A time for wise leadership

At the start of 2017, things feel much less stable than a year ago. Prince Charles broke with convention in his Christmas message by expressing concern at the “deeply-disturbing echoes of the 1930s”. He is thinking in global terms, but the UK is part of this story. He is right to be concerned.

I finished a recent blog post by saying that what we need now is wise leadership. Those words are haunting me. Doubtless there are some who want a leader to push Brexit through as fast as possible, and others who want a leader to stop it. We need something different. I am mentally contrasting the stereotype of the fascist leader, who whips up the darkest desires of the crowd, and the wise leader who enables people to be heard so that wisdom emerges rather than fear and mudslinging.

What prompts me to use the word “fascist” is Christina Wieland’s brilliant book The fascist state of mind and the manufacturing of masculinity. Her suggestion is that the fascist mentality is a reaction to frightening situations, when some very primitive ways of functioning from the very earliest stages of mental life come to the surface. In that place people feel a deep identification with the leader, who makes everything feel good — think of Donald Trump’s followers saying “he tells it like it is”, or the Leave campaign’s “take back control”.

Both phrases are meaningless. Their significance is in the emotions they evoke: there is nothing to turn into policy. Other aspects of that stage of mental life include struggles to see difference and to see the big picture. That sounds like the blaming of “immigrants” and “elites” and conspicuous failure to engage with the realities of the EU or of the things that mean people feel left behind.

Brexit seems to have paralysed much of our political process. With the honourable exceptions of the Lords’ Europe Committee and the Liberal Democrats, the discussion seems to be around following/frustrating “the will of the people”, and about wild and ungrounded optimism colliding with increasingly dire warmings of the damage being done. This is so disconnected from reality that it is harmful to democracy.

A textbook psychoanalytic response is that that very primitive way of being belongs to very early childhood, and more nuanced ways develop later. Wise leadership is about moving into this later space, which enables debate (because it can recognise difference) and can form an understanding of the big picture. That’s also a healthier perspective from which to approach something as complex as the EU in a globalised world.

This means a much bigger vision than narrow party interest. It is the opposite of Jeremy Corbyn banging a eurosceptic drum to avoid losing Labour voters to UKIP, or Theresa May’s struggles to keep faith with the europhile and eurosceptic sides of her party, as if afraid of the latter. It means:

  • engaging with the real feelings of loss and disconnection that led people to vote Leave;
  • talking much more realistically of the EU, so that it is not blamed for everything that is wrong, but can be part of the solution;
  • recognise that EU reform is needed, not because the EU is “bad” but because the world is changing, and the EU needs to adapt, particularly to take account of the growing might of China and India, and soon-to-be President Trump being a much less credible leader than Obama.

This needs someone of the exceptional calibre of Shirley Williams or Kenneth Clark. The situation is urgent. There is not time for a General Election to change the parliamentary arithmetic, so this almost certainly means someone emerging in the Conservative party.

From a Liberal Democrat perspective, with only nine MPs, we can’t supply a new Prime Minister, but we can help to shift the discussion to the actual issues, in a way that does help wise leadership to emerge. Although the national interest in not blundering out of the EU needs to come first, being the voice of wisdom won’t harm our electoral chances when the time comes.

* Mark Argent was the candidate in Hertford and Stortford in the 2017 General Election

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26 Comments

  • Little Jackie Paper 3rd Jan '17 - 12:47pm

    ‘talking much more realistically of the EU, so that it is not blamed for everything that is wrong, but can be part of the solution’

    I don’t understand this. Firstly, and most obviously if X can not be done because EU rules prevent X then I would have thought that the public had a right to know that. If the EU wished to dispute that then it would be free to do so. That happened in the recent debates over dredging (and to be honest I never really got to the bottom of that one if anyone can help).

    More generally however what struck me about REMAIN was the near-complete absence of thinking on what could be done differently within the EU. There was plenty of airy talk about reforming the EU, but not about what could be done WITHIN the EU.

    There are plenty of examples, and whilst I agree that the UK government over decades has found the EU a convenient shield that does not let remainers off the hook of spelling out what those things are that could be different. The referendum was a golden chance missed to do things differently.

