The ANZACs, Churchill and a Lesson for our Politicians

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This week, millions of people in Australia and New Zealand, joined by more than a few in Britain and Turkey, will pause to mark the centenary of an awful tragedy of war.

Though modern conflicts throw up all manner of horrors, few can compete in terms of the sheer scale of carnage involved with the Allied invasion of Gallipoli, starting on April 25, 1915.

The battle for this Turkish peninsula cost the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers from both sides, particularly during the initial assault. It gave rise to the legend of the ANZACs, an acronym for members of the Australia and New Zealand army corps.

ANZAC Day, to be celebrated again this Saturday, is a prominent marker in Antipodean calendars.

Unravelling the political motivations that lead to a war and the machinations shaping its various campaigns, is hardly ever easy, even with the benefit of hindsight.

In the case of World War 1, the sense of urgency and existential threat that motivated men to fight to the death is not readily relatable a century later. We can, in a consumerist and supposedly “globally conscious” age, find it difficult to connect with the sense of individual duty and patriotic loyalty that led so many to sacrifice everything for “King and country”.

We may also find it hard to comprehend the authoritarian thinking of the political classes, which demanded other men do so under threat of death.

In 1915, Allied high command hoped, through the invasion of Gallipoli, to drive forward into the very heart of the Ottoman Empire, at Constantinople. Instead, their men were cut to ribbons by machine guns and barbed wire.

The immediate aftermath of the battle brought with it fierce recriminations. There were accusations of strategic incompetence among the mostly British high command.

So great was the horror felt by soldiers and public alike, that blame passed right through the ranks to the very top. The British minister who took it upon himself to claim most responsibility was a young Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty.

Not only did he resign his position, he left Parliament and volunteered to work as a war correspondent. He joined the fighting Tommies in the muddy trenches that came to characterise the so-called ‘war to end all wars’.

It was an extraordinary step down for a man in this position at this time. Yet it demonstrated not only a certain depth of character on Churchill’s part, but his recognition of a vital principle of leadership.

It is a principle all too rarely observed in modern life, especially in the hurly-burly of politics. We certainly see little evidence of it in the current British general election campaign.

The principle is, of course, that of personal accountability. Churchill recognized, without being forced to do so, that he had played a key role in planning a strategic debacle and an epic human tragedy.

Arguably, he and others within the high command, as well as generals in the field, had been guilty of trying to fight a war that no longer existed. Along with others, he was guilty of errors of judgement which cost men their lives.

Contrast this with the politics of our own time. In many liberal western democracies, which claim to be among the most enlightened and civilized nations on earth, politics is all too often the art of evasion, spin and finger-pointing.

In the current election campaign, evasion is expressed best in the closely choreographed appearances by party leaders. Heads of major parties are almost never filmed surrounded by anything other than adoring crowds, made up of carefully screened supporters.

At campaign stops, small huddles of admirers and staffers are made to look like tightly-clustered masses, through crowd corralling and tight camera angles. Transparency is almost nowhere to be found. Leaders seem afraid of being forced to connect with real voters.

Of course, many politicos through the ages have resorted to insincerity and fakery to pull in the voters. Yet the modern version seems particularly cynical given the near ubiquitous coverage of politicos by modern media and a growing public impatience with opportunism.

In 2008, The Times published a graph tracking the incidence of certain words within its pages since 1985. A red line marking words like ‘terror’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘jihad’ showed a sharp incline, with a predictable peak in 2011.

Of more interest to me was a line reflecting the use of the word ‘sorry’, especially as spoken by public figures. It showed a steady increase over that time. It seems that British readers, looking into the jaws of a monster recession, had begun to demand greater accountability from their public leaders.

I wonder what that graph would look like today.

Yes, some politicos have admitted to errors made – usually by earlier incarnations of their parties. Labour, for example, admitted shortly before its campaign began, that it could have done more to tackle the deficit when it was last in government. But this was an admission extracted only after prolonged pressure and plunging polls.

The Liberal Democrat leader admitted that he had let down young people, by backing away from his 2010 promise to oppose university fee rises.

For their part, the Tories failed to keep their word on a much-vaunted debate on the status of marriage, something that still rankles with many social conservatives. Whether or not this social change was irresistible is open to argument; the point is they were wrong to back down on a commitment made.

Meanwhile, all the parties in this campaign are making financial promises they likely cannot meet. They certainly are not outlining where the money will come from.

Late-campaign promises are made on the basis of their appeal to swing voters or people in marginal constituencies rather than their true feasibility.

All of this owes more to the philosophy of Dickens’ Artful Dodger than that of political statesmanship.

All of this represents politics by evasion. And it doesn’t end on election night. Once ensconced in government, politicians of all persuasions are likely to continue down the same road.

When mistakes are made, the fault is usually someone else’s. Responsibility is to be evaded, while glory is to be pursued. The higher up the ladder one goes, the more one sees this evasiveness at work.

On the rare occasion that we see a senior government figure tender his or her resignation, the event is usually accompanied by a letter which is prefaced by something like this: ‘Whilst I do not believe that I have done anything wrong…’ or, ‘Whilst I have only ever acted in the interests of the people…’

Of course, it’s not just within politics that accountability is a rare commodity.

Numerous business scandals, mid- and post-recession, have seen corporate heads passing the buck for gross corporate failures and, in some cases, outright misuse of shareholders’ funds.

Evasion always spells the end of constructive engagement with a problem; it leads us down a cyclic path where one problem leads to another. With each excuse we dig a deeper hole for ourselves.

Solving a problem begins with accepting whatever responsibility we can for changing it. Psychiatrists have long argued that a failure to accept personal responsibility for one’s life is a certain road to anxiety and even depression.

If I am merely a victim of the fates, then my decisions do not count. If my decisions mean nothing, I cannot change anything in my life. I am a sure candidate for despair.

Seen in this light, personal accountability is liberating. We should insist on accountability in our political and business leaders, and we should demonstrate it closer to home.

Changing our culture of irresponsibility may not be something we’ll see trickling down from the top of the social tree. It may first require the development of critical mass at grass roots level. Once that mass is achieved, social movements are often born and it is these that bring fundamental change to a society – from the ground up.

If enough of us form the habit of taking reasonable responsibility - and downright insisting that politicos do the same - who knows, we may actually begin to turn from a culture of evasion and mistrust into one of constructive engagement and confidence.

In so doing, we may also indirectly honour those who, like the ANZACs, took responsibility on our behalf.


Also on 2020Plus: Gallipoli - A Personal Tribute



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