12 December 2013

We tend to decry the modern focus on prime ministerial personality but panelists at our session discussing leadership from Disraeli and Gladstone to Brown and Cameron all emphasised the extent to which personality has always been a key factor in successful political leadership.

For William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli, often compared (not least in Dick Leonard’s recent joint biography of them), the factors that made them successful during their multiple premierships in the late 19th century were wildly different. Gladstone was a details man, Disraeli a schemer. Gladstone was a workaholic, his large team of aides and civil servants only an opportunity for him to achieve even more work. Disraeli was known to sleep through cabinet meetings. Both entered politics for different reasons – Gladstone from conviction and Disraeli out of a desire for fame in his lifetime.

Yet both achieved considerable reforms. As our panelists pointed out, Disraeli ‘revolutionised foreign policy’ with his handling of the Treaty of Berlin and Gladstonian ‘fiscal orthodoxy’ was one of the great legacies for future governments; both introduced major social reforms. They were the great orators of their time, particularly in the House of Commons. This helped make their name. As Dick Leonard reminded the audience, both came to the fore on the back of demolishing the reputation of another: Disraeli through his attacks on Robert Peel’s reform of the Corn Laws in the 1940s and Gladstone through his critical intervention and demolition of Disraeli’s own 1852 budget.

The panel sometimes disagreed on how to interpret their respective legacies, achievements and personalities, but all agreed they had that special something that made them stand out from their contemporaries. Both also had their fair share of scandal in their private lives; it is almost too obvious to point out that Gladstone’s now renowned attempts to ‘convert’ prostitutes wouldn’t have survived the tabloid era, but Disraeli was also laid down with big personal debts (which might have tempted him to overclaim his expenses). For the historian Jane Ridley, this is what makes them interesting and possibly even successful: ‘people who lead scandalous lives are probably better leaders; we need risk takers’. How different the Victorian era would have been if either or both had been hounded out of politics because of personal fallibilities.

Andrew Adonis debunked the myth that they were great exponents of cabinet government – bastions of collective decision-making for us to harken back to in our supposed age of presidential prime ministership. In fact, Adonis noted, Gladstone doubled as his own Chancellor and Lord Salisbury was his own Foreign Secretary – occupying the only two worthwhile jobs in government.

One thing our panelists all agreed was that there was no necessary connection between work rate and prime ministerial success. Political theorist Professor Stein Ringen lauded the leadership qualities of Ronald Reagan who took a nap every afternoon and Andrew Adonis contrasted the effectiveness of the two prime ministers he worked for: ‘some people work hard and are workaholics and that is how they exert authority and bring about big change, sometimes they do so effectively, sometimes very ineffectively… I’ve worked for a prime minister who was a workaholic who wasn’t the most effective of prime ministers, I’ve also worked for a prime minister who was not remotely a workaholic who virtually never did meetings after 6 o’clock in the evening unless there was an international crisis… but was hugely effective’.

In the end, the panel seemed to conclude, it’s ‘a matter of some innate personal characteristics, you either have it or you don’t’ (Jane Ridley). But those who have it can improve on their success if they manage to combine personality and office in a way that works for them. As Stein Ringen instructed,
‘leaders can get nothing done except through others, through their co-operation and acquiescence… everyone from civil servants to ordinary citizens… Power in that game is only a certificate to rule, once you are there in office everything depends on how you use power to win over others.’