Gandhi legacy offers lessons on Brexit

Leadership is one of those intangible, mercurial characteristics far harder to define than recognise. Whether for benign or dark purposes, leadership shapes our world even though that simple truth is wrapped in mystery. The magic of leadership seems a mixture of charm, energy, empathy, vision, radiated if silent testosterone and the capacity to convince others you understand and share their objectives. It is usually, but not always, necessary to have right on your side. However, in a world where charisma and leadership are often confused right and wrong are almost side issues; subjectivity usurps substance, self-interest seems a virtuous motivation.

Gandhi legacy offers lessons on Brexit

Leadership is one of those intangible, mercurial characteristics far harder to define than recognise. Whether for benign or dark purposes, leadership shapes our world even though that simple truth is wrapped in mystery. The magic of leadership seems a mixture of charm, energy, empathy, vision, radiated if silent testosterone and the capacity to convince others you understand and share their objectives. It is usually, but not always, necessary to have right on your side. However, in a world where charisma and leadership are often confused right and wrong are almost side issues; subjectivity usurps substance, self-interest seems a virtuous motivation.

This week marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest leaders of modern times. Mahatma Gandhi was born in colonial India in October 1869. After an education in England and a time in South Africa he returned to India to lead a crusade that, despite his absolute rejection of violence, defeated Britain’s once all-powerful imperialists. He helped liberate millions and laid the foundations for the world’s largest democracy. It seems difficult to imagine a contemporary leader who could, without resorting to autocracy, achieve change on that scale.

Though Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 his ghost would recognise how leadership has been used — or misused — in the Brexit debacle. Yesterday’s revelation, despite blood-red after blood-red assurance to the contrary, that British prime minister Boris Johnson will ask the EU for a Brexit deferral if deal has not been agreed by October 19 would not in any way surprise him. However, he might be surprised by how wholeheartedly a huge proportion of England’s normally sane electorate have embraced a visceral disdain bordering on hatred for all things European. The political leaders — Johnson, May, Farage, Gove, and Foster too — who encouraged that retrograde shift have done so despite all of the evidence offered by those responsible for making society function, those for the nuts and bolts of our day-to-day lives.

Just yesterday, PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne warned that the PSNI will not staff any form of Border security after Brexit. “If the underpinning assumption is that you will see armed officers effectively staffing checkpoints in various parts of the Border area, no,” he said. Byrne’s reality check is one of myriad professional warnings around Brexit but then Gove and his fellow travellers have “had enough of experts”.

Ironically, two appointments this week show expertise is still valued at the pinnacle the British economy. Corkman Ken Murphy was appointed to lead Tesco and Kerryman Bernard Looney was named chief executive of oil giant BP. These appointments, and many more, underline the commonality blanketing these islands despite the odiously dishonest efforts of Brexit leaders to divide and diminish.

Depressing as this is the antidote is to hand. The solidarity of EU leadership and warnings from America that the sunny uplands of global Britain will not be reached by a trade deal that weakens Ireland are reassuring. Gandhi would approve of how the EU serves democracy and the common purpose in the face of neo-imperialist bullying and over-reach.

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