In Search of Political Giants
The former Chair of the Social Liberal Forum laments the absence of political giants in the Brexit and post-Brexit environment.
‘Pray look better, Sir... those things yonder are no giants, but windmills.’ Well warned, Don Quixote nevertheless tilts at the windmills and comes off second-best.
Those of us who rode into battle against Brexit may, in more modest moments, concede at least some of our actions were a little quixotic. But of one thing we can be certain: on the political battlefield, there were no giants. And how we, as internationalists, needed them then, and now. I look back fondly on my own political giants, rare individuals whose commitment to a cause, determination to do the right thing, and authenticity somehow set them apart, even though others may have achieved higher office.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, it was hard not to marvel at John Hume’s relentless efforts to win peace, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement – and a Nobel Peace Prize, amongst other awards. There is someone who, as a lifelong liberal, was even more significant to me. Charles Kennedy towers above all others in my estimation. Even now, his speeches can make the hairs on my arms stand up, and the tears flow down as well.
But where are the Humes and Kennedys of today’s political class? Westminster has showmen – oh, it has showmen, political windmills masquerading as giants – but who has the gravitas, who commands the respect, who do we look up to?
In the absence of great leaders, politics still goes on, Prime Ministers are still elected and governments still lurch from controversy to controversy. But there is a terrible void at the heart of all of this. The progressive left, in particular those of us who wear our internationalist colours with such pride, have taken a beating. Our arguments have been sound, our evidence robust, our ability to preach to the choir beyond question. But, when it comes to convincing others to come on board, we have been found wanting, and the showmen have had a free pass. The relentless drive of a Hume, the authenticity of a Kennedy, the oratorical power of an Obama, the humanity of a Mandela, these are rare talents to be sure. But such talents allowed each of those giants to do something which we have struggled with: appeal to voters’ hearts, not just their heads.
The crushing disappointment of Brexit – the repeated crushing disappointments of Brexit – have provided a sobering reminder that it’s not just what we say that matters, but how we say it too. Call it a soft skillset, call it emotional intelligence, call it stagecraft – whatever you call it, it’s always been a vital tool but too often notable only by its absence.
As we all turn to increasingly diverse channels of communication – remember a time before daily Zoom calls? – those who master delivery as well as content will enjoy increasing advantages. You’ll note I said delivery ‘as well as’ content. In the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK, the grand experiment of going all-in on delivery and hang the content is showing signs that it has run its course – true political giants can make your heart race without ever dumbing down or talking down.
Where, though, do we find the next big voice? Look for people fighting the difficult fights. Hume talked to the terrorists. Kennedy opposed the Iraq War. Mandela took on apartheid. As different as these challenges were, none was taken by an individual seeking the easy life. Rather, they were taken by leaders who, despite being adept politicians, put their principles ahead of political opportunism, and found themselves being labelled turncoats, traitors and terrorists. Hume and Mandela put their lives at risk, and Kennedy found himself on a Sun ‘dartboard of traitors’, branded a ‘spineless reptile’ in huge letters on a particularly shameful front page.
The contrast with certain of our leaders today could hardly be more stark. If the battle of Brexit reminded us of anything, it’s that hypocrisy and opportunism are not impediments to success – there’s a reason windmills adjust to changing breezes.
But, as we look to the future, we desperately need to find ways of making the case for a progressive, internationalist Britain in a way that appeals emotionally as well as logically (quite possibly through a moratorium on words such as progressive and internationalist).
We need a voice, or voices, who are capable of holding their own against the showmen, without sacrificing the dignity of our movement. Whether political behemoths are pre-ordained, or are forged in the fires of great battles, either way they are currently notable only by their absence. Brexit failed to deliver a giant – but that means there is a great opportunity for a strong, emotionally-engaging figure to emerge as Britain seeks to establish its post-EU identity, with both domestic and overseas audiences. That, in turn, means organisations must pay more attention to generating emotional engagement, be that through better use of social media or old-fashioned presentational skills. It’s time for a little bit of heart and soul.
Naomi Smith is Chief Executive of Best for Britain and a former Chair of the SLF.