1 February 2016
Tim Koch writes:
Something strange is happening in politics on both sides of the Atlantic; it is the rise of the ‘anti-leader’. In the United States, the unique Donald Trump could become the Republican Party candidate. In the UK at least, this has overshadowed the continuing success of Democratic Party hopeful, Bernie Sanders, a man who calls himself a ‘socialist’ (though possibly more in the Canadian than in the Cuban tradition). In Britain, the Labour Party, following its resounding defeat in the General Election of May 2015, elected as its leader Jeremy Corbyn, an old-style socialist of the type that most people assumed had no meaningful place in the party following its shift to the slick social democracy of the Tony Blair era. Should any of these three be elected to government, it will be interesting to see if men whose unique selling point appears to be the fact that they are uncompromising can continue as such and still lead an effective administration.
The notion that electoral victory often produces accusations of betrayal as the realities of governing are confronted is nothing new – as the cartoon above foresaw. The background to the caricature is that, while the Conservative Party won the most seats in the 1923 General Election, they could not form a government. On the advice of Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, King George V asked Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald to form what would be the first Labour government. Those who feared that this would mean red revolution were placated slightly when MacDonald and many of his cabinet went to ‘kiss hands’ with the King wearing, as tradition demanded, court dress. This comprised of a matching tailcoat and waistcoat, breeches and stockings, lace cuffs and cravat, cocked hat and a sword (then £30 from outfitters Moss Bros, sword extra). The more radical cabinet members refused to don such an outfit and, in an act of revolutionary zeal, wore only evening dress. Ultimately, the new government lasted only eleven months but its main achievement lay more in what it did not do, its lack of radical actions proving to the electorate that the Labour Party was ‘respectable’ and ‘fit to govern’.
The Labour party has always been a coalition of different groups pulling in different directions, hence the famous comment on Labour leaders: ‘If they can’t ride two horses at once, they shouldn’t be in the bloody circus.’ The cox in the cartoon is J.R. Clynes, who had been Labour leader until defeated by Ramsay MacDonald. MacDonald is at stroke and was both Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. He survived the twin stigmas of illegitimacy and of being a pacifist in the First World War but in 1931, he became a hate figure on the left for forming a Conservative-dominated coalition during the second Labour government. Philip Snowden is at ‘7’, a Chancellor of the Exchequer who rejected socialist economic policies and instead espoused strict classical liberal economic measures such as a balanced budget and a return to the gold standard. Arthur Henderson, the Home Secretary at ‘6’ and John Wheatley, the Minister of Health at ‘5’, are the only two depicted not in rowing kit and are both out of time with ‘stroke’ and ‘7’. Wheatley was one of the few token left-wingers that MacDonald included in his cabinet while Henderson was a rival for the party leadership. The inclusion of William Leach at ‘4’ is peculiar as he was the Under-Secretary of State for Air, a minor post that proved to be the pinnacle of his political career. In the ‘3’ seat is President of the Board of Trade, Sidney Webb, a founder of the reformist and bourgeois Fabian Society and an apologist for Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Most political leaders like to imagine themselves as the stroke of a rowing crew that moves as one, speeding the shell of state towards ultimate victory. In reality, they tend to be more like canoeists who find themselves on a stream polluted by sewage and who lack the necessary means of propulsion.
*Electile Dysfunction 1 is here.