    I also think that the EU does need to realise it has serious problems that can’t be glossed over with standard-issue EU cant, but that’s for another day.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 3rd Jan '17 - 1:21pm

    Mark is very poignant in this. Very good you allude to Prince Charles, i common with the Queen , a unifying influence , in common with the Archbishop of Canterbury , a thinking one . All are important , and these individuals , who play a more independent and non partisan role , are a good contrast in these times of controversial demagogues .

    Where we lack the sorts of political figures mentioned , we must value those that come closer than not , even in the Tories . I admire Anna Soubry , Heidi Allen , people like that are worth considering as friends , allies , colleagues.

  • Laurence Cox 3rd Jan '17 - 1:47pm

    LJP
    “I also think that the EU does need to realise it has serious problems that can’t be glossed over with standard-issue EU cant, but that’s for another day”

    And I would argue that our Party’s approach to the EU has failed to be that of a critical friend, but has often been as a cheerleader for policies where, with more reflection, we should have engaged in constructive criticism.

  • @Little Jackie Piper
    “recent debates over dredging”

    There wasn’t a debate. There was informed opinion based on scientific research and the evidence, which stated that dredging rivers is almost completely ineffective. There was the opinion of farmers, landowners and other assorted Tories who stated that, because they know best, rivers should be dredged. Ignorance won. Ignorance keeps winning. Ignorance is the new norm.

  • Richard Underhill 3rd Jan '17 - 5:45pm

    ” with only nine MPs, we can’ not supply a new Prime Minister”. This is ambiguous:
    option one: others would not follow, but see experience in other countries;
    option two: unimpressed with existing nine MPs? please go and see the chief whip;
    option three: recruit more talent, all parties do this including us.

  • “Wise leadership”

    “Prince Charles”

    Nah…

  • Katharine Pindar 3rd Jan '17 - 10:51pm

    With respect, Mark, for us to look now for ‘a wise leader’ could be seen as something of a primitive response. I believe that in this time of great and continuing uncertainty and complexity. the mature response may be a determination to bear the complexity with patience, thoughtfulness and a willingness to listen and to communicate with each other. Thank you for the link to the summary of the reports of the EU committee of the House of Lords, which I found interesting and useful reading. Moreover, as Lorenzo Cherin says, we can find useful allies and colleagues in the other parties; and we have wise and thoughtful leaders ourselves in Tim Farron and Nick Clegg among others.

    On substance, I think we not only have to engage with ‘real feelings of loss and disconnection’ among the Leavers, but also with the problems of all those whose standard of living has slipped in the last few years or who live in increasing poverty and hardship among us. As for reform of the EU itself, I would like to see a study group set up linking Lib Dems with our European Liberal colleagues, to consider the long-term prospects and the futures we will all hope to see for our EU. As you suggest, with the rise of China (and of Russia), and the election of President Trump, these are dangerous times to which Europe will need to adapt, as if its internal dissensions and difficulties were not enough to be going on with. We must certainly seek and share wisdom in 2017, so thank you for starting us off in the quest.

  • Britain seems to have become a very insular, provincial, and inward looking place. In this age of jet travel one five star hotel is very much like another where ever it is in the world.

  • William Ross 4th Jan '17 - 8:54am

    I find this article quite amazing. Honestly, I am rather stuck for words. The author tries to link the Brexit vote to fascism and the “strong leader” 99% of Brexiteers are not in the slightest fascist. Where is our “strong leader”? I am an SNP supporter and like around half a million other nationalist Scots I defied my leader and party. I was guided by my independent thinking which is not very fascist.

    My wife is an immigrant of colour. The Fuehrer would not be impressed. Taking back control is a concept filled with actual ideas which any fair-minded person should acknowledge. On the other hand, Remain’s whole strategy was to say that the EU is not thaaaaat bad and it will be economic disaster if Leave wins. George Osborne was asked by Andrew Marr why Remain had adopted that strategy. Ever the realist, he said that the British people had no truck with the EU. Fear was all he had, and he offered that in full measure.

