Matthew Flinders: Adrift, rudderless, confused, chaotic – where have our leaders gone as Brexit becomes a mess?

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ADRIFT, rudderless, confused, chaotic... a mess. How else can anyone honestly describe the state of British politics?

We are – if truth be known – a nation that resembles little more than a vast community of sleepwalkers who don’t seem to know exactly where we are going or why.

Professor Matthew Flinders accuses David Cameron of putting party before country over the EU referendum.

Professor Matthew Flinders accuses David Cameron of putting party before country over the EU referendum.

Some might argue against me. The future for them is clear. They’re on their way to the sunlit uplands delivered by a bold independent state made ‘Great’ again in a post-Brexit era.

‘Dream on’ is the only thing I can say to these somnambulistic visionaries. If we are honest, the big red battle bus was a devious lie on wheels designed to fuel resentment at ‘them’ for how they treated ‘us’.

And ‘them’ and ‘us’ has since June 2016 become the two-tone defining narrative of British politics. You are ‘with us’ or ‘against us’, you are ‘in’ or ‘out’, you are ‘friend’ or ‘enemy’, you are ‘black’ or ‘white’. Even the kids in my children’s playground can see how ridiculous this is.

Politics – like everyday life – operates in shades of grey (more than 50 or so, I am told). It goes wrong. It is messy. It limps along because there are no simple answers to complex problems and anyone that tells you that there are is a liar.

Professor Matthew Flinders.

Professor Matthew Flinders.

And yet we have allowed our political system to descend into a state of play that exists somewhere below the political maturity of the playground.

As someone who has dedicated his career to promoting the public understanding of politics and therefore has on more than one occasion been forced to defend the behaviour of politicians (often in spite of themselves), I find it almost impossible to defend the behaviour not so much of our politicians but of our political leaders.

The true insight of Brexit is that our political leaders cannot lead. Brexit may therefore be little more than a symptom of a deeper and more dangerous democratic malady. I cannot help but think how David Cameron feels when he looks back on his Bloomberg speech in January 2013.

The speech that marked the beginning of the end for David Cameron now looks to have ignited a political forest fire that shows no sign of abating.

Poor leadership puts the party above the nation. Think Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson – all blowing on the fire to further their own ambitions with very little thought to the long-term consequences for the country.

And where were the leaders on the other side who were willing or able to mount a passionate defence of the EU and a worldview vision with the UK at its core? It was, if truth be told, a poor fight that was dominated by fairy tales, fig leaves and promises that were quickly retracted within hours of the result becoming clear.

But my argument is not about Brexit. It is just a hook on which to hang a simple question: where have all the leaders gone?

Leadership is defined by an ability to listen, to build teams, to understand and respect opposing views, to inspire and offer hope, to look beyond today and tomorrow and to present a uniting vision of a positive future.

Leadership is hard and it is lonely. No leader can please everyone all of the time. This is just the hard, grown-up reality of politics. No one becomes a politician to be loved and if they do they are destined to be disappointed. And yet British politics seems to be defined by the existence of disappointed democrats who yearn for some form of resolution, for clarity, for closure. What this requires is mature and confident political leadership and yet maturity and confidence appear to be in short supply.

Theresa May appears to define flexibility as a weakness and lacks the emotional intelligence to engage with members of her own Cabinet and party, let alone the broader public.

Jeremy Corbyn appears afflicted by an inability to outline a clear position on anything and his refusal to engage in talks with the Government undermines his credibility as Leader of the Opposition.

Belligerence on both sides benefits no one. It has left the nation… adrift, rudderless and desperate not for a ‘strong’ or ‘heroic’ leader but simply one with the ability to look beyond ‘them’ and ‘us’, to step out of the playground and offer instead a more honest and balanced account of the scale of the Brexit challenge as it currently exists.

The challenge for both party leaders, but particularly for the Prime Minister, is that being honest risks splitting both parties. But that is leadership. Sometimes leadership is about admitting defeat and looking for fresh ways to make tricky decisions. It is about putting the interests of the nation above the party. Sometimes being a good politician may involve making unpopular decisions.

But where are those brave enough to grasp the nettle? Where have all our political leaders gone?

Matthew Flinders is professor of politics and founding director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at 
the University of Sheffield. He tweets via 
@politicalspike.