Lessons from Empire: coordinated leadership is essential in resolving the financial crisis

Kwasi Kwarteng MP argues that in seeking to resolve the financial crisis, valuable lessons can be drawn from the failures of leadership in the British Empire.

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Kwasi Kwarteng MP
On 11 August 2011 16:18

Reflecting on the turmoil in the financial markets led me to think about the nature of political leadership.

It has been a common concern during this summer that political leaders have somehow remained detached from events affecting the world in a material way. Pictures of politicians on holiday while financial markets seemed to collapse were not very reassuring. 

As someone who has reflected also on the nature of imperial leadership (see my book below), I felt drawn to make a few comparisons.

It’s striking that commentators feel how uncoordinated and unsystematic the responses to the financial crisis have been. This was very much my experience when I researched policy making in the British Empire. I learned that individuals in far flung places were allowed a large measure of discretion in their exercise of power.

My conclusion was that an “anarchic individualism” was a defining feature of the British Empire. By this I mean to suggest that the British Empire was dominated by powerful figures who operated almost entirely on their own in the areas under their authority. This meant that they could impose their will, or a particular policy, on an area, but also that policy could be reversed subsequently by other individuals who had been appointed to take control in succession. 

This emphasis on individual initiative meant that, over time, there was often very little consistency. Hong Kong was a striking example of this. Although its 21st Governor, Mark Young had made tentative moves towards instituting democracy in Hong Kong in the attenuated form of a municipal council, his immediate successor reversed these initiatives. Alexander Grantham, Mark Young’s successor, postponed the development of democracy in Hong Kong for at least a generation, some might say forever.

Sudan was another example of a country in which there existed no consistent policy. Governor Harold MacMichael instituted the “Southern Policy” in 1930. This policy ensured that the north and south of Sudan would be administered entirely separately. Almost no contact was encouraged between the two regions. Arabic ceased to be taught to students in the south of the country. And yet this “Southern Policy” was reversed by James Robertson, the new Governor in 1946. Two regions which had been run separately for 16 years were now forced together and expected to live harmoniously.

The conclusion of all this was easy to anticipate. Sudan, from the year before independence, 1955, entered a long period of civil war. Only this year the republic of southern Sudan has emerged to consummate the final separation of these two distinct regions. Time will tell whether this new solution is durable.

Inconsistency in policy making is one thing. Lack of coordination is another. It seems very unlikely that we, today, will make much progress in the resolution of our economic and financial problems without greater international cooperation. The problems of Empire were, in many ways, less complicated than the problems of international cooperation.

For one, the British Empire was, nominally at least, run from Whitehall in London, yet it is impossible to say where the centre of global leadership resides today. It may well be that we will face several more years of uncertainty and lack of direction.

International bodies like the EU and the UN have been conspicuously unsuccessful in recent years in coordinating their response to world events. Examples such as the genocide in Rwanda, the crisis in the Balkans and, more recently, the EU’s equivocation on Iraq have shown the inadequacy of these supranational bodies.

Much of the success in leadership derives from individuals and it is difficult to create institutions in which leaders can thrive. Moreover there is a strong sense in which our current crop of leaders perhaps is less decisive than the generation of Thatcher, Reagan, Mitterrand and Kohl.

Traditionally since the end of the Second World War the free world has looked to America for leadership. Yet a significant part of our problem is that America today is a land burdened by colossal debt with shaky economic prospects. The downgrading of American sovereign debt from AAA to AA+ is a highly symbolic reflection on this phenomenon.

With America absorbed in its own internal difficulties, international policy making now seems directionless. It is the job of other countries, like the sovereign states of the EU, to fill the vacuum.   

To a historian of the British Empire, the problems of international cooperation are even more intractable than the problems of imperial government. The scope that the British Empire gave to individual initiative and enterprise is something which has been restricted in our modern world, obsessed as we are with red tape and bureaucratic regulation. Yet, paradoxically, in addition to greater cooperation, we need those qualities of individual leadership and initiative more than ever.  

Kwasi Kwarteng MP is the Member of UK Parliament for Spelthorne and the author of ‘Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World’. He tweets at @Kwasikwarteng

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