‘I’ve had enough’ asseverated Tory Grandee, Sir Charles Walker, seemingly close to tears. ‘I’ve had enough of talentless people’. Speaking to the BBC hours after the resignation of the Home Secretary, and hours before the resignation of the Prime Minister, his words struck a chord internationally.
Even before Liz Truss slashed the record for the shortest-serving Prime Minister, critics had been lamenting the calibre of Westminster’s post-2016 politicians. Branding the crisis ‘chilling’, Germany’s Die Welt was quick to note that the UK has now had as many Prime Ministers in six years, as Germany has had Chancellors in fifty.
There’s now a new subgenre: Things That Have Outlived Liz Truss. The Daily Star’s Lettuce has entered the history books. Poor George Canning (the previous short-service record holder) had Tuberculosis for most of his tenure and died in office. He still doubled Truss’s effort. The failure has found British black-humour at its best: ‘Larry the Cat,’ remarked my neighbour on the Central Line ‘has had more foster parents than Tracy Beaker’.
It’s predictable that this political vortex raises a cry for ‘Great Men’. Political crises universally create a public appetite for ‘strong’ leadership; twentieth-century Europe provides the most infamous examples. Closer to home, nostalgia for ‘great’ past leaders seems natural. But how would Winston Churchill, the Duke of Wellington or David Lloyd George have fared in today’s climate? Could Churchill have eaten a bacon sandwich without embarrassing himself? Could Wellington have contained his infamous libido?
Probably not. The self-conscious similarities between Boris Johnson and Winston Churchill hint at something darker. Both were political mavericks with popular appeal, and both were perpetually on the run from financial embarrassment. David Lough’s recent history of Churchill reveals a man on a financial cliff-edge. Goodness knows who would have paid for his remodelling of Downing Street – and what might have been expected in return.
Both Johnson and Churchill were men with a self-conscious mythology, and the exaggerated Englishness that only occurs to people on its fringes. The four-square Englishness of ‘Johnson’ is misleading: his surname (had his grandmother not changed it) would have been ‘Kemal’. Churchill, likewise, was not quite what he seemed; the grandson of an English Duke, but with an all-American mother. She was Jennie Jerome, the daughter of a Brooklyn stock-speculator.
How does the veniality of modern British politics compare? Johnson courted controversy with Jennifer Arcuri, and with the award of some controversial honours. David Cameron had his wrists slapped for the Greensill Capital affair. The seemingly benign founder of the welfare state, David Lloyd George, would have made both men blush. Lloyd George was lucky to escape from the infamous Marconi Affair (1912), a scandal that saw senior politicians accused of insider-trading.
Likewise, today’s political fixers and SpAds seem quaint next to Lloyd George’s fundraiser, Maundy Gregory. Dominic Cummings may have owned a small nightclub in Durham, but Gregory reputedly owned the biggest brothel in the South East. Aside from a profitable side-line in blackmail, Gregory’s main activity was the sale of honours. Some sources estimate that his activities raised as much as £60m for the Liberal and Conservative parties.
Nor could even Johnson keep up with British history’s most prolific womanisers. The Duke of Wellington’s ongoing affairs with married women and escorts made him vulnerable to blackmail. When eventually threatened, he was unfazed: ‘Publish and be Damned’ was the apocryphal response. Clearly, the Trumpian tactic of bullish ownership of wrongdoing (rather than the vulnerability of apology) is nothing new.
Perhaps political standards have not declined. But the intensity of media scrutiny has unquestionably increased. It is not just a question of intensity, but of frequency. The twenty-four-hour news-cycle provides a constant valuation of political achievement. Much like a financial commodity, the ‘share price’ of our political class is reported hourly. And like any commodity, minute monitoring of price can obscure awareness of longer-term value.
Value Investors – led by Warren Buffett – know this only too well. Which of us, if we instructed an agent to value our house daily, would not eventually panic and sell a good asset prematurely? Perhaps there’s a message here for political life; value a government’s actions periodically, rather than ‘costing’ them daily. Any other approach incentivises short-term policy making, and Great Men being brought in for a quick-fix. And there will be no more Great Men. Perhaps there never were any.