On greatness


Just finished reading Robin Harris’ “Not For Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher”, a fine biography from a Thatcher insider, though far from the best historical or political biography I’ve ever read. It did however get me thinking about the nature of greatness and our attitudes to it.

Maggie Thatcher was undoubtedly great in a sense of having a profound and far-reaching effect on her country and to some extent the rest of the world. She reversed the United Kingdom’s post-war slide into economic and international decline and irrelevance; in a sense she made Britain great again, though through completely different methods than those promoted by Trump (free market and free trade versus protectionism and robust foreign policy versus isolationism). She is amongst half a dozen most consequential of British Prime Ministers in history.

We should be wary, however, of confusing “great” with “good”, “nice” or a “hilarious dinner-time companion”. Very few saints walk the Earth, and arguably none through the corridors of power (except perhaps as night cleaners or tea ladies).

Most people can agree about certain moral perimeters – Hitler evil, Jesus good, though even Hitler has got some staunch supporters and Jesus some equally staunch detractors – but it gets complicated through all the much more than fifty shades of grey in between. You can achieve great things while being a shit; you can certainly achieve great things while being complicated. Most if not all historical rulers subsequently called “the Great” stand condemned by today’s standards of morality and behaviour. And the further back into the past we travel, the more difficult it gets to identify with or even really understand our ancestors’ mentality and outlook.

All of us are collections of virtues and vices, good and bad traits. We should learn to acknowledge and respect others’ work without making it conditional on our moral approval, sympathy or the feeling of kinship. Powerful people can be egotistic, temperamental, intolerant, aggressive, impatient, cold, harsh, biting, tedious, selfish, exasperating, quick to anger and to offence, moody, imperious – they can also be the opposite of all these things. We are all flawed. But the test here is not “could I be friends with that person?” I’m not sure if, all other things being equal, I would be friends with or particularly enjoy the company of George Washington, General Patton, Winston Churchill or Margaret Thatcher (and many of my readers will no doubt riposte by saying “and why would Patton, Churchill and Thatcher want to be friends with you?” which is a good point but not relevant to this discussion). It does not matter. We need leaders, not good pals; we want greatness, not perfection.

Disclaimer: nothing above is meant as a defence of Donald Trump since he hasn’t achieved anything yet, apart from winning an election he wasn’t supposed to win.