Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:24 | SYDNEY
Monday 16 Jul 2018 | 07:24 | SYDNEY

Europe: Charisma, anyone?


Graeme Dobell

20 November 2009 12:59

Voters want charisma and vision in their leaders, right? And a good leader is a strong leader, of course? And that combination will always triumph? Perhaps.

Viewed from afar, the crash-and-burn by Tony Blair in his run for supremo of Europe is a thumping thumbs down for the flash and flair version of leadership. The Blair brand carries quite an Iraq burden. Yet his talents as a politician and a communicator are of the highest order. As the British Foreign Secretary noted, Blair would have been a president who 'stopped the traffic' in Beijing and Washington. Finally, there'd be an answer to Kissinger's question about who you call to talk to Europe.

One of the better comments on the Blair burnout calls the vote for safe (invisible) candidates to serve as Europe's new president and foreign policy tzar a victory for the nation-state over the European ideal.

It's wonderful how the Europhiles can do that sort of language. To lower the tone just a bit, it looks more like a simple judgement about that crucial point where power meets politics.

European governments were thinking about their power and the political problems that Blair the Supremo could have sprung. The voters might want charisma, but politicians distrust what they cannot measure or predict. A safe pair of hands sometimes looks more attractive than an ability to make language soar.

I was reminded of a story I have used before about another charismatic British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who laboured mightily to ensure that the ex Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser did not become secretary-general of the Commonwealth.

Ahead of the vote in 1989, Malcolm had been jetting around pledging that he'd put new force and energy into running the Commonwealth. Margaret Thatcher rang all the other leaders saying they should take the former Australian Prime Minister at his word. 'Do you realise,' she warned, 'if Malcolm gets in, he'll want to do things!' Exit Malcolm.

Blair had the same problem. Europe took him at his word. Tony wanted to do things.

The role of personality in creating a political narrative and projecting messages is an infinitely varied topic. For some excellent ruminations on this theme with an Australian application, consider Annabel Crabb's depiction of Kevin Rudd as a 'shape shifter', constantly changing his stance — even vocabulary — as audience needs dictate.

Crabb describes Tony Blair as another contemporary shape-shifter of the broad left, who used to talk defensively about his 'irreducible core'. The question she then poses: what is at the irreducible core of Kevin Rudd? And the answer offered: It depends who you ask, and when you ask.

The collective leadership of Europe would completely understand.

Photo by Flickr user Ben Ward, used under a Creative Commons license.