Political Leadership by Sir Martin Gilbert

Photo: Martin, speaking at Hillsdale College

2950 words/15 minute read

It is an honour to be asked to speak today, at the first Yossi Harel annual lecture. I thank Sir Ronald Cohen for inviting me to reflect on political leadership from an historical perspective. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity of seeing three British Prime Ministers in action at close quarters, and to have had discussions with three American Presidents. Each of these leaders, when faced by hard choices, and like Churchill before them, took the courses they knew to be best for the nation, rather than those that might pander to the popular mood. I have also been fortunate to have discussed leadership with both David Ben Gurion (in 1971) and with Yitzhak Rabin (in both the summer and autumn of 1995). They too made hard choices in what they were convinced was the national interest rather than seeking easy options.

What have I learned from these encounters, as well as from my work as Churchill biographer since 1968?.  First, the importance – the overriding importance – of ethical and moral standards. Just as business leaders of quality put probity and due diligence at the forefront of all their endeavours, so political leaders need an ethical and moral base – of granite. Once a leader slips into the vortex of corruption and deceit – all-too-common in large swathes of Africa and Asia, but not only there, the needs of his (or her) people, the interests of the nation, take a back seat.

There is a delicate balance in all political leadership questions: not merely a clear differentiation between right and wrong, but also a practical balance between the attainable and the unattainable. A leader has to be both a visionary – and a pragmatist, understanding the dynamics and aspirations of society and conscious at all times of avoiding promises that cannot be fulfilled. It is easy to court popularity, to win votes by offering a host of panaceas and illusions.

Another attribute of leadership, in peace and war, is the ability to lead in unpopular causes or unproven circumstances. President Truman expressed it thus: “To be able to lead others, a man must be willing to go forward alone.” To go forward alone, and, one might add, to bring their people with them, to be a source of strength to a troubled people.

No political leader finds himself at the head of a placid, contented people, free from deep-seated worries. This is certainly true in both Britain and Israel today. As J.K. Galbraith wrote: “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time.” “This and not much else,” Galbraith added, “is the essence of leadership.”

Truman and Galbraith were each touching here on another essential attribute of political leadership, that a leader of quality is not only the leader of the political party that elected him to power, and sustains him in power, or of one segment of society, or of one set of interest groups, but of the whole nation. Yitzhak Rabin expressed this is 1994, when he said during a meeting at 10 Downing Street: “I am not the Prime Minister of 130,000 settlers, but of four and a half million Israelis.”

A successful stance on the world stage needs the backing of domestic internal leadership. Internal decency, internal respect for human rights, internal dominance of the rule of law are indispensable corollaries of a constructive foreign policy. There has to be a coherent vision, an over-arching sense of purpose for the national leader to have influence on the international scene. Central to the internal dynamic for which the leader is responsible is respect for the rights of all citizens including minorities and those under occupation.

Leadership and vision are the bedrock of political and diplomatic progress towards a better society and a better world, with the benchmarks of fairness, equality and the rights of the individual.

A political leader has also and always to be conscious that his term of office, the years during which his hands will be on the levers of governance, the years when his country’s voice will be heard on the world stage, are finite, and yet his actions may resonate for generations. That being so, his qualities, at their best, will include being a source of future inspiration and guidance. In the words of Walter Lippman: “The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him, in other men, the conviction and the will to carry on.” This test faces stern obstacles. A political leader may show his qualities by moving beyond the accepted, comfortable, unchallenged – and unchallenging – comforts of the status quo. But it is not easy to inspire those who follow you to take up the challenging track.

Many of you here will remember Ehud Olmert’s words to the United States Congress on 24 May 2007, when he tried to move the debate, and the future of his nation, out of the rut of the status quo and confrontation and into a new era. Olmert told Congress, and the world: “I believed, and to this day still believe, in our people’s eternal and historic right to this entire land…. Painfully, we the people of Israel have learned to change our perspective. We have to compromise in the name of peace, to give up parts of our promised land in which every hill and valley is saturated with Jewish history and in which our heroes are buried. We have to relinquish part of our dream to leave room for the dream of others, so that all of us can enjoy a better future.”

Wise words, full of hope. Four years later, almost to the day, no such recognition of the need “to leave room for the dream of others” was made, or even acknowledged, by another Israeli Prime Minister also addressing Congress.

