16 March 1990 - 18 March 1990

The Emergence and Exercise of Democratic Political Leadership

Chair: Professor Wm. Roger Louis

This conference was the second in a planned series of joint conferences with the University of Texas at Austin who were our kind hosts for the occasion. Our meetings were held in the magnificent Lyndon B Johnson Library in Austin.

We set out to consider the ways in which, in various countries of Western Europe and North America, political leaders are chosen, the role in those processes of political parties, the media, and money, the relationships between the executives and the legislatures and between the political leadership and the civil or public services. As the opening speaker reminded us, these are not academic issues: to-day the countries of Eastern Europe are struggling to create democratic institutions and to produce leaders and are eager for advice.

It would be impossible in a brief note to summarise the full course of the very wide-ranging discussions. A few conclusions however seemed to emerge. First, given the wide variety of systems and practice even within the five countries represented, there seemed to be no one system which could be prescribed as fitting all circumstances. Differences stemmed from national traditions and cultures. Thus, in the US, the separation of powers, derived from the experience of throwing off English rule, permeated the whole system by which political leaders were chosen and, once chosen, exercised power. It resulted in a very sophisticated system of checks and balances which was not easily analysed and by no means well understood even in the United States. Moreover, while the primary system of selecting candidates was to all appearances more democratic than any other, it was costly and destructive and had the effect of discouraging good people from entering the arena (though that effect had been noted in the US long before the primary system had become standard). The suggested remedy of leaving to Congress the selection of Presidential candidates was however seen as impractical given the impossibility of taking back from the people the power once granted. Some of the same factors operated in the administrative public service, itself a route in the US to political office: thus, offices in the Administration had become difficult to fill because they were not well paid and involved exposure to intrusive scrutiny by the media and the Congress. The frequency of elections (2 years for Congressmen, 4 years for Presidents and 6 years for Senators) provided a balanced time-table but at least in the House of Representatives was unsettling; and that, and the weakness of the US parties tended to prevent the operation of an effective opposition or the emergence of an opposition leader.

Similar trends, mutatis mutandis, were noted in other countries, where the sense of vocation and of service to the public (as opposed to ambition for office) had, it was suggested, largely disappeared. A possible exception was thought to be France, where the highly elitist system of the grandes écoles and of ENA, a path to which entry was made at an early age, was seen to produce a governing class from which the principals in government, of whatever political colour, in the civil service and in industry tended to be drawn, thereby subtly combining vocation and ambition. In the Federal Republic, it was noted, some 70% of the Bundestag came from the civil service, the majority however from the ranks of teachers, while the administrative civil service was not in general a route to a political career any more than in Britain. In Canada, at the higher levels, Deputy Ministers constituted something of a hybrid.

The influence of single-issue pressure groups was noted as a further problem for leaders with what some perceived as a conflict between what it was necessary to promise in an electoral campaign and what had to be done after election. That led to short-term perspectives with no long-term goals or vision, the last perhaps being the key element, together with the power and personality to inspire others to pursue it, in any definition of leadership. It was noted here that in parliamentary systems, the emergence of inspirational leaders was inhibited by the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility. In Britain, for example, Churchill had come to office in exceptional circumstances and for a specific purpose, while even in the case of Mrs Thatcher, the idea of a presidential prime ministership was over-drawn.

As for the public or civil service, again it was noted that the five countries offered five models. The purest model of an a-political service was probably to be found in Britain with the US and (in the terms noted above) France at the other end of the spectrum. Canada was closest to the British model and the Federal Republic, where each ministry recruited its own staff and where the party organisations were strong (and active in the ministries), a distinct model on its own.

However, the desire for greater openness in government and the power that information gave, were leading to a weakening of the pure a-political model. The greater public exposure (e.g. to parliamentary interrogation) that this involved for civil servants, and their consequently greater identification with governmental policies, would enhance the distrust of them felt by oppositions, especially when the latter returned to office after a long absence. It would therefore lead to the introduction of political advisers on a larger scale, though not as many as the 2000-3000 political appointments made by an incoming US Administration. This had in fact happened in Britain and, on a systematic basis, in Canada. Again, France for the reasons described was an exception as was the Federal Republic where Ministers could turn to the party organisations (Stiftungen). This process of politicisation, even if it might be regretted, would inevitably, it was suggested, continue.

