Tuesday, 22 January 2013

When doing nothing achieves so much more

It isn’t always what politicians do that marks them out as special, it’s what they don’t do.

Take the case of Britain, for instance, where our revered government – well, government – does or says very little that redounds to its credit or anyone else’s benefit. I long for them to do nothing, because that’s when do least harm.

In the past, others have chalked up positive achievements by the things they didn’t do. It’s always struck me, for instance, that Churchill’s greatest contribution to Western civilisation came in a negative sentence of just four words: ‘We shall never surrender.’ At the time, the possibility of surrender to Nazi Germany was being actively canvassed at the highest levels, most notably by the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax. Churchill’s determination to close that avenue strengthened the will of Britain as a whole to keep up the fight.

Did the right thing by not doing the wrong one

Now Britain didn’t win the Second World War: that’s an achievement for which a larger share of the credit must go to the US and the lion’s share to the Soviet Union, with its 20 million dead. But it would have been far harder to rid the world of Nazism had Britain not kept the war in the west going long enough for the US to join and help take the pressure off the Soviets.

Curiously, that refusal to surrender echoes the attitude of another remarkable leader over a century and a half earlier, although in his case he wasn’t strengthening but opposing Britain (despite being British himself).

George Washington doesn’t enjoy a particularly illustrious reputation as a soldier. Certainly, he displayed an extraordinary degree of personal courage: he was famous for his coolness under fire, happy to ride among his men in combat, despite being strikingly tall and therefore a tempting target. Nor did he shirk many fights, tending rather to get stuck in even when the odds or the conditions were decidedly against him. The result is that he fought a lot of splendid battles but didn’t win many.

What he did, on the other hand, is refuse to lie down and admit himself beaten. After each defeat he would simply withdraw and regroup, ready to fight again. Eventually, worn down by that appallingly unsporting behaviour, made all the worse by a little help from the French, the British decided they’d had enough, and rather than miss yet another London season, did the gentlemanly thing and surrendered, since he clearly never would.

So what he didn’t do was far more significant than what he did.

But the really key thing he didn’t do came later in his life. Massively popular, in a new nation containing a large current of opinion that would willingly have made him King, he reached the end of his second administration and, instead of standing again for a third term he would certainly have won, he stood down.

Now that really was remarkable. He was a military man, after all. The mere fact that he might not have been particularly effective in war was neither here nor there: armies often achieve their most striking, though not necessarily most glorious, successes against their own people – just ask the Pakistanis or the Burmese.

Knew when to hang on – and when not to
He could have clung to power as, in his time, happened everywhere else around the world, but he chose to give it up. Nothing in his political life became him like the leaving it.

David Cameron: are you listening?

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