Brexit for our time? What Neville Chamberlain and Theresa May have in common

One MP said of Boris Johnson’s recent resignation speech: “we needed Winston Churchill. Instead, he gave us a modern-day version of Neville Chamberlain”. But could this complaint fit Theresa May better?

In her two short years in office, the historical comparisons chart May’s rise and fall. Her premiership began with comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, encapsulated in the Daily Mail’s ‘Steel of the New Iron Lady’ cartoon. After June 2017 commentators turned to the troubled premierships of John Major, Gordon Brown and James Callaghan. But what if historians are looking in the wrong place? Does the Neville Chamberlain tag tells us more about May than Johnson?

Chamberlain’s name is, of course, synonymous with failure and weakness. He was a champion of appeasement who embarked in 1937 on a “special and personal mission to come to friendly terms with the dictators of Italy and Germany”. The threats of the 1930s were, of course, far graver than May’s, and he is one of the few prime ministers whose difficulties make Brexit look simple. He faced war with two fascist dictators (with the USSR lurking behind).

Though it’s a comparison no prime minister would want to hear, at first glance certain May-Chamberlain parallels are intriguing. Both leaders had a business background, experience in local government and served as Conservative party chairs. Both were ‘takeover’ leaders, following on from Stanley Baldwin and David Cameron, who were themselves rather too relaxed and stumbled when they put their ‘party before their country’.

The two leaders made their name as domestic politicians who styled themselves as radical reformers. Chamberlain was a highly successful and innovative Secretary of State for Health (twice), helping lay the foundations of Labour’s later Welfare State. May was the second longest serving Home Secretary since the 1940s, pushing domestic violence reform (while dog whistling over immigrants). Critics felt both had too little or narrow experience of foreign affairs. Churchill described Chamberlain as ‘a Birmingham town councillor who looks at our national affairs through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe’ while Attlee spoke of his ear being permanently tuned to ‘Midland Regional’. May too was seen as having limited interaction with the EU as Home Secretary, from which she drew all the wrong lessons, with her eyes permanently fixed on the UK side of a Border agency desk.

Once in Downing Street, Chamberlain and May went from huge success to deep failure. The two leaders sought to navigating huge, complex issues involving Britain’s status as European and global power, its influence and future relations. Both lost a powerful Foreign Secretary and rival to resignation (though Boris should note it took Anthony Eden 17 years to get to Downing Street) and had to appoint, eventually, sworn enemies to their Cabinet (Churchill and Gove).

May gambled away her authority on a general election in June 2017 when her slogans of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘strong and stable leadership’ gave way to ‘weak and wobbly’. Chamberlain gambled his on a series of meetings with Hitler. After his visit Munich, he was cheered into the night from Downing Street by happy crowds until he opened the window and famously, fatally, declared ‘Peace for our time’. Their popularity may have been rather exaggerated: Chamberlain went to great lengths to manipulate the presswhile Murdoch has “astounding access to Downing Street”.

Their personalities too seem similar. Both were diligent and hard-working with a “narrow sharp edged efficiency”. They were also aloof, secretive, and obstinate and given to narrow thinking, with an unwillingness to back down: happy, in Churchill’s phrase, ‘to strive continually in the teeth of facts’. Their lack of charisma was hidden behind symbolic props, in Chamberlain’s case an umbrella (see this great article) and in May’s her kitten heels.

It was over pieces of paper that the two leaders came unstuck. Chamberlain’s famous Munich Agreement, a piece of paper hastily signed by himself and Hitler, was supposed to secure European peace (see Chamberlain’s Cabinet report and the agreement here and his notes of his first meeting with Hitler here). May’s first document was her article 50 letter, sent at the cost of £985.50 according to this FOI response, which was, it now seems, despatched too early. Her December 2017 ‘backstop’ agreement, requiring a late-night flight that Chamberlain pioneered, was the second, which seems to have fallen apart in months. All eyes are now on what the third piece of paper, a UK-EU agreement, might say.

