I was on my way back from Culdaff, Co Donegal yesterday when I heard a BBC Radio 4 profile of Yvette Cooper. She’s the wife of the unfortunately-named Ed Balls and by all accounts she’s sharper than several whips. She’s now Britain’s shadow Foreign Secretary, and the only thing that held her back from running for the leadership of the Labour Party was that hubby Ed was alreadyrunning and she’s got three young children. (So has hubby Ed, of course – the same three children - ach sin sceal eile).
As I listened, I found myself thinking about leadership. For example, anyone who gets appointed to a cabinet post – Minister of Education, Minister of Finance, Minister of Regional - is deemed to be suited to that post, capable of leading. When Martin McGuinness became Minister of Education, I remember a secretary in the University of Ulster telling me with some force that she had as much or more right to be Education Minister than Martin McGuinness, since she had more qualifications than he had. Similarly, when the SDLP’s Sean Farren became Minister of Finance, I sucked in my breath and bit my tongue. Sean had been for many years a colleague of mine in the University, where he’d taught – no, not economics or finance - English. When I asked him how tough it was, in there with all the money, and him a literary rather than an economics man, he told me it was OK. “You’ve got lots of other people in there to guide you”.
Martin McGuinness did a good job at the Department of Education, taking the Eleven Plus by the throat and bringing it to its knees, something funked by predecessors for decades. Sean Farren did OK in the Finance post - at least he wasn’t in charge when the financial meltdown we’re all now living through occurred. So what do you need to lead?
Well, you don’t need to be an expert in the area. If that were the case, Martin and Sean would never have been appointed and Cabinet reshuffles would be the height of absurdity. You need courage and intelligence and judgement, and the ability to hold your nerve in tough times. If you’re going to be a truly useful leader, you need to have a vision of where you’d like to take things and some practical thoughts on how to get there. And there are people who, looking inept when appointed, look great when they get their feet; and, of course, vice versa. Remember how excited so many Americans were with Barack Obama when he was first appointed President two years ago, and note how many are contemptuous of him now.
All this, mind you, ignores the Peter Principle. You know about the PP: people get promoted to their level of incompetence. If you were really good at your present job, you’d be moved to something higher. The fact that you’re staying put means you’ve reached the point where you’re not very good at what you do.
An example? Poor Tom Elliott, freshly-anointed leader of the UUP. With every word he speaks, he shows he’s out of his depth and insensitive to public opinion. But then that applies as well to the party he’s failing to lead.