Don’t write off the old leaders just yet

Under pressure of the worst recession since the 1930s, leadership everywhere is having a tough time. Gerry Adams take comfort, you’re not alone. Like the early to mid 30s, only in America is leadership flourishing and even there, under growing pressure. In our own islands, the uncanny similarities between Brown and Cowen – finance ministers who got us into this mess, poor communicators, worse leaders etc – persuade many of us to write them off. None of this will produce a democratic revolution or indeed much change.In the UK, the mutterings against Brown are reviving in the wake of the Norwich by-election. Polly Toynbee, Brown’s sharpest critic within the tent slates him for not leading an attack on the bankers – but let’s be honest, who is to lead to a revival of the banks except bankers? Oddly she attacks him for failing to make more of the one thing he had been doing: dividing between “Labour spending and Tory cuts”. Intellectual weight for this policy has come first in a powerful warning against cutting now from that scarcely radical source, Richard Koo chief economist of Nomura. And it has been added to domestically by the doyen of British economic commentators Sam Brittan. In this lies Brown best – maybe only – hope of survival.

But fag-end prime ministers seldom do well; Eden, Douglas-Home, Major, (a long fag end after some success admittedly), Reynolds. Yet looking at the alternatives to incumbency today, Enda Kenny and David Cameron have the least impressive past profiles of any opposition leaders on the brink of likely victory I can think of. But the past shows that a blend of depth and charisma may not be necessary to lead the way out of recession. It was Neville Chamberlain of all people who drove the recovery in Britain in the 1930s. Experience may count and he had plenty of it. In the forthcoming general election (Ireland’s being much further away) leadership and policies may count for less than regional and party splintering. And that incidentally, may offer Sinn Fein in the Republic another chance.

Of course there’s a huge difference of scale in Gerry Adams’s role. I can’t tell but it may be that the pressure against him is more from the rank and file than media (including blog) driven. The Ferris pebble may start an avalanche. But from across the pond, Niall Dowd answers Mick ‘s question about Adams’ future in the negative. I share Dowd’s alarm that the people’s champion of Garvaghy Road Brendan Maccionaith has come out with blatantly dissident republican language – and that soon after his “cordial” meeting with Peter Robinson. So it seems that along with their problems in the south, SF are facing a mounting republican challenge in the north which although still small is resonant with some of their traditional core. But is the same true with their much wider electoral support? Where’s the evidence?

I hold no brief for the SF narrative. I believe politics will never become “normal” until all the old warriors, so indispensable for creating the peace, have departed the scene. But I harbour doubts about the arguments of some of Adams’ critics.

He’s attacked for floundering over strategy – but who’s doing much better? In the south, no party seems entirely secure and in Europe, left parties generally have failed to capitalise on the recession. He’s mocked because the days of hob-nobbing with the great are over – is it fair that his role in spiking the guns is forgotten so quickly? Some of those who most wanted republicans to give up the armed struggle now mock them for having no purpose. That’s a dangerous game, for it chimes with the dissidents’ cry of betrayal.

In London last week, Adams said an interesting thing. “All Prime Ministers are unionists.” By that he mean successive taoisigh would like unity on a plate but oh Lord, not yet if ever. British Prime Ministers who remain emotionally uncommitted to the Union fall back on the consent principle. Even Ulster unionism is conditional. Is it so absurd then for Adams to want to revive his old plan for urging the sovereign governments to become “persuaders for unity?” That, and a fairly bold defence of what powersharing stands for in the face of threats from both sides uses up less adrenaline than the long war. But it doesn’t seem such a bad strategy to me.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London