Political leadership is in a mess

Saturday. Santiago.
I rise early not to watch the first rugby quarter-final but the historic “super Saturday” sitting of the British House of Commons.
Brexit matters more to me.

I remember the last time: it was 1982, I was 18, and Thatcher’s Britain was debating whether to go to war with Argentina over the Falklands.

But, as the springtime sun rises over the city, I notice that the haze seems a tad thicker.

It is. Smoke has been added to the gentle pall of pollution that cloaks the Chilean capital, parts of which are burning as overnight rioting has apparently escalated.

Chile is taken by surprise — or at least its establishment and upper middle classes are. Conducting a so-called “masterclass” on leadership and sustainability the day before, I was struck by the unusual levels of optimism in the room and wondered whether it might conceal an under­lying complacency.

Even as news reached us that the metro had been shut down because of the protest action, there was no sense of concern that levels of inequality in South America’s most prosperous country would disturb what at first glance appears to be an orderly and stable society.

“Unemployment is as low as 5%”, one corporate leader told me at the masterclass. “And seven out of 10 [matriculants] now go to university,” he claimed.

Just a week or two ago, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera had described his country as an “oasis” in Latin America — a region where, in my experience, peer comparisons tend to matter a lot. But no society is immune to the strong currents of rebellion that are percolating globally. Though the local characteristics that evince of the tipping point that modern capitalism and liberal democracy has reached may be different, the bubble in which the political and economic establishment reside is, region by region, country by country, city by city, being burst open.

And so, on Saturday, I closed the curtains and resumed my Brexit pre-occupation. Britain — settled, docile, tolerant Britain — is going through its own rupture. As with Donald Trump’s America, so Boris Johnson’s United Kingdom is driving division and creating the space for racism and early signs of fascism to emerge and grow.

Later on Saturday, long after the British prime minister had suffered yet another defeat — his record is now, played eight lost eight, if you aggregate parliamentary and Supreme Court losses — a preliminary round FA Cup tie between lower league clubs Haringey Borough and Yeovil Town was abandoned after some Yeovil “fans” racially abused several of the black Haringey players, leading the home team to walk off the field.

This is one of several reasons why Brexit matters — and not just to Britain and the British. Brexit, like the disastrously misconceived 2016 referendum that reduced the most complex, polycentric decision to a crude one-dimensional binary choice, is not “merely” about whether the UK should be a part of the European Union or not. It is about what sort of society it wants to be — open and tolerant, diverse and proud of it; or closed, blinkered and backward-looking.

It also encourages an ugly, anachronistic form of ultra-nationalism. Although since 2005, I have been a proud South African citizen, my primary identity remains that of a Londoner first and foremost, a city that in many respects captures the essence of multiculturalism and modern, cosmopolitan life. A truly global — and European (with nearly a million EU citizens residing there) — city-state.

But London is not the UK. And the reality that the British Labour Party in particular is grappling with, is that in other parts of the country, especially the north of England, many working class people feel “left behind” and deserted by a liberal London elite.

Labour’s vacillation on Brexit and that of its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, creates an opportunity for the right wing (especially the Brexit Party, led by the odious Nigel Farage) to seize in a grizzly race to the bottom — in terms of social values as well as social and environmental safeguards and protections for working people — a point that seems to largely escape Corbyn, who is trapped by his 1970’s worldview that sees the EU only as an elitist, capitalist club.

Of course, no one in their right mind would pretend that the EU is perfect. It has many institutional flaws and a persistent democratic deficit. But as an experiment in multi­lateral co-operation and governance there is no more important case study in human history. At a time when the world needs multilateral co-operation more than ever if it is to confront the challenges of peace and security as well as the climate emergency, Brexit would weaken the EU and thereby weaken global governance.

That is why it matters on a geopolitical and macro as well as micro scale; and contains important lessons for other attempts at regional economic and political integration including in Africa.

What it also reveals is the weakness of political leaders in the face of issues of such complexity — they are simply not equipped to cope — and the absence, bar the odd exception such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, of real leadership in politics across the world.

Although the Brexit referendum put them in an impossible position, members of Parliament have self-evidently not succeeded in finding a way out of an excruciating bind that has served, in turn, to undermine public trust in their political representatives.

As a result, the British courts are having to step into the “political lawfare” space that South Africans will be very familiar — and comfortable — with.

Britain’s so-called “unwritten constitution” — the ultimate oxymoron — and the rules and conventions that underwrite it have been tested to breaking point as a result.

It is time for Britain to have a modern, written constitution and time for South Africa to export its constitution-writing experts to London to help out.

But there is a bigger, wider lesson about political leadership. The implication of examples such as the Brexit imbroglio is that less must be expected of political representatives and that recourse and remedies will have to be found in other institutions or from other sources of power and authority.

South Africa’s National Assembly hardly covered itself in glory during the Zuma era — very much the opposite, in fact: failing to arrest state capture as it happened before its very eyes.

South Africa’s democracy was saved by the rule of law and the independence of its judiciary.

While not wishing MPs off the hook, I am increasingly of the view that leadership of the sort that is urgently required will — and is — coming from civil society and business.

It may be counter-intuitive, when big corporates are generally seen to be part of the out-of-touch greedy elite establishment and therefore a big part of the problem, but some of the best leadership is now to be found in the private sector.

If you want an account of this, both the recent evolution of corporate sustainability and those who are setting the highest new standards, look no further than a neat little book titled All In (written by three leading sustainability thinkers: David Grayson, Chris Coulter and Mark Lee, and published last year by Routledge).

All In argues that because politicians and governments are too confused and not doing enough, and civil society organisations don’t have enough power, so a new breed of corporate leaders are emerging with a radical approach to defining the social purpose of their companies and their business models.

Ironically, no doubt, it may be that the most potent drive for a fundamental reform of capitalism will come from the private sector.

Political leaders will also need to go “all in” to offer a radically different vision for managing and distributing economic value and wealth, otherwise people throughout the world will continue to turn against them and, increasingly, and violently, against liberal democracy — a message for South Africa as much as anywhere else.

Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the  University of Cape Town and a partner in the political risk consultancy, The Paternoster Group

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