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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > October 2017 > The political is personal

The political is personal

Forget ideas, organisation and policy. Every British and American election in 70 years has boiled down to the character thing—who is the leader that’s got what it takes?
”It’s not about you, it’s about me.” It’s the opposite of what Obama said, but is it true?

Ihave a theory of national elections. The best leader wins and nothing else matters. It’s that simple.

This applies to all “two-horse” national elections in stable democracies where elections are free and fair, and covers all the pre-eminent constitutional states whether their national elections are presidential (as in the United States and France) or parliamentary (as in the UK, Germany, India, Japan, Canada and Australia).

Of course, there is hardly an election analyst who doesn’t attribute some importance—often a lot—to leadership. Personal ratings are part of the mix of things polled during campaigns. But my theory is different. It is that leaders are all that matter.

Surely ideas and policies matter too? After all, they are what politicians do: debate ideas and frame and implement policies. Not only elections but wars are fought over ideas and rival programmes. But herein enters the seminal insight of the British commentator Jonathan Freedland. In a Guardian article a decade ago—in the context of Gordon Brown’s then-leaderless critics in the Labour Party demanding a new debate on “the issues”— Freedland cautioned that “people do not believe in ideas: they believe in people who believe in ideas.”

The moment I read those words, a penny dropped, and my conviction has become stronger with each passing year I have spent in politics, that the battle of ideas in politics—indeed in life—cannot be comprehended separately from the people who hold and espouse those ideas. Freedland expressed an insight into the nature of politics and power that is, I believe, as profound as Hobbes on sovereignty, Machiavelli on fear and “fortuna,” Gramsci on hegemony, Burke on tradition or Weber on charisma and bureaucracy. As we enter the party conferences, it’s conventional to despair at the incessant fixation on the leadership question. But—on my argument—the parties are right to obsess. For they really do stand or fall by their leaders.

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In Prospect’s October issue: Andrew Adonis, Steve Richards, Gaby Hinsliff, Rachel Sylvester and Jennifer Williams look at the idea that leadership is the only thing that matters when it comes to elections. Adonis leads the cover package arguing exactly that point and outlining his ratings of the leaders who have competed every election in the UK and the United States since 1944—Richards offers a rebuttal. Hinsliff, Sylvester and Williams profile three potential leaders in waiting—Amber Rudd, Jo Swinson and Angela Rayner. Elsewhere in the issue we map out the potential road the UK might travel down to stay in the European Union and explore the relationship between UN Secretary General António Guterres and Donald Trump as the two prepare to meet at the UN. Also in this issue: Philip Collins on the similarities between Britain’s Brexiteers and the Gaullists of yesteryear, John Bercow explains how parliament could function better and our “View from” comes from Nairobi, where the recent election result has been annulled.