New Times,
New Thinking.

Why we get the wrong leaders

History reveals what drives the ambitions of would-be Caesars – and how we can counter them.

By William Waldegrave

Can there ever have been a general election so devoid of rhetorical panache as this one? Sunak and Starmer, Reeves and Hunt make Ted Heath sound like Cicero. Even Farage’s recycled slogans, usually good for a laugh or a sneer, sound tired. Ferdinand Mount, however, may be rejoicing. He himself is not capable of deploying words badly. Whether it is a novel, a memoir (Cold Cream), a review for the London Review of Books, or the extraordinary life of his Aunt Munca, Kiss Myself Goodbye, he writes about complicated things with lucidity and elegance. He hasn’t spoilt his record with Big Caesars and Little Caesars – first published in 2023 and now issued in a timely pre-election paperback – is a splendid book. Or rather, to be fair, several books or long essays bound into one by a theme articulated with passion and expressed with powerful rhetoric. The theme is the defence of rational discussion, of careful debate and of the imperfect parliamentary and senatorial institutions which embody such debate. His motto is Lyndon Johnson’s, from Isaiah 1, verse 18: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.”

Another Johnson, Boris, lit the fire of the anger that burns through this book. So learned is Mount, and in so many different directions, that his anger takes him far and wide beyond the 10 Downing Street that he knew first-hand as Mrs Thatcher’s head of policy back in 1982-83. One of the books in this volume is a study of the phenomenon of glittering prizes; of life as a game with applause and honours as its sole objective. One deep root of this in Western culture lies in what ER Dodds in his great book The Greeks and the Irrational describes as the “shame culture” presented with incomparable poetic power in the Bronze Age epic of the Iliad. Achilles, who knowingly chose short life and glory over long life and obscurity, embodies this culture. The example of Achilles echoes down the ages to Julius Caesar, and then through the middle ages to Napoleon and onwards. There is a gap in Mount’s story here: we need a chapter on Alexander the Great. He was the embodiment (at least in his own eyes) of the swift-footed son of Peleus and was the hero of heroes to all his successors, and not just in Europe: Iskander’s fame reaches as far as did his armies.

In parliamentary politics, the pursuit of fame for fame’s sake transmitted itself to the democratic age: in Britain via the extraordinary figure of Disraeli, followed by Lord Randolph Churchill, FE Smith, Lloyd George and the greater Churchill. Small fry were infected with it too: the author of this review dreamt as a teenager with Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, “Is it not passing brave to be a King/And ride in triumph through Persepolis?”

This is a very bad culture in which to be brought up as a preparation for the real world of politics, or any other kind of decision-making for that matter. The least bad solutions to infinitely difficult and complicated real problems can only be reached by often backbreaking detailed work, and the resolution of conflict and disagreement only by much careful “reasoning together”.

Mount has another book entwined with the “glittering prizes” one – related to it, but not the same. This other book is about revolutions, and what a bad thing they mostly are. How often have we been told by those who have a grand plan, which involves smashing up everything that exists, that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”? I am married to a famous cook. I have learnt that just breaking eggs produces nothing but broken eggs.

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Mount compares and contrasts a good selection of those disastrous revolutionary doctrines, derived sometimes from mystical philosophers who identify unstoppable cycles in history. These revolutionaries who are “on the side of history” feel it their duty to help such cycles along, sweeping away the irrelevant debris into concentration camps or the gulag or political training centres. Hegel and Spengler and co, says Mount, have a lot to answer for. This separate polemic is music to my ears as a thoroughgoing disciple of the other Isaiah, Berlin, who once ticked me off after I had had a spat with Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister of Israel – not because of my criticism of Shamir, whom Berlin detested, but because I had made the “vulgar Marxist mistake of saying that Israel might be left behind by history”. I was rightly rebuked.

But this is not really the same subject as the Caesarism of Boris Johnson or Donald Trump and win-at-all-costs politics-as-a-game. That deformation by definition has little to do with ideology, or indeed ideas of any kind: you say any old thing that is necessary to help you win. It needs rhetoric, humour, wit, the skills to achieve celebrity, but not ideology. Lenin was a dreary fellow really, but ruthless and driven and efficient in his way: more like a religious fanatic (Mount also has an excellent go at the dreadful Oliver Cromwell) than a pseudo-Homeric hero. Others ran organisations that were more like Mafia families – for example, Indira Gandhi and her henchman son Sanjay (on whom Mount is very good) attacked democratic and judicial checks and balances at least as much to keep their friends and relations in power as for any other reason.

But the point of Mount taking us on this detour, and providing excellent potted histories of a number of successful coups and, more importantly to his theme, unsuccessful coups, is to stop us from despairing. So many serious and dangerous attempts at power which, had they succeeded would have been dignified by the name of “revolutions”, have been stopped by a few good people doing the right thing – Cicero stopped Catiline (though he failed against the triumvirate that killed him). The relevant authorities just managed to stop the first of Hitler’s attempts on power, which Mount shows should not be dismissed under the belittling title of “the Beer Hall Putsch”; it was much more dangerous and vicious than that name suggests. We can stop these things, says Mount, if we support legitimate institutions when it matters.

The book ends with a moving and powerful defence of the messy procedures of parliamentary institutions, with all their catcalls and uproar and late-night sittings and the rest of it. “That is the noise democracy makes,” said RA Butler to foreign visiting dignitaries alarmed by the bedlam at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. When we start to tidy it all away, guillotining all bills in the interest of family-friendly hours, or proroguing parliament to put an end to tedious debate, or ruling by “Henry VIII” acts of parliament empowering the executive to govern by subsidiary fiat, we are chipping away at the vulnerable web of custom – also called common morality – that protects us all. In Britain we held out, just, against Boris Johnson in the end; but we should not take future success for granted. A hard-right push for power might be much better organised next time; the left-wing equivalent might find a more convincing demagogue than Jeremy Corbyn.

There is more, of course, to be said. There is such a thing as good charismatic leadership. There is Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. Hated by the left she may have been, but Margaret Thatcher was a stickler for constitutional proprieties. We need leaders who behave well but can also communicate, and move mass audiences. Was Churchill in the May days of 1940 playing Caesar when, as Ed Murrow wrote, he “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”? And were not some ruthless Caesars – Augustus, say – better than any realistic alternative? And what are we to do when great, trusted, slow-built institutions fail us, as the NHS and its governance failed so many in the infected-blood scandal described by Brian Langstaff? Is there not sometimes a need for leadership capable of fundamental change which may involve harsh challenges to very deeply embedded vested interests? After all, LBJ delivered all that he did often by the most Machiavellian of techniques, whatever his respect for the word of the Lord as reported by the prophet.

Even Mount cannot answer every question, but in this book he provides all of us with many of the arguments to enable us to answer them for ourselves, and gives salutary warning about what to watch out for if Caesars, big or little, are sharpening their swords in our neighbourhood.

William Waldegrave was a Conservative minister under Margaret Thatcher and John Major

Big Caesars and Little Caesars
Ferdinand Mount
Bloomsbury Continuum, 304pp, £12.99

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[See also: What Orwell got right]

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine