April 04, 2020
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“Be Very Wary Of The Cult Of The Strong Leader”

The emeritus professor of politics at Oxford on the importance of dissenting voices

“Be Very Wary Of The Cult Of The Strong Leader”
Yiannis Katsaris
“Be Very Wary Of The Cult Of The Strong Leader”

Archibald Haworth Brown, better known as Archie Brown, is one of the leading British historians and political-scientists. At 76, he is Emeritus Professor of politics at the University of Oxford and an Emeritus Fellow of St Anthony’s College, Oxford. He has also been a visiting professor and fellow in many of the leading institutes outside UK, including Yale, University of Connecticut, Columbia University, University of Texas at Austin and the Kellogg Institute for international affairs of the University of Notre Dame. Professor Brown was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1991 and a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. His books on Russia, the communist regimes and the history of the communist movement have been highly acclaimed. But it is his latest book—The Myth of the Strong Leader—that has prompted this interview with the Outlook. Here he spoke to Pranay Sharma on what makes a great leader, consensus-building, the space for minority views and the importance of finding accommodation for the dissenting voice in a vibrant democracy.

According to you “Great leaders” in the world are also those who succeed in building consensus. But does that consensus usually go beyond key players in government and the ruling political formation?

I don’t write very much about ‘great leaders’ and am especially wary of people who regard themselves as ‘great leaders’. I accept that a minority of political leaders make a big difference, for better or for worse. Relatively rarely in a democracy we do come across redefining leaders who change perceptions of the limits of the possible and move what has been conventionally regarded as the centre of the political spectrum significantly in their direction.

The clearest example of a redefining American president in the 20th century was Franklyn D. Roosevelt. The amount of governmental intervention in the economy he instigated to combat economic depression, as part of the New Deal, was dramatic in the American context. The only post-war US president I would regard as a redefining leader was Lyndon B. Johnson. I mean, of course, not the folly of Vietnam War which ended his career, but the domestic change he succeeded in making—the civil rights legislation and his ‘war on poverty’. In fact, at the end of the Johnson presidency the United States had the lowest incidence of inequality that it has had before or since.

In Britain the Labour government headed by Clement Attlee from 1945 to 1951 was a redefining leadership and, pulling the country in a quite different direction, so was the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990). That does not mean that either Attlee or Thatcher were ‘great leaders’. Attlee’s ability lay in holding a strong and diverse team together and in not trying to dictate policy to them, but allowing ministers to get on with the job, subject to collective agreement by the Cabinet or by Cabinet committees on the biggest issues. Thatcher was a much more dominant leader, but I would not equate personal dominance with greatness. She was a conviction politician, but one of her convictions—the belief that she was always right—proved her undoing in the end, leading to her forcible removal from 10 Downing Street by her own colleagues.

“Stalin’s Soviet Union was one of the most cruel and stupidly intolerant regimes in 20th century Europe.”

Consensus-building becomes especially important when a regime is making a transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. Thus, I would regard Adolfo Suárez, who as Spanish prime minister from 1976 to 1981, oversaw the democratisation of Spain to be on a still higher rung than redefining leader. He was a transformational leader who succeeded in carrying the overwhelming majority of the population with him in getting approval for a new, democratic constitution. He took risks—with, for example, his negotiations with the leader of the Communist Party, Santiago Carrillo, and with the legalisation of that party—but he was, indeed, a consensus-builder in a situation in which a new consensus was needed in what had been a deeply divided society.

I don’t say that seeking consensus is always what a political leader should be trying to do. Sometimes you need to challenge existing beliefs of many citizens if you are to achieve much-needed change. Lyndon Johnson knew when he pushed through his civil rights legislation that he was going to enrage many white Southern American voters and that it was going to lose the Democrats elections in the South, but that did not stop him from doing it. There are so many domestic constraints on the power of an American president that it is difficult for them to become an overmighty leader in their own country. They have more justification, therefore, than many prime ministers have for making the most of the powers they have. Johnson did that.

Consensus-building involves behind-the-scenes deal-making. Should that be encouraged?

There is nothing wrong with behind-the-scenes deal-making, provided it is with significant representative groups and produces results can be evaluated by the electorate as a whole. If we are talking about secret deals with rich individuals, media moguls or business interests, that’s another matter. These should be open to the widest democratic scrutiny and criticism.

