"Stop all the clocks"
posted by k
Auden's poem "Funeral Blues" became famous when it was read, very movingly, by actor John Hannah in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Few people know that Auden wrote it in collaboration with the composer Benjamin Britten, who provided a parodic and exaggerated blues accompaniment so that it could be a cabaret song for Hedli Anderson. Fewer still know that a version the song first appeared in the obscure Auden/Isherwood play, The Ascent of F6, where it was used as the mock-elegy for a politician. It wasn't meant to be taken seriously although, as with all the best parodies, there's an undercurrent of serious feeling at odds with the mockery.
One of the subjects of The Ascent of F6 is the way people desire leaders and heroes who will tell them what to do. This was an urgent question in the 1930s with fascism on the rise throughout Europe and elsewhere.
As many on the right admired the "strong leaders", Hitler and Mussolini, some of those on the left idolised "Uncle Joe" Stalin. Leadership was in vogue; in a late 1930s essay, Cecil Day Lewis urged communists to follow the urgings of D.H. Lawrence in Aaron's Rod and promote "the will to obey".
History doesn't entirely repeat itself. However, it offers lessons. One lesson must be the duty of citizens to mistrust their leaders. But it's a lesson that hasn't sunk in. "Leadership" remains a popular ideal. The National College for School Leadership trains its members to inspire children, but is rather vague about what the results of that inspiration will be. The search for "role-models" has become a craze. I'd choose the fallibly human over the role model any time. Friendship is a better model for society than slavish obedience.
The desire for leaders is creeping into mainstream political debate. The "citizens' forum" set up by Downing Street - a typically phoney attempt to achieve endorsement of political aims by a carefully guided focus group - led a participant to make the widely quoted statement that "we really believed that rather than the local people getting involved too much it was about getting the right leaders in place". And while the recent Commons debate on reform of the House of Lords resulted in the largest majority for a 100% elected second chamber, a call for a wholly appointed House of Lords was led by ex-Liberal leader David Steel.
Of course, there's something attractive about having a strong leader. It makes us feel safe and comfortable. It's like being a child again. But it's not safe and citizens should be grown-up human beings, ready to think and work and participate in their own democratic processes.
As talk about leadership continues, I want to think about how democracy can be advanced and extended - how people can have power in the processes that control and organise their lives. Even Members of Parliament don't have much power. That vote on the House of Lords didn't decide anything - it was purely advisory. And the involvement of 60 citizens in a focus group at Downing Street seems a pretty poor substitute for an election and public debate.