  • Mark identifies three things that he thinks wise leadership means:

    However two of his three things are wrong for the UK after the EU referendum. Talking realistically about the EU is not going to change minds in the next two years. Believing that the EU is part of the solution can only be correct if we can not only identify what is wrong with the EU, come up with solutions and then persuade firstly the other 26 countries to reform the EU in this way and then secondly persuade the UK people that the EU will provide huge benefits and few disadvantages. (We need to remember that lots of people only voted Remain because “on balance they felt the being in the EU was a little better than being out”.) The EU does not need reforming because the world has changed, it needs reforming because of it expansion since 1973 and its failure to address the economic imbalances within the Union since Greece, Spain and Portugal joined, made worse by the creation of the Single Market (1987-92) and further expansion. Of course the Single currency (Euro) also needs reforming so that the richer countries provide funds for the poorer ones to grow to their level or provide a way for the poorer countries to leave. As well as to remove the stupid restrictions on National debt and deficits.

    While we should engage with those who are feeling loss and disconnected from the rosy view of the benefits of the EU, what we really need are economic policies to solve the economic stresses these people are experiencing.

  • @William Ross
    “Taking back control is a concept filled with actual ideas”

    No it is not. It is mostly a vacuous empty statement, but worse than that it directly appeals to the twin evils of nationalism and authoritarianism – two concepts strongly associated with fascism. Your estimate that just 1% of Brexit voters are fascists is woefully wide of the mark.

  • William Ross 4th Jan '17 - 11:44am

    Angry Steve

    I have no doubt that the 2010 supporters of the National Front did indeed vote Leave but they are a marginal force. There is no true fascist constituency in this country and not even an authoritarian one. If that were so why are we expecting a rush of EU immigrants before Brexit comes into effect. I have seen authoritarianism in other parts of the World and “No” UKIP does not cut it.

    Taking back control means the following: the supremacy of UK law and the exclusion of foreign EU law; our right to pass our ALL own laws; our right to manage our own currency ( thankfully not lost); our right to enter into trade treaties in our time and when they suit us; our right to decide on competition and procurement; our right to control who comes here and on what terms; the exclusion of the unelected Commission; our exit from the Parliament which represents a non-existent demos; the end of the imperious EU Court of Justice and much more. You can disagree with these ideas but to deny that they exist is pointless.

    These are democratic, not authoritarian ideas.

    In short, we will become an independent sovereign state again.

  • “I have no doubt that the 2010 supporters of the National Front did indeed vote Leave but they are a marginal force.”

    That’s a rather bizarre definition of fascism – I defined it by ideology – you defined it by membership of a fringe party from another era.

    “There is no true fascist constituency in this country and not even an authoritarian one.”

    Can you please provide some evidence for this assertion? The recent referendum result that followed a racist, isolationist, xenophopbic, protectionist, dishonest and anti-intellectual Brexit campaign rather flies in the face if your bold assertion.

    “If that were so why are we expecting a rush of EU immigrants before Brexit comes into effect”

    Who exactly is ‘we’? Who are you speaking on behalf of?

    ” the supremacy of UK law and the exclusion of foreign EU law”

    We have ‘control’ over EU law in exactly the same way that we have control of British law – through elected representatives, independent judiciary, etc. So, in this context, “taking back control” simply means that you do not want people from outside of the UK having any influence over ‘us’. You clearly don’t like ‘them’. That is nationalism. Nationalism is, of course, absurd. When you talk about ‘us’ why are you referring to people specifically in the UK? Why not the EU? Why not the UN? You clearly identify yourself with other people in the UK, but why not anywhere else? That is profoundly anti-democratic. Following your logic to its conclusion, everyone should split apart – Scotland should leave the UK, as should any smaller region that voted differently to the largest block vote of the UK in 2015.

  • “our right to pass our ALL own laws”

    Again, who are you referring to with the word “ours”? There is no meaning to the use of the word ‘ours’ in the context you’ve used other than the nationalist notion. You want to break away from a democratic institution simply because they pass laws and draw up regulations that you think are different to the ones that would be passed if you re-draw the boundaries to suit your special opinions. That is anti-democratic.

    “our right to enter into trade treaties in our time and when they suit us;”

    Well fine, except that they’re almost certainly likely to be less favourable to us if we start drawing up laws and regulations that give us a competitive advantage over countries within the EU. Our producers will also be undercut by competitors if we start signing agreements with countries with more lax regulation.

