‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ (Henry IV part 2), or at least it should. Aspiring leaders of political parties, and of government itself, lack the unease that would give them the kind of authority which comes with what I would describe as a kind of noble humility. The UK’s broken politics, partly the result of an electoral system which is no longer fit for purpose, is in some measure to blame for this sense of lack, when it comes to genuine authority in political leaders. You vote for a party, but you have very little choice when it comes to who will be the best leader of the nation even if you belong to the party you voted for (the same is true in the US, albeit for different reasons) especially in a time of crisis, such as we are facing at the moment. But the leadership and authority vacuum we are experiencing is also one of our own making. We get the politicians we deserve – ‘full of passionate intensity, or ‘lacking in all conviction’. (W.B. Yeats ‘The Second Coming’)
Something comparable is going on at the beginning of the book of Isaiah. Things are ‘falling apart’ for lack of visionary leadership, because people have either abrogated their political responsibilities (they no longer either think or care about what will become of their future) or they are happy to go along with the charismatic personality of the moment, trusting that all must work out well in the end somehow or other. Then, as now, there was a need for someone of vision and authority who would deliver the nation from the consequences of its infatuation with charismatic leaders and who would speak the language of hope.
But the prophet who volunteers for this job feels far from qualified to do it. It would seem that he has been compromised in either his personal or his public life in the past. He is, by his own admission, a man of ‘unclean lips’ (Is. 6:4). All the same, he is told that he will be speaking to a people who have inured themselves to obvious good sense and that they are beyond the point of recall, beyond hope. God, it seems, is partly responsible for this. He allows the situation to be as it is and in doing so obliges the people to come to terms with the fact that it is they who must change, or they will get the leaders they deserve. Being dulled to the things which make for life; life in community, life in relationships, life in God, they are set to be dominated by individuals whose primary agenda is self-gratification, specifically the gratification afforded by power.
Those who only want power generally have little of substance to offer the people over whom they will exercise it. They will fudge or avoid interviews, or simply manipulate the conversation in order to avoid issues that are life determining for the nation, because they do not know what to say or do and because they believe (often rightly) that their own luminous personality will persuade everyone that problems are easily solvable, or do not exist at all.
I also sense in Isaiah a deliberate omission. There is not much talk of visionary leadership in the immediate future, although it will come in the fullness of time. Perhaps the writer of the book wants the people to begin to wonder if they are missing something, and, if so, to ask themselves what they could do to take control of their politics in a way which demands hope, rather than vague optimism from their leaders.
They may even identify an individual who shows great promise but who is not of the political party of their preference. They feel guilty and uncomfortable about supporting such a person, so they need others to whom they have delegated power, and with it responsibility, to take the first step and do what is necessary, even if it means betraying party loyalties. The person in question may need to do the same. They will also need to do a bit of self-examination with a view to being willing to take responsibility for their own past political decision making, not all of which they may be proud of today. They may want to change their mind about policies they have supported, knowing that they must do this publicly, or they will not win the people’s respect or inspire hope for the future. Changing one’s mind about actions taken in the past is really a change of heart, or what people of faith would call repentance.
When we repent of our actions, or of those words or actions which have betrayed our responsibility for those who have mandated us with power, we are bound to come in for criticism and even for abuse. This is where we start to see the difference between power and authority when it comes to leadership. The supreme example of this kind of self-abnegating leadership is set by Jesus who allows himself to be treated as one in need of repentance, so that those who are called to lead with authority in secular politics need not be ashamed to do this themselves. A person who only wants power will seldom repent.
A person of authority will be continually vigilant about how their words and actions will directly impact on the lives of those they are mandated to serve, service being the last and perhaps most important mark of true leadership. A leader who serves takes the trouble to listen and to be at one with his or her people. We get these servant leaders emerging from time to time in all sorts of contexts. Sadly, we have just lost one in Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche Communities. It is urgent that we find another in the forum of UK politics. I believe that if we take our political responsibilities seriously, even to the point of breaking down the barriers of party and personal interest, we will see one emerging in Rory Stewart.