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European politics

Let’s hear it for dull politicians

Attlee: quietly effective. Popperfoto/Getty

Political pundits today “bemoan the absence of courageous leaders”, says Vernon Bogdanor in Engelsberg Ideas. But in truth, “democracies do not need strong leaders at all times”. Charismatic heroes are only preferable in times of acute crisis, like war. If not for the desperate circumstances of 1940, Churchill would never have become PM: two years prior, he himself believed “my opportunity has passed”. Oddly enough, it was Stalin who predicted the “old warhorse” would be summoned back – but only “when Britain was once again in trouble”. And great men like Churchill and Charles de Gaulle were cast off immediately once the war was over. “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero,” argues a character in Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo. “No,” Galileo rebuts, “unhappy is the land that needs a hero.”

It’s no accident that the world’s most stable countries – the likes of Switzerland and Norway – usually have inconspicuous leaders. And some of the greatest landslides in British political history were won by men who were “far from striking personalities”: Stanley Baldwin in 1924 and 1935, and Clement Attlee in 1945. Despite what “political junkies” believe, most voters “want to be bothered by politicians as little as possible”. They’re less concerned that the PM is a “personable dinner companion”, and more that they’re a solid decision-maker capable of meeting their “concrete hopes and aspirations”. For that, “a Calvin Coolidge, a François Hollande or an Angela Merkel will suffice”.