    “our right to decide on competition and procurement;”

    What do you mean by this? We cannot decide on competition. As for procurement – are you suggesting that we need to buy British goods and services instead of imported goods and services? Really? Have you not heard about free trade and comparative advantage?

    “our right to control who comes here and on what terms”

    Whatever, but the UK economy will suffer. I think I’ve already established that you don’t actually care about the economy, so this isn’t surprising.

    “our exit from the Parliament which represents a non-existent demos”

    Eh? That’s something you’ve made up which simply isn’t true. How is the demos of the EU and different to the demos of the UK? It isn’t. They’re both real.

    “the end of the imperious EU Court of Justice and much more.”

    LOL. How is it any more imperious than the various British courts? EXcept, that is it British and therefore good and the EU Court of Justice is full of foreigners!

    “These are democratic, not authoritarian ideas.”

    No, your ideology is nationalistic. You don’t recognise the democratic mandate of the EU because you don’t recognise the validity of people from outside the UK voting for any body that has influence over the UK. i fail to understand how your attack on a democratic institution constitutes a desire for more democracy.

    “In short, we will become an independent sovereign state again.”

    A state with less of a say on the world stage, a smaller economy and a lower standard of living.

  • William Ross, your arguments might carry more weight if you were not a supporter of a nationalist and authoritarian political party, whose ‘we know best’ attitude echoes the worst of Labour.
    The Named Person idea is a prime example of the state wanting to interfere in the lives of everyone. ‘Take back control’ probably does resonate with a party that is very big on controlling other people’s lives.
    I don’t even know, when you refer to ‘UK law’ and ‘our law’ what you mean by that. Given that Scottish law is already separate to that of England & Wales?

  • jedibeeftrix 5th Jan '17 - 7:50am

    @ AngrySteve – “here is no meaning to the use of the word ‘ours’ in the context you’ve used other than the nationalist notion.”

    And what is ‘hardline’ or out of the mainstream of politics in this notion.
    Liberal society is underpinned by the notion of free association; to congregate with, and abide by the mores of, those with whom you judge you share sufficiently converged aims and expectations.

    You do this in your choice of political party.
    The nation state is but fredom of association writ large.

  • There’s plenty one can criticise about the SNP but their awfulness is nowhere near as awful as this Tory Government, in fact most of their domestic policy could be described as social democratic.

    As to the named persons legislation, the Liberal Democrats have flip flopped over it – first supporting it and then opposing it………. and in any case it has no relevance to the Euro Referendum.

  • …engaging with the real feelings of loss and disconnection that led people to vote Leave;
    talking much more realistically of the EU, so that it is not blamed for everything that is wrong, but can be part of the solution;
    recognise that EU reform is needed, not because the EU is “bad” but because the world is changing, and the EU needs to adapt, particularly to take account of the growing might of China and India, and soon-to-be President Trump being a much less credible leader than Obama…….

    Telling those who voted ‘Leave’ that another referendum is needed because, “They didn’t understand what they voted for”, doesn’t help address ‘Leavers’ feelings…
    Having a spokesman whose debate with Farage was centred on the EU, in 10 years time, “Being the same as now” is hardly being ‘realistic’ nor the basis for EU reform…

  • Bill le Breton 5th Jan '17 - 10:02am

    “The EU does not need reforming because the world has changed, it needs reforming because of it expansion since 1973 and its failure to address the economic imbalances within the Union since Greece, Spain and Portugal joined, made worse by the creation of the Single Market (1987-92) and further expansion. Of course the Single currency (Euro) also needs reforming so that the richer countries provide funds for the poorer ones to grow to their level or provide a way for the poorer countries to leave. As well as to remove the stupid restrictions on National debt and deficits.”

    Says it all really. Thank you Michael BG.

    And of course the deflationary nature of the management of the Euro impacts not only members of the European Monetary Union but the economies of its trading partners within the EU like the UK and outside it.

    We can/could not reform it from within – we may just help provide some of the impetus for these reforms by our leaving.

