In a recently published article, Stephen Dyson considers the contrasting leadership styles of Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Using data from House of Commons debates, he argues that the different manners of leading displayed by the ex-Prime Minister and the former Chancellor during the financial crisis of 2008 onwards shows that personality is fundamentally important to politics and decision-making.

Gordon Brown didn’t have many good days as prime minister, but he strung a few together during the Great Financial Crisis. Embarking on a remarkable, if brief, period of effective leadership, Brown put together massive government support for British banks and successfully advocated similar policies abroad. Andrew Rawnsley called him “Chancellor of the World.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy feted his statesmanship, telling Eurozone leaders “My friend Gordon has the right plan. We must do it in Europe.” Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling recalls fondly how Brown and he moved in lockstep. The financial crisis was “probably our best period of working together while I was Chancellor. We were of the same mind and in complete agreement.”

After the acute danger had passed, though, Brown found that he had sailed into stormy seas. He wanted to maintain a high level of government spending and, with a general election looming, to present to voters a relentlessly upbeat view of the economy. His Chancellor, and many of his ministers, thought that the government must instead address the ballooning budget deficit through spending cuts, and be realistic with the electorate about the uncertain prospects for economic recovery.

In new research based upon quantitative content analysis of House of Commons debates, I show that Brown’s worldview and leadership style served him well during the financial crisis but failed him in the aftermath. Manifest in Brown’s speech was a clear-cut worldview and a tendency to try to dominate the political process. Alistair Darling, by contrast, maintained a significantly more complex worldview and exhibited less need to attack others.

The argument in the article, published by the journal British Politics, is that differences in the two leaders’ speech revealed differences in worldview, which in turn begat differences in policy approach – and not a little inter-personal animosity. The Prime Minister came to see the Chancellor as a captive of the Treasury and out to get him. The Chancellor saw the Prime Minister as Panglossian about the economy and crude in his political arguments. “Those were dark days,” Darling recalls. Brown “clearly did not trust my advice [and] appeared indifferent to what I thought…If Gordon and I had been in business, I suspect we would have agreed at this point that it was best to part company and to do it immediately; but it’s not that simple in government.”


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The research takes seriously the words spoken by political leaders. Text – in this case transcripts of House of Commons speeches and debates – are molecules of data left lying around by politicians, waiting for the interested researcher to scoop them up and make of them something useful. Hansard makes the scooping all the easier, and automated content analysis techniques allow for the extraction of useful information from mountains of political speech.

Speech is, of course, an imperfect tool for understanding political worldviews – the noise of speechwriters and institutional roles threatens to interfere with the signal of individual belief revealed by the spoken word. But compared to the alternatives – excluding by fiat any possibility of leadership influence or speculating psycho-biography style about the nature of such influence – the rigor offered by a content analysis approach has much to recommend it.

What, though, of the underlying debate about the impact of personality on politics? In this case, we must look at the facts: Brown and Darling dealt with the same crisis, as part of the same government, and as members of the same political party. Speaking in the same venue, they differed consistently and significantly in the worldviews they expressed, and these differences were predictive of their divergent approaches to policy. Although we may be wary of arguments based on differences between political personalities, and although we may quibble with the use of content analysis of text to measure those differences, the record here is compelling: personality mattered.

Indeed, the article suggests, politics is driven by a combination of circumstances and idiosyncrasy. Issues arise which must be dealt with. They push a political leader in a certain direction, but the leader must still, in consultation with other senior figures, actively choose a course of action and the means of implementing it. Here, beliefs and styles matter. Other recent examples abound. What of David Cameron’s choice of a renegotiation-then-referendum approach to Britain’s place in the European Union? Would any Conservative prime minister have made the same decision? Would any Labour leader, in Jeremy Corbyn’s place, have chosen the political agenda and combative approach to the parliamentary party that he has?

The research into Brown, Darling, and the Great Financial Crisis is, I suggest, one further point of evidence in an on-going argument about the importance of leadership style and worldview. Professional students of politics, in Britain and elsewhere, must continue to grapple with the hard but necessary work of determining when, and how, leaders matter.


Note: The above is based on the author’s recent article published in British Politics.

Stephen Benedict Dyson is an associate professor of political science at the University of Connecticut, where he studies political leaders and political fictions. His latest book is “Otherworldly Politics: The International Relations of Star Trek, Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica” (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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