Christopher Reeve, a traveller and a teacher with an interest in the 20th century history of the United Kingdom, is talking to Pawel Rogalinski about British charismatic politicians and their popularity.
PawelRogalinski: – What do you think about British politicians?
Christopher Reeve: – I have to confess that I do not have very much confidence in politicians generally and the bias will probably show through. There are, however, some politicians who have made a contribution to the country in hard times.
– So what do you think about their popularity in the British society in general?
– I cannot imagine that the phenomenon of politician-popularity in the UK is very different from the same in other countries.
– Probably yes, but still there are some differences. Let’s start from Winston Churchill – why was he so popular in the British society? Why did so many people trust him?
– Winston Churchill was before my time, but when he was appointed Prime Minister in 1940, it was a matter of Parliament making the decision because of its discontent with the appeasement policies of Neville Chamberlain. Churchill had not been popular with a large section of society since the Gallipoli debacle of 1915 and the sterling crisis of 1925 – both of which were blamed on him. Many thought that the fate of the country could not be left safely for Churchill to manage.
– Yet he became a statesman…
– Churchill had a strong character and a determined outlook which appealed to the people in a time of crisis. Due to many years’ experience of debating in Parliament and with his knowledge of European history, Churchill appeared as “the man of the moment.” Churchill felt that he had a mission to save the country. His ancestor, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, had been in a similar position when he fought and defeated the armies of Louis XIV of France. In his House of Commons speeches and radio presentations, through skillful oratory, Churchill galvanised national resistance to the Nazi threat – now only twenty miles away in France. He promised that tenacity would bring victory – which it eventually did in 1945.
– It was a Pyrrhic victory and weakened the United Kingdom so much that it was no longer a global superstate… so Churchill’s policy was not ideal.
– Yes, to some extent you are right… I think Churchill benefited from the fact that he was head of a coalition government, so internal disputes were forgotten for the sake of fighting at the war. He liked to be photographed and filmed in military situations, at conferences and with ordinary people in their bombed-out shops and homes. He always appeared to be working to win the war and at one with the people. He constantly gave confidence-building speeches on the radio, but was honest with the people about the scale of the task to be faced. The public therefore felt that they had a natural war leader.
– This is why people have loved him. I think even now in the UK we can feel the spirit of Churchill’s leadership, for example in a widely used slogan “Keep calm and carry on”. Do you think he could simply create an image of a charismatic politician?
– Difficult question. Of course, some of his undertakings were staged for effect- there were disagreements among MPs and the generals about Churchill’s strategies. This knowledge was kept from the public. No one doubted the sincerity of his convictions and all were buoyed up by his conviction that the war would eventually be won.
– But when he won the war, at the same time he lost the general election in 1945.
– An electorate will always eventually want change. Dictators overcome this by manipulating the political system to stay in power indefinitely. In the case of Churchill, by 1945, peace had come and the wartime background which had made Churchill such a success had gone. In changed circumstances, and with a desire for improved post-war living circumstances, Churchill was voted out of office and replaced by Clement Attlee – the new Labour Prime Minister. Despite this, Churchill was held in high regard for his courage, his standing by the people and his final war victory. He was Prime Minister again before retiring from public office.
– The next prominent Prime Minister in the UK was Margaret Thatcher…
– In the case of Margaret Thatcher, the background problems which propelled her to office were the economic difficulties of the late 1970s. In fact, Margaret Thatcher was not originally voted in as leader of the Conservative Party. She ousted the incumbent leader, Edward Heath. She herself was to suffer the same fate in 1991 when she was seen as an electoral liability to the Conservative party and out of touch with the needs of the people. The British economy had suffered from a decade of economic difficulties with strikes, inflation and low productivity, as well as a loss of prestige on the world stage. These problems – I remember clearly – were discussed in living rooms, offices, factories, shops, newspapers and on television throughout the country. Mrs. Thatcher and her advisers sought to address these problems with a firm economic policy which would stop the chaos and halt the economic decline. Public utilities were sold, and for the first time in their lives, many people became shareholders. The number of strikes declined and industrial efficiency improved. Many companies became more dynamic as they sought efficiencies, productivity and profitability. Areas of industrial dereliction were cleared and new lighter industry and retail parks created. Credit and bank loans were made easier to obtain and house prices were encouraged to rise. The country took on a more prosperous and orderly look.
– She also had to face several difficult international problems…
– Yes, in foreign affairs, the Falklands War in 1982 boosted Mrs. Thatcher’s popularity and a sense of national pride. Additionally, Mrs. Thatcher’s cooperation with US President Ronald Regan in challenging the Soviet Union and supporting independence movements in the former Warsaw Pact countries increased her prestige in a Churchillian way.
– I think she increased her prestige not only in the UK, but also in Poland and other Central European countries. Lech Walesa later mentioned in interview with The Guardian: “Without her, our fight against communists would have lasted much longer. It would have been confronted with bigger difficulties, if not destruction.” And despite the fact that she was snubbed by dons from her own alma mater – Oxford University, she was so much respected in Poland that she was awarded two honoriscausa degrees – in Poznan and Lodz.
– Yes, I agree, she was denied the honorary degree, but even her spokesman said: “If they do not wish to confer the honour, the Prime Minister is the last person to wish to receive it.”
– For quite a long time the majority of people appreciated her reforms.
– The Thatcher revolution reduced the power of unionised labour and greatly increased the power of finance capitalists. As long as the majority of the population saw their standard of living improving, Mrs. Thatcher continued to be popular and people generally placed their faith in the effectiveness of her policies.