    On negotiations, there was a great short interview with Max Person 2hr.50min in here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086t0m8#play

    Leadership is never the answer – widely spread knowledge always is.

  • William Ross 5th Jan '17 - 11:58am

    Angry Steve has certainly looked at my arguments closely. It is hard to reply to every point.
    1. On fascism, I cited NF as the only “organised” (if you can call it that), fascist force. We have no meaningful fascist party or anything close. Who is the infallible leader?
    2. I plead guilty to being a nationalist. However, when the words “nationalist” or “foreigner” are used, LibDems seem to go into fits. Despite my differences with the SNP leadership we are very benign nationalists who love our country. I do not want lebensraum one yard south of Hadrian`s Wall and I like the English. My dear wife is a Latin American lady who is not yet a British citizen and hence she is a “foreigner”. Does that matter??? Nonetheless it has consequences. She quite properly cannot vote in UK elections. She would be amazed if she could. I do not want the domination of the EU Court of Justice or the US Supreme Court. Yes, they are foreigners, though I love America.
    3. I cannot even dignify the European Commission, Parliament, Court of Justice with the honourable word “foreigner” because they are the big pretendy institutions of a country called the EU that has strict legal but no broad moral validity. Remain failed to defend EU institutions in the EU referendum because no-one was interested in even listening. However, these top-down elite institutions have massive power. Witness the Commission`s trashing of Ireland`s tax sovereignty.
    4. Cassie B: just like you I was against the Named Person scheme and yes I agree that our party does not deal well with dissent. For example, ten percent of our MSPs and nearly 40% of SNP supporters were Brexiteers but nobody knew it. Off course, 30 % of your supporters were also Brexiteers. I wonder how they feel about a second referendum? Being SNP does nothing to diminish my argument that “take back control” is substantive.

  • The fun continues.

    1. I must have including disorganised fascists in my description. “Who is the infallible leader?” His name rhymes with Garage.

    2. “LibDems seem to go into fits.”. Good job I’m not a Lib Dem then, otherwise I’d be frothing at the mouth by now. “I do not want lebensraum one yard south of Hadrian`s Wall ” Not much of a relief to the people in Northumberland living 60 miles north of the wall.

    3. “pretendy institutions”. Would you care to enlighten us as to what qualifies an institution as being “pretendy” and what qualifies them as real institutions? Does it involve foreigners from countries you don’t like (you mention your love of the USA as something specific, which rather implies you don’t like other countries)? I don’t agree with the EU’s handling Ireland’s fiscal policy but the Irish government put their country in that position – beggars can’t be choosers.

  • William Ross 5th Jan '17 - 5:53pm

    Angry Steve

    1. I am not a fan of Farage either but he is not the great leader or even a parody of him. Can you imagine Hitler giving up leadership of his party and taking it back repeatedly??Its a joke. If you want to talk about fascism look at it seriously. We need an infallible leader, marching men beating people up, the corporate state ( o estado novo), autarchy, official racism. Its a mirage. You cannot be serious.
    2. To clarify I do not want lebensraum anywhere in England and I have no intention of unleashing the 6th SS Panzer division.
    3. Real institutions arise in real countries. The USA is a real country. Everyone from Alaska to Alabama participated in the Trump election drama. The EU is not a real country. Nobody here knows or cares what happens in the Portuguese elections. I speak Portuguese and love Portuguese culture but ( with great respect) I am not a co-citizen with Portuguese people. To me Portugal is a highly respected independent sovereign country which is being smothered by the EU. I am terribly sorry to see the euro disaster as it affects Portugal. I also love Venezuela and Brazil but I would be a foreigner there (as I have been before).

    I lived in Rio de Janeiro in 2002. It was the time of the World Cup in Japan/Korea. I got very excited about the Brazil team ( which actually won if you remember). In my enthusiasm, I started saying “we” this or “we” that regarding the Brazil team. An older Brazilian colleague took me aside and gently said:” William, it is very kind of you to support Brazil and we know that you love our country. However, you are not “we”. You are a friendly well accepted foreigner. You have a football shirt to support, but it is dark blue not yellow” These were wise words. You play hookey with countries at your peril.

    Does any of that help? The concept of “country” is quite simple.

