Sunday, March 18, 2007

Gandhi, Churchill and Accountability

My post on Gandhi the other day was largely just a background for those who are tempted to make him a part of some kind of secular canon. It was a decidedly non-Thogger post. However, since I wrote it I've been thinking about the parallels to Churchill.

In much the same way as I did with Gandhi it is easy to find things wrong with the popular choice for Greatest Briton. He played a large part in Gallipoli, the decision to restore the Gold Standard at its pre-war parity after the First World War and then tried his luck at the 'soft underbelly' strategy again and got Allied troops bogged down in Italy. Churchill's record, if one were to count 'good' and 'bad' decisions, would be decidely poor.

The left once tried to get his election as the LSE Student Union's Vice-President (an honorary position often given to the dead) ruled unconstitutional on the basis of opinions he stated which are, by modern standards, racist and unpleasant. This is not necessarily an indictment of his character as he lived in a time of different norms and when racism meant something quite different. As such, I'm not convinced by such criticisms but for many they clearly will weigh into an assessment of his quality as well as the practical failings addressed above.

The reason that Churchill and Gandhi should still be considered great despite their failings is that they were right when at their most important. Churchill's failures of military decision making and economic analysis did not change history whereas his emphatic leadership in confronting one of history's greatest evils are as important as a single human's actions can be. Similarly, Gandhi's letters to the British people imploring them not to fight the Nazis made little impact and Indian economic policy was mostly set by successors such as Nehru. By contrast rendering the British exit from India peaceful (although the same could not be achieved for the partition) was a monumentally important achievement. Both Churchill and Gandhi were redeemed by a visionary conviction at the right place and time: Churchill's that the Nazi ideology was too aggressive and inhuman to be appeased. Gandhi's that Britain was losing its commitment to Empire and might be more vulnerable to the moral suasion of non-violent resistance than to the certainties of war.

Now, it is extremely difficult to tell which visionary, and often minority, understandings of the world will be correct after the fact. Mao's that untrained, ideologically driven effort could propel China towards great power status or Stalin's that Communism was being undermined by traitors who need to be purged may look less plausible now but managed to persuade the relevant political classes. Churchill's vision looked deeply aggressive and reactionary to those who wanted to avoid another world war. Gandhi's non-violent resistance must have sounded hopelessly naive and opportunistic to some at the time.

If one were to use accountability as the principle which underlies the modern choice of leaders to assess these different visionaries I'm not sure any would come out well. I think that with the catalogue of problems it would be tempting to avoid all of them. A conservative response, along Kieron O'Hara's lines, would be that this proves that radical visions are generally dangerous stuff and cautious, incrementalist leaders are to be preferred. However, clearly a radical break with old thinking can be necessary in order to make the right decisions, particularly in times of great stress. Those who responded conservatively to Hitler did not cover themselves in glory.

Without accountability what other method might we use to choose our leaders in hard times?

Sometimes we will be able to rely upon our own intellects and moral compass to assess their vision itself. However, during times of crisis or other great change the expected results of policies may be almost impossible to ascertain and circumstances rapidly changing. If this is the case we need to ask what sort of representative we should be looking for.

I would suggest that a key difference between Gandhi and Churchill and Mao and Stalin is that the former possessed tolerant personalities. Churchill could be catty during debates but this was always more the game of the debating chamber than a brutal intolerance of criticism. Gandhi was a barrister with the willingness to debate that entails. It would seem that the best lesson we can take from history is that the leaders best equipped to see us through hard times will be those who have the least tendency to see criticism as an assault. An open mind is the best defence against madness.


ian said...

This is another typically thought-provoking piece, Matthew. You illustrate very well the problems with selectively remembering an individual's contributions, but if you don't mind, I hope to expand on that point in more detail elsewhere. Here, I'd like to pick up on your apparent benchmark of "being right when most important".

I'm not sure to what extent Stalin's fears about traitors were genuine, and to what extent they were useful in allowing him to consolidate his grasp over the party; judged from the latter perspective, it was effective, although horrible. By the same token, despite overseeing some hideous military blunders, he was able to tap into levels of loyalty and self-sacrifice during WWII that are extremely difficult to comprehend 60 or so years later. Compare this with the collapse in morale of the Imperial Russian Army in 1917. It seems to me that without the Soviet effort, Hitler would certainly never have been defeated by 1945, and maybe never... So the apparently paranoid and megalomaniac Stalin nonetheless brought the USSR,and by extent the rest of the world, through some very hard times. Was he, also, right when it counted?

Of course, it came at great cost to many ordinary Soviet citizens, and from many points of view Stalin's USSR was itself a great evil, causing the demise of as many of its own citizens as perished during the war, not to mention tension and conflict elsewhere. Yet some of the older generation now look back at Stalin's era with nostalgia. For some former Soviet citizens, he was a Great Russian (no pun intended).

I would also ask whether openness of mind is a function of the political system within which a given figure operates? You state that both Churchill and Gandhi came from traditions of debate. From my understanding of democratic centralism, it doesn't seem the same was true for Mao or Stalin...

But having said all that, I heartily echo your call for more leaders who do not equate criticism with assault.

Matthew Sinclair said...

I guess "right when it counts" has to come with the corrolary "when wrong not seriously impacting world history". Stalin's purges were a crime on the scale of Hitler's, he bears a large measure of responsibility for the Cold War.

Gallipoli is probably Churchill's worst mistake and doesn't come close to either (even if you accept Stalin's responsibility for the Cold War was decidedly limited).

I think an open-mind is partly a result of political culture. Good point. In fact, that would seem to be an intangible reason why liberal systems become durable over time, they breed liberal people.