Leading Article: The limitations of leadership

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR is not alone. Political leaders throughout the developed world are in trouble. Look where you will - the United States, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Japan and elsewhere - and you will find unpopular leaders struggling against tides of disapproval. Length of service makes no difference. Bill Clinton is being savaged after only a few months in office, Helmut Kohl after many years. Elections do not solve the problem. No sooner is a new government in place than it faces the same fate.

If there is a common factor it is recession. But the problem goes deeper. Not just governments but politicians are unpopular. The feeling is taking hold that elected representatives are inadequate for the problems they face and too remote from the people they serve. Their speeches, their wrangles, their loyalties seem often to occupy a world apart from that of their voters. Their attitudes seem out of date, their parties based on class structures that no longer exist.

The trend may have something to do with the disappearance of the Communist threat, which makes it safer to scrutinise domestic leaders and institutions. It may also be driven partly by the explosion in communications, which has intensified public scrutiny of politicians. But governments really do have less power than in the past. The interlocking of the global economy, the growth of international institutions and the free flow of capital, whether for investment or speculation, make them vulnerable to events they cannot control. At the same time the world economy is changing faster than developed countries can accommodate.

If disillusion with politics were to induce a general rejection of parliamentary democracy it would be highly dangerous. Fortunately, there is no sign of its doing so in the established democracies - the danger is much greater in former Communist countries. But the rising clamour for strong leadership needs watching. Strong leaders can be dangerous. They persuade people that there are simple answers to problems. They appeal to the heart, not the head. They stifle dissent. They are impatient with institutional checks and balances. Margaret Thatcher was brought down because she was becoming too strong for the system and too divorced from public opinion. Mr Major seemed at first to represent a healthy corrective. He was chosen because he was expected to be closer to the people, readier to listen and more responsive to advice. He was to offer Thatcherism with a human face.

To some extent he is a victim of his party's indecision about what it stands for and where it wants to go. He has inherited a civil war in the party that he is powerless to stop. His weakness has allowed dissent to surface. But that is not to deny his personal failings. He seems unable to define his own vision in terms that mobilise his own supporters or the electorate. He has a fatally bad sense of timing, remaining stubborn when he should be flexible and then giving way grudgingly when the pressure becomes too great.

He stuck to the exchange rate mechanism for too long and was bewildered when forced to leave it. He should have sacked Norman Lamont much sooner or much later, and shifted John Patten before now. He has wobbled and fumbled on schools testing and further nationalisation. He has pursued a Thatcherite agenda without the conviction to drive it through or the strength to modify it. Worst of all, from the point of view of his own prospects, he has alienated the grassroots of his party, the local agents, the canvassers, the skilled workers and the small businessmen and home-owners who were encouraged by Mrs Thatcher to invest.

The civil war in the Tory party will not stop. Nor will the wider trends in democratic politics be suspended. If Mr Major cannot develop greater mastery he will be removed by his own party or by the electorate, whichever speaks first. But he will not save himself simply by flexing his muscles in response to calls for strong leadership. That would be to deny his own nature. He was chosen because he was thought to be a better listener than his predecessor. That is the strength on which he can still build, and which might yet earn him a slender chance of survival.