Strongmen rule – Erdogan, Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin, Savini. Where Liberal Democracy and the ‘bourgeois parties’ fail to present their electorates with a strong, credible leader, the political vacuum is increasingly filled with political strongmen.
Populists, nationalists, radical right-wingers, the game generally follows the same rules: wishy-washy liberals have brought the country down, national pride must be restored, The USA / Turkey / Brazil / Italy / Country X must be made great again, by evicting immigrants and denigrating undesirables, non-aligned folks.
A mantra that held good in many countries in the 1920s through to the 1970s, in some cases, continues to appeal: restoring law, order, rule for the “will of the people”, the “silent majority”, a sense of national identity and “traditional” values.
What was the medium of radio and the film screen before the war has been replaced by cable TV and social media in the 21st century. “They”, the elites, the liberal media etc are the “enemies of the people”.
Populists tell the people what they want to hear, whatever the facts may indicate. The “Lügenpresse” of the 1920s has been replaced by the all too similar “fake news media”, which calls out inconsistencies and lies of these strongmen.
We have seen a classic example of this in the UK, and may sadly see it in Germany, though at least West Germans appear to have enough common sense (and historical awareness) to prevent a significant lurch to the hard right or hard left.
But in all the sad goings-on in the UK in the last 36 months, the saddest part has been the absence of a true liberal democratic political leader, a “muscular liberal” as one former Liberal leader expressed it in my presence.
Theresa May has demonstrated remarkable resilience and powers of “sticking around” and she may have seen off the challenge of the hard right in her party – for now (although if her deal is voted down in parliament, she will surely be replaced by a hardliner).
But Mrs May is not a natural leader on the domestic let alone the international stage, no Obama or Macron.
What the liberal centre in the UK needs desperately is a charismatic, sharp, radical but also emotionally engaging leader. He or she may emerge from either Labour or Conservative parties (the political system of the UK having, for now, consigned the LibDems to oblivion).
But what choice does the UK electorate have? Theresa May’s successor, if she fails with her Commons vote in December, is likely to be Boris Johnson. Charismatic, emotional yes, but the less said about the rest, the better.
Opposition to Johnson may come from Jeremy Hunt, who is competent and careful, but hardly inspiring or engaging. Sajid Javid is the stalking horse and brings an unusual background, but he is an unproven leader. Michael Gove may be intellectual but he is clearly not an inspiring leader. Of the others, Leadsom, Rees-Mogg, Raab, Davis, the less said the better.
So does salvation come from Labour? Clearly not from Jeremy Corbyn. One senses he would be overwhelmed within a month of taking office. Some 40 years in eternal opposition, to the Conservatives and to the liberal centrists in his own party, has not prepared him to govern.
The same would be true of John McDonnell. There are other senior Labour MPs who hold out promise, if only the party would swing away from 1970s socialism and speak to the centre ground: Emily Thornberry has impressed in the Commons, for example.
At this crucial time in Britain’s post-war history, the country needs a sensible, intellectually gifted arch-negotiator; someone who can rally party and country whilst also holding his own in a positive spirit with Britain’s allies, which it is wise to recall are the USA and NATO allies in the EU.
The Labour party is blessed to have on its front bench the former Head of the Crown Prosecution Service, perhaps the sharpest legal mind of his generation, who just happens, due to his role, to have become an expert on exiting the European Union.
Will Keir Starmer lead his party and the country out of the current chaos? As matters stand in his party and the Commons at present, he will have to wait his turn. But as the Tory party descends into ever more bitter infighting and may even split into two wings, with the prospect of either the chaos of a hard-right led “no deal” scenario or a Corbyn-led government equally poorly led on the issue of relations with the EU, Starmer’s time may come.
He may need to gain experience in one of the great offices of state, but he has emerged as one of the best educated politicians on the realities of Brexit.
And as the long-drawn out saga that is Brexit increasingly focuses on the realities of negotiation and legal fine print, as Starmer’s adversary Geoffrey Cox has reminded us, the UK would do well to allow its top lawyer to lead the negotiations, and to bring his party back to the mainstream of the true “silent majority”.
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