Why comparing British party leaders to Vladimir Putin is misleading

24.04.2015966

putin and cameronThe 2015 General Election campaign has focused on debt, austerity, the possibility of another coalition government and the rise of the SNP. But another rather unexpected topic keeps cropping up; that of Vladimir Putin. Over the last few months he has become a rather unexpected symbol of British political issues; a foreign leader against whom the national party leaders competing for Number 10 have been compared.

Gideon Rachman  was probably the first person to raise the issue of leader’s personal qualities and their importance for international relations during the election period. Writing in February of this year, he speculated about the masculine ring of foreign leaders, ‘special friends’ of Vladimir Putin as he put it, who look strong and act like strongmen both inside and outside their countries. (Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Jacob Zuma in South Africa, and Viktor Orban in Hungary). A short but powerful list that moves other leaders and their voters into doubt.  British leaders are not like them so a discussion arises whether they are fit to stand against these counterparts. Such questions came up during the only TV leaders’ debate to involve all the main parties. A piece by Stuart Heritage in the Guardian made light-hearted mockery of Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg’s attempts to look fearless as he went along a treetop rope bridge in a pair of navy chinos. And then there was Conservative MP Nick Boles who took to Twitter to ask ‘Who does Vladimir Putin want to see running Britain after 7th May?’

But does Britain really need a strong leader?

The last party leader who was widely considered strong in opinion polls was Gordon Brown. His supposed ‘strength’ was one of the key elements of his public image. Before taking up office in June 2007, he had been seen as a decisive and strong politician, according to YouGov. But in a year, he lost those credentials, his ‘strength’ rating collapsed from 44 to 17 percent while his ‘decisiveness’ rating fell from 38 to just 8 percent. Finally, he ended up being called ‘a ditherer’. As Leader of the Opposition David Cameron was not seen as a strong figure. Instead, charisma was his key personal quality and, as the popularity of his rival faded, he gained points in opinion polls.

Seven years on, the situation has not changed considerably. David Cameron, now the Prime Minister, is regarded, according to Ipsos MORI, as ‘a capable leader’ (55 percent) who is, or would be, ‘good in a crisis’ (53 percent) and ‘has a clear vision for Britain’ (55 percent). In spite of being seen as having ‘more style than substance’ (43 percent), he outscores Ed Miliband in ‘personality’ (39 percent against 20 percent). Ed Miliband doesn’t have the charisma of David Cameron  and cannot lay out a track record of real achievements of his leadership. Apart from the odd slip up (and the two kitchens drama last month springs to mind here), he is seen to be closer to ordinary people and of having a better understanding of the problems facing Britain.

If we look at the last few decades of British politics, we can identify two contrasting trends. One, brought in by the presidential style of Margaret Thatcher and later Tony Blair, has planted great expectations in people’s hearts and minds. They expect all their Prime Ministers to be decisive, courageous and determined. But what is usually overlooked is that every ‘strong’ leader in Britain, after a period of glory and praise, inevitably ends up with poor ratings and questionable overall achievements that take a toll on their parties’ electoral prospects. And perhaps this is not what the UK needs, especially in times when the Prime Minister has to keep a coalition government afloat. That’s why there is a second trend that has always been present in British politics. This is about leadership that relies on collective decision-making process. Renowned Oxford professor Archie Brown in his book “The Myth of a Strong Leader” argues for a type of collegial leader, whose most important characteristics are his or her ability to keep a good team together and to draw upon ‘the collective wisdom within the broader leadership’.

So what about Cameron and Miliband then? Neither are strong in the overmighty sense. They are unlikely to do the sort of macho posturing we see from Putin. Neither are likely to emulate Blair’s presidential style. And they don’t need to. Of course, this won’t stop people from asking questions and comparing them to others simply because they always do. But all contenders for Number 10 have their own advantages that can make them excellent national leaders like being good in negotiations or having the ability to delegate or being good in teaming up with other politicians and responding to crises and people’s needs. What they need to do for the remainder of the campaign is to explain it and show it to the British people.

The article written by Stranovedenie director Andrei Kulikov was originally published at the PSA Insight Plus blog on 22 April

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