Quillette Podcast Live with Steve Richards
A constant refrain of contemporary British politics is the desire for figures to show ‘real political leadership’. But what is leadership? Steve Richards, one of Britain’s leading political commentators, seeks to uncover some of the secrets in his latest and widely acclaimed book, The Prime Ministers: reflections on leadership from Wilson to May. In this special edition of the Quillette podcast – launched only a year ago yet already at one million unique listens – Toby Young will probe Steve Richards on the lessons from his book and more broadly what kind of political leadership might be needed today.
This desire for leadership is usually a barely disguised way of saying that one wishes a prominent politician would take a stand on something seen as important, but probably unpopular or at least contentious. While the obvious examples are about Brexit – with Theresa May being labelled the worst prime minister in British history to Jeremy Corbyn being accused of avoiding taking a lead on the question of a second referendum – the supposed void of political leadership is a broader phenomenon. From big decisions on infrastructure like HS2 or another runway at Heathrow to kick-starting the economy, many question whether today’s crop of politicians have the vision and leadership to really move Britain forward.
But when ‘leadership’ is often reduced to a psychological trait – something you can teach yourself by reading one of the endless motivational books on the subject – or considered a subset of PR – take the widely mocked ‘power stance’ photos of Tory politicians – what does it mean to say that politicians lack it? Is there a crisis of leadership, and if so, what underlies it? Can we expect leadership in the absence of other political virtues like vision and ideas? What is the relationship between leadership and popular consent, and is showing leadership for an unpopular cause a contradiction in terms?