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Leadership issues

Published on December 11th, 2011 | by Jonathan Gifford

Cameron’s EU stance shows (dangerously) decisive leadership

Whatever you may think about the politics of David Cameron’s decision to play the ‘no’ card at the European Union summit by vetoing moves to use the current European treaty to endorse greater fiscal unity of the eurozone nations, that decisive moment has had one undeniable effect: Cameron’s leadership credentials have suddenly received a massive boost.

It is far from clear whether the decision was even politically wise: he has delighted the Eurosceptic wing of his party, but put further strain on the relationship with his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, and handed the Labour opposition a golden opportunity to blame just about anything that goes wrong in Britain’s relationship with Europe for the next several years on Mr Cameron. His coalition government may fall, in time, as a result of this decision. The anti-Euro wing of the party, scenting European blood, may run amok and wreak political havoc, creating who knows what seismic shifts in the UK’s political landscape.

That most terrifying of leadership decisions – a brave one
Cameron’s lone decision has without doubt removed Britain from ‘the heart’ of Europe (if she was ever anywhere near this vital organ, which is doubtful: Britain has never been a fully signed-up member of the Franco-German vision of Europe). It has raised the spectre of the dreaded ‘two-speed’ Europe, with Britain stuck, as you will have guessed, in the slow lane; outside the debating chamber; left on the sidelines – select your own favourite metaphor.

From a leadership perspective, none of this matters. Cameron has taken his first steps towards a place in history as a leader of note. His decision was that most terrifying of all leadership decisions: a brave one.
There are some very imaginable scenarios in which Cameron’s decision is seen as having been so disastrous that Britain is forced to go back to Europe, cap in hand, say sorry, and ask if we might be allowed to carry President Sarkozy’s and Angela Merkel’s bags for a decade or so until they decide to be even a little bit nice to us again – in which case Cameron will be obliged (or forced) to step down and let somebody else do the grovelling. I’m not suggesting that this is likely scenario, but it is one possible outcome of decisions as brave as this one.

Even the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, thought that Cameron’s threat to use Britain’s veto was a bluff: as he says, “few – including, I ought to say, me – believed that he’d actually do it”.

Up yours, Delors!
This is the point. Cameron, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, has demonstrated that he has the bottle to be decisive, and the guts to be unpopular. In fact, ‘unpopular’ is too weak a word to describe what Cameron and the country he leads now are in most of Europe: ‘Does the UK still have a place in Europe?’ asks Le Figaro, one assumes rhetorically. ‘Auf Wiedersehen, England!’ says Spiegel Online, with a discernible smirk. President Sarkozy insultingly ignores Cameron’s tentatively extended hand of greeting on the morning after the fateful veto.

Well, ‘Up yours Delors!’ as The Sun newspaper’s famous headline said in 1990 of another ‘Froggie Common Market chief’ (their words, I assure you). If there’s one thing most Brits can unite behind, it’s having our leaders snubbed by foreign leaders who don’t understand exactly how special and important we are – an experience that is likely to become increasingly familiar, especially in the wake of Mr Cameron’s brave decision.

Nevertheless, what is it that we actually want from leaders? Decisiveness; knowing where they stand.

Do we want them to be popular? Not necessarily; in fact, we rather like being able to grumble about a leader’s tough decisions while admitting, grudgingly, that they might be right after all. And of course their decisiveness means that we can blame every thing on them if it all goes wrong.

Does history remember the uncontroversial leaders; the jolly nice ones; the well-meaning compromisers? It does not.

European leaders may now choose to despise David Cameron, but they cannot ignore him. Some countries, facing the drastic measures required to be part of the increasingly regulated and centralised European may even chose to join Britain in its new semi-detached (or just plain detached) relationship with Europe as the champion of a more lightly regulated, ‘Anglo-Saxon’, free-market approach.

Mr Cameron has taken a bold step towards becoming a leader of note. Commentators will argue about the political wisdom of what he done for the next decade or so. This is exactly my point: since his decisive moment, Cameron, come what may, has become a leader to be reckoned with.

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About the Author

I write and blog about the human aspects of business and leadership, with an interest in the lessons that we can learn from history, including recent history. Please do leave a comment if anything occurs. You can sign up for my occasional newsletter, highlighting some recent blogs. I live in Oxfordshire, England.

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