Do modern leaders need ‘charisma’?

For sure, the likeliest next Labour leader’s style stands an ocean away from the slick allure that greased Cameron’s path to the top

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The Independent Online

Just now, a few more of the commuters at Liverpool Street Station in London who hurry past Frank Meisler’s statue The Arrival may stop to think about what it means. A quotation from the Talmud runs beside the group of fugitive children. It reads: “Whosoever rescues a single soul is credited as though they had saved the whole world.”

After 1938, with hostility to migrants feverish in Parliament and press, Britain chose to save around 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi-enslaved Europe, via the Kindertransport trains, which the statue honours. Coincidentally, the Labour leadership contender Yvette Cooper suggested the same number this week as a feasible allotment of Syrian refugees.

Morality, as the rabbinical compilers of the Talmud knew, trumps mathematics. Public figures, above all, have the duty and privilege to point in the right direction without needing to measure the exact mileage. Gaze averted, face flushed, manner shifty, David Cameron failed his first test of leadership as a majority PM on Wednesday when he slammed the door even on a single life. Power, however, brings a second chance. Within 24 hours, public opinion had shamed him into a partial somersault. We now know that this “moral nation” will accept “thousands more” refugees from the camps on Syria’s borders. When, only a month into his premiership, he took full responsibility for the “unjustified and unjustifiable” killings on Bloody Sunday in 1972, Cameron showed that he did understand what it meant to hold high office and still act like (that priceless Yiddish word) a mensch. Can he do so again?

In politics, around the democratic world, the cult of personality has rightly fallen into disrepute. Yet when the guy with the top job stumbles or misfires – as Cameron did so abjectly this week – even the most sceptical of voters may feel cheated.

No one credits cheap rhetoric or empty gestures. All the same, gifted politicians can find the words that matter and frame them in a way that lifts the tone of a debate to voice the best self, not the meanest self, of a community. This may not be “charisma”, to use that tarnished idea, but it is authority.

Over the next few days, the spotlight will swing across the political spectrum towards the prospect of a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Crushed by Thatcher, burned by Blair, Labour activists seem to have decided that they will have no more truck with shiny saviours. The guy on the bike beats the man on the white horse. Corbyn, they hope, will deliver collegial rather than charismatic leadership – although as yet no “college” of his Westminster supporters exists beyond the loading of a brace of cabs.


For sure, the likeliest next leader’s style stands an ocean away from the slick allure that greased Cameron’s path to the top. But Francine Stock, who is presenting a series for Radio 4 on the history of charisma, rightly argues that potential leaders who have to work on theirs will miss the mark. To that extent, charisma has something in common with “swing” or “cool”. If you need to try, you ain’t got it. In contrast, Corbyn’s “super-casual sartorial style” reveals the innate charisma of truth to oneself.

Someone once told me that “charisma” was the Greek word for “ham”. Alas no, even if every over-acting poseur on the stage of politics lays claim to it. The “gifts of grace” defined by St Paul have come a fair distance from the sects of the Near East almost two millennia ago. Now, any clown, poltroon and mountebank with a populist platform can assume the mantle of “charisma”. Witness Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, the transatlantic Laurel and Hardy of specious claptrap. Such old hams should long ago have passed their sell-by date.

Once the idea meant more – dangerously more. The social thinker Max Weber gave the classic definition of the charismatic leader in democratic politics: a figure obeyed by disciples not “by virtue of tradition or statute, but because they believe in him... The devotion of his disciples, his followers, his party friends, is oriented to his person and to its qualities.” Weber noted that, in the modern world, charismatic authority had shifted from the “prophet”, “magician”, “gangster” and “warlord” of former times towards the “demagogue”.

