Leading Article: It's character that counts

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE notion that character is one of the greatest qualities of leadership is so commonplace that it sounds banal. It is taken for granted, until the rule is breached so flagrantly that the importance of character comes back into sharp focus, and behaviour is suddenly judged by more exacting standards. If we had forgotten the truth of this, the melodrama being acted out in Washington DC is a compelling reminder of the influence of character in politics, but there have been events closer to home which suggest that our own leaders need to remember they are judged by standards of human behaviour as well as political success.

President Clinton is an extraordinary figure who exhibits two of the essential qualities of a winning politician. He is charming and he is lucky. His greatest slice of luck is the American economy. Since his election in 1992 it has grown consistently; unemployment and the budget deficit have fallen; the markets have broken all records, and the business of information technology has imbued American capitalism with a confidence it has not felt since the heyday of its industrial imperialism in the 1950s. The President's contribution to this has been slight, but the political benefits to him have been enormous. This is partly explained by his charm. He has a disarming smile and an engaging manner. To see him is to forget his past and enjoy the present. To retain the affection of the voters who put him in for a second term, he needed to do hardly anything at all. But there is a flaw in the President's character. There is a flaw in the character of every man and woman, but Mr Clinton's is hubris. His contempt for the gods means that he has indulged himself lavishly and serially in promiscuous sexual behaviour because he became convinced that he would never be caught out in a way he could not control. He behaved as if the rules did not apply to him. But once he admitted in legal deposition last weekend that his denial about his affair with Gennifer Flowers was false, the whole facade collapsed. Lord Butler once said about another sexual indiscretion: "It wasn't the adultery, it was the lies." In the President's case, it is both, plus an allegation of perjury. It is no longer a case of hoping that he will grow up for it is now clear that his character is fatally flawed. If he fails to survive the investigations of the coming months, we shall be sorry for his family, but it will be hard to shed many tears.

It is a peculiar coincidence that the subject of character should also have dominated British politics this past week, but it inevitably followed the assertion by an unnamed Downing Street aide to Tony Blair that Gordon Brown is "psychologically flawed". This was a political rupture for which there are precedents: Peter Thorneycroft and Harold Macmillan, Nigel Lawson and Margaret Thatcher. But they fell out over something politically significant. The difficulties between the Prime Minister and Chancellor are personal rather than political. This could change. Red Gordon might want to penalise the middle classes more than Mr Blair. Iron Gordon might want to control public expenditure more severely than Mr Blair. But for the time being the breach has more to do with personality than policy. The temptation is to blame the spin doctors, but the evidence of Paul Routledge's book is that Mr Brown has resented not being leader, and believes that he could, and perhaps should, have been, had it not been for a ruthless conspiracy directed by Peter Mandelson. We do not accept this argument, believing that the leadership slipped away from Mr Brown in the days after John Smith's death - partly because of the heroic, but not particularly popular, efforts he made to extricate Labour from its tax-and-spending addiction, and partly because of his own dour, Scottish nature.

What we are watching is Mr Brown's grief being made public. The feeling is natural. The contest of 1994 may prove to have been his best shot at the party leadership, though it will not necessarily be his last. It is a ruthless and unfeeling man who does not appreciate the causes of Mr Brown's regret, and it is not to the Prime Minister's credit that he harbours one on his staff in Downing Street. (It is suggestive, perhaps, of a psychological flaw in Mr Blair's nature.) Mr Brown is a good Chancellor - though flawed, like the rest of us - and deserves the support of his Prime Minister. Unlike President Clinton, for whom it is now probably too late, this is the moment for them both to show some character, to discipline their spokesmen and to behave towards each other like grown-ups.