The Myth of the Great Leader: Gordon Brown, Jimmy Reid and Alex Salmond

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 1st 2016

The times they-are-a-changing. There is a tangible feeling in the air of discontent, anger and bewilderment. People feel let down and cheated by the multiple powers that be.

It isn’t surprising then that there is a palpable sense of national nostalgia depicted on TV – remakes fill the screens (Are You Being Served?, Porridge), while period dramas (Downton Abbey) or endless documentaries on World War Two and the Nazis are hugely popular.

The left aren’t immune to this either – having always had their own strand of radical nostalgia from primitive communism, to William Morris’s eco-utopia, the spirit of 1945, and the current vogue for ‘what would Keir Hardie say?’ Moreover, radical nostalgia now seems stronger than it ever has been on the left. It is conservative, about the past offering better prospects than the future, and denying the present and recent past. Jeremy Corbyn is a fitting embodiment of it: consistent and unchanging in his views since 1975, uncaring about electoral prospects, and without any evident self-criticism or original views.

The above view of the world is linked to one of the left’s great pillars – the Great Leader view of political change. Paradoxically, for a political tradition which is supposedly about collectivism, the left have bought into this individualist view of change. And of course, despite all the talk of equality, the left has been about brotherhood – so in Britain, the Great Leader has to be a man.

Take the recent examples of Gordon Brown and Jimmy Reid. Before I begin let me be clear, both of these leaders – for all the claims and counter-claims – have qualities and contributed significantly to public life. What I want to explore is the way in which such figures’ contributions are framed and interpreted in elements of the left and nationalist traditions.

Both Brown and Reid at their peak were spellbinding orators, capable of holding an audience, persuading and leading, talking with a mesmerising power with the lyrical cadences of their rhetoric. They also shared the experience (despite Brown being 19 years younger) of making a big impact as Rectors of, respectively, Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities, at the same time – Reid following on from his role in the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders work-in.

This is the Scotland and Britain of the early 1970s: a time of immense turmoil, industrial militancy, a bitterly unpopular Tory Government led by Ted Heath, eventually culminating in two miners’ strikes, the second of which brought the government down.

Reid gave the world a powerful inaugural address as Rector on alienation where he said ‘A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings.’ It was hailed at the time in the ‘New York Times’, and upon his death in 2010 and since, still causes ripples.

Meanwhile, Brown at the same time as Rector of Edinburgh University was also making an impact. No one recites his Rectoral address, but what is remembered is how he terrified and out-manoueuvred the Edinburgh establishment on university investments in apartheid South Africa, winning the battle over disinvestment.

Reid’s address rings down through the years here and further afield, and will inspire future generations. Yet, he did little else to ruffle feathers as Rector, whereas Brown shook the establishment to its very core, to the extent the authorities looked at how they could change the way Rectors were elected to prevent it ever happening again. However, he is little remembered for this genuine expression of ‘Red Brown’; such is the Scots love of rhetoric over substance, and maybe even beyond our shores, the power of words.

Both men shared an emotive and powerful view of political change, the importance of principles and their own moral compasses, and even in a way, of a very male and left entitlement attitude. Until Brown became Prime Minister and disappointed many had chosen to believe he was the opposite of Tony Blair and the defender of Labour’s conscience, rather than co-creator of New Labour. They were of course hugely disappointed by reality. But as with Reid there was a feeling of connection and projection – some of which bordered on the propertial.

Jimmy Reid even posthumously had a walk-on part in recent history – appearing as a much cited figure in the indyref – claimed by the Jimmy Reid Foundation which itself blew up in the latter stages of the campaign. Reid travelled a political odyssey from Communists to Labour, to briefly, New Labour and then, Scottish Socialists, before finally signing up to Alex Salmond’s SNP when the latter returned as leader in 2004.

