I interviewed Andrew Adonis (Lord Adonis of Camden Town) over zoom on a rainy autumn Friday morning in London to discuss his new book It’s the Leader, Stupid. The title (which I suspect is inspired by James Carville’s famous quip ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’) is a fitting summary for a work which contends that leadership is the primary determinant of the outcomes of national elections. Everything else — including policies and manifestos — is secondary.
So what is leadership? It is comprised of many things, Adonis tells me, but is principally comprised of “charisma, confidence, acumen, empathy, presence, [and] glamour” (Churchill, Blair) or an ability to personify the “spirit of the age” (Attlee springs to mind).
The work’s second thesis about leadership is equally intriguing: “failed leaders resign or are sacked — or they go on to lose again” (19). I ask him whether this can help explain why the Labour Party has been so historically unsuccessful in UK national elections. “It’s worse than that” he responds, “Labour picks losers and then sticks with them… both Kinnock and Corbyn lost their first election and were kept in post, unlike Iain Duncan Smith, who was sacked without even fighting a general election”. Adonis rejects out of hand the notion that parties of the left (Labour included) are at some sort of built-in disadvantage against Conservatives, citing the success of Sweden’s Social Democrats in the country’s past 31 national elections.
After summarizing these ‘maxims’ of leadership, the book is comprised of a collection of ‘portraits’ of different leaders, who span four centuries and three continents. The portraits are highly engaging and concise, and the book is easily read in one sitting.
“failed leaders resign or are sacked — or they go on to lose again”
His first portrait, “Gladstone vs Marx”, is one of my favourites, in part because it reads like a thriller. Adonis tells of Marx’s obsession with Gladstone’s pursuit of incremental (but nonetheless highly significant) economic and political reforms, as well as his unrivalled political skill. Marx’s contempt for Gladstone’s ability to rewrite his parliamentary speeches after they had been made in order to suit his political needs is well-described. Something I especially appreciated about the work is that Adonis makes no pretense to be objective. In its subjectivity the book is poetic and even sometimes lyrical; witness here his homage to Gladstone, whomhe clearly admires: ”thanks to Gladstone, and leaders like him, the renaissance of humanism is the civilization of modern Europe”.
Next, in “Bevin vs Stalin”, Lord Adonis writes convincingly that “Bevin stood up to Stalin sooner and more effectively than any other postwar Western leader” despite major opposition from much of the British left. I cannot help but wonder if today’s Labour Party has anything to learn from Bevin (its policy on malign international actors such as China remains less hawkish than that of the Conservatives). Moreover, Bevin’s policy of ‘containment’ towards the USSR, leadership of Britain’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, and role in founding NATO are all well-documented by the chapter. However, it is here where I feel that sometimes the portraits (such as this one) are at risk of being starry-eyed about their subjects. The book does not address not only Bevin’s open antisemitism but also the limitations of his extremely hawkish ideology (it did, after all, lead to massive Western blunders in Iran, Cuba, and Guatemala, among countless other nations). Adonis mentions how Bevin explained his desire for the UK to have nuclear weapons by arguing that he didn’t “want any other foreign secretary of this country to be talked at or by a [US] secretary of state… as I have just had done”. But, above all, this quote may demonstrate Bevin’s refusal to accept the obvious; namely, that Britain’s diminishing world influence would necessarily leave it at the mercy of the US, or Europe, or both. As Britain would come to discover in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2021, its possession of nuclear weapons seems to have no impact on whether it is “talked at” by Washington.The chapter does conclude brilliantly; however: “Bevin won; Stalin lost”.
I find the chapter on Biden to be the least convincing. Consistent with the rest of the book, it is well-written and fluid. But Adonis’s description of Biden as one of the great leaders of our times is inconsistent with the reality of a President with dire approval ratings matched only by Donald Trump, record levels of inflation, and a completely unwarranted and unnecessary foreign policy disaster in Afghanistan. Whether or not Biden can pull a rabbit out of a hat before 2024 (or indeed 2022) remains to be seen. But far from being a latter-day LBJ or FDR, Biden seems to be destined to be the Jimmy Carter of our time; namely, a perfectly affable one-termer who oversaw a major foreign policy disaster in the Middle East and whose mismanagement of the economy heralded in a period of conservative dominance in Washington.
“…thanks to Gladstone, and leaders like him, the renaissance of humanism is the civilisation of modern Europe.”
Lord Adonis dodges taking a position on Afghanistan in the book, preferring to call it “controversial”, and cites Biden’s claim that “I cannot and will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country’s civil war”. He engages with me on the issue in our interview, saying that withdrawal was the only “logical” choice given (his words) the lack of tangible progress made in Afghanistan after 20 years of engagement. However, I suspect his reluctance to make this position more firm in writing is testament to his knowledge that in 5, 10, or 20 years, the episode may be viewed as one of historic ineptitude in Washington.
His later chapters on Jenkins, Lloyd George/Asquith/Grey, and Foot/Heseltine, are captivating and imaginitive. Some are informative (his chapter on Jenkins is a masterful summary of the achievements of a man of whom I knew little), courageous (his assertion that World War I was a folly that Britain would have done best to keep out of is as piercing as it is true), and lyrical (of Heseltine, he writes that “Tarzan… [refused] to be cowed by fashionable and dangerous absolutists. His last act was to attempt the same in resisting Brexit after 2016. But by then the roar was diminished and the cause was lost”). Later chapters on George III and Napoleon are highly inventive and fresh.
Given its topicality, I will close by briefly mentioning Adonis’s chapter on Boris Johnson. “He triumphed because he is modern England’s supreme insider and outsider at the same time” Adonis writes, in a brilliant and concise synopsis of Johnson’s ruthless political skill and unrivalled charisma. His framing of Johnson’s (and Cameron’s) supreme self-confidence as a result of their Etonian background was convincing (Adonis recounts an episode in which Johnson murmered to him “give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt”) However, I think his analysis of Johnson may fail to tell the whole story. Johnson’s victory in the red wall, teflon-like poll ratings (despite the twin disasters of Covid and Brexit), and continuining receipt of confidence of his parliamentary party cannot be explained away merely be arrogance and Eton. Rather it is his enormous skill in being able to sense opportunities and shamlessly follow them, devoid of any loyalty to principles or even people, that has made Johnson the political phenomenon which he is today.
“He triumphed because he is modern England’s supreme insider and outsider at the same time…”
The chapter on Roy Jenkins is littered with ‘jenkinisms’. One that struck me in particular was Jenkins reflects:
“Let us think of a long jumper. He starts with a rapid succession of steps, lenghens his stride, increases his momentun, and then makes his leap. We have to look before we leap… but leap we eventually must”
Adonis has made an extraordinary leap with this book. It was a pleasure to read it and a privilege to discuss it with him.