Collections of this type are always something of a challenge to review: taken singly, the essays are well-written meditations on a biography or memoir of a major political figure; presented together as reflections on the nature of personality and what they reveal about the limits of power renders them irksome. The introduction, which claims that “once we can understand the character of a person, we can follow that character behind the curtain and get to see what is really there”, writes a cheque that the essays cannot cash, because Runciman is not familiar with the character of the people he is writing about – he is familiar with books written about and by them.
Even so, Runciman is always worth reading. Almost alone among political scientists, he has an enviable ability to dissect personality as well as process. He understands how politics works, even when his subjects don’t understand it themselves. He shows, for example, how Gordon Brown’s personal mythology, in which he cast himself as the upright son of the manse, for a long time obscured the fact that he was an intensely competitive political animal who employed hard bastards like Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride to do his dirty work. Similarly, he has great fun with Tony Blair, whose obsession with developing a grandiose, ‘holistic’ world-view led him into the chaos of Afghanistan and Iraq. And few other politics professors would think to point up the parallels between Donald Trump and The Office’s David Brent, not just in the two men’s ‘knee-jerk nastiness’ but also in their fleeting moments of pathos.
Ultimately, the book fails as a dissection of impotence. The author is an unforgiving critic — there are no heroes in these pages — but nevertheless does not display enough failure to sustain a theory... But this is a niggle in what is otherwise a fantastic read. Furthermore, readers have the benefit of hindsight to judge essays that were written over 10 years. Our standards have shifted in that time. Now, the impotence these politicians felt looks more like a noble failure of high expectations.
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... David Runciman sets out his answer in punchy essays on a mix of presidents, prime ministers and one failed candidate... 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... 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.
In this age of obfuscation, Runciman's weekly podcast "Talking Politics" has become my go-to source of thoughtful reflection on current affairs. In this illuminating book, he tackles the limitations of high office and looks at how the characters and histories of those who have achieved it defined their successes and failures while in power. Among those whose leadership styles he scrutinises are Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, Theresa May and Donald Trump, providing us with a potential blueprint for the kind of good leadership we are currently sorely lacking.