It is the best of times in the worst of times. Coronavirus has brought massive popularity surges to all world leaders with, unlikely as it may seem, Boris Johnson topping the wave with a 25-point increase in his popularity (could it be related to his recent absence?).
The Conservative Government is also experiencing a huge uptick, with more than seven in 10 satisfied with them, an approval rating not seen since the early days of the Tony Blair administration in 1997, which some readers may find painful to recall. The only thing Johnson has to worry about is that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is even more popular than him.
Of course, you have to trust in the veracity of opinion polls, and the most recent may not properly reflect the apparent dismay over how the Tories have handled dealing with the virus. Still, they indicate a huge lead over Labour – above 50% to below 30% – with Scottish Labour on 14% disappearing up its own fundamental differences.
Nicola Sturgeon is also a beneficiary of the disease. By all unjaundiced accounts she has been mightily impressive in the way she has spoken about and administered the crisis. This is reflected in the latest poll which projects the SNP – despite the Alex Salmond trial and the internal factional war – taking 70 Holyrood seats in next May’s election, assuming there is one. That would be one more than they managed in their historic 2011 victory.
But, of course, history is marked by numerous examples of leaders and governments which looked unassailable only to plummet to ignominy. As the old saw has it, all political careers end in failure.
Going all the way back, the earliest example is when an amorous couple, indeed the only couple, leaders and led, were undone over an incident with a snake and an apple. A millennium and a bit later, in 1631, the new King James Bible was printed with one crucial omission, probably down to the fact that most of the staff were illiterate. A crucial commandment read: “Thous shalt commit adultery.” Which many believers and none have adhered to down the ages, marked by the divorce rates and the unplanned additions to the population.
Genghis Khan, possibly the greatest military and political leader in history, conquered most of the known world in the 12th century. Modern countries which now form part of what was then the Mongol empire contain around three billion of the world’s seven billion people. Genghis even managed to conquer Russia – something Napoleon and Hitler failed to do.
However, when Genghis turned to eliminating the rebellious Tanguts back at home it all went wrong. He won on the battlefield, eliminated them all, but when he tried to rape the wife of the last dead Tangut prince she whipped out a dagger from her hair and castrated him. He died of blood loss and she committed suicide by diving into the Yellow River, since known as the River of the Princess.
Napoleon, who seized power after the French Revolution, managed to reunite and rebuild his country. He laid the foundation of what is modern French education, he brought in land reform and contemporary methods of farming and he reformed the tax system, but it was a gigantic, hubristic misstep to invade Russia. The same one made more than 200 years later by Hitler.
In Britain, at the start of the 20th century, the Liberal party was hegemonic. In the 1906 General Election, under the genius of David Lloyd George, the party returned 400 MPs. But it split over the First World War and conscription, Lloyd George effectively championing the division, resulting in a slide into (apart from the odd moment in the sun) general irrelevance ever since.
The Second World War was a triumph for Churchill, the greatest contemporary military leader, as it was a disaster prior to it for Neville Chamberlain. But when the victorious troops came home to the slums, poverty and unemployment they voted Churchill out. His successor, Anthony Eden in 1956, made the disastrous mistake of joining with the French and Israelis in invading Egypt.
The next Tory in line, Harold Macmillan, didn’t so much suffer from the winds of change he championed but the gales of opprobrium from fervid goings-on behind bedroom doors of his adulterous minister of war Gerald Profumo (clearly cleaving to the advice of that early bible) with Christine Keeler and then lying about it to Parliament. Not that SuperMac was overly concerned – his wife Dorothy was banjoing the bedposts with Bob Boothby for years.
Another Tory Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who was responsible, like it or not, for the greatest changes in politics and British life in the 20th century, was triumphant after invading and recapturing the Falkland Islands in 1982 – “Rejoice”, she declaimed on the steps of Number 10 – but was fatally wounded by the poll tax and the revolt of some of her closest circle. She left Downing Street after 11 years, choking on tears.
In 1997, Tony Blair and New Labour swept to power with a staggering overall majority of 179 seats. However, his support for the war on Iraq, in the teeth of mass protest, led to a massive haemorrhaging of support, resulting in him handing over to Gordon Brown in 2007 in a deal that had been brokered in an Islington restaurant 13 years previously after the death of Labour’s previous leader, John Smith.
Brown’s popularity in a brief, three-year premiership soared over his handling of the 2007 foot-and-mouth crisis (you had to be there to know why, but it seemed to involve eliminating a lot of suspects) but was in the doldrums four months later when he ducked a General Election, and although he was praised for saving the banks in the £500 billion bailout in 2008, he never recovered and lost to the Tories in 2010. He and his wife, Sarah, left Downing Street dragging two kids between them, presumably heading for the Westminster underground to oblivion.
This, of course, paved the way for first David Cameron, and then Theresa May, both destroyed by Brexit, or their absolute incompetence. Let’s move on.
The United States has experienced a similar pattern of rise and fall. Lyndon Baines Johnson – “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?” – inherited the presidency from the assassinated John F Kennedy. He was a great civil rights reformer, but was humiliated and destroyed by the Vietnam war. The most powerful economic and military force in the world believed its power was unassailable but didn’t bother considering wither the enemy shared the same view, or letting them know.
Richard Nixon, who succeeded him, brokered a historic breakthrough with China, but lied compulsively about the break-in to the Watergate offices of the Democratic Party and tried to use the government institutions to shut the investigation down. Unfortunately, he forget that his offices were wired and the recordings of his salty confessions convicted him publicly, only for his Republican successor Gerald Ford to pardon him of any crimes he may, almost certainly did, commit.
History is as much about failure as success, perhaps more so because the latter leads to the former ineluctably. Without the French Revolution and the carelessly iniquitous behaviour of the aristocracy their heads might be intact today, and it certainly wouldn’t have paved the bloody way for talent. Napoleon would have not have arisen and the Duke of Wellington would surely not even be famous for waterproof footwear.
If the Tsarist regime in Russia hadn’t butchered peasants for centuries it would not have collapsed, and an impoverished bearded exile called Vladimir Lenin wouldn’t even be a footnote in history, never mind returning on a train to propel his minuscule Bolshevik party to power for the next 70 years. Also, his beard wouldn’t have become a fashion icon.
Failure has never better expressed, as success in disguise, than by my favourite US sage, the late Dick Tuck. He was a political prankster who, among his many coups, hired a train with one of those viewing platforms at the back for a Nixon speech to a big crowd. And when the then candidate started to speak he waved it out of the station. He also hired a pregnant black woman to wander about Nixon’s campaign rallies wearing a T-shirt saying “Nixon’s the one”, the campaign slogan with a different message.
In 1966, Tuck stood as a Democrat for the California Senate. He lost. In his concession speech he defined history: “The people have spoken, the bastards.” You can’t be more succinct. Boris and Nicola should take heed.