“We all have to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.”—W.C. Fields
It was entertaining to watch Boris Johnson’s speech wind up the Conservative Conference in Manchester last month (the double-entendre is deliberate). Because this was unlike any other Tory leader’s speech in living memory—and probably ever. It was not just a pitch to the faithful in the hall, but to the many non-Tory voters across the country.
With all its flags, banners and rapt audience, the gathering more resembled its American equivalent; a rally, charged with excitement, focused on feel-good, not policy. All it lacked were cascades of red, white and blue balloons cascading from the ceiling at the climax.
But this was not Neil Kinnock’s misjudged “well all right!” chant at Sheffield in 1992, just before John Major and his man-of-the-people soapbox took the legs out from under him. What we are witnessing is further development of a relatively new phenomenon in politics: the cult of personality, as distinct from party.
Boris looked to be enjoying himself, firing jokes at Corbyn and Starmer, but not sparing Cameron or May either, Few politicians dare criticise party colleagues. Fewer still get away with it. But those who do have reached a state of grace, a bond with the wider public beyond party loyalists that apparatchiks in grey suits dare not challenge. So Boris peppered his speech with populist slogans to reach beyond the party—“Get Brexit done”… “Levelling-up”…“Build back better”. His catchy favourites were all there.
This was personality on parade, such as British politics has not seen in over a decade. It is largely a development of this century and, rather than being an American import to Britain, it appears to have developed in both countries around the same time.
Until the late 20th century, both presidents and prime ministers were creatures of their parties. The Coolidge and Callaghans, the Gladstones and Garfields did not stand out from their colleagues; they were still primus inter pares—and acted as such. True, Churchill and Roosevelt stood out, but that was as much from circumstance as anything else.
But a shift can be see with both Reagan and Thatcher, a shift where the government and its policies revolved around them more than their party, when increasing numbers voted for the leader, rather than the party they led..
The first to truly break the mould was Tony Blair. BBC’s excellent 5-part documentary ‘Blair and Brown” lays out the origins and development of New Labour and the revolution it effected on a party drifting after bing out of power for 18 years. Though Gordon Brown provided the engine room of ideas and the flywheel of long political experience, The front man, the Prince of Presentation was Blair. While Brown could persuade the party, it was Blair who made the party credible outside its core voters, by means of flagship chances, like scrapping Clause 4. His appeal to the newly affluent, aspirational working class fuelled the landslide of 1997.
By being so clearly in charge of a new agenda, whether it was Cool Britannia, or the Good Friday Agreement or the National Minimum Wage, he demonstrated vision and action nationally and clearly played a role on the international stage by patching up relations with Europe left damaged by the Tories and strengthened the “special relationship” with the USA in the aftermath of 9/11. This gave him a profile that reached well outside his party, or even his country, such that Labour’s shakiness in after his stepping down in 2007 continues to this day.
A similar development occurred in the US with Barack Obama. Barely registering on the political radar in 2004, he trounced a series of lacklustre suits for the Democratic nomination in 2008 and proceeded to barnstorm the country with an antidote of hope and ambition in contrast to the lacklustre and war-studded term of “Dubya” Bush. He won by a 395-to-173 landslide against the plausible and popular John McCain. It wasn’t just that he galvanised black and hispanic voters who felt little engagement with mainstream America and its politics. He also moved the Democratic party out of its reliance on blue-collar workers in rust-belt states with declining industries and populations. And, as a fresh-faced, first term senator from Illinois, he was seen as far from the “Beltway Bandits” of Washington—politicos seen as remote and bound to the system. More than anything this latter factor was what lost Hilary Clinton the race in 2016.
The reason Obama did not achieve more with his fresh ideas and the momentum they gave was a combination of the intractability of Republicans who, since Newt Gingrich in the 1990s, dedicated themselves to curtail, if not destroy, policies like the Universal Health Care Act, plus a creaking US political system that allowed them to do that, an unbalanced Senate and over-precious assertion of States’ rights, filibuster threats, etc.