The Myth of the Strong Leader by Archie Brown, book review: No politician wants to be seen as weak, but allowing ultimate power can be damaging


At one point in this persuasive analysis of political leadership, Archie Brown describes how after Khrushchev denounced Stalin in his 1956 "secret speech" he received a letter from an old Bolshevik recollecting a discussion with Stalin 30 years earlier.

When it had been put to Stalin by Sergey Kirov that while Lenin had died "we still have the party, the Central Committee, the Politburo," Stalin retorted that although this was true, "the Russian people are Tsarist. For many centuries [they]…. have been used to being led by just one person. And now there must be one."

Apart from the incidental light this may cast on Vladimir Putin's approach in a Russia where many still hanker after "strong" leaders, as professor Brown's primary field has long been the Soviet Union, he understands better than most how collective revolutionary leadership was replaced – and perverted – by brutal dictatorship. He is especially qualified to demythologise "strong leadership" of the sort promoted – albeit with vastly less monstrous results – in democracies.

The book's strength lies partly in its overview of an, at times, dizzyingly global range of democratic, totalitarian and revolutionary leaders. But as Professor Brown writes, you need look no further than Tony Blair's taunt to John Major "I lead my party; he follows his", or the efforts of David Cameron and Ed Miliband to brand each other as "weak" to realise how far "the strong-weak theme" has become a "constant" of politics.

Brown sets out to debunk the fashionable enthusiasm for a "strong", leader who "concentrates….. power in his or her hands, dominates….. the political party to which he or she belongs, and takes the big decisions". Instead, Professor Brown argues that other qualities should matter more than "strength" including intelligence, collegiality, articulacy… courage, vision, empathy and boundless energy.

Brown places exceptional peacetime democratic leaders – Churchill as a wartime Prime Minister being sui generis – into two categories which transcend or even contradict the conventional view of "strength". There are "redefining" leaders – in Britain: Asquith and Attlee, who presided over distinctively collective Cabinets containing arguably "stronger" figures than themselves like Lloyd George and Bevin, and Margaret Thatcher, who he suggests despite her force of personality was less "dismissive" of her party and less inclined to bypass her Cabinet, than Blair.

Also included in this category are FDR and LBJ (for entrenching civil rights) in the US, Adenauer, Brandt and Kohl, for Germany's post-war renewal, Ostpolitik and reunification, and FW de Klerk in South Africa. Then he nominates a premier league of "transformational leaders" Abraham Lincoln (the only pre-20th century figure Brown discusses) De Gaulle, Gorbachev, Mandela, and perhaps more controversially, Deng Xiaoping.

Brown argues that the singular "strength" of one politician rather than collective decision-making often ends in damage. As Brown says, if Blair ever aspired to the "Napoleonic" model of centralised government once floated by his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, he didn't achieve it. For one thing there was the apparently immovable object of Gordon Brown.

But on Iraq he did take the "big decision". Brown writes that "given the extent to which Blair's colleagues allowed him to get away with the "strange and egocentric notion" that this was for him alone, "due process" might not have changed anything. But the lamentable lack of orderly Cabinet discussion based on properly circulated official papers, exposed by Lord Butler's review, meant that this was never put to the test.

Brown's challenge to the orthodoxy that "strong leadership" is automatically desirable extends way beyond an appraisal of Blair's premiership. It could be read with profit – and perhaps even some relief – by any politician aiming for the top job. To borrow from his own paradigm on leadership, his book is, if not "transformational", at least "redefining".