social structure among monkeys and primates: the "agonic", in which order is kept in the troop by violence; and the "hedonic", in which social ranking is determined by which animal shows off best. When an alpha male baboon goes into a dominance display, other baboons flee. When an alpha male chimpanzee does so, the others settle down to watch. Crudely speaking, human society mixes the two; policemen and pop stars illustrate the baboon and chimpanzee parts respectively. A leader of the demagogic variety combines both menace and theatre, as witness Hitler's Nuremberg rallies.
In the remoter past, authority accrued to those who possessed warrior virtues in an eminent degree: might made right. But the use of display - to convey a sense of majesty and entitlement to rule - acknowledged that, when force is not appropriate, entertainment is an essential substitute.
Wellington and Peel, Gladstone and Disraeli loomed larger than life in the public imagination because they could retain distance and mystique. Now, television and the tabloid press make it very difficult for contemporary politicians to seem Olympian. As Homer says in Alexander Pope's translation, "the leader mixing with the vulgar host/Is in the common mass of matter lost".
Two factors are in play here. One is that the media, and television in particular, are vehicles principally of entertainment. (The broadsheets and serious magazines that attempt analysis and debate, and with them a small minority of radio channels, are exempted from this generalisation.) They accordingly impose entertainment-governed demands on anyone who appears in them; and this gives rise to the second factor. Media wisdom has it that the public's attention span is severely limited, and can cope, at most, only with soundbites and slogans.
Politicians, knowing that they will not get access to the media unless they conform to their demands, quickly learn (indeed, are expressly taught by their party machines) the following facts. Studies show that the content of what anyone says accounts for about 7 per cent of the impact made on the audience; the rest depends upon behaviour and appearance. This is why George W Bush can utter garbled ungrammaticalities and yet be elected president. Glibness, unhesitating speech, a self-possessed manner, and the right kind of clothing for the occasion, so far outweigh content that the latter scarcely counts. Michael Foot lost the 1983 election by visibly thinking on television in response to questions; he would have done better, so long as it sounded convincing, to string together a list of prepositions.
The moment that politicians demonstrate media ability, they become overexposed to the public gaze. The media are insatiable for content, needing to fill hours of airtime or acres of blank print each week. In the symbiosis of the media's and the politicians' mutual needs, politicians become chimpanzees, their style perforce hedonic, existing on a continuum of entertainment with football players and pop stars (except that politicians are far less popular). The contrast with great authority figures of the past - statesmen, thinkers, people of real achievement and substantial talents - is enormous. Individuals might have all the brains in the world, but if they are not photogenic, they are nothing. They might have talent, but if they lack glibness, they remain anonymous. They might have ideas, but if they have no TV training, they are as if dumb.
It follows that, in our society, we do not have leadership, we have political advertising; we do not have leaders, we have anxious monitors of focus groups and opinion polls. This looks like a form of direct democracy, but it is actually mere politics of survival.
This state of affairs is a direct result of popular reluctance to accord authority either to the individuals or to the institutions that traditionally held it. There cannot be authority without obedience, or at least the willingness to be led; and it is this willingness that has gone. A vicious cycle sets in: the more that politicians are driven by opinion poll results, the more critical both media and populace become. Criticism - or just as often, carping - has become the natural stance towards those who are supposed to be responsible for things. We have an adversarial system in society at large, just as in the law, and unless everything runs perfectly, much whining and blaming ensues, on the principle that someone must be to blame even if no one is allowed to be in authority.
One corollary is that there is no longer an ethos of accepting that at least some politicians make sincere efforts to do their best by the country. We assume that politicians are on the personal make, with no genuine larger interests - and, in this circumstance, an unwillingness to allow claims to authority is even greater. Churchill acquired authority because of the perceived quality of his leadership during the Second World War. Margaret Thatcher certainly appeared to some as an authority figure, in good Matron fashion; but to opponents and victims of her policies, she was a hectoring bully. And that is what happens whenever someone makes an effort to assume the stance of authority in the contemporary western world: he (or she) seems merely hectoring and bullying.
Although it was easier in the past for leaders to lay claim to authority, given that their publics were more ignorant and deferential, many were none the less insecure. Napoleon defined a leader as "a dealer in hope", and both Aristotle and Cicero believed that no one could be a good leader who had not first learnt to obey. This curious view is very much alive in contemporary political parties, where climbing the greasy pole involves assiduously and loyally observing the party line. It might be questioned whether a capacity for trimming views and being conformist is a desirable leadership quality; but cynics would say that because, in politics, principles are a hindrance and hypocrisy is a virtue, such might have to be the case. It was always considered a strength of the Conservative Party that its members were fiercely loyal, in public at least, to one another and their leaders. New Labour's leaders have taken a leaf from their book and demanded the same from their own, traditionally unruly, following; but the protests from some quarters have, although well muffled, still been audible.
In an age where no one and nothing exercises authority, is it still possible for anyone to be in charge? It depends on one's views about leadership, of which there are broadly two schools of thought. One has it that a leader should lead, the other that he (or she) should follow. The latter is not as paradoxical as it seems; some commentators claim that the best leaders are those who marshal their followers in the direction they are already going. On this view, when governments take careful note of public opinion, and scrutinise the views of focus groups, they are adapting themselves to trends and attempting to satisfy rather than to direct demand. Sometimes this is the wisest course. As Sophocles cautioned: "What you cannot enforce, do not command." Public opinion is notoriously resistant to some of the brighter ideas suggested by national leaders, who have taken undignified tumbles as a result; John Major's "back to basics" campaign is a case in point.
At the same time, it is true that, in general, people are only too pleased to be led. Because of weakness, ignorance and laziness - laziness above all - most would rather leave it to others to take decisions. Seneca observed that what makes people unhappy is not being given orders, but being made to do things against their will. Because few relish the task of unravelling complicated problems or making important choices, it is not duty or obedience they dislike, but being obliged to take responsibility.
Some say that a leader who is kind, considerate and prepared to lead by example will be most cheerfully and loyally followed. But it is equally true, as Pope's Homer says, that it is a mistake for a leader to mix too freely with his followers. This suggests the need for a fine balance between the degree of distance and condescension (in the literal sense of that term) that a leader should observe. But equally wise heads point out that when leadership involves - as it often does - unpopular decisions and hard actions, what used to be a loyal following becomes more disaffected than one with which the leader had a merely pragmatic relationship.
In the age of politician-as-chimpanzee, therefore, leadership is at most and at best a form of thespian followership. If proof were needed, one has only to look at the government's stance on the euro. If there is any contemporary issue on which the stamp of authority is needed in the interests of Britain's long-term future, this is it; but all we have is shadow play from those who should regard themselves as having been chosen to take responsibility for doing the right and wise thing.
The one consideration which runs counter to the idea that authority is dead in contemporary Britain, is the point already cited in explanation of why history is littered with demagogues - the supposed laziness and weakness of the public taken as a unit, which make it appear to crave a firm leader, a guide, a Fuhrer. But there is no inconsistency here. This craven impulse to be governed by an iron fist typically arises only in times of threat. Then, indeed, people scurry behind the strong man's back, and gladly yield all sovereignty to him. But in times of peace and plenty, if they go behind his back, it is only to raise two fingers to it - or to stab him in it. These days, this is the best an aspirant to authority can hope for.
A C Grayling is Reader in philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London