In the discussion, in which such wide issues as the role of government were raised but not pursued, a distinction was drawn by the Europeans, but not wholly accepted by the Americans, between accountability, to the chief with whom lay the power of dismissal, and answerability, to public and parliament. In the US the distinction was seen to be blurred: another characteristic perhaps of a more politicised civil service. In this context, the role of “whistle-blowers”, more widely accepted in the US than in Europe, and loyalty were considered.

For advice that might be given to East Europeans, a number of points were made:

1.            Concentrate on getting the institutions right: leaders would emerge by force of personality.

2.            Encourage the growth of political parties.

3.            Ban the buying of time on television to keep campaign costs within bounds.

4.            To the extent possible, encourage the creation of an a-political civil service (the absence of any ‘‘governing class’’ trained in democratic practices was noted), but seek to prevent it becoming “imperial”.

5.            Problems which seemed insoluble in traditional thinking might assume reduced importance if approached in the context of a wider vision.

6.            While other systems might provide helpful lessons, it was a mistake to borrow particular aspects without understanding how they fitted into the cultural and historical factors which had framed the system as a whole.

7.            A degree of humility vis-a-vis the emerging leaders in Eastern Europe might be appropriate.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression. 

Conference Chairman: Professor Wm. Roger Louis
Kerr Professor of English History and Culture, University of Texas; Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford; writer


Mr Vernon Bogdanor

Fellow, Brasenose College, Oxford and University Lecturer in Politics, University of Oxford; Senior Visiting Fellow, European Centre for Political Studies, Policy Studies Institute, London
Mr Henry Brandon
Fellow, The Brookings Institution, Washington DC
Sir John Graham Bt GCMG
Director, The Ditchley Foundation
Sir Reginald Hibbert GCMG
Retired as Director, the Ditchley Foundation (1982-87)
Mr Godfrey Hodgson
Journalist, author and broadcaster
Mr Robert Rhodes James FRSL MP
Member of Parliament (Conservative), Cambridge; Chairman, Buchan and Enright, Publishers
Professor Robert Skidelsky
Professor of International Studies, University of Warwick
Mr Peter Stothard
Deputy Editor and US Editor, The Times
Mrs Heather Weeks
Deputy Director, The Ditchley Foundation

The Hon Gordon Osbaldeston PC OC

Senior Fellow, School of Business Administration, and a Program Director at the National Centre for Management Research and Development, University of Western Ontario

Professor Jacques Gerstl
Teacher in Department of Political Science of the Sorbonne (University of Paris I), in the Institut Français de Presse (University of Paris II), in the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (University of Bordeaux I) and in the Faculty of Law and Social Sciences (University of Poitiers)

Dr G
ünter Pleuger
Minister-Counsellor, for Political Affairs, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany, Washington DC

Professor Stephen E Ambrose

Alumni Distinguished Professor of History, University of New Orleans; writer
Mr Michael Beschloss
Research Fellow, Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington DC; specialities are the American Presidency and United States-Soviet relations
The Hon Richard Bolling
Formerly Member, US House of Representatives, from the State of Missouri; member of the Advisory Council, American Ditchley Foundation
The Hon John Brademas
President, New York University; a Director, American Ditchley Foundation
Professor Gary Freeman
University of Texas, at Austin
Professor Fred I Greenstein
Professor of Politics, Princeton University
Professor William S Livingston
Vice President and Dean of Graduate Studies and Jo Anne Christian Professor of British Studies, The University of Texas at Austin
Mr George T Macatee III
Has served in the Texas State Legislature; owner of Macatee, Inc., a building and supply company in Dallas; benefactor of the Macatee Fellowships at the University of Texas, a program designed to promote the mutual understanding of public affairs in Britain and the United States
Mr Harry Middleton
Director, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin, Texas
Professor Elspeth Rostow
Stiles Professor of American Studies, and Professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs and Department of Government, University of Texas; writer; member, Advisory Council, American Ditchley Foundation.
Professor Walt E Rostow
Rex G Baker Jr Professor of Political Economy, Department of Economics and History, University of Texas; author
Mr Arthur M Schlesinger Jr
Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities, City University of New York; writer; author
The Hon Herbert J Spiro
Professor of Political Science, University of Texas
Mr Kurth Sprague
University of Texas, at Austin
Mr Don W Wilson
Archivist of the United States; historian
Mr Robert Worcester
Chairman and Managing Director, Market and Opinion Research International (MORI); Consultant to The Times and The Economist; Member, Programmes Committee, The Ditchley Foundation