If It Quacks Then It’s a Duck

Keith Sutherland
16 April 2010

Any lingering doubts over whether or not UK governance has entered a ‘presidential’ phase were dispelled by last night’s televised debate. As a result of a relatively anodyne exchange the bookies shortened their odds on a hung parliament or even a LibDem victory. Just as in the Kennedy-Nixon debate 50 years ago, the successful “presidential” candidate is young, relaxed, handsome and possessed of a priapic reputation. Brown and Cameron between them successfully pulled off the Nixon persona – the former looking distinctly off-colour and the latter looking like an upmarket used-car salesman. Needless to say Kennedy won the TV debate and went on to be elected president (although the radio audience declared Nixon’s arguments to be more persuasive).

Andrew Blick and George Jones in their new book Premiership: The Development, Nature and Power of the Office of the British Prime Minister have challenged the thesis that UK has acquired a presidency by stealth. [Disclosure: as the publisher of this book I really shouldn’t be writing about it. However I disagree with the authors’ thesis, so I suppose that puts me in the Gerald Ratner school of publishing. The philosopher Daniel Dennett described one of our books as “an unsurpassed paragon of open-mindedness, as it includes as its closing essay a trenchant review of itself”, so I hope this post will be viewed in that light.]

The tools Blick and Jones use are those of the historian and the political scientist and inevitably their conclusions reflect that. Historians like to compare and contrast the character and behaviour of the players involved, thus Blick and Jones draw a link between the character of Walpole, Pitt, Thatcher, Major and Blair and the degree to which their style of government was collegial or presidential. Wearing their political scientist hats they then quantify the number of cabinet meetings under different PMs and gather statistics on the number of staff in the Cabinet Office and the de facto Prime Minister’s department to arrive at other conclusions.

This is all well and good, but to understand the presidential thesis the most important tools are those of the sociologist. Max Weber chronicled the transition from parliamentary government to party government in the wake of the second reform act. Although Blick and Jones acknowledge Weber’s observations on the ‘routinisation of charisma’ his key finding was a transition from political power in the hands of ‘notables’ (including Members of Parliament) to power in the hands of professional politicians, election agents and political entrepreneurs: ‘The man whom the machine follows now becomes the leader, even over the heads of the parliamentary party.’ (Weber, 1948, p. 102). Gladstone’s personal charisma and ‘grand demagogy’ created a ‘Caesarist plebiscitarian element in politics…a dictatorship resting on the exploitation of mass emotionality’ (ibid. p. 106). From then on Members of Parliament were just ‘well-disciplined “yes” men…political spoilsmen enrolled in [the leader’s] following’ (ibid. p. 107).

Just as Weber chronicled the transition from parliamentary to party democracy, the more recent transition from party to (presidential) ‘audience’ democracy has been charted in J.H. Grainger’s Tony Blair and the Ideal Type (“a scintillating example of the higher rudeness.” Steven Poole, Guardian). Although the book was a commentary on the Blair presidency, the argument is just as applicable to Clegg, Cameron or any other actor on the stage of ‘audience’ democracy, who passed the audition on account of his haircut and thespian skills. The ‘ideal type’ in Grainger’s thesis is Max Weber's hypothetical leading democratic politician, whom he finds realized in Tony Blair.

He is a politician emerging from no obvious mould, treading no well-beaten path to high office, and having few affinities of tone, character or style with his predecessors. He is the Outsider or Intruder, not belonging to the ‘given’ of British politics and dedicated to its transformation.

This is the real story of the rise of the British ‘presidency’.

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