In this he played a role in Scotland’s love of romantic dead heroes who don’t answer back and don’t disappoint. Complexity, betrayal, being human and making mistakes, no longer enter into calculations. Reid, of course, had famously savaged Arthur Scargill’s kamikaze tactics in the doomed 1984-85 miners’ strike. This earned a lifetime and beyond enmity from some of the left. Nearly as much as dead heroes, some of the left adore a neverending bitter personal feud.

This longing for Great Leaders (and men) hasn’t left us yet. Alex Salmond seems to be being set up by some for this role, and post-leader of the Nationalists, he seems happy to oblige. His role in the history of the SNP and Scotland is secure. He has transformed both, made his party the dominant force in the land, and secured a landslide victory in 2011, and achieved the indyref, bringing the country to the near-brink of independence. In my forthcoming study of ‘Scottish National Party Leaders’ with James Mitchell – out next month – we rightly give Salmond the accolade of being the only subject that merits two chapters, covering his two distinct periods as leader. He is undoubtedly in the words of Sidney Hook, an ‘event making leader’.

However, the achievements of Salmond as leader were part of a collective ‘Team Salmond’ many of whom worked for him for large parts of his two decades as leader. Thus, Salmond listened to advice, changed his style in 2006-7 after seeing how in debates he won points, but could lose the bigger argument, and dared to reach out and take calculated risks. Salmond took Scotland to the summit of an indyref that another kind of leader might never have reached.

Yet, post-indyref he has gone the way of many other Great Leaders. The indyref was lost because it was snatched away by ‘the Vow’ and other such skullduggery, there was the perfidy of the BBC and role of then Political Editor Nick Robinson, who Salmond choose to continue a vendetta with for over a year after the vote. The roar of the crowd continues for him, and of course, ‘the dream shall never die’. But shorn of ‘Team Salmond’, this is Salmond uncensored – and it is less attractive and sometimes not helpful to his successor or the greater cause.

Brown, Reid, Salmond – can be seen as men much bigger than themselves, who attracted true faith defenders, followers and a community who feel they have an interest in the maintenance of the myth. That at times crosses over into the familial and tribal, an inability to assess honestly, and at times when combined with power, as in Brown and Salmond, the slow dulling of political antenna. ‘Great men’ are to some of their followers just self-evidently so that it requires no further evidence or explanation: it just is and don’t dare ask why.

There is that much-cited phrase that ‘all political careers end in failure’. It is not true, because it doesn’t account for the really transformative leaders of the UK such as Clement Attlee or Margaret Thatcher, or in very different circumstances, Ronald Reagan or Nelson Mandela. Yet, the idea of Great Leaders as a magnet of social change is a hindrance. They only really work in the context of those behind them: a movement, team, and shared vision. Without that there is only rhetoric and empty platitudes.

The age of the modern leader does not require blind faith or obedience in one figure, or buying into a messianic vision. Instead, it necessitates such skills as negotiation, alliance building, flexibility while understanding core values, and the ability to listen. Brown, Reid and Salmond, aren’t quite as emphatically of the past as say Jeremy Corbyn, but they point back to an earlier age of certainty and authority.

The Great Leader Show still has allure, not very surprisingly, to budding leaders and their inner circles the world over. Charles Powell, Thatcher’s Private Secretary commented after her reign that there was ‘something Leninist about Mrs. Thatcher.’ His brother Jonathan Powell, Blair’s chief of staff, in an off the cuff remark said ‘we wanted to move from a feudal to a Napoleonic system’ of government. Neither are models for today’s world or democracies, but they do tap delusions of grandeur, the legacy of imperial arrogance, and attempt to overcome complexity with centralisation.

Where are tomorrow’s leaders in Scotland, Britain and the West and what do they look like? Yesterday and today’s styles no longer work. The anti-leadership of Corbyn or cheap populism of Trump and Farage can rid a wave, but cannot make a new political climate. We have to hope they come from a perspective more enlightened, emotionally literate, and interested in listening, rather than the prospect that worse is yet to come – and that after the likes of Trump we could see even more repulsive demagogues. To assist in that it is long past time yearning for the Great Leader coming to save us. We have to do that ourselves.