Alan Clawley ponders a political dilemma.
Leaders come and go but followers are always with us. Without loyal followers leaders are nothing. While most people now proudly claim to run their own lives they still hanker after leaders. It doesn’t seem to matter who the leader is as long as he or she can persuade them, at least for a while, that they know where they’re going and what they’re doing.
Having a leader to blame when things go wrong relieves us of personal responsibility for what happens. It was followers who let Tony Blair embark on an illegal war in Iraq in the face of the three million who took to the streets in protest. Followers need leaders to be totally self-confident, good at public speaking and to look the part of a leader.
Ed Milliband didn’t look like a Prime Minister so he had to step down. Now people are saying that Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t look like one either because he didn’t sing the National Anthem.
Michael Foot’s fatal error as a leader was turning up to the Cenotaph wearing a dark green donkey jacket. For many years the Green Party refused to have a leader but changed its mind when more people began to say it was unelectable without one. The leader of the Birmingham Conservatives Councillor Alden said recently that changing the Labour leader of the city council wouldn’t make any difference.
Perhaps the deep-rooted need for a persuasive, strong, if not infallible leader indicates that British society is still in its adolescent phase. In his book Cities in History, Lewis Mumford describes how the ancient Greeks attempted to bring back to the complex organisation of the city the sense of direct citizen responsibility and participation that had existed in village government.
I quote, “On the theory that all citizens were equal, they distributed the lower offices by lot, and rotated them annually, or for shorter periods, for service in the town council or jury duty. Since the major consultation and judgement was done by people who addressed each other directly, face to face, eloquence became a major instrument of politics, and the ability to sway an audience became more important for political leadership than the ability to do a job. Those who did their job too well, like Themistocles or Aristedes, were often suspect”.
Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) the Scottish historian and essayist in his Great Ma n theory argued that leaders were of critical importance in dictating the course of events, but Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the Russian novelist most famous for his epic War and Peace, discounted the real significance of leaders, relegating them to symbolic value in his Figurehead theory.
Leadership debates and contests are big news at the moment, but I prefer the debate to be about ‘leadership’ rather than ‘leaders’. We all have power to lead in our everyday lives for better or worse. It’s followers that are the problem.