Eddie Marsh, Winston Churchill‘s Private Secretary, offering advice to the then Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, said: “We should kiss America on both cheeks”; to which Churchill replied, “Yes, but not on all four”. I’m indebted to Boris Johnson for that quote, which you’ll find 19 minutes and 14 seconds into this video …
It would be very interesting to know what the British public made of Barack Obama‘s speech alongside David Cameron at No. 10 yesterday, doing everything he could to encourage the UK to vote in favour of staying in the EU.
The trouble is, the British people tend to react against being told what to do, whether by their own government or even more so by foreigners. Obama’s tone was gentle, not hectoring. He spoke in the guise of a friend, merely offering advice, notwithstanding the veiled threat that the UK would find itself at the back of the queue for trade deals with the USA if it went it alone. He has an easy manner, persuasive, analytical, with a breathtaking grasp of the geo-political landscape worldwide – and a winning smile.
But, as a Lefty who’s very much in favour of retaining EU membership – primarily because of our cavalier attitude to human rights, rather than the financial benefits which are the only meaty items on the EU menu as far as the media are concerned – it worried me a bit to see “David” sucking up to “Barack” in a way that might well have prompted another terse witticism from Churchill, were he still with us.
I’m not a great fan of Boris, but he’s such a wily campaigner, highly knowledgeable and a great communicator. He doesn’t really do gravitas, of course; but that’s a commodity that went out of fashion years ago, another casualty of the cultural revolution in the Sixties. Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson did their best to resurrect the Churchillian style of oratory; but after Wilson’s infamous “Pound In Your Pocket” speech fell as flat as a pancake, subsequent leaders have tended to adopt a more relaxed approach – with the notable exception, perhaps, of Thatcher‘s successes with her Iron Lady persona.
Every now and again, politicians with real charisma bubble up to the surface. The “surface”, of course, is that cultural ocean we all nowadays swim in, called the media – broadcast, social and print. As time goes on, it appears that charisma is becoming more and more significant as a political weapon. Logic, analysis and basic communication skills can still hit the mark. But that magical ability to use the media to inspire and engender devotion can torpedo all purely rational approaches.
So if by chance (and I for one fervently pray it doesn’t happen), Boris Johnson runs for the post of Prime Minister after leading us out of the EU’s back door, he may well find that charisma will carry him through to the winning line.
Churchill’s greatest personal quality was perhaps his ability to translate his charisma – of which gravitas was a key constituent part – into the arena of global influence and world politics.
Whether a Johnson-led government of a Britain operating in splendid isolation could command such respect on the world stage is highly debateable, in my view. And after the British public made their feelings towards one particular candidate for President of the United States very clear recently, we must all surely doubt whether charisma alone could be a Trump card in what would have become a rather “unspecial relationship”.