Where Power Stops: politicians and the limits of power

From Nine To Noon, 10:09 am on 1 November 2019

In Where Power Stops, professor of politics at Cambridge University, David Runciman looks at the extent to which character has defined and limited the power of recent leaders in the UK and America.

Prof Runciman is the author of six previous books, including How Democracy Ends and hosts the widely acclaimed weekly podcast Talking Politics.

US President Donald Trump speaks to the press as he departs the White House in Washington, DC, for his annual visit to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, on October 4, 2019.

Photo: AFP

He told Kathryn Ryan, in Donald trump, we are seeing a very different kind of politician.

“Yes, I think he is different from all the others. I mean, people argue a lot about whether Donald Trump is a new phase in our politics, I think he probably is in the politics of democracies in the West. It’s partly because everyone else that I write about, they're frustrated by the limits, they push against them, they do what they can to get around them, but they don't ignore them. And there is with Trump this feeling that, in his mind, these limits don't exist.

"And then when he does encounter them, when institutions stop him doing what he wants to do, he sees it as a conspiracy. And again, all the other leaders that I write about, they've all had moments, I think, where they thought the deep state or the civil service or the bureaucrats were out to stop them. But for Trump, it's his governing philosophy. If he doesn't get his way, then the state is conspiring against him -and that I think, is new.”

And Trump has pushed the constitution and political conventions to their limits, Prof Runciman says.

“When you look at the real story behind the presidency, I start with Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson was, in many ways a pretty terrible man. And he did some pretty awful things. And he exploited that office and he broke some of the rules.

“But he did it secretly and slightly ashamedly, and he tried to behave in public in the way that he thought the office required.

“The difference with Trump is it's all laid bare. So, all presidents and prime ministers at various points, do things that they wouldn't want people to see. Trump does those things, and he wants people to see and I think that's the big difference.”

Boris Johnson in the UK, Prof Runciman says, is doing similar things, testing the UK’s unwritten constitution to its limits.

“There's the bit of him that wants to be Margaret Thatcher, and there's a bit of him that wants to be Donald Trump. And Margaret Thatcher, for all her unusualness as a politician, was also a very conventional politician, and she absolutely did play by the rules.

“If he's going to be Trump, then it's very different. And his main advisor at the moment, Dominic Cummings, is definitely pushing the Trump line.

“And he has tested the conventions, he hasn't broken our politics because we're about to have an election, but in the last few months … we've pushed right to the limits of what our constitution can stand, I think, and we are in uncharted waters in that respect.

“The difference, of course, in our country is that we don't have a constitution that's written down anywhere. So, we're not totally sure what it is. And that also makes it more precarious I think.”

Prof Runciman says we’re are now in an era of “movement politics” albeit framed within a party system.

“It is one of the striking features of Trump, that he won the presidency by running against both the main parties, and he was the Republican candidate, and he wouldn't have won as an independent, but his campaign was against the entire political establishment, including his own party.”

Johnson has again followed Trump in this regard, he says.

“We're at this weird point where, particularly I think in two party systems, the parties are breaking down, but there's no way to win an election without being at the head of one of the main parties.

“I mean, there are still in the British case only two possible Prime Minister's - Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn - even though they're two of the most unpopular politicians we've ever had. And so, in that context, it's kind of movement politics without getting free of the party.”

Boris Johnson acknowledges the applause from  members of his cabinet as he leaves after delivering his keynote speech on the final day of the annual Conservative Party conference.

Boris Johnson Photo: AFP

Although democracy in the west is in a precarious state, Prof Runciman does not believe analogies with the rise of Facism in the 1930s are correct – he believes our present era more resembles the 19th century.

The end of the 19th century was the last great age of populism in Britain, France and America, he says.

“It was a time of technological revolution; electricity, transportation and so on, a time of great inequality, the Gilded Age, the people who captured the wealth of the great technology revolution were then unbelievably rich and seemed powerful and untouchable, deep suspicion of banks and Wall Street, of the city of London, rising suspicion of foreigners, racism, anti-semitism. It has those echoes to me of a populist age, not of a proto-fascist age.

“But if we're remote from the 1930s, were even more remote from the 1890s. I mean, those were societies with very, very little education, no welfare states and so on.

“So my argument is really actually I think a lot of the historical comparisons don't work and we're tempted into them because we want to think of something familiar.

“Our democracies are in trouble in new ways, actually, and I think if they're going to go wrong, going to get stuck, we should be open to the thought that it might not be like the past, it might be our own particular kind of failure, we might be living through that now.  It's not fascism, it’s something else.”

His book looks at political figures through the ages who have come up against the limits of power – hence his fascination with Lyndon Johnson.

“Part of the reason I'm interested in him is he's the subject of really the great modern political biography, which is Robert Caro's four volume Life of Lyndon Johnson, which the politicians that I meet often say, this is their favourite book about politics.”

President Johnson greeting child Clem Thorn among the crowd at Wellington Airport in 1966.

President Johnson greeting child Clem Thorn among the crowd at Wellington Airport in 1966. Photo: Ref: EP/1966/4545-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23083703

Politicians love it, he says, because Caro’s picture is of a deeply flawed man who’s finer qualities were unleashed once he had gained the presidency.

But he believes that is a myth which misses the point about Johnson.

“We'd like to believe there's a core part of ourselves, the good part, that if we had real power we could do good, but it's a myth, I think, and my book argues that's myth-making about power.

“And it's true in Johnson's case, I don't think when he finally became president, the good Johnson came out because he was pretty monstrous as president too, he was interested in power. But he uniquely knew how to operate the levers of power, the limited power that he had as president, he made the absolute most of it.

“And in a way, that's the lesson, but he's very, very rare. And he was rare, not least in his own lifetime that each time he arrived at a point of power; running the senate before he became president, he actually found ways of exercising power that other politicians would miss.”

Margaret Thatcher is also examined in his book, a conviction politician who he says was also pragmatic when she had to be.

“One of the questions for Boris Johnson is does he really want to be Margaret Thatcher? I think one of the things about Margaret Thatcher is that she was pretty pragmatic."

Her timing on when to take on the Miner’s Union in the UK is a case in point, he says.

“She delayed the big battle because she judged first time around, she would lose it. And she compromised on her fundamental beliefs in doing that. But when she finally fought the big fights she was all in.

“And there's a bit of that with Boris Johnson, I think less of the pragmatism, but one thing that people I think have been struck by with his prime ministership is having made his choice, the Cummings choice, he's gambled everything on it. And that is quite Margaret Thatcher.”

Although Prof Runciman suspects Thatcher was a shrewder politician than Boris Johnson.

“She did avoid the [fights] that she thought she couldn't win. And that's the mark, I think, of a great politician.”