How ‘Doing no harm’ came to elude Europe’s political elite.

Europe’s Leadership Famine examines the careers of a cross-section of politicians who acquired prominence in Europe between 1950 and the present day.  Twenty figures have been selected in order to show what their acquisition, retention, and (in most cases) retreat from power can reveal about the health and shifting contours of democracy over a seventy-year period.

Some may recoil from the term leadership famine. But there is increasing endorsement of the  claim that democratic politics is in disarray across much of Europe. My aim is to trace the origins of this continent-wide political malaise and analyse its present-day features. Perhaps  it can be summed up in different ways:

  • defective political craftmanship.
  • the rise of egotistical and introverted features in society which ensure that short-term emotional gratification is prized over altruism and a desire to work with others for the common good.
  • complacency in anticipating crises and timidity in dealing with them.
  • a shrinking talent pool drawn from unrepresentative sections of society.
  • barely disguised disdain for voters, and impatience with elections.
  • and finally, increasing preoccupation of leading players with inter-elite transactions suggesting that they view themselves as members of a global club rather than as national leaders entrusted with major domestic responsibilities.

Ironically, after years of the pooling of national powers within the framework of the European Union, books that compare the health and standing of national democracies in Europe remain thin on the ground. Reticence clearly exists about probing too deeply into the shrivelling of political life. It is still far easier to get into print by recycling cliches and platitudes about Europe than about asking what has gone wrong and why.

Cold feet from a publisher who considered a version of this book, has  enabled me to strike out on my own. I do not regret the move which, increasingly, is ceasing to be a novel response from writers in a brittle age of growing censoriousness.

Restrictions slapped on media investigators and opinion-formers by corporate bodies in publishing, television, the print media and academia have been increasing in frequency in societies that in official parlance are free and diverse.  The void created by a hollowed-out media has been filled by podcasts, substacks, and blogs.  A pair of freelance editors have worked with me to prepare this independently published book. Whatever its shortcomings may be, they are my responsibility.

If it had gone through the customary editing process, I’m unsure how the book would have benefited.  There is an emphasis in publishing on producing books on contemporary public affairs which do not stray beyond the boundaries of global radical liberalism. Loosely aligning with the progressive mainstream may now be more important than ensuring originality, depth and topicality when preparing books for the commercial market.

I have little doubt that this book would have been rather more cautious and circumspect in tone of it had gone through the conventional publishing route. Assembly line methods increasingly define the journey of a book from inception to published work. Authorial input has been scaled back. Editors question not just accuracy and coherence but value judgments and claims.  This is even before manuscripts are sent out to external readers who are drawn from universities where conformity in the social sciences and humanities now easily takes precedence over originality of ideas and depth of research.

I doubt if the title or the cover would easily have seen the light of day under a conventional publisher. The dedication to the victims of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombings might even have raised eyebrows. Updates to take account of major events would have been hard to insert.

As it happened, five of the figures meant to cast light on Europe’s troubles faced drastic occurrences in the immediate pre-publication period: resignation and scandal in the case of Nicola Sturgeon;  political disgrace and flight from active politics in that of Boris Johnson;  crushing electoral defeat leading to likely retreat from power in the case of Spain’s Pedro Sánchez; the same for Milo Djukanoviç of Montenegro after 33 years  at the top of politics; and death itself claiming Silvio Berlusconi.

The emphasis is not on providing intricate or detailed personal biographies, but instead on placing the careers, formative experiences, outlook and intentions of the subjects, in the context of how their nations, and Europe as a whole, fared in the seventy-five years covered by the book. It has sought to uphold scholarly rigour while being candid about the unhappy state of this present age of European politics. Sensationalism is avoided but so is euphemism and double-speak when confronting the dangers stemming from the persistence of low-grade leadership.

Of course, a capable and assured pilot is not the only requirement to guide the ship of state though choppy waters. Effective leadership often depends on political conditions, the mood and underlying nature of society, increasingly the wider international context and, perhaps above all, the existence of institutions facilitating improvements and impeding extremist power-grabs. The arena in which leadership can be displayed to best effect remains the national one but the squeeze on the effective exercise of national sovereignty increasingly hobbles elected leaders, making positive changes an uphill task.

This will be the first of several blog posts setting out the scope and intentions of the book in the hope that it will provoke interest in the title. This opening essay will conclude half-way through  the 70-year period which it covers.  It was one which witnessed the restoration of democratic legitimacy in a range of countries and the commencement of multi-lateral cooperation after an unusually destructive period involving two world wars, dictatorship and invasion of which few countries were spared. But it was soon clear that the post-Hitlerian era was one when the surviving European democracies faced an overt threat to their continuation as sovereign states. Post-Stalinism was slow to retreat and for several generations states would be menaced by a rival social system directed from the Soviet Union.

