Whatever Happened To The Statesmen?

Virtually all great statesmen transcend politics. Whilst in office they may be divisive, they may irritate people, their policies may sometimes be second or even third rate, they may make catastrophic mistakes, but through the strength of their personalities and force of character and convictions, as well as much more, that is forgotten and they are remembered by history as outstanding individuals. Their names are well known- In the UK we have William Gladstone, Benjamin Disraeli, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill. Yes, they all had their faults (Churchill liked to strut around in the nud and was more than a bit of a warmonger, Lloyd George was both a womaniser and financially corrupt) but nobody can deny that they are amongst the greatest polticians Britain (and the world) has produced.

Out of today’s crop of politicians, who are the great statesmen? Certainly not the people at the top of the pile. Just look at the selection of candidates from the last couple of General Elections- Ed Milliband, a man who can’t eat a bacon sandwich properly. David Cameron, an Etonian, wet blanket weed who always seemed like he was about to announce the reintroduction powdered wigs. Nick Clegg, a second rate sociology teacher. Tim Farron, a reject from The Beano. Jeremy Corbyn, your not quite cool granddad. Theresa May, a lady who so desperately wants to be the Wicked Witch of Westminster but is actually a bigger charisma vacuum than all the rest of the above put together. She also walks like Mr Burns from The Simpsons.

David Lloyd George (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

The closest we have to any kind of great statesman, and God help us, is Boris Johnson. He is most definitely not a great statesman and he only comes close because he has what the others lack, a personality. His buffoonish and clownish air, his eccentric attitude and posh-fluff talk mean that people remember him and, as an indirect result, empathise with him because he entertains them. But that, on the surface, is all there is too him. He has none of the other qualities that make a statesman. As a politician he has repeatedly proven himself inept and unqualified. His Brexit campaign was a shamble of epic proportions (though by the standards of the whole referendum campaign, that doesn’t say a lot) and he’s hardly distinguished himself as foreign secretary or as Mayor of London. Compare him to the likes of Lloyd George, a man who could charm the birds out of the trees and who could capture the hearts of an entire room with a few specially chosen words, and he comes up woefully short.

Every one of the great statesmen knew how to talk, which is something most modern politicians lack the skill for. The greats knew not only how to write a good speech but how to deliver it in a powerful way as well. They knew the art of oratory, something which I think that no British politician today has the skill for. Throughout the course of the most recent election I haven’t seen one well delivered, powerful or memorable speech. I didn’t see one during last year’s EU referendum campaign, nor in the election campaign the year before or even during the election in 2010. All we’ve had are poorly thought out campaign slogans and Theresa May repeating the words ‘strong and stable’ like a broken record.

Long gone are the days when it was a necessity for politicians to know how to orate. The master was William Pitt the younger, who is said to have once stood up and delivered an incredibly powerful, three hour speech on the fly. His debates across the House of Commons with Charles Fox, another fantastic orator, are legendary. His father, Pitt the Elder, was the same, one of the greatest orators to have ever lived (even though virtually none of his speeches survive.)

As late as the eighties the majority of politicians knew how to deliver a speech. Think about Thatcher. Divisive as she still is, you cannot deny that her words and speeches are still remembered or that she delivered them in a forceful, effective way. Her words were spoken with conviction and her belief in them came through. Many of today’s politicians just sound like they’re saying things they’ve been told to say, repeating a mantra that somebody else has come up with for them.

William Ewart Gladstone (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

But this especially true in interviews, particularly with cabinet and shadow cabinet members and junior ministers and spokespeople. The majority of the time, instead of providing an answer they repeat some party drivel or make vague, obvious dodges. I recently saw one treasury minister on Newsnight who was just waffling and not actually saying anything at all. Most of them don’t seem capable of sitting in a studio and talking their way out of whichever paper bag they have found themselves in, incapable of coming up with an answer to a question they didn’t expect (Here’s a tip for anyone: In an interview situation, expect the unexpected.) When stumped for an answer they pull out the party line or some gibberish in the hope they can get away with it. Any statesman should know how to speak, how to hold a conversation, and an awful lot of our politicians can’t do that.

