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On our choice of political leaders

[Before launching today’s treatise, I’m going to issue a disclaimer. The fact is that a subject theme suddenly occurred to me and I’ve now come to the keyboard with no particular idea where it’s going to lead. In short, I’m embarking upon some improvised riffing and therefore I must request Rust readers to bear with me …]

Immediately I began my overnight perusal of the UK newspaper websites I came across news of the arrest and subsequent charges being laid against Cesar Sayoc, the man suspected of being involved in the devices sent by post to what I’m going to call here ‘enemies of US President Trump’.

As in the media yesterday various UK North American correspondents filed successive reports of developments in – and particularly the reactions to – the story unfolding in the US of A – not least President Trump’s own (appearing to blame anyone and everybody including the Democratic-biased media, that is, except himself and his supporters) and other Republican-sympathisers claiming that the attempted bombings being the work of Democrat campaigners in the mid-term elections – one could not help but conclude that everything that occurs in national US politics is viewed through the prism of its polarised ‘them and us’ party system.

My stereotypically British take on American politics has always been that to all intents and purposes the Democrats are the closest the US has to what we Europeans would regard as a ‘normal/sensible’ Western liberal democratic party.

Whereas in contrast the Republicans are the repository of the misguided, intellectually-challenged, hick-town, white, red-neck, easily led, Mid-America, racist, gun-toting underclass – perhaps best epitomised in popular culture by the unhinged character Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong, the bomber commander and pilot (played by Slim Pickens) in Stanley Kubrick’s hilarious satirical black comedy movie Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964) who, having gone down to the bomb bay to repair his B-52’s ‘stuck’ doors, then inadvertently (a-whooping and a-hollering) rides a US nuclear bomb towards its Russian target.

Or, to put it another way, we Brits find it difficult to believe that a country which is rightly or wrongly accepted as being ‘the leader of the Western world’ could possibly get itself into a position of being lumbered with a madcap political system in which its two leading parties, one of them a basket-case, broadly-speaking take turns to supply the President who then run its affairs.

And then I had my second post-midnight thought.

Hang on – and yes, here I’m raising the dreaded issue – isn’t this aggressively polarised (binary) state of political affairs exactly to where the UK has currently arrived over Brexit?

To expand: just as the USA has people of wide-ranging intellectual capacities and common sense/understand of what might be best for the nation in both its Democrat and Republican parties, so now, since the 2016 EU Referendum, do we in the UK have similar lined up in different camps – albeit not strictly along party lines – arguing over the merits of Leave and Remain.

As an aside here, I ought to mention the additional and bleedingly obvious factor that in the United States (and therefore the world) President Trump has been a one-man catalyst for the spread of chaos and the upturning of all the ‘normal’ principles and means of international diplomacy, political discourse and practice.

Some might say that is no bad thing, others that it is an extremely dangerous one.

From that thought it was not long until I reached my third.

It is that – without doubt in the Western World and probably also in other political systems – although one might sit back and wallow in the blithe notion that we get the politicians and leaders we deserve [I remember around 1974, the year in which the UK had two General Elections, how car stickers proliferated proclaiming “Don’t’ blame me – I Voted Conservative”] – the fact is that human beings living in democracies have a most bizarre method of choosing who should lead them.

I make no case for business or capitalism here, but it’s fair to state that employing organisations around the world routinely apply the sum of knowledge of leading psychologists, academic research, psychometric testing plus tried and trusted interviewing techniques in their quests to select the best man (or woman) for any job they need to fill.

Do any of us do that when it comes to our politicians? No.

I’m deploying generalisations here, but instead we tend to start from a position that our perceived place in the world – possibly retaining a touch of the beliefs and principles we inherited from wherever we began, together with the attitudes of those we consort with now – is the soundest route to happiness, comfort, and general well-being of the greatest number of our population.

Then, when it comes to election-times, there are two additional factors.

Firstly, there is an ‘in the heat of the contest’ element (how representatives of each party perform in TV debates, or on the public stump, or indeed how they react to the specific complexities of any new issue that arises).

And secondly, there’s the ‘beauty parade’ angle in respect of the party leaders which cannot be under-estimated.

Ideally, our prospective leaders would be naturally charismatic,  have great intellect, be cool under pressure, appeal to our wish to be governed by a father (or mother) figure who has our interests and that of the nation at heart, and have the common touch.

From a British perspective, therefore, US Presidents such as FDR and John F Kennedy – irrespective of their actual achievements – fitted our bill.

More recently, Obama seemed to do so – being so at ease in the public eye and on the campaign trail – although some might hold that he was actually weak, indecisive and ultimately achieved little.

Arguably, there was always but a snowball’s chance that Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock (and now currently Jeremy Corbyn) would ever become Prime Minister, simply through their image problem.

Whereas, to the consternation perhaps of left-leaning members of his party, somehow Tony Blair, with his youthful and ‘I’m a regular sort of a guy’ and/or ‘man of the people’ style – especially when compared to his duller Tory opponents John Major, Ian Duncan-Smith, Ian Howard and William Hague – filled a gap that resonated with the electorate and landed Labour with eleven years of government.

To finish then, a final thought.

That, if it was decreed that the aforementioned widely-deployed employing organisations’ systematic ‘job selection’ criteria and analytical process was automatically applied in advance to all candidate for political high office before they were allowed to entry to a final shortlist, we – the electorate – might be better off.

Or at least spared the prospect of someone like Donald Trump ever reaching the position of most powerful man in the world.



About Simon Campion-Brown

A former lecturer in politics at Keele University, Simon now lives in Oxfordshire. Married with two children, in 2007 he decided to monitor the Westminster village via newspaper and television and has never looked back. More Posts