The verdict of history has been passed on Chamberlain, partly because Churchill wrote it. It now awaits May. She can only hope that she won’t have to repeat Chamberlain’s remarkable admission of failure in September 1939: ‘Everything that I have worked for, everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins’.

Originally on the Political Quarterly blog here
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Is Donald Trump A Fascist?

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We know Donald Trump is a racist. He passes the pretty simple test for being a racist: does he do and say racist things? The answer is yes, regularly and repeatedly.

After the revelations of camps and forced separation, there’s now a bigger question that’s been lurking for too long: is Donald Trump a fascist? Phrases like ‘alt-right’ or ‘white nationalism’ are fashionable ways of avoiding the big f-word.

In one sense, George Orwell was right long ago in 1944 when he said the word fascism is “almost entirely meaningless”, especially as people still “recklessly fling the word… in every direction”. It’s hard to pin down exactly what a fascist is. There are common threads, a fascist family resemblance if you like, such as a glorification and love of violence. However, fascism was different in form, from Spain where it was a kind reactionary oppression to Germany where it was ultimately about racism and genocide. A further problem, as many scholars point out, is that it was easier to work out what fascism was against than what it was for. Even a rough list of what it was against is enlightening when we think about Trump: equality, diversity, democracy.

There are very obvious ways in which Trump isn’t a fascist. He has no armed squads, youth movements or a one-party state. He is surrounded, hemmed in, with democratic institutions. I don’t know if, in the darkest and deepest recesses of his imagination, he wants parades and uniforms and marching squads. Perhaps. Probably.

Even without the parades, I’d argue Trump does have a fascist state of mind and, at the very least, borrows their way of seeing the world and mode of working. Joe Biden said as much a few day ago. Trump has already done what fascists did, just as Salvini is busily doing in Italy (in the fascist office of choice, the interior ministry). He has poisoned the well of public discourse, pushing away the boundaries of decency and spewing hate. He called Mexicans rapists and publicly mocked a disabled reporter. He went on, while in the office of Abraham Lincoln and FDR, to praise Nazis. Remember? Time and again he has struck the classic famous leadership pose of a man with a ‘grievance against the universe’ and styled himself as ‘the martyr, the victim… the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds’.

In office, again like Salvini, he is trying to undermine democratic norms daily, as if melting democracy from the inside out. He seeks to undermine the very essence of democracy at the push of a tweet: yesterday it’s judges, today it’s the rule of law, and tomorrow it’s the voting system.

What the past week has shown is that his policies too now resemble fascism. He has created a series of camps, yes that word again, camps, perhaps the word that defined the 20th Century. He separated out vulnerable groups and targeted them, testing the waters of extreme policy semi-secretly, to see how the public react. For all the myth of imposition, Fascist regimes too carefully calibrated and re-calibrated policy, while covering them in a smoke screen of denial, partial back down and obfuscation. See how Trump’s defenders argued the nuances of Nazism or what constitutes a ‘cage’ for a toddler?

This is not to say Trump is a full-on fascist dictator, much as he may want to be. He remains constrained, so far. Much of his success has been because others, notably the Republicans and parts of the media, have allowed him, excused him and appeased him. Rather than a new Hitler he perhaps resembles some of the incompetent leaders in Weimar Germany before him, happily eroding democratic defences before letting in (actually inviting in) the Nazis. Most of all, he looks like his idol Mussolini, heading a ramshackle ‘propaganda regime’ long on rhetoric but short on concrete achievements. Before we make ‘hail Mussolini’ jokes, bear in mind , according to Bosworth, that Mussolini was responsible for a million deaths, the dropping of poison gas and the kick starting of a vicious civil war from Italy has not fully recovered.

