I’m getting into the Alistair Campbell Diaries at present. What the diaries show, of course, is that leadership anywhere at any level is a fairly scrappy business and the ‘great leap forward’ is usually illusory.
But there are exceptions. At the moment, I’m with Tony Blair’s move to scrap Clause 4 in his first Conference speech as leader of the Labour Party. This was an attempt to make a radical break with the past. It was a high-risk moment of daring – and it showed the distinction between symbol and substance, so important in Ireland. The less daring said, ‘But Clause 4 is only a symbol’ – why risk all the conflict which will result? Our instincts are to go for substance and let symbol look after itself. But sometimes, I suspect that that opposite is true.
Other moments of leadership daring which I respect?
Michael O’Leary of the dreadful Ryanair went out in the week after 9/11 and bought 140 new Boeing planes at knockdown prices – because nobody would ever fly again.
Nelson Mandela put on a Springbok rugby shirt – symbol of white South African manhood – to present the cup in 1995. Yes – symbol again.
Agree and disagree, I think. Agree about Blair. Credit also to Mrs Thatcher who smoothed his path by emasculating the unions. I never knew what he stood for. Where he led [as in Iraq] he was often wrong. Disagree about Trimble. He signed up to the Agreement but failed to understand or rise to the political and personal challenge of helping his people to follow. Partially agree about Paisley. He responded to popular mood – but he was significantly responsible for creating a climate of fear, suspicion and hostility. In the world of the Free Presbyterian Church, he has now been destroyed by his own creation. I am still not sure why he has executed the volte face on the Assembly. He has offered his people no rationale or political leadership other than that he has done it and there is nobody to the right of him to cry ‘treason’. I wait to see whether war-weariness, pragmatism and prosperity will see him through.
When David Trimble became Ulster Unionist leader, Houston McKelvey, Dean Of Belfast, said that the true test of his leadership would be if he was able to lead his people where they did not want to go. Trimble passed that test. Paisley has never been a leader in that sense, his skill has been in articulating the popular mood and putting himself at the front of it, thus his volte face on the Assembly.
The groundwork for Blair had been laid by Kinnock and John Smith. Blair so much had his eye on remaining in power that he never led his people anywhere risky.
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