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Theresa May, Max Weber, Brexit, and political leadership

May doesn’t believe in Brexit at all, but behaves as though she does, indeed as though it has been her burning ambition since she entered the House of Commons.  

Theresa May continues difficult negotiations with the European Council at the summit after Brexit deal vote was postponed in her own country, Dec.14, 2018. NurPhoto/ Press Association. All rights reserved.

Max Weber gave his lecture ‘Politics as a Vocation’ in January 2019, almost 100 years ago, in Munich. Germany was going through political ferment after a crushing defeat, and was about to be humiliated further when its neighbours set the terms for their future relationship. 

I don’t know whether Theresa May has read it. Somehow I can’t imagine her stretching out on the sofa, kicking off her crocodile shoes, drying any crocodile tears she might shed occasionally for those on the receiving end of her policies, and having a butcher’s. 

It’s not Machiavelli, there are no instructions on political tactics, and it’s very long. Towards the end though, Weber talks about politics and ethics, and about the type of person fit to put their hands on the wheel of history. I wish the prime minister would take heed of it, but am not holding my breath: it’s probably too late, not in the Brexit negotiations, which might last forever, but in her life.   

Weber thought parliament should play a much greater role in the new Germany than it had hitherto. While free of the emperor, the Germans still had to escape the shackles of the unelected officials who had ruled in his name. That would not be easy because, the sociologist says, experienced officials had one advantage over politicians: they have specialized knowledge where politicians are mere dilettantes. There was no way around this, but one thing Germany could hope for was better leaders.  

Weber admired the English political system – from a distance! – and so thought that one thing parliament could do would be to act as a proving-ground for leaders, the most able ones emerging only after testing their mettle in debate with their equals and rivals. 

By the same token he disliked the sorts of extra-parliamentary politics that bad leaders thrive on, such as street-fighting, from revolution to referenda. These could be used by leaders already in post to seek mass acclamation, but ‘when it comes to creating any kind of technically complicated laws, the referendum is too prone to leaving the result in the hands of astute but hidden vested interests’. 

Devotion to a cause  

How does May measure up? Political leaders need three qualities, Weber says: passion, a sense of responsibility, and judgment. By passion he means something that distinguishes them from the ‘sterile excitement’ experienced by intellectuals and other scribblers. Genuine passion in politics is devotion to a cause (eine Sache) greater than oneself. Responsibility is responsibility to that cause, and judgement involves ‘the ability to maintain one’s inner composure and calm while being receptive to realities, in other words distance from things and people’.  

So far so good, or not bad anyway. Nobody can question May’s devotion to the cause that has defined her premiership, and she is remarkably composed in the face of everything that is thrown at her, and on any version of it, scores high on the distance kept from other people. 

The problems begin however when Weber resolves a long and complex discussion into the idea that, faced with the problem of means and ends, and the ‘ethical irrationality of the world’, political leaders can follow one of two ethics: an ethics of conviction or an ethics of responsibility.  

An example of the first would be the Christian pacifist who follows the Sermon on the Mount and says ‘the Christian does right and leaves the outcome to God’. But it also applies to revolutionaries who wish to ‘keep the flame of good intentions burning’ by keeping the future prize in view even while causing misery in the present.  

By contrast, to follow an ethic of responsibility is to take into account that one’s actions have consequences, and to be ready to accept total responsibility for them. Weber thought genuine political leaders were people who could somehow combine these two ethics, considering the consequences of their actions, if necessary compromising and therefore never really succeeding, but without having to dilute their convictions.  

In a world where others have convictions that are just as important to them as ours are to us, his message was that all political careers are defined by failure. Politics is, in the best sense, tragedy – one from which he thought we can all learn something about life’s difficult choices. 

Conviction politics

Weber can often make it look like he thought stubbornness and an ability to keep going in the face of adversity are what political leadership is about, and so May might score highly again. There’s only one problem: when he spoke of conviction, he meant that the first requirement of any politician is that they do actually believe in something, in a cause, which means in turn that responsibility isn’t just pragmatism.  

And here we are confronted by the horrible truth that May doesn’t believe in Brexit at all, but behaves as though she does, indeed as though it has been her burning ambition since she entered the House of Commons.  

At the same time, she tries to appear responsible, warning us of what could happen if we don’t accept her deal. People wonder how she can carry on in the face of the attacks she faces, what it must be like. But we should have realized by now that she can, not because of any inner steel or inner distance or fortitude, but because this cause is not hers. It literally doesn’t matter to her. 

She can walk away like David Cameron did.  Hard-working grammar school girl and geography graduate that she is, this homework, this project that requires her to sit up all night colouring in charts, was given to her by others, and she is determined to do it, regardless of whether it makes any sense, to her or to us. What we are witnessing is not a tragedy but a farce, from which are in danger of learning precisely nothing.

About the author

Charles Turner is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick.  

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