Lessons from London: But will we learn?

  • Karan Thapar
  • Updated: Jul 09, 2016 21:48 IST
British Prime Minister David Cameron set high standards by resigning (AFP)

Odd though it may seem there are lessons for us in the chaos that’s overtaken British politics after the Brexit referendum. I’m not talking of the disarray or meltdown, as the British media calls it. That’s clearly avoidable. I have in mind the manner in which leaders of major parties have either willingly, or under pressure from their colleagues, accepted responsibility. Our politicians behave very differently.

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Within hours of the result, Prime Minister David Cameron accepted responsibility and stepped aside. This was despite the fact Brexiteers had formally asked him to continue. But Mr Cameron knew his position had become invidious. Bowing out was not just the decent thing to do, the Conservative Party, the government and the country required new leadership. Clinging to office would have been a setback for all three.

Jeremy Corbyn has come to the opposite conclusion. He’s determined to stay on but his shadow cabinet colleagues have taken the initiative. Nearly two-thirds have resigned or, in one instance, been sacked whilst the Labour parliamentary party massively endorsed a vote of no confidence. Even if Mr Corbyn refuses to listen the party has accepted it must respond to the Brexit outcome, change its leadership and present itself anew to the country.

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In fact, this is how British political leaders always behave when they lose elections. Last year, Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, and Nicholas Clegg, the Liberal leader, resigned within hours of the Conservatives getting a majority. If the Conservatives had lost Mr Cameron would have similarly fallen on his sword.

Of the two main parties, the Tories can be particularly ruthless. If their leader is out of sync with the country they don’t hesitate to manoeuvre a change even if it means ousting a sitting prime minister. That happened to Margaret Thatcher in 1990. It happened to Neville Chamberlain in 1940 and Anthony Eden in 1957.

In contrast, nothing makes our failed leaders budge. Sonia and Rahul Gandhi reduced the Congress to just 44 seats in the Lok Sabha and, now, six state governments nationwide but they sit so securely on their seats one might think they’re glued to them!

The BJP is no different. Surprise defeat in 2004 didn’t affect its leadership one jot. Age or illness might have removed Mr Vajpayee but Lal Krishna Advani obstinately continued. Even a second defeat in 2009 couldn’t remove him. It was the unstoppable rise of Narendra Modi which, finally, displaced him — but only acrimoniously.

Read: Farage quits as UKIP chief; Brexit faces legal challenge

The first lesson we should learn from the British is a simple one: When a leader fails his party, it’s time to step aside and give someone else a chance. That’s essential if the party is to recover. It’s also recognition the country didn’t vote for you and deserves to be offered a new face rather than persist with the old one.

I know it’s difficult for political leaders to accept this. The examples of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi, who’ve won alternate elections, or Mr Badal and the Abdullahs, who’ve repeatedly brought their parties back to power, suggest there’s a utility in continuing. But only if your personal ambition is greater than the interest of the party and the country’s democracy.

There’s also a second lesson: How to choose a new party leader particularly when the successor will automatically become prime minister? The Tories are doing it democratically and in full media glare. Ours emerge from behind closed doors, after secret confabulations, leaving the party no choice but to accept the imposed choice.

The views expressed are personal

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