Moral courage, leadership, and Brexit

Since when is blindly following “the will of the people”, wherever it may lead, the definition of leadership?

Aidan McQuade
31 August 2018

Charles McQuillan/PA Wire/PA Images. All rights reserved.

We are all alive today because once in 1962 someone said, ‘I’m not doing that, it’s a stupid idea’, or words to that effect.

The speaker would have been former US president Jack Kennedy, refusing the advice of the clear majority of the ExComm – the ‘executive committee’ of high government officials and generals that he had assembled to advise him on how to respond to the discovery of inter-continental ballistic missiles in Cuba. The hawks on ExComm, who were in the clear majority, wanted Kennedy to order an immediate invasion of Cuba, something we now know would have precipitated global nuclear war. But Kennedy, who had direct experience of the chaos of battle, was unconvinced, and instead, in the face of their opposition, led a process that de-escalated the crisis.

Moral courage is like that. It’s the uncommon capacity to take personal responsibility for hard, sometimes terrifying, decisions, through the consideration of personal beliefs and values in interaction with the historical, organisational, or social challenges with which we are confronted. It is wholly distinct from authoritarian leadership in that it is open to dialogue with other perspectives. Consequently it can sometimes be manifest in statements as simple as: ‘I was wrong’. It sometimes can be manifest in more complex or challenging statements such as ‘I believe you are wrong’, or ‘I think this is stupid’.

What it is not, and has never been, is a subordinating of personal beliefs and values to the “will of the people”. Any not-for-profit organisation chief executive who, for example, offers unaffordable pay rises because they are popular, and in doing so puts the organisation in jeopardy, would rightly be cast out of that role. Because it is not mere compliance to the popular will that makes a leader. Such an approach would make meaningful dialogue as impossible as any autocracy. This in turn would make deviations from ill-considered or immoral paths, for all practical purposes, inconceivable.

Moral courage is not, and has never been, a subordinating of personal beliefs and values to the “will of the people”.

Real leadership is never an individual endeavour. It is about judgement of competing arguments and evidence to come to decisions that ensure both the short-term survival and the long-term success of an organisation, a society, a country, or a community of nations. It is sometimes about being unpopular, but it is never about ignoring the opinions of others. Neither is it about saying, “There go the people. I must follow them because I am their leader!

The risks of authoritarianism are well demonstrated by the murderous dictatorships of the twentieth century. But the perils of blind obedience to the popular will should not be neglected. These were starkly demonstrated in the Terror of the French Revolution, which coincided with and was the product of the most democratic phases of that revolution. Hence the ideal of ‘liberal democracy’ emerged. This sought to balance constitutional process, rule of law, and protections of the human rights of the individual against the shifting opinions and prejudices of majorities and the whims of arrogant government.

There is little value in autocratic leaders who take only their own counsel, ignoring the knowledge and experiences of others. But likewise there is no added value in any leader who espouses blind obedience to the “will of the people”. They can be seamlessly replaced by any other random member of the mob. And yet, since 23 June 2016 this slavish devotion to an increasingly imaginary “will of the people” seems to be taking rapid hold in British politics in contravention to its previous traditions of liberal democracy.

The Terror of the French Revolution coincided with and was the product of the most democratic phases of that revolution.

This has been most glaringly manifested by the appointment to high office of Liam Fox, Boris Johnson, Steve Baker and David Davis. These men could never be accused of applying intellectual rigour or moral courage to their leadership responsibilities. Their only function in government was to demonstrate some unity of purpose with that mystical “will of the people”. All but Liam Fox, probably the most craven and certainly the dimmest of the bunch, bailed from government when they realised that the UK’s negotiations with the EU would soon unequivocally prove them charlatans. Their fantastical promises of Brexit were about to be laid bare as the lies and cant that they always were.

And yet the Brexit bandwagon rumbles on. The stark refusal of Jeremy Corbyn to give a straight answer to a simple question, repeatedly put to him, “Do you honestly believe that Britain is better off outside of the EU?” was a stunning abdication of both the responsibilities of leadership and of moral courage. It was instead an example of authoritarianism, using a decaying mandate as an excuse to pursue a narrow ideological agenda irrespective of alternative arguments and mounting evidence regarding just how damaging such a course will be.

It is no excuse to say that in this Corbyn is merely aping the utter failure of Theresa May to be honest with the British people on this issue. From the economic devastation of Brexit May hopes to claim her dream of a permanently hostile environment to ‘foreigners’. Labour’s core constituency will get nothing but the utopian promise of “socialism in one country” one day … if they are ever elected to office. But so profoundly do Corbyn and his acolytes cling to that dream that they are prepared to forgo their primary responsibility of opposition to ensure that the ashes from which they believe it must grow, phoenix-like, are provided by the bonfire of workers’ rights and environmental protections that the Tories will seek to build following Brexit.

Judged by their current performances, were either of these travesties of leadership – Corbyn and May – to be confronted with Churchill’s challenge in 1940 they would not have promised “blood, sweat, tears and toil”. They would instead have offered jam, BLTs, and unicorns, and sought some path to appeasement for fear of upsetting domestic xenophobes and neo-fascists.

Brexit was a startlingly stupid idea on 22 June 2016. It remains a startlingly stupid idea even though a bare majority of referendum participants endorsed it the following day. No leader worth their salt does a single one of their followers any favours by refusing to acknowledge this increasingly obvious fact. And no human being who lacks the moral courage to say this, as the food and medicine stockpiles grow, should ever have the arrogance to put themselves forward as a leader.

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