At the centre of good political leadership is respect for the democratic system and the Rule of Law. As Churchill said at the time when the Greek Communists were trying to seize power by force in Athens: “Democracy is based on reason, a sense of fair play, and freedom and a respect for other people.” In his wartime speech to the joint session of the United States Congress, Churchill told the assembled legislators: “In my country, as in yours, public men are proud to be the servants of the state and would be ashamed to be its masters.”

In an era in which many Britons and Israelis believe that many people enter politics for personal gain, Churchill’s words are a reminder that public service is, indeed, a service. It is also good to remember Churchill’s rubric: “The function of parliament is not only to pass good laws, but to stop bad laws.” In the last resort, in any true democracy, parliamentarians have to have the courage, the ability and the will to hold their leaders accountable.

A leader has to be prepared to devote enormous amounts of time and energy to resolve the issues of the day. Churchill, often mis-portrayed as a warmonger, was an optimist who, in the darkest times, believed in the paramountcy of a just peace, in the search for which he expended hundreds of hours in negotiations, often with the most intractable of partners. The creation in 1922 of the Irish Free State – free from Britain – after a cruel and bloody war marked by terrorism and reprisals was one of his greatest achievements.

Some thoughts about the character of a leader. He must avoid treating the opposition with scorn or contempt. It too has the votes of a portion of the nation whose concerns cannot be set aside. Partisan rule is poor rule. A leader must also set side hubris and arrogance. He must be aware of his own weaknesses and failings. He must set himself the highest of standards. As Churchill told one of his staff during the Second World War: “Each night before I go to sleep, I try myself by court martial: to see if I have done something useful during the day. Not merely pawing the ground, anyone can do that, but something really useful.” The benefits of experience have to mesh with the use of experience: lessons learned from crisis to crisis are a feature of all good leaders.

            Due diligence is another essential attribute of a political leader: the ability to examine one’s own actions critically, and to probe the actions of those closest to you, of those on whose own abilities you are dependant. This calls for an all-too-rare quality, the ability to listen. I was most impressed fifteen years ago when I was at President Clinton’s side as he listened to a British Prime Minister in a way that showed just how he understood and related to what he was hearing.

This was the same President Clinton who, in 1998 at the Wye Plantation, on asking each of his three interlocutors King Hussein of Jordan, Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu if they would like to say a few words, and on each of them shaking his head commented: “I was not able to part the waters but I was able to silence the voices.” Perhaps the time has now come for the voices of the current leaders on both sides to speak out – and to move forward.

The two greatest tests for any leader are the conduct of war – and peacemaking. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in Ramla has in it fallen soldiers from both sides: Britons and Jews. Yesterday I went to the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Beersheba, where 1,241 British and Commonwealth soldiers are buried, killed while defeating the Ottoman Turks and making possible here in Eretz Israel a Jewish National Home. Yitzhak Rabin said, in his Nobel Prize lecture in 1994: “Military cemeteries in every corner of the world are silent testimony to the failure of national leaders to sanctify human life.”

Rabin spoke as a man who knew war, but he was not a man of war. Nor did he place his, or his nation’s fate in the hands of warriors alone. As he told the Knesset on 13 July 1992, in introducing his new government: “… security is not only the tank, the plane, and the missile boat. Security is also, and perhaps above all, the person; the Israeli citizen. Security is a man’s education; it is his home, his school, his street and neighbourhood, the society that has fostered him. Security is also a man’s hope.’

                        Hope and vision are two sides of the same coin of leadership. In the words of Proverbs: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” A leader who makes his people feel that they are victims, that they are the wronged party, that they are the ones to whom the world owes something, risks creating an isolation that will impact negatively on every aspect of national life. Yitzhak Rabin saw this, and fought against it. When, in 1992, he became Prime Minister for the second time, he told the Knesset: “No longer are we ‘a people that dwells alone’ and no longer is it true that ‘the whole world is against us.’ We must overcome the sense of isolation that has held us in its thrall for almost half a century.”

Any discussion of leadership is, at base, a debate between humanity and hope on one side and fear and victimhood on the other. And the greatest enemy of humanity and hope is demonisation of political opponents. It was Bismarck who, in declaring his political opponents Reichsfeinde – enemies of the State – set an appalling precedent. Just as demonising the neighbour is a mark of lack of leadership, and failing to challenge the racism of which such demonisation is often a part, so demonising one or more sections of one’s own society, demonising those within one’s society who raise legitimate causes for concern – I think of the vicious personal attacks on former Knesset member Naomi Chazan, and of the vicious beating and obscene taunts recently aimed at a “leftist” demonstrator by the Israeli police – is a sign of the failure of much-valued, and in Israel much vaunted, democratic and humanitarian standards.

