Thursday, 21 May 2015

Fear and self-doubt in politics

Yesterday I read an article that suggested that Michael Gove might end up being the best hope this country has seen for some time to carry through liberal reforms of the criminal justice and penal systems. Once I had picked my laptop back up off the floor I read the article again and gave it some serious thought. Because, although I detect a worryingly uncritical attitude to Gove's destructive and anti-intellectual 'reforms' of the education system, I think perhaps on this specific issue the writer may have a point.

The thing is that any putative incoming Labour justice minister would have been prey to the same fear of 'not being tough on crime' that over the past few decades has led Labour Home Secretary after Labour Home Secretary to ramp up both the pointless rhetoric and the unproductive policies of harsher prison sentences. It is called "doing a Blunkett" in the trade. Michael Gove has no such fear. For a start he is the darling of the Right and thus immune from criticism in this sort of area, and secondly he is entirely devoid of any emotion as humanising and empathetic as self-doubt.

Thinking about this led me to reflect more widely on what it takes to be a 'great' political leader: to be a Hero in the terms of the hero-quest narrative of election campaigns that I discussed in a previous post. And it seems that one of the key elements is indeed a complete absence of normal human self-doubt. Thatcher had it, as did Blair in his messianic post-Iraq years, and maybe Cameron has it too, though for a different reason- he has had his self-doubt removed, not by zealous belief in his cause but by utterly impenetrable arrogance.

But why does removal of self-doubt help a leader? Is not self-doubt one of those things that make us human? That allow us to relate to those around us and to question the effect of what we do on others? Indeed it is, but as Shakespeare understood, the qualities that make us human are almost diagrammatically opposite to those that make some of us 'great leaders' in these terms.

(Yes, I had to get it back onto Shakespeare, didn't I.)

King Lear is the best example that comes to mind. Admittedly it is not established particularly forcefully at the start of the play that King Lear is a great leader, but presumably one is expected to take that as read. The country certainly seems settled and prosperous- a "fair kingdom" with "plenteous rivers and wide-skirted meads" and Lear is very certain of his own "majesty", appealing to "the sacred radiance of the sun" more or less as an equal and describing himself with grandiose images such as in the phrase "come not between the dragon and his wrath." Even Tony Blair never went quite that far.

What changes, particularly in the course of the thunderous third act, is that he discovers self doubt. At first it is just self-pity, as he describes himself as "A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man," but eventually becomes a genuine impulse to question himself and his previous actions. He admits that "I have ta'en/Too little care of [the plight of the poor]!" and later famously describes himself as a "foolish fond old man" and "not in [his] right mind."

This is far more Ed Miliband than Tony Blair (let alone Thatcher or Cameron) and it is very clear that, although he is bizarrely recrowned King just before his death he is not, by the end of the play, any sort of King at all (or in the terms of my previous post on elections, any sort of Hero). What he is though, possibly for the first time in his life, is a decent, caring human being.

Does this then lead us to the depressing conclusion that what it takes to be a Hero, and thus a successful political leader is a level of hubris and arrogance that banishes self-doubt? Surely not!

For a start, I have never fully understood why absence of self-doubt is equated with heroism (or even bravery) in the first place. Certainly in the more simplistic fairy tales that you find in Hollywood blockbusters it often seems to be (I am not sure that John McClane would ever describe himself as a foolish fond old man) but surely true heroes are those who confront their fears and their self-doubts and work through them in the interests of others. Aren't they?

Interestingly, that is an idea that Hollywood has a peculiar take on, which maybe points us to some of the reasons why thoughtful, questioning politicians are so infrequently successful in the Anglo-American world. In super-hero films self-doubt seems often to be symbolised as something entirely external to the Hero (Superman's kryptonite for instance) which almost fatally weakens him (the gendered pronoun is deliberate) and has to be utterly excised before he can triumph. Far from being an intrinsic and potentially valuable, humanising aspect of his character self-doubt is the enemy of true heroism, or so it would appear to Hollywood executives.

My sense though is that this antiquated notion of political leader as Hero has a pretty limited shelf-life now anyway. In the internet age everything is open to question as never before, and my hope is that any political leader who obdurately refuses (or is unable) to question themselves, their policies or their effect on peoples' lives will not retain public support for ever. To quote the Who, surely to God we won't get fooled again.

And there have been great political leaders who had not had their self-doubt surgically removed, haven't there?

Admittedly the only one who comes to mind right now is Nelson Mandela, but surely there are others.


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