This is a book for our moment, although it comes from essays written over many years. It asks whether history is made by the chance and will of individuals, or whether it is shaped by greater forces under no leader’s control. This is the question which confronts us now about Brexit: is it the product of accidental decisions by those such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson, or the result of deeper economic and social unhappiness in our society? In short, are our leaders the cause or the symptom? Can you cure it by switching leaders or will it take something more?
David Runciman sets out his answer in punchy essays on a mix of presidents, prime ministers and one failed candidate. We can guess what he thinks because his focus is people: they make power and they lose power and the way in which they do it shapes politics. Runciman has no time for the big-forces school of history and he isn’t taken with leaders who think they stand for some deep, intellectual view of the world.
He is tough on Tony Blair — “that preacher on a tank”, as he quotes Dick Cheney saying — and unfashionably hard on Barack Obama too. Politics isn’t about dreaming and he warms to politicians who don’t dream — or at least to those who only pretend to have big ideas. He is kind about the Alaskan prototype populist Sarah Palin because she doesn’t try to be a philosopher.
Runciman, a professor of politics at Cambridge and host of a successful podcast, Talking Politics, writes with such easy, witty fluency that it is only half a disappointment to discover that he was, as his style suggests, at Eton at the same time as David Cameron. You can imagine Runicman doing just as well as his contemporary at PMQs. He can be very funny. “One of the minor disappointments about President Obama was that he played golf,” he says. About Gordon Brown’s ghastly books he observes that “even Gladstone and Disraeli would have been impressed by the industry, though presumably a little embarrassed by the quality”.
“Really someone should go around removing those objects from Chequers before the more impressionable prime ministers move in,” he notes when Tony Blair recalls finding yet another memento from Neville Chamberlain’s years facing Hitler to inspire him.
In the hands of a weaker writer, some of these chapters would be not much more than worthy Wikipedia entries — and the chapter on Theresa May is already heavy going — but mostly, Runciman makes it sing. He’s open too about borrowing a lot from other sources, even if he does depend too much on Tom Bower to ram home his point about Blair: “the mystic, the fool, the sofa politician, the neocon”.
All of which leads to the chapter in the book you want to read but which isn’t there, yet — the one on Boris Johnson. He is, surely, alongside Donald Trump, the ultimate test of whether a chancer with a strong personality can shape the future in a way Blair’s endless fretting about delivery units and measurement, and Obama’s zen-intellectualism, failed to do.
Where power stops, Runciman implies, is when politicians get tired of making up the magic — “the impermanence of importance”, as he quotes an Obama aide in his memoirs. “When they go low, we go high,” he also quotes Michelle Obama saying — which is beautiful and uplifting, but as Runciman does not need to add, in politics it is going low that seems to win.
Where Power Stops by David Runciman (Profile, £14.99), buy it here.