Charles Walker, a Tory MP for 17 years, spoke on Wednesday evening on the BBC
Among many other pertinent comments, he said “I’ve had enough of talentless people putting their tick in the right box, not because it’s in the national interest, but because it’s in their own interest to achieve ministerial position… “
The essence of Walker’s analysis is not that it was the wrong leader, but the wrong type of leadership (and followership) style – a pursuit of personal interest has afflicted the party at all levels.
One might blame the current mess on particular personalities, but that misses the point.
The ‘lurch to the right’ internationally in recent years is often talked about as if the phrase itself is self-explanatory, but of course it’s not. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are terms for particular types of political philosophy, with different approaches to finance (or ‘capital’) and our relationships with each other – and both positions comprise a wealth of different, and sometimes contradictory policies. These are the types of issue, and alternatives, that get explicitly aired in the UK’s general elections.
There is another form of political polarisation, though, that doesn’t feature as a choice in the party manifestos – the tension between democratic pluralism and totalitarianism. Totalitarianism is a system with centralised, autocratic leadership. Often, it’s portrayed as ‘strong’- whilst listening to others, and compromising with them when needed, is viewed as ‘weak’. An autocratic, albeit not (yet) overtly totalitarian, leadership style has become increasingly the norm, in terms of what’s presented for the electorate’s consumption – as though it is a self-evident good.
One of the crucial issues the Tory party has to grapple with over the coming week, is the relationship of the leader to a country’s government as a whole.
Essentially – is the preferred model a ‘strong leader’ who then surrounds themselves with those who are in agreement with, and who facilitate, that leader (one of the defining components of a dictatorship) – or is a better model a team of diverse views, who consider a situation together, and draw strength from multiple viewpoints, talents, and innovative ideas, in order to find a way forward, pragmatically and realistically, through the difficulties faced by the country. In this formulation the PM is the ‘first among equals’, a team member, one of whose major roles is to coordinate and facilitate the team so it best meets its objectives.
And at this particular moment this is the crucial issue – it’s all to be played for. And there is a possibility that a correction may occur.
Will the next Tory Leader be elected on the basis that they are stronger, and more charismatic, with a better grasp of ‘True’ Conservatism (which is the script that Elizabeth Truss played to) – or is it someone who can facilitate, stabilise, and bind together what talent and competence there still is in the party?
The choice, perhaps, should not really be who the next leader is, but who is in the next cabinet – and which leadership candidate is best placed to assemble, nurture and facilitate that team. Some of the MPs seem to have realised this – but already the messianic tendency is reasserting itself – and more importantly this is what is being given airtime and columns space by the media, defining it once more in terms of personalities.
Time will tell, and not much time either. Anything could happen in the next 5 days.
Democracy is not about a choice of autocrats by popularity poll every five years. It’s about being able to really listen to each other’s point of view, and harness the energy and innovation available by considering multiple perspectives and needs. It’s about team work.