When we are talking about political deals, the Spanish case is again exemplary, although ‘deals’ is a slightly pejorative term; it was concord that was achieved. Suárez founded a new, moderate conservative party, but on the big constitutional issues he reached agreement in separate discussions behind the scenes with both the Communists and the Socialist Party (with the Socialists, under Felipe González, soon to become the dominant party) before presenting the new constitution to parliament and the electorate as a whole. This societal consensus that was attained was a far better outcome than enacting a constitution by majoritarian imposition.

Western liberal democracies many times have tendencies of keeping sections out of the decision-making while pursuing popular policies. The internment of the Japanese or the marginalizing of the Jews in the last century are just two such examples. Is that an inherent flaw in the political structure?

It is certainly not an inherent flaw of democracy, for democracy is much more than majority rule. It involves the right of all citizens to vote in free and fair elections, their freedom to form and join organisations, their right to compete for public office, their freedom of expression and access to alternative sources of information, the political accountability of rulers to the ruled, and all of this taking place under a rule of law. The fact that Jews and other groups have been discriminated against in many countries in the past or that Japanese citizens were unfairly interned in the United States during the Second World War illustrates the shortcomings of those particular democracies in those times. All democracies are imperfect—although much less imperfect than authoritarian regimes—but in contemporary European democracies or in North America you will not find today the particular flaws to which you refer.

How important is it for governments to have space for the dissenting voice?

It is extremely important that there should be diversity of view within a government and that no minister should, for example, be inhibited from challenging the view of whoever is head of the government, whether Prime Minister, President or (as in Germany) Chancellor. Of course, if it becomes a major issue of principle and the view of the head of the government prevails, then a minister may feel the need to resign from his or her office and criticise the government policy from outside the government. As long as someone is a member of a government, a degree of collective solidarity in public is required.

Thus, for example, there were far too few members of the Labour Cabinet who stood up to Tony Blair in his foolish determination to commit British troops to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. That turned out to be the disaster it was predicted to be by those who knew most about the Middle East. The person who did do most to challenge Blair in Cabinet over Iraq was Robin Cook, who had been Foreign Secretary but by this time was Leader of the House of Commons. He resigned from the Cabinet and his resignation speech in the Commons still stands up well today—unlike Blair’s speech which received much undeserved praise at the time.

You have glossed over India, the world’s largest democracy and one of the fastest growing economies in the world, in your study of different political systems. Is it not important enough?

India is an extremely important country and the fact that I pay less attention to it in my recent book, The Myth of the Strong Leader, than to some other countries is simply because I personally know more about those particular countries. Naturally, I draw more examples to illustrate my arguments from the places I know most about. I have spent much of my adult life studying Communist states and have made about forty visits to Russia (as well as two study visits to China and to most of the European states that were under Communist rule). I have also spent a lot of time—as a Visiting Professor—in the United States, but have lived most of my life in my home country, Great Britain. So, unsurprisingly, I prefer to write on the basis of detailed knowledge—from first-hand experience as well as from reading and research.

Having said that, I would point out that India does enter the story at various points in my recent book. I make the point that leadership in its purest sense is not when someone is head of a government with power to wield and patronage to bestow. It is when the leader does not possess institutional power but attracts a spontaneous following. It is the readiness of others to embrace the message and take part in a movement that defines the effectiveness of such political leadership. The very first example I give of such leadership in my book (pp. 19-20) is that of Mahatma Gandhi and his role in the Indian struggle for independence from British imperial rule.

Some European democracies, while encouraging immigrants into their countries, insist on the “one-language” formula for integration. Shouldn’t there be space for the growth of the immigrants’ language?