Oratory and personality alone are still not enough, however. A statesman needs something else, something extra to make them stand out from the crowd. They must have the look of a leader. They must exude not only their charisma from every orifice but also a little something called ‘gravitas.’ A statesman must have presence, they must appear to know what they are doing. They have to effortlessly command the attention of the room. Much of it is down to confidence, being or appearing confident will get a person halfway there, but the other factors of personality and charisma and oratorical skills also play into it as well. Without a strong personality, without charisma, a person cannot ever hope to have this ‘gravitas.’

Unlike personality and charisma, which most people can agree on,it is an arbitrary notion- It means different things to different people- And I don’t think, despite what a lot of people on the internet say, that it is something you can learn to have. It’s something that has to come naturally. You can’t ‘learn’ to exude a presence. You’ve either got it, or you don’t. The majority of British politicians don’t have it. It’s what I believe is Jeremy Corbyn’s primary fault. He just doesn’t have the presence required to make him a great statesman. He lacks that finishing touch, that poise, the ability to effortlessly command a room. He has streets more poise than his rivals, I’ll admit, but so do most people I would imagine.

Really, it has to be the right kind of presence. It is no good a statesman exuding the presence of an autocratic businessman or a used car salesman, which was Tony Blair’s great failing (as well as having a truly loathsome personality, though he did have one). It has to be an almost royal like level of gravitas (though actually acting like royalty will cost you, as Thatcher found out when she started behaving like the Queen of Westminster towards the end of her reign.) A statesman must be dignified, grown up, and have a strong air of respectability about them. It is a common joke to say that all politicians are corrupt and sleazy, and looking at Westminster you can believe it, but to be a statesman is to defy the stereotype, to be honest and dignified.

Harold Wilson (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Grace in defeat and courtesy towards ones rivals is also a necessity and today’s vitriolic MPs, constantly flinging muck at each other and attempting to discredit one another before anybody has even opened their mouth, could do with it. Instead of debate we have playground shouting matches, accusations of incompetence and endless raking up of the past as far back as the eighties in an attempt to undermine the opponent and their party. Instead of living in the present, acting for the present and the future, today’s politicians are too busy using the past to attack each other rather than getting on with thrashing out the matter at hand.

Rivalry is good, sometimes the greatest statesmen are also the fiercest rivals and that means that their policies are under more intense scrutiny as a consequence, but there is a line between rivalry and full on mud wrestling. That is a line which the great rival statesmen, Wilson and Heath, Gladstone and Disraeli, Fox and Pitt (and their fathers, interestingly enough) never crossed. They may have been like rabid dogs on the political stage (and they may not have liked each other, publicly or privately) but there was always a degree of respect. When Pitt the younger died in 1806 Fox commented that there was ‘suddenly something missing in the world,’ which to me suggests that despite over twenty years of fierce rivalry and opposition, Fox still held some sort of an admiration for Pitt. Today it is rare to see such admiration on display amongst politicians.

So what happened? Where did the great statesmen go? Why, today, is British politics bereft of its Lloyd Georges, its fantastic orators like the Pitts, its titanic rivalries between giants of men like Gladstone and Disraeli?  Part of the problem lies in politics itself. The vitriolic nature of the commons, which for the most part developed during the Blair era, means that it is perhaps impossible to have a civilised debate. Any such attempt will soon be drowned in the muck flying about. Oratory is also not viewed as an essential skill anymore. It isn’t taught in schools and whilst it is certainly useful in terms of politics, I get the impression that most don’t think they need it. Most, if not all, are untrained in the art of public speaking.

The other thing is that times and society have changed and the dignified gravitas required for a statesman is no longer common. That sort of person has become rare. As a society we’re looser, less formal and thus the need to carry ourselves with some kind of overt dignity has lessened. This less formal approach has even pervaded the professional sphere and thus, unfortunately, people are a lot less professional in their general attitudes. This, alas, even extends to politicians.

This does not, however, explain why so many of our politicians lack any sort of personality or charisma and it is hard to argue that people with such things no longer exist in society. It is, alas, a question which I cannot answer.


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