For those who doubt, perhaps we can turn the question around. Let’s apply the LBJ test and see if Trump can deny it. How often has Trump proved himself not to be fascist and a supporter of democracy? I don’t mean his own imbecilic boasting, but democracy in general? How often has he championed freedom of speech (for everyone)? Or praised an opponent? Or publicly favoured minority rights? Never. Trump’s inclination may not be the full-throated marching fascism of the past but, as Umberto Eco pointed out, it can change forms. So we should assume the worst and point out the worst. Never normalise, never accept. Primo Levi’s warning echoes back to us “it happened, so it can happen again”

Originally on the Huffington Post blog here

Three Tips For A Prime Minister In Trouble

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Another week, another attempted removal of Theresa May. May appears to be, again, in deep trouble of her own making. However, if May’s premiership proves one thing, it’s that prime ministers, for all the sound and fury of unhappy MPs or macho manoeuvring ministers, are much harder to remove than they look. Rumours are easy to start but action is hard, partly because the rules for triggering confidence votes are made by the leaders.

Prime ministers go in one of three ways, more or less. They lose an election (John Major, Gordon Brown), are forced to step down (Tony Blair, David Cameron) or go at a time of their own choosing. Only Harold Wilson, long ago in 1976, stepped down when he really wanted. Tony Blair pretended he left the club of his own accord, but he was really bundled out by Gordon Brown’s bouncers. So that leaves just two options: exit by election or force.

The problem is that a well-protected leader, with no election near, can stay in power while MPs, the press and other critics busily kick away their support and authority. So here’s my three tips for a prime minister in trouble.

Remember to keep an eye over your shoulder

The great Anthony King warned prime ministers that trouble comes ‘over your shoulder’ from their back benches. It is there, and in the tea rooms and corridors, where rumours start and plots bubble. Just a few words can set off a frenzy of speculation about names on a list, ‘hats in the ring’ and ‘stalking horses’ (note that you can’t ‘stalk horse’ a leader under Conservative election rules).

But this over the shoulder fear has its limits. The very fact that the hard Brexit MPs keep threatening May’s removal shows that they can’t do it. The small rump of Brexit MPs are fast becoming the drunken bores in the pub, full of empty threats. They should perhaps tweet less about David Davis’ ability to destroy a tank with a carrot and learn to count and read some Shakespeare. Jacob Rees-Mogg, when not cavorting with supporters of Mussolini and the Far Right, needs to keep in mind that removing leaders is a difficult, messy and unpleasant business, not for the inexperienced. Like, I don’t know, changing nappies.

Remember not to try anything stupid

There’s a temptation when a leader is in deep trouble, for them to try a grand gesture or big event to ‘cut through’ (insert North Korea joke of your choice here, dear reader). This should probably be avoided. John Major, at the very lowest point of his vest being tucked in his pants, decided to resign as Prime Minister in 1995 to take on his critics, famously telling them to ‘put up or shut up’. This was the prime ministerial equivalent of a supply teacher saying ‘well why don’t you tell the whole class the joke and we can all have a laugh?’ No good could ever come of it. They challenged him, he won and they continued criticising him.

The same goes for something like a referendum, of course. And most of all, and this is very important, don’t call a snap election. Snap elections have now become the famous last words and the ‘hey everyone watch this’ boomerang of British politics. Whenever talk turns to them just calmly repeat, with arms folded, ’1923, 1974 (‘February’ add quietly if you want to be pedantic), 2017’. Each of these shock polls were supposed to boost the government majority. Each failed.

Remember things always get worse

For a prime minister, thing almost always get worse. You get less popular, you make more mistakes. Gordon Brown famously went from Stalin to Mr Bean. Theresa May went from Iron Lady Mark 2 to Maybot 2.0. Past decisions, like shredding Windrush documents or cutting police numbers, come back to haunt you.

To survive this arc, a leader needs to draw on all their reserves of cunning and skill and hope for a dollop of luck. May’s cunning and skill are roughly equivalent to those of a World War One general, constantly pushing the same futile, failed approach (at great cost to others) and expecting different results. She has only lucked out on the fact Corbyn keeps voting through her hard Brexit and that her rivals are utterly, utterly incompetent.

