writer, broadcaster, portfolio woman

Enough of men who crash and burn

The Independent, May 23rd 2011

As a political journalist I love it when our politics are full of scandal and excitement. But as a citizen? Less so

Everyone loves an Icarus. The way he dares and soars, grasps the chance, swooping aloft on an updraft of courage and exhilaration. Think how dull the young Greek would have been if he had said: “No, Father, I don’t think I’ll risk it. It looks far too dangerous. You go without me.”

In the end, though, he plummeted and drowned. Like Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger.Like Sir Fred Goodwin. Like – perhaps – Ken Clarke, Liam Fox and Chris Huhne. It’s been the week of the crash-and-burn man, and it should make us stop and think. Isn’t it time we reassessed our predilection for the type of leader who’s addicted to risk, who flies with wings of wax, and who’s convinced that his ego will see him through?

Icarus leaders are, of course, far more exciting. Think how dazzled we were by Tony Blair in 1997 after the dull, grey days of John Major. But Blair came unstuck over Iraq and has yet to redeem himself nearly a decade later. Swept up by his convictions, he took too many risks on unreliable intelligence. A more cautious leader would have demanded much stronger evidence that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

What appeals to us about the crash-and-burn men is that – until they come a cropper – they far outshine their duller colleagues. They have charisma, flair, self-belief. We are seduced by their big personalities. The trouble is, they are seduced by their big personalities too. Even before the Sofitel episode, Strauss-Kahn behaved as if he could get away with anything.

The classic counter-example in British politics is Theresa May. It is almost unprecedented for a Home Secretary to go for a whole year without a disaster. Yet May has plodded on,quietly and competently getting the job done, staying up past midnight doing her red boxes. She is highly conscientious, has good judgement and refuses to be bullied, either by colleagues or the Police Federation. And, miraculously, nothing has gone wrong on her watch, an achievement that has gone almost wholly unremarked.

Yes, she was received in silence by the coppers last week. But listen to what she told them: “Not all of you will like some of the decisions I have taken and not all of you will like what I have to say. But it is not my job to duck the difficult decisions and to tell you what you want to hear. It is my job to take the difficult decisions that are needed to get the police through these tough times and to put policing on a sustainable footing.” Good, brave stuff from a woman who knows that all her predecessors – even Ken Clarke – have ducked taking on the police’s inflated pay and conditions.

May was also one of the very first to recognise that the Tories needed to modernise. Way back in 2002, when David Cameron and George Osborne were new MPs, she was warning that the Conservatives were being seen as the “nasty party”. She’s never going to set Marsham Street on fire, let alone the world, but – like Angela Merkel with more interesting shoes – May is reliably competent, cool in a crisis and good at her job. So why do we undervalue people like her?

We made the same mistake in the run-up to the financial crisis, as we do in every boom. I was a City Editor during the 1980s, and I despaired of the way that businessmen like James Hanson, Jimmy Gulliver and Ernest Saunders were lionised by my (uniformly male) rivals. I characterised their style then as “slash-and-burn”capitalism – and for Saunders it also turned into “crash-and-burn”. All these men wanted to do was build instant empires by taking over other companies and sacking half the workforces. They weren’t interested in what they saw as boring, organic growth, the sort of growth that has made Tesco one of our largest and most successful companies today.

Twenty years later, we were doing it again, lauding Sir Fred Goodwin for having the balls to take over ABN Amro Bank, even though he ended up almost bankrupting Royal Bank of Scotland – and half the country – in the process. Where was the praise for the management of, say, Standard Chartered, which had lent at nothing like the rate of its rivals during the boom years and so ended up in much better shape after the crash?

Yes, “balls” – funny how that crept in, isn’t it? For this is all so much to do with testosterone. How else can you explain why Strauss-Kahn and Schwarzenegger, both with formidably intelligent, beautiful and rich wives, felt impelled to risk everything and shag the domestic help? In another era, the Director of Public Prosecutions himself, Sir Allan Green, took the extraordinary gamble of kerb-crawling for prostitutes. Do these men assume that only the little people get caught? Or is the risk of exposure – the surge of testosterone – part of the fun?

Lacking this hormone, I find the question hard to answer. But it’s not as if all men act like that. Many lead blamelessly monogamous lives. They don’t cheat, lie, use violence or take crazy risks. They aren’t constantly striving to prove that theirs is bigger than everyone else’s. It’s clearly perfectly possible to choose not to act on your hormonal urges.

David Cameron doesn’t strike me as a crash-and-burn type. Nor does Barack Obama. I may of course be completely wrong – who’d have thought Major would have dared to have an affair with Edwina Currie? – but I can’t imagine either Cameron or Obama risking everything for a sordid sexual adventure or taking a political decision merely so they could strut or show off. (Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi are another matter.)

What’s striking is that women rarely fall into this trap. Margaret Thatcher had many faults but recklessness wasn’t one of them. She was brave – she took on both the miners and the Argentinians. First, though, she made sure she could win. In 1981, the government backed down over pit closures. Only after it had built up a huge supply of coal stocks three years later was she prepared to fight the National Union of Mineworkers. Thatcher, for all her courage, wouldn’t have flown too close to the sun.

But we fail to value this character trait; if anything, we disparage it. Harriet Harman has been widely derided, particularly by men, for most of her political career. Not flashy enough, not bright enough, not funny enough, they say. Yet when she ended up leading the party for much of last year, she did a fine job. It wasn’t spectacular, but she surprised those who had underestimated her with her authority, composure and confidence at Prime Minister’s Questions. Steady-and-firm, she proved, is a lot better than crash-and-burn.

But still we can’t resist. We love politicians like Boris Johnson, a man who was sacked from The Times for making up a quote, and is a chancer and serial adulterer. Yes, of course, he adds to our merriment, and I would miss him if he left the political scene, but would you really want his finger hovering over our nuclear button? I thought not.

As a political journalist, I love it when our politics are full of scandal, excitement, crashers and burners. It gives me something to gossip and write about. But as a citizen? Well, the events of last week have almost made me want to be German. Angela Merkel, steady and firm. Now that’s a leader who will never plummet to earth.

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