In these troubled times, when wise and benign world leadership is in short supply, who would not be impressed by the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern? Following the Christchurch atrocity, she has been able to articulate the desire of New Zealanders to live in peace and not at war, to love and not to hate. She has been able to reach out to people of every age and from every social and ethnic background, and to articulate grief, resolve, and hope. Politically, she was able, within 72 hours, to win the broadest support for a reform of New Zealand gun laws, and within a single week she has essentially banned military-style semi-automatic guns and assault rifles. That is utterly extraordinary.
I can’t help but compare the New Zealand “can-do” attitude, her self-reliance, and her resilience, with the Brexit impasse here in the UK. This holds true irrespective of one’s desire either to leave or to remain within the European Union. Here in the UK we have grappled with a problem for nearly three years and achieved, precisely, nothing. Remember, “Nothing is decided until everything is decided.” Well, nothing is decided. I believe this tells us something about leadership.
In a Liberal Democracy (as opposed to a Dictatorship), faced with a crisis, what does a Leader need to be, and to do, in order to step up to the plate?
- She needs to feel that she has certain skills, attributes, insights, and inner convictions that make her suitable for the job.
- She needs to feel that the challenge before her is worth taking on. Personal ambition may be a help or a hindrance, but is neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure she is equal to the task. She might even take up her post with extreme reluctance, driven by a sense of duty or even of Destiny. What matters in a crisis is that she comes with a coherent strategy.
- She must on no account have a hidden agenda. She must be open and straightforward. She mustn’t use the real crisis facing the people as a surrogate for a perceived crisis affecting a particular constituency.
- She must be collegiate. She should consult widely. She should listen in particular to opponents, and carefully weigh opinions that she may not necessarily wish to hear. She should remember the words of Oliver Cromwell, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
- She should strive for simplicity. That is not the same as being simplistic. The art of achieving simplicity, simultaneous with being right, is very complex. She must study a mass of detail, and make sense of it. She looks at all the trees and tries to see the wood. She must search for an underlying solution to the problem, the way a physicist looks for a unifying equation that is both simple, and beautiful.
- Once armed with a solution, she must convince, and gain the support of not only a cabinet, a constituency, or a party, but the whole body politic.
- She must stick to her guns, and deal with set-backs and unforeseen impediments. She might echo the words of Winston to the boys at Harrow, “Never give in.” But she should also remember that even somebody of such sublime inner resolve as Winston added a rider: “Never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”
On Sunday we saw on our television screens images reminiscent of a John Buchan “shilling shocker”, of men in Ulsters emerging from shooting brakes before a Buckinghamshire country mansion. The atmosphere of the Buchan world, of grey eminences wielding the sinews of power to influence world events, is a world away from the open society of Aotearoa. We are befogged. Our leaders have proved unable to make sense of the predicament they face. They have not found a simple solution. And the opposite of simplicity is not complexity; it is obfuscation.
Another “critical week” has started. It would be a brave man, or woman, who is ready to predict what is going to happen. Frankly, I would be amazed if Westminster pulled a white rabbit out of a hat. If they can’t find a way through to a solution, events will develop a momentum of their own. Brexit is turning out to be an “all or nothing” phenomenon. Either we abandon the whole project, and stay in the EU, or we walk away. Abort, or crash out.