So what can a prime minister do? It’s important to remember that just by being in power there’s a lot a prime minister can do to roll the pitch. Clement Attlee once faced down a leadership plot, it is said, by calling in the conspirator and saying ‘I hear you want my job’. Perhaps the final word should go to Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister who won four General Elections (yes, Jeremy, four) and a referendum on Europe, all while possessing a KGB codename. His recipe for success was simply to be ‘an optimist with a raincoat’.

Originally published on the Huffington Post blog here

New Paper ‘Merkel III: From Committed Pragmatist to ‘Conviction Leader’?’

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See this new paper by Ludger Helms, Femke van Esch, and Beverly Crawford,
Merkel III: From Committed Pragmatist to ‘Conviction Leader’?
in: GERMAN POLITICS, published online ahead of print on 3 May 2018.

Abstract

For most of her political career Angela Merkel has been perceived as a pragmatic  political leader, avoiding tough and divisive decisions wherever possible, and joining decision-making coalitions on contested issues when they emerged. To some extent, this remarkable ability appears to explain her extended hold on the German chancellorship. In the midst of her third term, however, her behaviour changed suddenly and unexpectedly, or so it seemed. When in July 2015 the euro crisis flared up again due to the standoff between Greece and its EU partners on the second bail-out, Merkel let her European convictions prevail and backed another support package against the wishes of many in her party. Moreover, when Germany was hit by a wave of refugees only a few months later, Merkel became the torch-bearer of a ‘culture of welcome’ and defended her ‘open-door’ policies with a measure of conviction that few observers would have considered possible. This paper looks at Merkel’s leadership performance during her third term through the lens of the concept of ‘conviction leadership’, and inquires if, or to what extent, Merkel can be meaningfully considered a ‘conviction leader’.

 

The free access-link to the article is here at
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09644008.2018.1462340

[image By European People’s Party (Angela Merkel) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons]

 

A Short Victorious War? UK Prime Ministers and Conflict

Sixteen RAF and RN Harrier Aircraft Fly in Formation to Mark Retirement from Service

Nicholas II, the last Tsar of Russia, once recommended that what his people needed was a ‘short, victorious war’. That, I hear you say, sounds like a terrible idea. Said war, the Russo-Japanese War, didn’t go well. Neither did anything else afterwards, really. Hence him being ‘the last Tsar’.

Can there ever be a ‘successful’, mercifully short and (relatively) blood-less and, let’s be Machiavellian about it, poll-boosting military action? Is there a lesson here for the UK’s post-war leaders? Looking across recent UK Prime Ministers there have been very few successful large-scale military interventions. In fact, there is no such thing. War has a relentless, cruel momentum to itself, and any politician embarking on it with ‘political’ aims finds there is no way out.

The two events that jump out are, of course, Suez and Iraq. Anthony Eden intervened in Suez in 1956 as part of a complicated secret deal to seize back said canal from Nasser’s Egypt with other allies while pretending to be peacekeepers (I don’t have space to explain the whole plot, and you’d think I was making it up, but if I did you’d probably say, again, ‘that sounds like a terrible idea’). The move backfired spectacularly, as the rather swirling plot came undone and the American pulled the plug. Eden resigned.

Then we have Iraq and Blair. Unlike Eden, Iraq did not destroy Blair straight away. In fact, a slight majority supported the war until December 2003. But, eventually, it eroded his reputation and support among voters and his own party, even if he still feels it was ‘the right thing to do’. There is a rather spooky set of parallels across these two interventions: both leaders felt they were dealing with a new Hitler, both convinced themselves it was ‘right’, and relied on unclear intelligence. Eden is still rated as one of Britain’s worse leaders: 53% of Britons said they will never forgive Tony Blair.

Iraq has made any war even trickier, for two reasons. One, we have lost our collective faith in intelligence and ‘evidence’. Though Blair was ‘emotionally truthful’ (what a phrase) he relied on ‘faith not facts’, as Chilcot put it. The claims that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and, as my old supervisor the great Martin Burch put it, ‘rockets that could reach Scunthorpe’, has left us all very sceptical about anything a Prime Minister says about, well, anything.