– But everything has its end…
– Unfortunately, an economy which relied on house-price inflation and easy credit to sustain growth started to show weaknesses and Mrs. Thatcher’s policies became increasingly challenged and amended. A wealth gap developed between ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and some dysfunctional aspects of policy required state intervention to rectify problems. The reform of local government finance through the “poll tax” was seen by many people to be unfair to poorer sections of society, resulting in street riots in London. Many working class people had lost their jobs in the old industrial areas as the government prioritised the financial industry in the south east at the expense of other parts of the country. Improvements were slow for them and they became increasingly vocal and restless. A reliance on ‘the market’ to rectify the situation was perceived to be failing – as it had in the 1920s and 30s. Increasingly, it was felt that financiers and capitalists had the ear of the government with the rest of the population treated with distain. As the Thatcher’s government was seem to be prioritising the interests of the rich, support in the country gradually declined.
– And Mrs. Thatcher became less popular than her party.
– Yes, the Conservative Party increasingly felt that Mrs. Thatcher would now lose the party in the next general election and she was replaced as Prime Minister in 1991 by John Major.
– Was it only Margaret Thatcher’s fault that she lost her popularity? We know it was mainly her unjust policy, but maybe there were also some other, external factors, e.g. black PR from the Labour Party, fight between different factions in the Conservative Party, etc.?
– Possibly it was both: black PR and fight between factions in the party. These days political manipulation was not so much popular as it is now, so people didn’t talk about it.
– Even when Margaret Thatcher decided to resign and retire, she did it in a big way. In 1991, she was given a long and unprecedented standing ovation at the party’s annual conference.
– Her former colleagues wanted to be polite and, when they got to know about her retirement, decided to show their final “thank you” gesture.
– Thatcher’s successor, John Major, was a Prime Minister for seven years, but he was responsible for the one of the largest electoral defeats of the Conservative Party in the history. This is why he is not a good example of a popular politician. In 1997 Tony Blair became a new Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher praised Blair as “probably the most formidable Labour leader since Hugh Gaitskell. I see a lot of socialism behind their front bench, but not in Mr Blair. I think he genuinely has moved.”
– Yes, and David Cameron said about him: “He was the future, once…” during their first exchange in Prime Ministerial Questions.
– And what do you think about present political scene in the UK? Are eurosceptic, nationalist or populist slogans a good way to gain political popularity in the UK?
– Eurosceptic, nationalistic and populist slogans can be a way of gaining limited political popularity in the UK, but not usually as a way of achieving and holding power – and probably less so than in many other countries. In wartime these methods may be used much more often than in peacetime. The people usually assess politicians on matters closer to home – mainly the state of the economy and living standards.
– I understand, but why are they eurosceptic?
– The majority of people are not eurosceptic because they do not know very much about the EU and they won’t usually, for instance, be able to name their MEP. Eurosceptic sentiments usually come to the public via certain sections of the press – particularly ‘The Daily Mail’ and ‘The Daily Express’ – who have regular articles on some annoying aspect of European parliamentary policies. The majority of people do not regard membership in the EU as a source of problems – they rather expect their own politicians to address the economic problems within the UK. In fact, since many people fly by budget airlines to places in the EU, there is generally a positive outlook towards these countries, and in many cases, British people prefer the way that things are done and how people live their lives outside the UK. Criticism tends, therefore, to be directed at perceived failures of British politicians in the UK and not against whatever is decided in Europe.
– David Cameron criticizes Brussels very much…
– Politicians occasionally use nationalistic pride in order to strengthen their popularity with the electorate. However, history has made many people sceptical of politicians using nationalism as a way of unifying the country. Relying on nationalism is often seen as disingenuous and a distraction from more important and immediate problems. In world war II, Churchill’s nationalistic rhetoric served to unite the country to wage war against Nazi Germany. The wording was actually rather mild- and very far from strident. It was a matter of national survival. Mrs. Thatcher, to a lesser extent, relied on nationalistic slogans to lend support to the people of the Falkland Islands – who wanted self-determination and not to be occupied by the Argentinean dictatorship. Alex Salmond has used the rhetoric of Scotish nationalism to press for a referendum on independence from the UK. A wise politician will not rely on taking nationalist rhetoric too far. The majority of the population still takes more interest in the state of the economy, living standards and jobs.
– Lately there have been more and more populist politicians in the UK.
– Unfortunately, populist slogans are sometimes used by politicians to improve their popularity with the electorate. These slogans usually have limited appeal. From time to time, sections of society, people from other countries and others without a voice or power are targeted as a source of society’s problems. For instance, unemployed people are blamed as the cause of their own circumstances – that they do not want to work or want to be paid too much. Others who have been on the receiving end of criticism are asylum seekers who are accused of coming to the UK for social security benefits or free NHS treatment. This kind of rhetoric has increased in recent years since the banking crisis and some suspect that these attacks were intended to distract attention from the serious economic problems which resulted from overambitious and under-regulated banks.Yet even these people in the highest echelons of society – such as bankers and investors – have also been attacked as opportunists and cheats. Sensibly, most people are able to take a sceptical stance and are not so easily persuaded by the unpleasant rhetoric.
– Thank you very much for the conversation.
Interview by PawelRogalinski
University of Greenwich, Chatham 06.08.2013.
Christopher Reeve is a traveller and a teacher with an interest in British history. He graduated from the University of Greenwich (M.A.) and then from Northumbria University (postgraduate studies). He worked at e.g. Goldsmiths College, University of London and University of Economics, Izmir, Turkey. He has visited and lived in many countries, such as South Africa, Turkey, Norway and Hong Kong