September 28, 2005

How Can You Tell?

Helen Szamuely's response in comments to my previous post on "Who might be Britain's Lincoln?" raises a quite interesting general question. How often is it that a great political leader shows an unbroken record of dedication to principle prior to his (or her) great moment in history? I'm sure some can be found (George Washington might come close) but many of them -- Lincoln and Churchill come immediately to mind -- took many twists and turns on their road to greatness, and in the year immediately before their crises and triumphs had been looked upon as worn-out hacks. In retrospect, we look back on the careers of the great, emphasize the high points, and ignore the low points. (We look back upon Churchill's consistent rejection of appeasement, but tend to ignore his wrong and harmful stand against evolution of India's self-determination, for example.)

Britain's relations with Europe may very well come to a genuine crisis point in the next five to ten years. The person who will have to bear responsibility for dealing with this crisis is probably sitting in Parliament right now. If that person does successfully rise to deal with the crisis, we might look back upon his or her record and point out the premonitions of the qualities that enabled him to rise to the occasion. But is there a way to tell at this moment who might be such a person? It is quite likely that if a time-traveller were to tell us the name right now, we would all be surprised.

Posted by Jim Bennett at September 28, 2005 04:27 PM

This is exactly right. It is not a particularly Anglospheric point, though I think the Anglosphere countries tend to put a low priority on politics except in times of crisis.

Politicians need ideas the way that carpenters need lumber. They need them most when they are actually being asked to do something. Promoting the Anglosphere idea as widely as possible will mean that when there is an urgent need to "come up with something", those arguments will be lying around handy. And politicians by the very nature of their work are likely to take up and abandon positions over the course of a career. If they see an opportunity they will use whatever is at hand to take advantage of it.

As to predicting who will run things in the future, history shows repeatedly that surprises are to be expected. Who in 1940 would have said that Harry S. Truman would be president in eight years? Or Dwight Eisenhower, then a Lt. Col. I believe, in twelve? Who would have seen Strom Thurmond in the early 40s, a New Deal-type progressive, would have the incredible career he subsequently had? Who would have guessed in 1968 that Jimmy Carter would be president in two election cycles? Events, dear boy, events -- and enterprising politicians.

Seemingly inert electorates have a way of all of a sudden rearing up and demanding that some problem be addressed. The issues Malanie Phillips mentions may yet get this kind of response.

Posted by: Lex at September 28, 2005 10:37 PM

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Or the woman. Nobody thought Mrs Thatcher was going to be anything but another Conservative politician. Those close to her knew that she had read Hayek and followed the publications of the IEA but to the rest of us she did not seem to be all that different.

Incidentally, had it not been for Hitler, Churchill would have been an unsuccessful politician like his father, though with a better writing style. He acknowledged this himself.

One can go through all that with many British and American politicians. For all of that, I think you should not get all that excited about little Liam Fox. Even before their days of greatness there was more to Lincoln (and I know about the many problems and negative aspects of his personality and policies - need there have beeen a war?) and Churchill. Foxy is unlikely to become leader and if he does now or at some later stage, unlikely to do anything to save the party or the country.

Posted by: Helen at September 29, 2005 07:50 AM