Parties, governments, and leaders at the democratic helm had to overtly appeal6 for vigilance, patriotism and the shelving of normal differences in order to stiffen resistance against a fresh totalitarian danger. This went beyond the domestic arena to encompass the building of institutions for collective defence and economic cooperation.

The peril from without posed by an aggressive predatory social system may have been a boon for democracies that were still fragile in most cases, as well as a stimulus for effective leadership. Those profiled in the opening Cold War section of the book were four determined, cunning and resilient leaders. They were alliance builders belonging on different points of the political spectrum and promoted pragmatism in the context of ideological extremes.

Tito, Kekkonen, Spaak and Andreotti arguably displayed more flair than most of the leaders of the two states which, perhaps unsurprisingly, dominated the European political arena: France and Germany. After burying their long-term enmity, these countries would be at the centre of decision-making in what became a Europe of shared sovereignty. What underpinned their informal compact was a set of national interests that were seen as mutually compatible. A burgeoning European project stemmed rivalries but did not eradicate them. The profiles of Giscard d’Estaing, Mitterrand, Schrȍder and Merkel suggest that in many ways this bilateral alliance was a sham.  France and Germany were prepared to tinker  with sovereignty (Maastricht treaty, launch of the Eurozone) but they were far from willing to submerge their nations in  a post-national European order.

The tensions provoked thanks to erratic decision-making also had a destabilising effect on politics at home. France and Germany have seen the replacement of rival electoral blocs duelling for office with a far untidier array of competitors.  Arguably, it was François Mitterrand who set this process in motion by redesigning the electoral system. The price of his election for a second presidential term in 1988 was to take the far-right from the margins to the mainstream of politics. This was one of the most inept policy moves by someone who nevertheless possessed unwavering self-belief.

Such self-willed figures recur with ever-greater frequency. France became a laboratory anticipating future trends. The left grew remote from the working-class and instead fell under the sway of media, educational and financial elites. On the right free market economics waned as (at least for some) it became clear that economic nationalism offered greater electoral rewards.

But coherent programmes and manifestos became harder to distinguish as the performance of parties in office grew ever more remote from their undertakings to voters. Hubris took hold as decision-makers embarked on schemes for which they had received no electoral validation. Ethnic identity-driven politicians pursued social engineering measures designed to alter the character of their societies. But so did politicians from conventional spheres. They showed weariness with the nation-state confines by allowing international bodies to lay down the tramlines for policies in the health and energy fields which hitherto were the sole prerogatives of the nation-state.

National elections lost their legitimacy as medium-sized nation-states increasingly struggled to adapt to decisions being made by global corporations, financial institutions and multi-level bureaucracies.  Hubristic figures presiding over a recession in democratic leadership must surely place free societies in harms way. It makes it harder for democracies to prevail against assorted enemies in a world where illiberal and authoritarian forces have made some of their most striking advances in some of the bulwarks of democracy.

To end on an optimistic note, this post is being written from  Greece in the final week of campaigning before a parliamentary election on 25 June. An array of parties are on offer, none of which endorse the imperious intervention of the EU in Greek internal affairs during the protracted crisis of the Eurozone starting in 2009. As the European Central Bank imposed brutal austerity measures in return for loans meant to bail out over-extended local and West European banks, the economy contracted by a shocking 15 per cent in five years.

Greeks understandably seem wary of crusading international ideas for redesigning the planet. Proponents of Green net zero policies enjoy little traction. Perhaps the best-known Greek political figure in Western countries at least, Yanis Varoufakis, has been unable to get far with an eco-left-wing progressive party opposed to drilling for oil  in Greece. I spoke to a canvasser for his MeRA25 party in the north-western city of Ioannina close to mountains where drilling companies are searching for oil. The earnest young man baldly stated that mulish citizens needed to be made to see the dangers posed by a warming climate even though the technology to replace fossil fuels was hardly on the horizon.

Most Greeks remain absorbed with issues such as the territorial threat posed by Turkey as well as struggling to make ends meet. It means that politicians are closely scrutinised, perhaps more than before when many were prepared to be swept away by demagogic rhetoric.

Perhaps the readiness of most Greeks to reject impractical utopianism and demand greater transparency and competence from their leaders is a sign that other parts of Europe might overcome their democratic recession. But it won’t be easy, especially in the longer-established democracies where alienation from the democratic process and the rights that go with it are easy to spot, especially among the younger cohort of citizens. This book seeks to chart the democratic malaise by giving the human dimension of politics more attention than it normally receives. Hopefully it will stimulate an interest not just in abstract theories but in the flesh and blood people who were at the centre of decision-making at a time of gathering uncertainty.

Tom Gallagher, Ioannina, Greece, 19 June

Tom Gallagher’s new book, Europe’s Leadership Famine: Portraits of Defiance and Decay, 1950-2022, (Scotview Publications) was published on 22 June. ISBN9780993465444



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