I don’t see much sign at present of European countries ‘encouraging’ immigration, nor do I see an insistence on one language. Public opinion polls in most European countries show a majority of the population answering that there has been too much immigration and they want to reduce the flow radically. Because membership of the European Union allows free movement of citizens from one EU country to another, it is very difficult to prevent immigration, for example, from, for example, the poorer ex-Communist countries of East Europe to Britain. Thus, the curbs on immigration tend to be stricter for non-EU citizens, including those from Asia, where EU governments have more control over their national immigration policy. I don’t see much sign of a ‘one-language’ formula. Interpreters are provided in British courts for people appearing there who do not speak English. In Wales every road sign is in Welsh as well as English. There is nothing wrong with preservation (as distinct from ‘growth’) of the immigrants’ language. The aim, however, should be bilingualism. It makes sense to have a common language, as is the case with English in the United States and in Britain. In the past, this went along with immigrants, especially to the US, being encouraged to lose the language of their ancestors, and in one or two generations it would, indeed, be lost to that family. Now more people see the advantage of bilingualism and it is to be encouraged. Of course, there are flourishing European democracies where there is more than one official language—Switzerland and Belgium are the most obvious examples. In the case of India, to have everyone speaking a common language (in addition to their own language, if it was not the common one) would be a tall order.

Much of your work has been on Russia. What can be learnt by looking at the experience of 20th century Russia?

A lot can be learned. I spend much time in my latest book making the case that we should be very wary of overmighty leaders and resistant to the cult of the ‘strong leader’. Even in democracies there have been unconscious echoes of what in Hitler’s Germany was called the F?hrerprinzip (the leader principle).

In Stalin’s Russia the leader was known as the 'vozhd' (the Russian equivalent to F?hrer) and at all levels of society there was a stress on edinonachalie (one-person command). Stalin’s Soviet Union was one of the most cruel and stupidly intolerant regimes in twentieth century Europe. The more collective leadership that followed his death, while still highly authoritarian, was at least an improvement on Stalin’s totalitarian dictatorship.

When (and this was the exception to the post-Stalin oligarchical rule), between 1961 and 1964 Nikita Khrushchev succeeded in establishing a position of dominance in which his decisions could not be seriously questioned even within the top leadership team, this was when the world was brought to the brink of nuclear war as Khrushchev dreamt up the idea of placing nuclear missiles in Cuba.

In general, as the Soviet (and, indeed, Chinese) case has shown, while authoritarianism is to be deplored, oligarchy is usually at least a lesser evil than autocracy, a more collective leadership preferable to the dictatorship of one man.

The cult of the strong leader helped to bring Boris Yeltsin to power in Russia. He had more in common with a traditional Russian image of the strong leader than did Mikhail Gorbachev. Although by the later years of his presidency, Yeltsin had become very unpopular, initially he appealed because of his apparent decisiveness which merged into impulsiveness. He was also much more ruthless than Gorbachev, as he showed when he shelled his own parliament in 1993 and waged internal war in Chechnya between 1994 and 1996.

Gorbachev, in contrast, was as his former prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov wrote, ‘a leader of a parliamentary type’. Ryzhkov added: ‘How he was thus formed in a party-bureaucratic system, God alone knows’. Ryzhkov became a critic of the Soviet Union’s last leader, but Gorbachev’s aide and political adviser on political reform, Georgy Shakhnazarov, made a somewhat similar point about him. He said that by presiding over the new legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies and its inner body (a radically reformed Supreme Soviet), Gorbachev lost authority. Millions of people, watching the proceedings on TV, were shocked to see him taking in his stride insults from ‘some unknown young deputy’. It was difficult, said Shakhnazarov, for people to accept mild and tactful people as leaders, for in Russia ‘from time immemorial people have admired and even loved severe rulers’. Political cultures change slowly. If Gorbachev had been granted a longer time as leader of a radically changed Soviet Union, there would have been greater chance of a more democratic political culture taking root.

The values and commitment to democratic norms of a leader are especially important in a period of attempted transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Contrary to what many people believed in 1989-91, Yeltsin was less committed to fully-fledged democracy than was Gorbachev. However, the liberalisation and significant measure of democratisation (with contested elections for the first time in seven decades) of the Soviet Union brought all the problems that had been repressed over the years to the surface of political life.

The Communist system could have continued for far longer, and Gorbachev could have been in the Kremlin for at least as long as Brezhnev, had he been content to make only tinkering changes to the system he inherited. His personal evolution, however, from Communist reformer to socialist of a social democratic type meant that he was never going to be satisfied with power for its own sake. The dissolution of the multinational Soviet state was an unintended consequence of his greatest achievements—the transformation of the political system, leaving Russia a freer country than it had ever been, and playing the most decisive role in ending the Cold War.

Gorbachev was Russia’s least authoritarian leader and boldest reformer of the 20th century.

A shorted, edited version of this appears in print

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