19 May 2007

Neither dictatorship nor anarchy

By Rupert Read

Tony Blair was widely-welcomed in 1997, but leaves widely-disliked and even more widely distrusted. Why do our political leaders so often fail us?

As the Blair era crawls toward its close, and the crown of our 'elected dictator' passes onto Gordon Brown, it is a suitable moment to reflect on the nature of leadership. What is it, truly to lead others?

I have just been on a wonderfully-stimulating weekend workshop that encouraged reflection on this issue, via the unexpected route of looking at one of Shakespeare's great political dramas, Henry V. Henry was the king who led the English to victory at Agincourt. In Shakespeare's play, he is commonly portrayed as a great and inspirational war leader.

The workshop that I just went on was run under the auspices of Richard Olivier, son of the famous actor Lawrence Olivier. Olivier Snr directed and starred in a famous version of Henry V that was filmed during the Second World War. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Richard Olivier’s workshop follows Lawrence Olivier's patriotic interpretation of Henry V closely.

There is another way of reading Henry V. In Kenneth Branagh's more recent film of it, Henry is instead a cold and cruel tyrant, almost a ravenous beast as he yells out the famous speech, "Once more unto the breach, my friends!", urging his soldiers to attack the French town that he is besieging without mercy.

On the Branagh interpretation of the story, Henry V bears some intriguing resemblances to Tony Blair. In particular, in having attacked France without provocation, without a just cause, in a war of aggression. (For France, read Iraq)

So is Henry V a model for leadership? I think not. True leadership is not cold, nor merciless. True leadership is not dictatorship.

So long as authoritarianism and control-freakery passes for leadership, then Blair or Brown look like leaders. But surely real leadership is rather inspiration, service - and teamwork.

It is easy to react against the dire state of leadership in this country, and against the very centralised way in which the 'main' parties are run, by proposing a radical alternative: having no leaders at all. But as radical political activists have known for a long time, 'leaderlessness' or anarchy is just as tyrannical as tyranny: take a look at the wonderful essay, The tyranny of structurelessness, from 1970, for an account of why.

Without accountable leaders, an organisation or party will have its leaders picked for it by the media, who will home in on their own preferred 'stars' within the party. The cleverest way for a big ego to hide itself is for its owner to pretend to be against leadership. An out-of-control egoist has the perfect alibi, if they claim not to want to be a leader.

Our country, and our world - this one and only world that we have - desperately needs real leadership, at this pivotal moment in human history. The challenges facing us are far bigger than those faced by Henry V or by any of Shakespeare's heroes. The long emergency of diminishing oil supplies and escalating climate change is underway: there is no external enemy to fight anymore. The enemy is us: our own desires, manipulated and magnified by the markets, until we threaten to consume our one and only planetary home.

We only have one Earth, and one chance to treat it right. Now is not the time for acting like a dictator; and nor is it the time for anarchy; now is the time for true leadership. Nations and political parties need leaders, who are prepared to inspire, to lead from the front and to work as part of a team, to face the vast challenges which we must respond to fast, if we are not to fail our children in the most disastrous way possible.

It is an individualist fantasy to think that everyone is equally suited to leading. There are very few who are genuinely and consistently capable of leading (as opposed to being tyrants or dictators, which is easier).

Let us be ready to value and support true leaders, at this fateful moment in humanity's story. Leaders who inspire and yet remain humble, and who are ready to take responsibility rather than merely hiding behind the veil of a collective group: these are the women and men who, following in the footsteps of the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Gandhi, may yet lead us through the crisis of our times