Greece: the signal that the era of manager-politicians has ended

Blair_ClintonThat headline does not refer to the fact that there is now going to be a tense negotiation between Greece and the powers of the eurozone and, most probably, currency turbulence in Europe. The election which has brought Syriza to power in Athens marks something a little broader: the end of a political phase, a change of mood.

Political periods are not always defined, however much paid-up members of political tribes (or parties) might wish it, by elections and changes of government. We are currently living through a moment of change which is proving hard for political journalists to capture because the people they most frequently talk to are politicians. And it is politicians who neither sense nor understand the shift of feeling about politics.

Those who have tried to describe this have often said that there is a revolt against elites under way. Who could argue that Syriza’s rapid rise in Greece (and the equally extraordinary collapse of Pasok, the once-dominant Greek socialist party) has been driven by resentment of a political class seen as indifferent, corrupt and out of touch? And of course established parties everywhere suffer because living standards have been hit.

But the target of this anger is also a political style: the managerial leader. The end of the Cold War dissolved a framework of political belief based around the rivalry between collective solutions (socialism, communism etc) and those of more liberal, laissez-faire kinds (liberalism, conservatism etc). Politicians then emerged who, confusingly, picked policies from either side. They paid due deference to ideas and principles, but their appeal was not based on them. They found political labels old-fashioned and restricting.

I am capable, they said: trust me to sort out whatever fate throws at us. The poster boys of this new mood were Bill Clinton (US President 1993-2001) and Tony Blair (UK prime minister 1997-2007), pictured above. They were not bloodless technocrats: they marketed themselves as glamorous all-rounders. They had plenty of electoral advantages: they were smart, persuasive, young and they had terrific teeth. But the key was being chief executives with sex appeal. They could and would manage. They sincerely wanted to do good, and in both cases did.

That age, that promise, that has now gone. Despite Syriza’s win from the left and the rise of European parties of the right, I doubt that the next generation of political leaders will much resemble the ideological templates of the past. Protest against elites is always intoxicating but rarely lasts. But, despite the current fascination with the great fixer of the Tudor age Thomas Cromwell, the balance between managers and idealists has shifted back towards the appeal of ideals. The politicians who define the next phase of politics have to find a new answer to the old question of how to define and provide for the public good. Offering competence shorn of ideas is no longer enough.

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