Tongue-in-cheek, the entertaining columnist Marina Hyde argued the case for weaker government (‘Keep your Blairs or Caligulas. Better a line of puny Cleggs’, The Guardian, 12 February 2010). She had a point: “Caligula wouldn’t have been nearly such an arse if he’d have had to make an alliance with Nick Clegg every time he wanted to bump off a consul”. The issue isn’t necessarily one of strength per se, or hobbling it, but rather what ‘strength’ means and who should have it.
In my own county of Surrey, a chief constable unilaterally put a stop to the restorative justice programme and controversially introduced ‘Staying Ahead’, leading to resignations of colleagues in disgust. In another county, David Blunkett as Home Secretary pressurised the local police authority not to renew their chief constable’s contract. Reason? The chief constable had disagreed with him on how to deal with two particular policing issues, over which, in hindsight, the chief constable was shown to have been right. So much for strong leadership.
Wartime, it is claimed, calls for strong leadership. In going to war in Iraq, George Bush was a strong leader. Or was he? Was he actually a weak leader clothed in the strong powers available under the ‘unitary executive theory’ available in the US constitution? The same case might be made for Tony Blair.
What is the alternative? Do we want/need weak leadership? The problem is that we are trapped by our mental models, especially the one that says that strong leadership means a strong personality – until we don’t like what the leader decides or he becomes a bully.
However, instead of wanting to weaken strong leaders’ power we should want to spread the power so that the system is able to act, and to act wisely. Those counties and their policing authorities needed the strength to be able to stand up to autocratic leaders.
With a general election not far away, it seems like we’re due another bout of strong leaders making their mark. Watch out!