Leaders have to speak out against such demonisation, and do so immediately, and without equivocation. The failure to do so effectively in Jerusalem’s Zion Square on 6 October 1995 had catastrophic consequence. In the Knesset that day, a future Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, told his fellow legislators that Rabin and his government had “collaborated with a terrorist organisation”. In a Parliament attuned to the misuse and abuse of language, Sharon should have been immediately rebuked by the Speaker. Instead, he was cheered.

In the demonisation form of discourse, which is still heard today, lie unimaginable horrors. I recall Lord Byron’s stark couplet: “A thousand years scarce serve to form a State, an hour can lay it in the dust.” If an Israeli leader, or any leader in a democracy, cannot see genuine critics as patriots, and take from them whatever is wise and useful in their criticisms, then that leader will not serve his nation well either in good times or in times of trial.

One of the greatest challenges facing any leader in a democratic system is the danger of succumbing to the temptations of power. It was the British politician and historian Lord Acton who said some 150 years ago: “And remember, where you have a concentration of power in a few hands, all too frequently men with the mentality of gangsters get control. History has proven that. All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Acton also said, in words that every leader should inscribe on his blotting pad: “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

From this prism of power used wisely or unwisely, we view a leader’s every action, their whole conduct of government business, their treatment of parliament, and their attitude to opposition and criticism. Churchill, recalling his own sudden elevation on 10 May 1940 to the premiership, with all its powers, later wrote: “Power, for the sake of lording it over fellow creatures, or adding to personal pomp, is rightly judged base. But power in a national crisis, when a man believes he knows what orders should be given, is a blessing.” The question every leader faces is: What should those orders be? Is the policy in the true interests of the nation?

A test case is that of Neville Chamberlain, who, at the time of Munich in the autumn of 1938, had an overwhelming parliamentary majority, and support for his policy of the appeasement of Germany from most of the newspapers and a large swathe of public opinion. Many now judge Chamberlain’s appeasement to have been wrong (my own first book, The Appeasers, in 1963 was a severe critique of that appeasement). Your own Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, himself a student of history, often holds up Chamberlain’s appeasement policy as the example to be avoided, and few would now disagree that the Anglo-French betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich was both morally wrong and made the Second World War inevitable.

But Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement was appeasement from weakness. He was forced to bow to German pressure because of his own government’s scandalous neglect of Britain’s defences, especially in the air. But as Churchill, one of Chamberlain’s most outspoken opponent in 1938, always insisted another form of appeasement: appeasement from strength was the ultimate achievement of good leadership. Churchill said this, and believed it, and worked for it in 1919, in 1925, and throughout the first decade of the Cold War. Be strong, and then you can make concessions. As Churchill told the Dominion Prime Ministers gathered in London in 1925: “The aim is to get an appeasement of the fearful hatreds and antagonisms which exist … and to enable the world to settle down.” Churchill went on to explain: “Appeasement from weakness and fear is alike futile and fatal. Appeasement from strength is magnanimous and noble – and might be the surest and perhaps the only path to world peace.”

I leave that thought with Israel’s leaders – of today and tomorrow. And I note that, on the day that I was giving this lecture in Tel Aviv, several hundred young Jewish men and women in Jerusalem were celebrating Jerusalem Day by marching to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, passing the Sheikh Jarrah Mosque and pushing through the Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter waving Israeli flags and calling out “Death to the Arabs, Death to the Leftists. The Temple will be rebuilt. The mosques will be destroyed. Kahane lives. Mohammed is dead.” At the same time as this march, with its crude racism and demonisation of the Israeli left, another gathering was taking place in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter, at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva. Among those present was Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Safed, an advocate of an Israel free of Arabs, and Rabbi Dov Lior of Hebron, who has endorsed a book justifying the killing of Gentiles. The guest of honour at the yeshiva was the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who told the yeshiva students: “I see you as an elite Torah combat unit.” Not swords into ploughshares, but a holy book into swords.

One looks in vain in all the accounts of that day for moderation, conciliation and bridge-building: in sum, for leadership.

Lecture delivered, 1 June 2011, Tel Aviv, by Sir Martin Gilbert

David Miliband referred to this lecture in his remarks at the Sir Martin Gilbert Memorial Lecture on 24 October 2019.

Read more about Churchill, A Life

mg-social-icons-face mg-social-icons-twi mg-social-icons-yt