  • “You cannot be serious.”

    1. Oh, really? Where have you been for the last twelve months? Are you blind to the fact that an MP has been murdered in the street? Blind to the ignorant prejudice of the Tory party with their attempts to name and shame companies that employ foreigners, their crude attempts to cut the numbers of foreign students studying in our universities, their use of foreign nationals as bargaining chips and their appointment of a man with a record of making explicitly racist comments to one of the highest offices of state? Did you not notice the sharp rise in the hate crime statistics?

    2. That’s a relief! I’m also glad that you’ve acknowledged that you didn’t know where England geographically begins.

    3. “The USA is a real country. Everyone from Alaska to Alabama participated in the Trump election drama. “. If your definition of a real country is a region that participates in an election then the EU is also a country! Hoisted by your own petard there.

    4. ‘The concept of “country” is quite simple.’ Oh, really?! So, everyone in Scotland voted the same way in the independence referendum then? Or was there a difference of opinion? The concept of ‘country’ clearly isn’t simple and those that think it is have caused some of the most devastating wars on the planet. Europe had an inglorious history of such destructive violence prior to the EU.

  • William Ross 6th Jan '17 - 1:39pm

    Angry Steve

    1. The murder of Jo Cox by a Nazi lunatic was a tragedy which everyone deplores. I also deplore the death of the young Pole. However, this is nothing to do with Vote Leave or the Tory party. Nobody is naming and shaming companies. We live is a very free and liberal country. Just have a look at France or Hungary. Hate crime is minor in this country.

    2.One place where Scotland and England meet is Hadrian’s Wall. It is often referred to as the border.

    3. Yes, the USA is a genuine demos. The EU is, as you suggest, a region dressed up in the pretendy clothes of a country.

    4. The Scottish referendum was lost because part of the 55% who voted “No” felt a higher loyalty ( or exclusive loyalty — ins some cases) to the United Kingdom, which, like
    Scotland, is a genuine country. My brother felt like that. I would like to dissolve the UK and replace it with a close aligned Britainavia but the voters did not agree. Other “No” voters acted out of fear. Project Fear sure took a beating in 2016. You should buy the Times today!

    I respect these votes. We are thus part of the UK for now. We are also now leaving the EU.

  • “The murder of Jo Cox by a Nazi lunatic was a tragedy which everyone deplores. I also deplore the death of the young Pole. However, this is nothing to do with Vote Leave ”

    1. The murder of Jo Cox was explicitly linked to the EU Leave campaign by the words he used. Words that were widely reported at the time of the trial. The racist and xenophobic language propagated by the leave campaign gave succor to the likes of Thomas Mair. It is deeply offensive and ignorant to try and pretend that the campaign did not influence Mair’s behaviour.

    2. No it isn’t. I was brought up in the North-East of England – which, as you don’t appear to be aware, is where the wall passes through. I can’t recall anyone referring to it as the border with Scotland, but then again it would be an extremely odd thing to say given that the majority of the city of Newcastle upon Tyne in north of the wall.

    3. Ah, it’s ‘pretendy’ because you say so. Right. nice reasoned analysis there, not.

    4. “is a genuine country”. Clearly 55% of the Scots that voted in the referendum don’t share your view that is a sovereign state.

  • William Ross 7th Jan '17 - 1:01pm

    Angry Steve

    This is my last rejoinder in this correspondence.

    1. Your point on the tragic death of Jo Cox is deeply troubling. Every Jihadist starts shooting with the words of the Koran on his lips. Does that mean we turn around and blame the Muslim community? Of course not! Not only was Muir a Nazi but he was mentally disturbed. 99% of Leave voters find Mairs’ action repulsive.He is simply an English Breivik.
    2. Comment not worthwhile.
    3. Comment not worthwhile. If you cannot see the difference between a top-down artificial construct like the EU and countries like the USA, UK and Brazil there’s no arguing with you.
    4. Interestingly enough, both sides in the Scottish referendum repeatedly asserted that Scotland is a country. If we were not sovereign in the Union we would have no right to a referendum in any event. My position is that the UK is also a genuine country and to some extent Scottish politics is a tug-of-war between these countries.

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