At the moment, here in the UK, we are looking for people to blame. I blame the voters. First, because they still vote Conservative which means putting into power those who only think of themselves and the interests of their sponsors. Second, and perhaps more important, because voters want so many irrelevant things from politicians that the politicians end up with little time for running the country.
A non-executive head of state is supposed to respond to national moods, whether of joy or grief. You expect the head of state to turn up at major sporting events and major disasters. Queen Elizabeth the Second has learnt the lesson of her mistakes in not turning up in Aberfan and not lowering the flag for Diana and, aged ninety, has turned up in Manchester and at Grenfell Tower. Unfortunately, partly because of her age and her strange clothing, it is all a bit awkward. But she has tried. Good for her.
The Queen’s awkwardness may be one reason why voters want their Prime Ministers and party leaders to act like symbolic heads of state too. They are also expected to turn out when the mood is joyful or grieving. Theresa May is no good at it and that’s enough to have sealed her fate. Jeremy Corbyn is much better and it’s improving his popularity no end.
But what is the threshold of joy or grief which requires a leader’s appearance on the scene? True, sometimes they may learn something which won’t be in the reports landing on their desk. Those at the top are often isolated by the butt-covering bureaucrats around them. So they have no choice but to go out and meet and greet and hopefully learn something. But most of the time, it would probably be a better use of their time if they stayed at their desk, reading the reports and working the phones. It’s not clear that their job is to make an appearance for no other reason than to show that they care. If we had more confidence in them, we would accept that caring would often mean that they remained hidden from our view as they got on with their job on our behalf. Our leaders are now as visible as that chap in North Korea, who is photographed everywhere, day in and day out, but who doesn’t care a fig for anyone.
Likewise, we have developed this idea that a politician must appear daily on the steps of Downing Street or on a TV chat show. What are we hoping for? Why can’t we leave them alone for five minutes to get on with running the country? Stalin got through World War Two with just one radio broadcast. He was a very hard worker. Curiously, when he wanted to show that something – the death of Roosevelt – mattered, he walked across Red Square to the US Embassy to sign the book of condolences. I don't think anyone had seen Stalin walk anywhere before.
Politics has become so ridiculously short term (a day in politics is a long time) that we don’t see that this is one reason why our country has no long term future. We are like goldfish and simply cannot grasp that serious executive leaders will need to be left alone to get on with things and that those things include long-term strategic planning and long-term oversight of major policies. They are not cheer-leaders or professional mourners.
Things are unlikely to change because now we are in a competitive situation where each leader has to prove that they have more empathy than the others at times of tragedy. They are unlikely to sit down together and agree a threshold for scrapping their regular work and turning out on the street. Nor are they going to delegate and let a deputy go, or someone with relevant expertise. That would be passing up a photo opportunity to a potential rival.