Opinion Articles

‘Boring’? Transformative leaders and government: the perspective of modern British history

  • RSS Feed Icon

It is widely agreed that in 2024 the UK needs not just a government of change but a truly transformative leadership that changes our institutions, our economy and our political and civic culture. 

What, then, is a transformative leader and government? The modern democratic period of our history is not yet a century old (not until 1928 did all women have the franchise at age 21 on the same basis as all men) but in peacetime we have had two truly transformative leaders and their governments. What do these two episodes tell us about transformational leadership?

The first was Clement Attlee, leader of the postwar socialist Labour government, 1945-51, which created the modern welfare state and in so doing completely re-structured the social contract between the state and its citizens and their expectations of the collective support they and their families could receive from public services. To the eternal frustration of right-wing Conservatives, the British electorate remains to this day stubbornly in favour of its flagship achievement, the free health care principles of the NHS. The second  epochal transformer was the textbook reactionary, Margaret Thatcher, leader of the privatizing Conservative government, 1979-90, which did its utmost to return British society to a land of Victorian values: a free market society of self-reliant acquisitive consumerists and competitive, thrusting businessmen (she was no feminist).    

In both cases the personal transformative powers of these two leaders were not at all self-evident to the public or to the contemporary media in the years before or even immediately after they became Prime Minister. Attlee’s personality was famously summed up by Winston Churchill, even a year into his premiership in 1946, as a modest man with much to be modest about. Mrs Thatcher was considered a rather shrill leader of the opposition before she became a Prime Minister; hardly the charismatic idol her worshippers now treat her in memory. She succeeded only in tripling an already-unacceptable level of over one million unemployed in her first years in office and the polls strongly indicated in 1982 that she was headed for the dustbin of history. It was  President Galtieri of Argentina who provided her in that year with the opportunity to transform herself into a victorious war-leader, giving her the two further terms of office to lead her neo-liberal government’s transformation of British society into an OECD leader in inequality and child-poverty, two classic Victorian values. The promise of a ‘Victorian’ world-leading economy however, has never arrived.

The only consistent critique of Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s candidate to provide the much-needed  transformative Prime Ministerial leadership, is that he is ‘boring’, though it is also agreed that its hard to argue with the proposition that he is ‘competent’. This rather reminds historians of the character traits of Mr Attlee.

An historical perspective on the judgement of what constitutes a ‘transformational’ political leader in the British democratic system indicates therefore that it is foolish and simplistic to suppose that this reads-off from their personal demeanour or degree of  ‘charisma’, to give that rather over-used, under-powered word an outing.  It is also a crashingly-obvious historicist point: that the judgment of a premier’s transformational power is, necessarily, always a retrospective one. Only afterwards can we say, with any validity, whether a particular leader and their government transformed British society and its economy and polity. Pundits over the coming weeks may bandy the word around and use it - or deny it – of the current candidates for the job, but that merely represents those pundits’ pure guesses. They cannot know. Neither can we, the electors.

We have to make our best guess that we will get what we want. However, it has to be acknowledged the choice to be made between the two principal job applicants is not a symmetrical one. We already know a lot about Mr Sunak and his party’s government because they have been showing us what they can do for the last 14 years and he has been showing us that for the last 4, since he was made Chancellor of the Exchequer. Whatever it is, it is not transformational in the positive sense of that word. If the electorate truly wants to transform our society and economy, it is rather obvious that re-electing the government and the leader that has been presiding over the situation that we now believe we desperately need to change is not the answer. This is hardly a party-political debating point.

An historical perspective, then, tells us that to experience a transformational government, it is not necessary that they be led by a Prime Ministerial personality that fits the conventional cartoon-like definition of a ‘transformational leader’ (and look at where many of those fitting the bill have led their societies, as Charlie Chaplin, a man brimming with charisma himself, was all too keenly aware when he released The Great Dictator in 1940).  The two major examples in British democratic history indicate that transformative projects do need to be well-equipped with new ideas and big policies, as Labour were in 1945 with Keynesianism and Beveridge; while Mrs Thatcher had her Hayekian bible and Friedman’s monetarism. But in each case the transformational leaders and their governments emerged by demonstrating they were politically effective, ie competent change-makers and communicators - taking their citizens with them. In responding successfully to a crisis perception in the electorate this is what legitimates a government that embarks on  a course of profound change of direction from the norms and consensus of the previous 3-4 decades. That is what happened in 1945-51 and again in 1979-90 - from opposite ends of the political and ideological spectrum.

That perception of crisis is certainly here in 2024 and few would dispute that there is an overwhelming need for profound and sweeping change: from the under-staffed schools and potholed roads to the waiting lists for dentistry and health care and the failed experiments with private water utilities and railways (not even USA followed the UK government in that privatisation). And in addition to this the need for a really BIG PLAN for the climate crisis that is now unquestionably upon us and also for taking control of AI before it takes control of us. There are in fact a surfeit of new big ideas and policies that are radical alternatives to the free market and de-regulation orthodoxy of the last 45 years, which has brought us to the present critical pass. Thomas Piketty, Marianna Mazzucato, Kate Raworth, George Monbiot are examples. A transformative government will need to choose from among these big thinkers and create the transformational institutional change their ideas require to create new norms and realities and buy-in from the electorate.

Whether Keir Starmer and his future administration, should they be elected, really are the transformational government we need, will emerge over the course of the next 5-10 years, if they are given the chance. Only by the time of the next election at the end of this decade, will there be genuine reason and evidence for any of his supporters to start to argue that Starmer’s government deserves the epithet of transformative - or for his detractors to deny that. He will not be deemed to have been truly transformational by historians for at least a further decade or two after that. And it will be nothing to do with whether or not he was considered ‘boring’ back in 2024.    

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

Related Opinion Articles



Papers By Author

Papers by Theme


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

To complete the subscription process, please click the link in the email we just sent you.

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More