The Problem with Political Leaders

This week marks the 100th anniversary of one of the most influential lectures ever given on politics: Max Weber's 'Politics as a Vocation', first delivered in Munich on 28 January 1919. David and Helen talk with Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's former chief of staff, about some of its lessons for the age of Brexit. Where have all the good leaders gone? Is the party system to blame? Are we suffering from an excess of conviction or a lack of conviction? And who will be responsible if we see a return to violence? Recorded before a live audience at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Talking Points:

The British two-party system, which Weber admired, was intended to organize political divisions; however the plebiscitary politics of the Brexit referendum introduced another set of divisions.

  • Divisions over Brexit cut across the parties.
  • This demonstrates the danger of mixing different types of politics. Another problem is that the UK is a multinational state.

Is the current failure of leadership about the leaders we have chosen or the dilemmas they face?

  • Right now, there doesn’t seem to be an opposition that is ready to take over. Does this suggest the need for a new party, or parties?
  • In many ways, Tony Blair represented Weber’s ideal of charismatic leadership. But he also discredited that model for many people.
  • Regardless of what you think of May or Corbyn, it’s clear that neither of them is in it for the money.
  • May and Corbyn are a generational step back; right now, there aren’t any new leaders emerging.

When Weber wrote his lecture, the stakes of politics were remarkably high—there was a real risk of civil war.

  • In a world in which large-scale violence is unlikely, is charismatic leadership still the answer?

Mentioned in this episode:

Further Learning:

And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here:


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