Second, more importantly, because of Iraq, Parliament must now be persuaded. Most military action now has had some sort of vote. Now, the precedent isn’t quite as clear as it could be (Libya for one) but most leaders know they should ask Parliament’s approval, at some point (see this great article here).

There’s lots of risks to asking parliament. You could lose, as David Cameron did in 2013. You could also win, but not win big enough (May is already pretty familiar with this phenomenon). Or you could avoid parliament, as May looks she might, and chance being seen as high, mighty and un-democratic. More dangerously, it means May embarks upon military action with less legitimacy and support. As James Strong points out, with Westminster behind it, a one off strike may work but a broader campaign could bring serious trouble, especially with Trump in charge.

Ah, I hear you say, what about the Falklands war? Surely, you say, that’s the very model of a short, victorious war? Thatcher sent off the task force, took back the Falklands and won the 1983 General Election. It even has a name: ‘The Falklands Factor’. But IPSOS Mori, who polled at the time, think it didn’t have much effect and two of the big names in voting behaviour concluded it was only worth 3 points over 3 months. It was much more about very long suicide notes, with a dash of ‘why don’t we break the mould of British politics and create a new centrist party’ (I’ll say it for you-that sounds like a terrible idea).

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So is there any prime minister who benefited from a war in the last few decades? One definitely benefited from not being in a war. That person was Harold Wilson. Wilson was long criticised as a rather slippery and cunning short-termist. Yet his record puts our current leaders to shame: between 1964 and 1975 he won four, yes four, general elections and a referendum on Europe, all while in possession of a KGB code name. He also repeatedly refused to send British soldiers to Vietnam in the 1960s, despite much pressure from US President Lyndon Johnson, because the war in Vietnam, to him, seemed like a terrible idea. He would, he told Johnson, be swayed ‘not by political pressures but by what I know to be right’. As May ponders whether to follow Trump’s lead, she should remember Blair’s defence for going to war was also Wilson’s reason for avoiding it.

Shaping Perceptions of Sarah Palin’s Charisma

 

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A great paper by Lindsay Eberhardt and Jennifer Merolla on charisma, both masculine and feminine here

Abstract

In many previous studies, gender roles have been shown to play a significant part in voters’ opinions about candidates. Researchers have shown that women, on the whole, have been viewed as less capable of managing certain leadership roles (Eagly and Karau, 2002; Eagly and Carli, 2007). While research has explored bias against women seeking political office generally, this question took on new significance during the 2008 presidential election. While the literature suggests that women in business settings may not suffer from gender biases in terms of charisma, it does not say much about how different presentations of the same candidate may influence perceptions of a candidate’s charisma. We were interested in exploring how highlighting different attributes of Sarah Palin influenced perceptions of her charisma among voters. We conducted an on-line experiment with a random sample of registered voters in LA County during the 2008 presidential election. Participants were assigned to a control group or a treatment group which read a short paragraph describing Palin as a mother, a social conservative, an executive, or as attacking Barack Obama. We expect that certain descriptions, such as being a strong executive, will heighten perceptions of her charisma, while others, such as being a mother, will diminish them. These effects, however, will be moderated by partisanship and gender.

Eberhardt, Lindsay and Merolla, Jennifer L., Shaping Perceptions of Sarah Palin’s Charisma (March 30, 2010). Western Political Science Association 2010 Annual Meeting Paper . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1581159

From City Hall to Downing Street: what would Boris as Mayor tell us about Boris as PM?

As speculation mounts again about Theresa May’s longevity at Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s star has risen once again. But what would PM Boris be like? Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister read the runes from his time as London’s Mayor.

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Having spent time in local government can be a bonus to a leader: Prime Ministers as diverse as Clement Attlee and Theresa May have done a stint at local level. We look at how Boris Johnson’s time as Mayor of London suggests what he would be like in Number 10.

