The golden tinge of nostalgia plays havoc at the best of times. Your childhood, your friends and your school often feel smaller and less impressive upon a second, closer inspection.
This is even more so when it comes to our relationship with our political leaders. You could be forgiven for believing that our elected leaders of the 1940s and ’50s — Churchill, FDR, Atlee, Bevin and Bevan — were great men who did great deeds and genuinely ruled the world.
Compare them to our leaders today: Trump, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Depending or despite your political leanings, it’s hard not to draw unfavourable comparisons. Incompetent, ill-prepared and inconceivably weak by contrast to their forebearers.
Here’s the fag-stained wallpaper, here’s the fading school sign. Churchill was — by any stretch of the imagination — a bigoted drunk who liked writing and the sound of his own voice more than making informed policy decision. Atlee was so boring that he, ‘could make a declaration of war sound like reading out the train timetables’ and FDR had long periods of being in office, but not in power — due to his degenerative illness.
None of this is to downgrade Britain’s greatest ever war and peacetime leaders. You could easily argue that FDR saved the world, Churchill saved Britain, and Atlee remade it. But they were fallible, imperfect men.
And complaints of the diminishing quality of our elected leaders are nothing new. Indeed, as Philip Cowley (Professor of Politics for Queen Mary University of London) pointed out rather excellently, the same concerns were raised in the British General Election of 1945 — the same House of Commons that included Churchill, Bevan and Attlee.
So, far be it for me to cut today’s crop of elected leaders some slack. Instead, let’s look at their roles comparatively to those of their acclaimed predecessors.
The role of media (and in particular social media) has fundamentally changed what politicians can say, do, and be caught doing. The need for constant coverage and updates, the intrusion into the personal lives and the desire for authenticity, while asking for superhumans, is a far cry from the coverage our 1940s league received.
The demands of constituents have increased manifold. With a few notable exceptions (we’re looking at you Michael Gove and until recently, George Osborne) — today’s elected leaders are ran ragged by the demands of their electorate. Churchill was famous for not being the most amenable to spending time with his constituents.
In general, respect and prestige for elected leaders has decreased dramatically since FDR’s and Churchill’s time. Some would argue we’ve been deceived too many times to expect anything different. But the comparison between Anthony Eden, who used to get stopped on trains to be given flowers, and the montage of politicians getting smacked in the head by eggs from would-be ‘well-wishers’, is telling.
All of this, in the context of a globalised world where the traditional levers of power for national governments are less effective than before and where changes in the social, cultural and technological make up of a society catch even the most fleet of foot leader off guard.
And in many ways, we’re comparing apples and oranges. Most of our merry band of elected luminaries of the past were men (nearly always middle-class white men) of war. They’d cut their teeth in the trade union movement, on the front lines or through hereditary nobility. Today’s ‘career’ politicians of PPE to thinktank to safe seat and cabinet ministers are certainly less romantic, but also far more diverse.
So — are today’s politicians less impressive than before?
Maybe. But certainly their jobs are harder and much more is expected of them. So, instead of trawling through the past and reminiscing about the ‘good old days’, it helps to realise that our past leaders had their faults too.
Things aren’t as bad as we fear them to be.
Except Trump. He is actually the worst.