If there’s one thing more valuable to an author than a Richard and Judy endorsement circa 2006, it’s a Bill Gates plug circa this week. The man has reach, and the luxury of reading time that comes with being a semi-retired billionaire. And he has weight. So, while four of the books on his annual list cover predictable if fascinating ground (genetics, tennis, electricity infrastructure and a business memoir), the fifth is quite interesting, not to say timely.
In The Myth of the Strong Leader, the renowned British political scholar Archie Brown throws a dozen world leaders of the past century into a bag, shakes them up, and watches the nice guys rise to the top. Brown debunks the idea that the most successful leaders are those who dominate and mould their nations around themselves, as far as their political systems allow. “A more collegial style of leadership is too often characterised as a weakness,” he writes.
Gates says on his blog that this year’s US election prompted him to pick up the book, which was published in 2014. Brown, emeritus professor of politics at Oxford University, “could not have predicted how resonant his book would become in 2016”, he adds. However, in a separate review on his website, Gates studiously avoids the T-word. He comes closest, perhaps, when he says that the ostensibly appealing qualities of “strong” leaders “can be boiled down to a belief [that he or she] is the only one who knows what the country needs, and the only one who can deliver it”.
Brown, who is 78, is understandably delighted by Gates’s approval, and doesn’t mind alluding to Trump. “The myth of the strong leader is alive and well,” he says in an email. “It was a major factor in bringing us the looming reality of the presidency of a TV star. So I believe that the arguments I make in The Myth of the Strong Leader do, as Gates suggests, have a particular resonance right now.”
Gates starts his review with the case of the former Spanish prime minister Adolfo Suárez. The rightwing minister under Franco reached out to the left to form a centrist, democratic government after the dictator’s demise with “negotiation, persuasion, and some very adroit coalition-building”. Of US leaders, Brown – and Gates – big up Harry Truman, who once said: “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to do without my persuading them … That’s all the powers of the president amount to.”
Putin is the biggest reigning strongman in Brown’s book, but the writer is reluctant to assess his growing popularity among rightwing figures including Trump, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen. It’s also too soon to judge Trump, he says. But perhaps we can be premature, and do it anyway, using Brown’s own list of the qualities that, he says, make a truly strong president: “Integrity, intelligence, articulateness, collegiality, shrewd judgment, a questioning mind, willingness to seek disparate views, ability to absorb information, flexibility, good memory, courage, vision, empathy and boundless energy.” How’s he doing so far?
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