Expect eye-catching media events and charisma…

Johnson rose to prominence through the media and was the archetypal ‘everyday’ celebrity politician. As Mayor he was an expert at either creating his own media events (such as joining a drugs raid in 2011) or taking advantage of any that came his way (such as the infamous Olympics zip-wire incident). While no great orator, his jokes and off-colour comments helped shape his image as a jester. His biographer Andrew Gimson speaks of how his political vision was, at best, a brand of ‘Merry England conservatism’, giving him pragmatism and flexibility as Mayor. Though his style was an ‘affront to serious people’s idea of how politics should be conducted’, like other leaders you could name, his ‘genuine bogusness’ held wide appeal, and brazen shamelessness, rather than being an impediment, was the key to his success.

His interventions as Foreign Secretary, a job that requires far more care, vision and diplomacy, have proved to be as disastrous as his Mayoral activities were successful. People have looked to Johnson, as a lead Brexiter in a great office of state, to see how Brexit will shape up, making it a little trickier not to have a vision. We could expect a series of terrible, Trump-esque scenes under Prime Minister Johnson. Johnson adores popularity and heartily dislikes being disliked – not a good set of desires for an office that (almost) inevitably results in disappointment.

…but don’t expect detail

Johnson was the Mayor ‘long on charisma and short on detail’. The secret to his success in London was to delegate to a series of very able chiefs of staff and deputies. He has struggled in the FCO, an office requiring a very firm grasp of details and briefs, with the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic dispute with Iran revealing just how out of his depth he seemed. The key to any Boris premiership would be who is at his shoulder.

Expect quixotic populist projects (that may never arrive)

Johnson’s time as Mayor was filled with populist ideas for grand projects that either didn’t quite prove to be the success they hoped (such as the cable cars) or never came to pass (the ‘Boris Island’, his airport on the Thames). These projects served to gather headlines for Boris and, in the case of Boris Island, side step tricky questions about Heathrow as he searched for a safe seat. Yet London and the taxpayer is still paying the price for a series of expensive and incomplete vanity projects. The introduction of ‘Boris Bikes’ is, of course, a standout policy. It has not, however, been the social leveller he promised and use of the bikes is disproportionately an activity of affluent, white men. Anyone hoping that Prime Minister Johnson will mean a bridge over to France should prepare to be disappointed.

Expect him to take an ‘independent’ line

Perhaps the one area in which Johnson resembles Churchill is his almost perpetual disloyalty to the party line. Though Johnson is ostensibly a Conservative, he repeatedly used the office of Mayor to push against any ‘slavish’ interpretation of government or party policy. He fought robustly government housing policy, policing cutbacks and, most importantly, Conservative EU policy on a referendum.

Even as Foreign Secretary, it seems collective responsibility and non-interference in other ministers’ ‘patches’ doesn’t apply to him and he has formulated his own red lines and ideas on NHS funding. Creating such ‘distance’ from within Downing Street is difficult, as Theresa May has found out. It’s far harder to rebel and push against ‘the official line’ when you are in charge of it. And Boris has few friends and limited numbers of cheerleaders in the Conservative party. Remember how his so-called friend and once-planned running partner Michael Gove stabbed him in the front?

Expect victory?

Johnson’s greatest achievement was winning twice in a Labour city. Perhaps his key selling point was his ‘bridging’ popularity. Boris (like Ken Livingstone before him) had cross-party appeal. His style and charisma made him the Heineken politician, reaching voters no one else could. The past tense is important, as it’s no longer clear he’s still Heineken. In 2017 there were claims he was ‘toxic’, especially in Remain areas. London has clearly fallen out of love with him. Current polls record only a +6 point lead on whether he was a good or bad Mayor (compared with a +20 point lead for his old foe Ken). Even Tory voters are losing faith. Could Boris Johnson still heal the divided country? The numbers on the bus he rode say no, though the Foreign Secretary and his supporters may believe the old magic is still there.

In some senses, Mayor of London was Johnson’s perfect job. He had limited power but a wonderful platform. The fear is that we would get a Prime Minister Johnson full of quixotic projects, tilting at windmills and bringing the country down with him when he falls.

 

See the new article Worthy, B., Bennister, M., & Stafford, M. (2018). ‘Rebels leading London: the mayoralties of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson compared’. British Politics.