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No more Mr Nice Guy

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

In times of crisis, when the issues that our leaders have to deal with become infinitely more complex, our expectations of them become very simple. As the pressure is ratcheted up, we like our decision-makers to fall into one of two broad categories: either Mr Nice Guy or Mr Tough Guy. Greece embarked on its current treacherous journey with a prime minister that appeared more nice than tough, but George Papandreou increasingly looks like he’s steeled for the struggle.

If this metamorphosis is successful, apart from leading Greece out of the economic wilderness, Papandreou will also cause a reordering in the minds of most Greeks, whose default position during testing times is to pine for a tough guy, a man who will stand up for the country and put the others in their place, someone who will be unswerving in his attempt to reach a specific goal.

So, it was no surprise that a couple of weeks ago, Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos, speaking to the BBC’s Malcolm Brabant, took a meaty swipe at the caliber of European Union leaders. He reminisced about a time when Europe was led by political heavyweights, such as Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, not technocratic lightweights. “This is another level of leadership which we don’t have today. The quality of leadership today in the Union is very, very poor indeed,” he said.

There is no doubt that Thatcher, Kohl and Mitterrand provided era-defining leadership but they did so in completely different circumstances. They were political giants who roamed lands whose destiny could still be shaped, where national interest could still come first and in which they could rely on the unflinching support of a section of society. None of these conditions exist today: In an increasingly competitive world, there is little room or time to reshape a country; in an expanding European Union, collective interest often prevails; and in the age of “undecideds” or middle-ground voters, politicians have an ever-shrinking base of support to call on.

The sweeping transformation of Europe’s political and economic landscape since the 1980s to one where right and left, capitalism and socialism, have all been damaged, means that although the lessons learned from their time in power will always be relevant, longing for another Thatcher, Kohl or Mitterrand to make the ground shake is like wishing the dinosaurs would roam the earth again. Pangalos, an intelligent, outspoken politician who gives no quarter to the opposition and couldn’t give two hoots about what others think of his views, is a man of this bygone generation. But while Pangalosaurus Rex may miss running with the other political beasts, today’s leaders have to contend with a whole different set of challenges.

That’s not to say Papandreou and his peers cannot learn from what those who went before them got right and what they did wrong. But while Pangalos invokes the spirit of the loud, the proud, the dominant, perhaps the Greek prime minister should instead examine the achievements as well as the failings of a more quiet and unassuming political character: Michael Foot.

Foot, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party from 1980 to 1983, died last week at the age of 96. For someone who led the party to one of its heaviest ever election defeats, Foot was remembered with surprising passion. The fondness that many within, and beyond, the Labour Party have for him is kindled by the rare qualities he brought to politics: high principles, independent thinking and exquisite oratory skills that drew heavily on his love of literature.

It was Foot’s insistence on existing above politics, rather than sinking into its mire, that meant he stuck by ideas he felt to be morally correct rather than politically expedient. He kept to these principles when compiling Labour’s manifesto for the 1983 election, prompting one of his aides to call the program “the longest suicide note in history.” The Conservatives blew Foot’s party out of the water, Thatcher swept to 10 Downing Street and Britain’s, and perhaps the world’s, course shifted in a new direction.

Foot actually produced the most eloquent put-down of Thatcher ever uttered by a rival politician: “She has no imagination and that means no compassion.” Foot had plenty of both and although his manifesto in 1983 proved to be a disaster, looking back on it now, he appears much more imaginative and less of an idealistic dreamer than once thought. In fact, some of his policy proposals – increased public spending to ease an economic recession, greater control over the financial system, energy conservation and corporate regulation — are actually being implemented now by governments in Britain and elsewhere. Interestingly, the manifesto called for the return of exchange controls to “counter currency speculation” – the 1980s equivalent of Credit Default Swaps (CDS), which Papandreou has been touring the world trying to prevent. As he does so, Greece’s premier might want to consider that one of Foot’s greatest failings was that despite his unique grasp of the English language, he was unable to communicate his ideas convincingly.

Another of Foot’s failures was his inability to keep his party united – a problem that is already starting to rear its head at PASOK, as the party’s old, socialist guard attempts to resist Papandreou’s austerity measures. Foot found himself unable to bridge the gap between Labour’s left, which was still committed to the socialist policies that were torn apart when the International Monetary Fund imposed drastic spending cuts on Britain in the late 1970s (sound familiar?), and the more centrist wing, which eventually broke away to form a new party, the SDP. Foot was never able to get in step with the party’s base, tap into society’s sources of power or develop a strategy that would broaden Labour’s appeal. That’s why Foot was essentially a wonderful caretaker rather than a true leader. These are all aspects for Greece’s prime minister to ponder as he tries to balance harmony within his own party with the arduous changes being demanded of the country.

But if Papandreou is to take just one thing from Foot’s legacy, then it should be the words that he spoke in his final speech as Labour’s chief. Quoting from Joseph Conrad’s “Typhoon,” a story of a steamer encountering treacherous conditions in the South China Sea, he told his audience: “The sea never changes and its works, for all the talk of men, are wrapped in mystery… the heaviest seas run with the wind. Facing it – always facing it – that’s the way to get through.” Forget nice guys and tough guys, that’s what leadership is all about.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on March 12, 2010.