I was startled when I checked the exact date and venue of that great speech on “Politics as a Vocation”. Weber delivered it to a Bavarian students’ union in Munich on 28 January 1919. In a nearby beer hall, just over seven months later, a drifting corporal began to hone his rabble-rousing skills. Adolf Hitler would go on to merge the magician, gangster, warlord and demagogue to such apocalyptic effect that it inoculated millions against the phoney promise of “charisma”. Weber, by the way, ended by telling the students that he feared the advent of a “period of reaction”: “a polar night of icy darkness and hardness”. Somehow, he had already heard the roar from the beer hall.

Amplified around the world by mid-century dictators, that roar of deadly hatred has ever since warned free peoples against the lure of charismatic demagoguery. In democracies, at least, the strongman fell from his pedestal. More recent reigns that began in mesmerising glamour – Thatcher, Blair, Sarkozy, Clinton, arguably Obama – slid into rancour and disenchantment. One view finds this immunity to flashy styles of command the sign of a mature society. Idols are for children and slaves. “Unhappy the land that has no heroes,” laments the disappointed assistant in Brecht’s play Galileo after the scientist has recanted. No, replies Galileo, “Unhappy the land that has a need for heroes.”

In Britain, some choice cuts of evidence suggest that heroic leadership matters far less than MPs, parties and the media believe. In a quietly devastating riposte to fans of swagger and stardust in politics, Archie Brown argues (in his book The Myth of the Strong Leader) that the quest for the “one leader who stands head and shoulders above” colleagues in a party has proved a fool’s errand. “As a description of the reality of the leader’s power, it is often misleading, and as an aspiration it is misguided.” In the British 20th century, Brown allows only to Lloyd George, Attlee and Thatcher the status of “redefining” leaders, in that they moved the centre-ground in their direction. At elections, moreover, “very rarely has the leader made the difference between victory and defeat”.

Brown cites one study of the impact of the “Blair effect” on 1997 election result (by John Bartle and Ivor Crewe). If John Major had matched the New Labour frontman’s popularity with the electorate, they calculate, the outcome would have differed “in just four seats”. Once in office, meanwhile, “there is no reason to suppose that the ‘strength’ of a prime minister’s leadership (in the sense of a domineering relationship with Cabinet colleagues) leads to successful government”.

Few British premiers did more to change their country for good – and for the good – than the self-effacing and collegial Clement Attlee. He was carried into power by the Labour landslide of 1945 after voters decided that Winston Churchill’s weapons-grade charisma had done its job and could safely be retired. You might, incidentally, have heard a familiar story to the effect that Churchill said, as his modest wartime deputy took office, that “An empty taxi drew up outside Number Ten, and Attlee got out.” When Churchill himself got wind of that gag, from his private secretary Jock Colville, he replied: “Mr Attlee is an honourable and gallant gentleman, and a faithful colleague who served his country well at the time of her greatest need. I should be obliged if you would make it clear whenever an occasion arises that I would never make such a remark about him, and that I strongly disapprove of anybody who does.” Even in defeat and opposition, a leader can still exercise authority.

The new leader of the Labour Party will not, in the foreseeable future, wield much power. But he or she can choose to display authority in word and deed. Next Saturday’s victor should read and take to heart Vaclav Havel’s landmark essay: The Power of the Powerless, written in 1980 as Czechoslovakia shivered in its neo-Stalinist midwinter. By “living in truth”, even in the bleakest circumstances, the free mind can help to create a “parallel polis”. Through censorship, prison and persecution, Havel and his colleagues forged their own kind of underground authority.

And, in a twist worthy of his own absurdist plays, the once-powerless Havel himself served as the – twice re-elected – Czech president from 1990 until 2003. All things considered, he did pretty well – jobs for the likes of “special ambassador” Frank Zappa and silly uniforms for the Prague Castle guards included.

The Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition will not face thuggery, arrest and jail; merely slander, abuse and character assassination. That will set another test of leadership – and nerve. Still, this week’s groundswell hints that voters may expect more from a figure of authority than the echo of noisy prejudice. They crave not charisma, but decency. Unless the PM smartens up his act, a vacancy exists.